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February 7, 2015

Early February highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

Though it has not been too long since my last round-up of notable new posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, I have been posting various topics that may be of interest to regular readers of this blog:

February 7, 2015 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Ohio Gov John Kasich advocating significant resources devoted to addiction services for prisoners

As reported in this local article, headlined "Addiction programs for incarcerated included state budget," Ohio's GOP Governor John Kasich is now showing through his latest budget proposal that he remains deeply committed to "smart on crime" sentencing and prison reforms. Here are the details:

Eight of 10 people come to Ohio prisons with a history of abusing drugs and alcohol.  Most leave without treatment or a recovery plan, with predictable results. On the outside, they return to old addictive habits that often trigger criminal behavior.

Gov. John Kasich’s proposed state budget calls for a $61.7 million collaboration by two agencies to treat offenders both behind bars and once they are released. “This is not tinkering with recovery programs. This is going to be a remarkable leap forward, addressing a large group of people coming to our prisons who in many cases aren’t being served at all,” said Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

The big-picture goal is to help ex-offenders succeed outside prison and, in the long run, to cut prison costs charged to taxpayers. Statistics show that about 10 percent of inmates who get alcohol and drug treatment later return to prison, compared with about 27 percent of those who don’t get treatment.

The change pushed by Kasich would shift responsibility for inmate-recovery services from Rehabilitation and Correction to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. It involves moving 120 people who work for prisons to the mental-health agency budget at a cost of $12.5 million annually. They will, however, continue working in the same jobs.

Prison officials estimate that about 4,500 of the roughly 30,000 inmates with moderate to severe addiction problems are getting recovery services. Officials from the two agencies won’t predict how many more inmates will be treated until the program is in place, but Stuart Hudson, prison chief of medical services, said it will be a “substantial increase.”...

Mental-health director Tracy Plouck said much of the $61.7 million, beyond the $25 million to absorb the DRC staff, will go for community recovery services once inmates return home.

Prison officials have struggled for years with an influx of inmates who commit nonviolent crimes, many of them related to their addictions.  For about 20 percent of new prisoners, a drug charge is their most serious offense.  Many are in and out of prison so quickly there isn’t time or resources to get them involved in recovery programs, Mohr said.

“We’re not reaching enough people and we’re not reaching them early enough,” Mohr said. “Ohioans are paying $22,500 a year for each prisoner, and we should be doing more than warehousing them. We are committed to helping people improve their lives.” Ohio’s recidivism rate of 27.1 percent is far better than the national average of over 40 percent.

February 7, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Split Washington Supreme Court decides accomplices must receive distinct sentencing treatment

As reported in this local article, headlined "Washington Supreme Court alters sentencing structure for accomplices," the top court in the Evergreen State earlier this week issued an interest opinion concerning how the state's sentencing structure should be applied to those found guilty as accomplices. Here is a summary from the press report:

In a 5-4 opinion released Thursday, the state’s high court ruled that convicted identity thief Larry Hayes should have received a standard-range sentence after being convicted of a host of felonies in 2009.  Instead, he got a 15-year term under a provision that allows prosecutors to seek extra punishment for egregious offenders. The majority ordered the case back to Pierce County for re-sentencing.

At issue is how people charged as accomplices should be treated under the law at sentencing. For years, Washington law has prescribed that accomplices and principle actors in a crime be exposed to the same culpability, a concept Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist on Thursday called “in for a penny, in for a pound.”

In an opinion written by Justice Charles Johnson and signed by Justices Charles Wiggins, Susan Owens, Mary Fairhurst and Sheryl Gordon McCloud, the majority ruled that should not always be the case, especially where sentencing is concerned.

Until Thursday, when a prosecutor sought an exceptional sentence for a criminal defendant, he or she had to prove to a jury that certain aggravating factors made the crime worse than usual. The requirement applied to principle actors and accomplices alike. Thursday’s majority opinion said the blanket application to accomplices is improper.

Accomplices should be judged for their specific role in the crime and not just on the crime itself, the majority ruled. An accomplice, to qualify for an exceptional sentence, must have knowledge that the crime he or she is involved in is worse than usual, Johnson wrote, and prosecutors now must prove that knowledge to a jury. “...this finding of knowledge ensures that the defendant’s own conduct formed the basis of the sentence,” Johnson wrote....

Justice Debra Stephens authored the dissent, which was signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and Justices Mary Yu and Steven Gonzalez. Stephens argued that the majority was turning decades of case law on its head for no good reason. “It makes no sense that a principal should be punished regardless of whether he or she knew the crime was a major economic offense but an accomplice, who committed the same crime, should not be,” she wrote.

She went on to say the ruling would have far-reaching impacts. “It is no exaggeration to say that the way co-participants have long been tried in this state will need to change in order to accommodate the knowledge finding the majority superimposes on the enhancement statute,” Stephens wrote.

Lindquist agreed with Stephens’ assessment and said he would consider asking state lawmakers to pass legislation clarifying what they want to happen to accomplices. “They could say, ‘We meant what we wrote: Principals and accomplices are equally culpable,’” Lindquist said.

Appellate attorney Nancy Collins, who worked on Hayes’ appeal, said she thinks the majority got it right and that the application of the ruling would not be onerous. “I don’t see it as a change in the law at all,” Collins said. “The majority said the jury needs to consider the defendant’s individual conduct.”

The full opinion in Washington v. Hayes, No. 89742-5 (Wash. Feb. 5, 2015), is available at this link.

February 7, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 6, 2015

Bipartisan Recidivism Risk Reduction Act introduced in US House

This notable press release from the office of Representative Jason Chaffetz provides the details of a federal prison reform bill that would be extremely consequential if it can get enacted. Here are excerpts from the release providing basic details about the bill:

Republicans Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Trey Gowdy (R-SC) joined with Democrats Cedric Richmond (D-LA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) to introduce H.R. 759, Recidivism Risk Reduction Act. This bipartisan legislation uses risk assessment tools to reduce recidivism, lower the crime rate, and reduces the amount of money spent on the federal prison system....

H.R. 759 would implement a post-sentencing dynamic risk assessment system to identify an inmate’s risk of recidivism. Then, using evidence-based practices developed by states, effective recidivism reduction programs are identified and utilized. The bill would then provide incentives for inmates to participate in those programs.

Ultimately, inmates could earn credits toward an alternative custody arrangement – such as a halfway house or home confinement – at the end of their term. Such arrangements reduce the cost of housing an inmate in the federal prison system.

The program will be phased in over a five year period. The savings will be reinvested into further expansions of proven recidivism reduction programs during this time. After that, it is anticipated that the savings can be used either for other Justice Department priorities such as FBI agents, US Attorney offices etc., or the savings can be used to help reduce the deficit. Similar programs have found success on a state level in several states including Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and North Carolina.

In addition, Reps. Chaffetz and Jefferies introduced HR 760, the Bureau of Corrections Renaming Act. This bipartisan legislation would simply rename the “Bureau of Prisons” – under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice – the “Bureau of Corrections.” Over ninety percent of all federal prisoners will eventually be released. This small change will help the Bureau remember that its mission is not just to house people, but also to rehabilitate prisoners such that they are productive members of society when released. Forty-eight states throughout the country use the word ‘corrections’ in describing their prisons.

The Attorney General is directed to consult with appropriate federal agencies and stakeholders to design, develop, implement, and regularly upgrade an actuarial Post Sentencing Risk Assessment System which shall include one or more comprehensive risk and needs assessment tools, which shall be peer-reviewed and validated, and periodically re-validated, on the federal prison population for the specific purposes of this Act.

Prisoners will be divided into high, moderate, or low risks of recidivism. Prisoners will be periodically re-evaluated and have the opportunity to progress to low risk of recidivism. Prisoners who misbehave can move the other way – i.e. from low to moderate risk of recidivism. Bureau of Prisons shall incentivize prisoners to reduce their individual risk of recidivism by participating in and completing recidivism reduction programs.

Prisoners who have committed more serious crimes such as child abuse, terrorism, and violent felonies, are not eligible for the program.

If a prisoner is successfully participating in and/or completing programs, holding a prison job, participating in educational courses, participating in faith-based services and courses, or delivering programs or faith-based services and courses to other prisoners, the prisoner can earn [certain credits based on their risk levels]. Low risk prisoners will be eligible for consideration for alternative custody such as halfway houses, home confinement, ankle bracelets, etc.

This is not automatic – it must be reviewed and approved by the prison warden, the chief probation officer in the relevant federal district, and a judge in the relevant federal district.

This is not a reduction in sentence – prisoners are not being released and nothing in this Act affects Truth in Sentencing requirements that prisoners complete at least 85% of their sentence.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  Not to be overlooked (even though I managed to overlook it), this past week also saw another notable bipartisan federal bill of not introduced in both houses of Congress.  This press release from the office of Senator Rand Paul provides the basics:

Today, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 353/H.R. 706) in the Senate and House of Representatives.  The Justice Safety Valve Act would give federal judges the ability to impose sentences below mandatory minimums in appropriate cases based upon mitigating factors.

February 6, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Highlighting President Obama's pitiful pardon record

ZZoTyPLThis lengthy USA Today piece, headlined "The 50-year-old pardon: Obama picks safe clemency cases," provides yet another review of the now-too-familiar story of President Obama awful record on his use of his clemency authority. Here are excerpts:

Of the 64 pardons President Obama has granted over six years, half are for offenses that happened before 1989. Six are from the 1960s. On average, 23 years have elapsed between the sentencing date and the day Obama has granted a pardon or commutation — an all-time high. A century ago, three or four years was the norm.

It's part of a decades-long trend toward presidents being more cautious in their pardon power, picking older and safer cases for clemency. But Obama has been the most cautious of all, and some critics say he is shirking his constitutional power — some say duty — to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States."

"'Safe' is being nice. I would almost say irrelevant. The people who are being pardoned are people on Social Security," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who studies pardons. "The people who need pardons are young and need to establish themselves and get a job, get a Pell grant and go to college."...

Many of Obama's pardons are for old, obscure and sometimes trivial crimes:

• Ronald Lee Foster, of Beaver Falls, Pa., was convicted of mutilating coins in 1963. He had shaved the edges off pennies to fool vending machines into thinking they were dimes. He was pardoned in 2010 at the age of 66.

• David Neil Mercer of Grand Junction, Colo., was convicted in 1997 of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act by disturbing Indian artifacts in Utah. He now owns an automotive business and was pardoned last year at the age of 56.

• Bobby Gerald Wilson, of Summerton, S.C., was convicted in 1985 of aiding and abetting in the possession and sale of illegal American alligator hides. He was pardoned in 2011 at the age of 61.

Obama has issued fewer pardons than any president since James Garfield, who served just 199 days in office, and fewer than any two-term president since George Washington, according to Ruckman, a Rock Valley College professor who tracks clemency trends on the blog Pardon Power.

The few pardons Obama is granting often come late in life — sometimes to people on their deathbeds. Albert Byron Stork, a defense attorney from Delta, Colo., was convicted of tax evasion in 1987, when he took money from his fugitive brother for the down payment of a house. He received a pardon the same day as Auvil — and died of brain cancer two weeks later.

The White House said the president has an "ongoing commitment" to granting clemency. "The president believes strongly that a critical component of our criminal justice system is for deserving and qualified applicants to have the ability to petition for clemency," said White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine. She said Obama "looks forward to reviewing additional requests for clemency in the coming months."

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, in the Justice Department, is responsible for sifting through the hundreds of applications received each year.... Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff's recommendations go to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, then to White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, and ultimately to the president. That's how it works in principle. But in practice, the Justice Department is run by career prosecutors who are often hostile to those seeking pardons, defense attorneys say.

"They churn out a steady stream of no," said Sam Morison, a lawyer specializing in pardon cases who worked in the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Clinton, Bush and early Obama administrations. "That doesn't mean that the president has to do what they say. But the president almost always does what the Justice Department recommends, even when he doesn't agree with what the Justice Department recommends." But the Justice Department has to recommend some favorable applications, and they tend to be older, easier cases, he said....

Delegating the decisions to the Justice Department helps to depoliticize the pardon power, but it's also led to its own problems. An internal Justice Department investigation found that President George W. Bush's pardon attorney withheld information from the White House about a commutation he opposed. And in 2010, the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica published an investigation in the Washington Post revealing that, under Bush and Obama, white criminals were four times more likely to get a pardon than black offenders.

Last year, the Justice Department announced a clemency initiative in an attempt to rectify some of the inequities in the system. Inmates who would have gotten lighter sentences under current federal guidelines were encouraged to apply to have their sentences commuted, or reduced.  But the Justice Department says that's a separate issue from pardons. 

Just a few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

February 6, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 5, 2015

More than three decades after crime, SCOTUS decides it still needs to stay Texas mass murderer execution

As reported in this AP piece (with my emphasis added), a "Texas inmate set to be executed next week for fatally shooting four men at an airplane hangar more than 30 years ago won a reprieve Thursday from the U.S. Supreme Court."  Here are the details:

Lester Bower Jr., 67, among the longest-serving Texas death row inmates, had been scheduled for lethal injection Tuesday. The justices gave no reason for the reprieve, saying only that it would be lifted automatically if they deny an appeal or act on it.

Bower was convicted in the October 1983 deaths at a Grayson County ranch about 60 miles north of Dallas. Authorities found parts from a small ultralight airplane at the hangar at his home in Arlington, a Dallas suburb. Prosecutors also tied unusual Italian-made .22-caliber bullets used in the slayings to similar ammunition purchased by Bower, a federally licensed gun dealer.

In their appeal to the high court, Bower's lawyers said jurors who decided on his death sentence had faulty instructions that didn't allow them to consider mitigating circumstances that he had no criminal record, was a married father of two, college educated and employed as a chemical salesman.

Since his 1984 trial, court rulings have refined instructions to Texas capital murder trial juries to account for mitigating circumstances. Several condemned inmates from that era - but not Bower - have received new court-ordered punishment trials. Bower's attorneys also contended that prosecutors misstated the rarity of the fatal bullets, and that his long time on death row and numerous rescheduled execution dates amount to unconstitutional suffering.

State attorneys argued that courts have rejected appeals about the jury instructions, that information about the bullets was available at the time of his trial and that Bower's lawyers' persistent appeals account for the lengthy case. "Any delay is purely of his own making," Stephen Hoffman, an assistant Texas attorney general, told the justices in a filing this week....

Those killed were building contractor Bob Tate, 51; Grayson County Sheriff's Deputy Philip Good, 29; Jerry Brown, 52, an interior designer; and Ronald Mayes, 39, a former Sherman police officer. Good's wife, Marlene Bushard, said the delay was "very frustrating since we were so close."

"I am hoping once this is done he will be out of options, we can get another death warrant and end this," she said in an email.

As this timeline of products reveals, over the last 30 years Apple has been able to go from its Apple IIe personal computer to a modern (multi-generation) iPhone and iPad and iMac, and the latest Apple machines now put more computing power into our hands than NASA had at its disposal in the early 1980s.  Meanwhile during this same period, our legal system has been unable to conclusively determine whether a Texas mass murderer was lawfully sentenced to death. Hmmm.

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

"Could 2015 be the year Congress finally gets serious about criminal-justice reform?"

The title of this post is the subheading of this new Mother Jones piece which carries this main headline: "On These 5 Things, Republicans Actually Might Work With Dems to Do Something Worthwhile." Here are highlights (mostly) from the start and end of the piece:

Recently, bipartisan momentum has been building behind an issue that has historically languished in Congress: criminal-justice reform. Recent Capitol Hill briefings have drawn lawmakers and activists from across the political spectrum—from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, whose boss, conservative megadonor Charles Koch, has made reform a key philanthropic priority.

The emergence of this unlikely coalition has been building for some time: Liberals have long been critical of the criminal-justice status quo, and many "tough on crime" conservatives — growing concerned by the staggering costs of mass incarceration and the system's impingement on liberty — are beginning to join their liberal and libertarian-minded colleagues. In the past, bills aimed at overhauling the criminal-justice system have stagnated on Capitol Hill, but the bipartisan players who are coming together to push for change means that there are some reforms that could realistically gain traction, even in this divided Congress....

Earned-time credits....

Easing up mandatory minimums....

Juvenile-justice reform....

Reducing recidivism....

Sealing and expunging records....

Despite the bipartisan efforts, many experts still believe that there are plenty of issues that could pose serious obstacles to compromise. Beyond the disagreement on mandatory minimums, there's potential conflict on the role of for-profit prisons, which conservatives praise and Democrats like Booker loathe. Additionally, support for loosening drug penalties — particularly for marijuana — is growing broadly popular, but powerful Republicans remain vocal opponents....

There is one especially powerful force pushing along reform: The federal government is expected to spend nearly $7 billion on prisons this year, and conservatives in charge of Congress will be under pressure to bring down costs. "With every Congress, I'm hopeful for reform," Hurst says. "But this Congress' argument is based on money, not humanity, which is why it's more realistic that it'd happen."

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

You be the judge: what federal sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht?

Ross-ulbricht-600x450This Wired article provides the basic story on a notable modern federal defendant who, thanks to a jury verdict yesterday, is now a high-profile convicted felon awaiting sentencing:

A jury has spoken, and the mask is off: Ross Ulbricht has been convicted of being the Dread Pirate Roberts, secret mastermind of the Silk Road online narcotics empire.

On Wednesday, less than a month after his trial began in a downtown Manhattan courtroom, 30-year-old Ulbricht was convicted of all seven crimes he was charged with, including narcotics and money laundering conspiracies and a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for mafia dons and drug cartel leaders.  It took the jury only 3.5 hours to return a verdict.  Ulbricht faces a minimum of 30 years in prison; the maximum is life.  But Ulbricht’s legal team has said it will appeal the decision, and cited its frequent calls for a mistrial and protests against the judge’s decisions throughout the case.

As the verdict was read, Ulbricht stared straight ahead. His mother Lyn Ulbricht slowly shook her head, and his father Kirk put a hand to his temple. After the verdict, Ulbricht turned around to give his family a stoic smile.  “This is not the end,” Ulbricht’s mother said loudly as he was led out of the courtroom. “Ross is a hero!” shouted a supporter.

From his first pre-trial hearings in New York, the government’s evidence that Ulbricht ran the Silk Road’s billion-dollar marketplace under the pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts was practically overwhelming.  When the FBI arrested Ulbricht in the science fiction section of a San Francisco public library in October of 2013, his fingers were literally on the keyboard of his laptop, logged into the Silk Road’s “mastermind” account.  On his seized laptop’s hard drive, investigators quickly found a journal, daily logbook, and thousands of pages of private chat logs that chronicled his years of planning, creating and day-to-day running of the Silk Road. That red-handed evidence was bolstered by a college friend of Ulbricht’s who testified at trial that the young Texan had confessed creating the Silk Road to him. On top of that, notes found crumpled in his bedroom’s trashcan connected to the Silk Road’s code.  Ulbricht’s guilty verdict was even further locked down by a former FBI agent’s analysis that traced $13.4 million worth of the black market’s bitcoins from the Silk Road’s servers in Iceland and Pennsylvania to the bitcoin wallet on Ulbricht laptop.

Ulbricht’s defense team quickly admitted at trial that Ulbricht had created the Silk Road. But his attorneys argued that it had been merely an “economic experiment,” one that he quickly gave up to other individuals who grew the site into the massive drug empire the Silk Road represented at its peak in late 2013.  Those purported operators of the site, including the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts, they argued, had framed Ulbricht as the “perfect fall guy.”...

But that dramatic alternative theory was never backed up with a credible explanation of the damning evidence found on Ulbricht’s personal computer.  The defense was left to argue that Ulbricht’s laptop had been hacked, and voluminous incriminating files injected into the computer — perhaps via a Bittorrent connection he was using to download an episode of the Colbert Report at the time of his arrest.  In their closing arguments, prosecutors called that story a “wild conspiracy theory” and a “desperate attempt to create a smokescreen.” It seems the jury agreed.

Despite the case’s grim outcome for Ulbricht, his defense team seemed throughout the trial to be laying the grounds for an appeal.  His lead attorney Joshua Dratel called for a mistrial no less than five times, and was rejected by the judge each time. Dratel’s protests began with pre-trial motions to preclude a large portion of the prosecution’s evidence based on what he described as an illegal, warrantless hack of the Silk Road’s Icelandic server by FBI investigators seeking to locate the computer despite its use of the Tor anonymity software. As the trial began, Dratel butted heads with the prosecution and judge again on the issue of cross-examining a Department of Homeland Security witness on the agency’s alternative suspects in the case, including bitcoin mogul and Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles. And in the last days of the trial, Dratel strongly objected again to a decision by the judge to disallow two of the defense’s expert witnesses based on a lack of qualifications....

Ulbricht will nonetheless be remembered not just for his conviction, but also for ushering in a new age of online black markets.  Today’s leading dark web drug sites like Agora and Evolution offer more narcotics listings than the Silk Road ever did, and have outlived law enforcement’s crackdown on their competitors. Tracking down and prosecuting those new sites’ operators, like prosecuting Ulbricht, will likely require the same intense, multi-year investigations by three-letter agencies.

Though I am not familiar with all the likely sentencing particulars, I would expect a guidelines calculation in this case to be life and that prosecutors will urge a guideline-recommended LWOP sentence. The defense surely will seek the minimum sentence, which in this case is the not-so-minimum 30 years in the federal greybar hotel.

In addition to pursuing their appeal, Ulbricht's defense team might reach out to Brian Doherty at Reason, who has this provocative commentary headlined "Silk Road: Ross Ulbricht's Loss is a Loss for Justice, Liberty, Safety, and Peace: The operation Ulbricht was found guilty of managing was one guaranteed to save lives, reduce real crime, and preserve liberty." Here are excerpts:

[T]he government's multi-year, incredibly expensive attempt to take down the site and prosecute Ulbricht were bad for liberty, bad for markets, bad for the safety of those who choose to use substances the government has declared forbidden, and bad for America....

Ulbricht, if he's guilty of what they tried him for, is guilty of nothing but trying, and for a while succeeding, in doing a good thing for his fellow citizens, the world, and the future. His case will be remembered not as one of stalwart cops saving the world from dangerous crime, but of a visionary martyr punished for the good he did.

The combination of cryptography and Bitcoin are out of the bottle, and what it ultimately means is that the war on drugs is even more hopeless than it always was. But the government seems to never run out of candidates to be the last person to be a victim of that war, a victim of that mistake. May Ulbricht be among the last.

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Highlighting (already extraordinary) costs of seeking to put Aurora killer on death row

This lengthy new Yahoo News article, headlined "Cost of Colorado theater shooting case exceeds $5 million months before opening arguments," details how much Colorado taxpayers are paying for prosecutors' efforts to get James Holmes on death row. Here are some of the details:

The criminal court case against Colorado theater gunman James Holmes has already absorbed at least $5.5 million in public monies, according to records obtained by Yahoo News. That’s $2 million more than the estimated average cost of a completed Colorado death penalty trial — and the contentious Holmes proceeding is still months away from opening arguments....

Holmes first appeared in court on July 23, 2012, three days after police say he assailed a packed suburban Denver movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring 70, as they were watching a midnight showing of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.” In the two and a half years since that initial court appearance, primary personnel involved with the case — prosecutors, defense attorneys, the judge, court reporter, trial investigators and victims’ advocates for the district attorney — have been paid approximately $4.5 million.

A spokeswoman for the Arapahoe County district attorney said only one prosecutor has been dedicated to the Holmes case full time. But legal observers say a proceeding already involving nearly 1,700 motions, orders and hearings — with possibly hundreds of witnesses expected to testify at trial — would require the undivided attention of a team of lawyers.

Other top expenses so far include $463,000 on additional security from July 2012 through the end of 2014. Experts hired by the prosecution have received more than $220,000 to date. More than $90,000 was used to install a closed-circuit television system in the courtroom. It cost $20,000 to print 9,000 juror notices and questionnaires....

Holmes has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity — his lawyers say he was in the throes of a psychotic episode at the time. Twice the judge has ordered him to be transferred to a state hospital for testing to determine if he was mentally capable of understanding the crime he committed. A court spokesman said invoices for the exams have not been received....

Holmes offered to forfeit the costly trial in March 2013 for life in prison without parole if he could avoid the death penalty. Prosecutors, however, strongly rejected any notion of a pending deal, saying the defense had refused to give them the information they wanted to evaluate the plea agreement.

“It is my determination and my intention that in this case, for James Eagan Holmes, justice is death,” Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler said in court.

Holmes is charged with 166 counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder and weapons charges. Opening arguments through sentencing could last four to six months — which itself will cost the court $137,000 to $205,000 in juror pay (the 24, including alternates, earn $50 a day)....

As for Holmes, his heavily redacted application for a public defender was approved the same day as the massacre. It was signed by Daniel King, one of his lead attorneys, who currently earns $165,756 and may be eligible for a raise just as the trial gets going. Under state law, Holmes could be ordered to pay a $25 processing fee after the verdict.

February 5, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 4, 2015

A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress

This lengthy new article in The National Journal provides an interesting and informative look at the politics and people at the center of federal sentencing and prison reform discussions. The piece's headlined highlights its themes: "This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year: Chuck Grassley's power will change the dynamics of sentencing reform. But there's still a bipartisan way forward in the Senate." The full piece is a must-read for anyone closely following congressional reform realities, and here is how the article starts:

The rise of Sen. Chuck Grassley to the head of the Judiciary Committee has made a lot criminal-justice reform advocates nervous.

Four months ago, before Republicans took back the Senate, it appeared that reducing mandatory minimums had overcome crucial hurdles.  The Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for some drug offenders, passed out of committee in January 2014 and attracted a roster of high-profile backers, from former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to progressive leader Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Potential 2016 presidential candidates such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz had decried mandatory minimums.  Even President Obama and the Koch brothers, who have spent millions against him, agreed the sentencing requirements had to be reduced.

But, like many conservatives who came to power in an era when Republicans branded themselves as the "tough on crime" party, Grassley has made it clear that he sees the steady reduction in violent crime in the United States over the last 30 years as a direct reflection of more-effective policing strategies.  And he believes that mandatory minimum laws that ensure criminals stay locked up have been key to that progress.

Grassley's posture toward mandatory minimums has given some advocates pause. "I do think we can work with him," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said of Grassley.  "He knows some changes need to be made, but it does influence how far you can go if the chairman stands opposed."

In a Democratic-controlled Congress, many saw a clear path for reducing mandatory minimums.  A handful of vocal GOP supporters have continued to say justice reform should remain a key priority in the new Senate.  But with Grassley in charge, the path forward for criminal-justice reform will likely look very different.

And we may get our first true glimpse of it next week — when GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduces a rare bill that could actually get through Congress and be signed by the president.  That legislation would be similar to what was known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act in the 113th Congress.  That bill was also bipartisan but far less contentious than the Smarter Sentencing Act among the Republican rank-and-file. Even Grassley voted it out of committee last year, where it passed 15 to 2.  Many of the same members are still sitting on the committee with a few GOP additions, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Perdue of Georgia.

The bill next week will focus on transitioning prisoners back into the community after they have served their time. It requires that each inmate undergo a risk assessment to evaluate his or her propensity for recidivism.  Then it allows those deemed medium- and low-risk to earn credits for participating in programs such as job training or substance abuse counseling.  Certain well-behaved and low-risk offenders could then use those credits to serve out the final days of their sentences under some kind of community supervision.

Grassley's office insists that it is early, and no decisions have been made on what bills will make it through the committee.  There is an attorney general to confirm and more on the committee's docket that comes before discussions about far-reaching justice reform.  But, shuffling down the hallways of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in January, Grassley rattled off his top three goals for the committee. "Juvenile-justice reform, patent trolling, and ... prison reform," he said.  "There are some things where there is a pretty good shot of getting some bipartisan agreement."  And, if the Senate GOP's No. 2 introduces the bill, it will make it harder for Grassley to ignore.

February 4, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sign of the drug war times: risk-management review of state drug-law reforms

There are many diverse signs, and many diverse consequences, of our modern (retrenching?) drug war, especially with respect to state-level reform of marijuana prohibitions.  One such interesting sign and consequences arrived in my e-mail this morning via this link to this post by a risk management firm titled "Recap of Drug-Related State Legislation Passed in 2014." This helpful resource is introduced this way:

One trend that hiring managers should take note of in 2015 is the increased fragmentation of state drug test regulations.  Exactly half of all states passed legislation in 2014 that touches upon or completely regulates drug testing in some way or another.

With more and more attention being given to developments in medical and recreational marijuana laws, it may be hard to imagine that the United States is not trending away from drug testing in the workplace.  It is true that public opinion about certain controlled substances is shifting, but legislation is still being passed that creates provisions for drug testing employees, banning synthetic substances, and penalizing intoxicated motorists.

The diversity of laws and court decisions produced in 2014 is proof that the line between pro-employer and pro-employee is vague and becoming more difficult to draw-out.  As laws in some states provide new “rights” to individuals to consume intoxicating substances, other laws in those states as well as other places reinforce the rights of employers and citizens seeking to ensure safe workplaces and communities.

I am not, of course, an expert on labor and employment law. But this posting provides perhaps more evidence that labor and employment lawyers need to be experts on modern drug law reforms in order to serves their clients effective.

February 4, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 3, 2015

NACDL seeking examples of federal cases impacted by "trial penalty"

Through some of my work with folks at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, I have learned that NACDL is now, as part of its Trial Penalty Project, actively seeking examples of the “trial penalty” federal defendants often face as they consider whether to exercise their right to go to trial based on the great discrepancy between post-trial sentences and those offered in the plea process.   Human Rights Watch issued a report summarizing extensive statistical and anecdotal evidence of this trial penalty focusing on federal drug defendants, and NACDL is working toward producing companion report focusing on the trial penalty in federal cases not involving drug prosecutions. 

NACDL seeks, via a simple on-line survey, help in collecting examples and data for use in the report. NACDL is interested in examples such as (1) cases where a defendant after trial received a far more severe sentence than had been offered during plea negotiations; (2) cases where a defendant pleaded guilty principally because of a fear that any sentence imposed after trial would be dramatically higher than the plea offer; and/or (3) cases where defendant(s) convicted at trial received disproportionately severe sentences given their culpability as compared to co-defendants who pleaded guilty.

If you know of a federal case that fits these categories — or that otherwise reflects the “trial penalty” federal defendants often face in non-drug-offense settings — please take a few minutes to complete the online questionnaire at the NACDL website.

February 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new report from The Sentencing Project.  Here is a partial summary of its contents from an e-mail I received earlier today:

The report identifies four key features of the criminal justice system that produce racially unequal outcomes, beyond the conditions of socioeconomic inequality that contribute to higher rates of some crimes in marginalized communities, and showcases initiatives to abate these sources of inequity in adult and juvenile justice systems around the country. In many cases, these reforms have produced demonstrable results, including:
  • Indiana amended its drug-free zone sentencing laws, which imposed harsh penalties on a defendant population that was over 75% African American in Indianapolis.
  • Multnomah County (Portland), OR, revised and removed bias in its risk assessment instrument for determining juvenile detention, reducing African American and Latino youth detention levels by half.
  • Berks County, PA, reduced the number of youth in secure detention – who were primarily youth of color – by 67% between 2007 and 2012 in part by increasing reliance on alternatives including non-secure shelters and expanding use of evidence-based treatment programs.
  • The Milwaukee County prosecutor’s office eliminated racial disparity in charges of possession of drug paraphernalia by instituting case oversight and emphasizing diversion to treatment programs and dismissals.

February 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

A test for the Kochs' influence: seeking justice and freedom for Weldon Angelos

Download (1)If the wealthy truly have extraordinary influence on modern federal politics and policies, a notable defendant serving a mandatory 55-year sentence as a result of a few small marijuana sales ought to be getting out of prison before too long.  I say this because, according to this Daily Beast piece, my former client Weldon Angelos is now a "poster boy" for the latest Koch-brothers-backed political effort.  This piece is headlined "The New Face of the Koch Campaign" and here is its subheading: "A father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot. The Koch brothers want to help set him free and make him the face of their new campaign for criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

Weldon Angelos could have hijacked a plane and spent less time in jail.  But due to mandatory sentencing laws, the father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot — a term so long even the judge who gave it to him protested its injustice.  A group backed by the Koch brothers agrees, and is now fighting to get him out of prison.

Angelos is an extreme case: even though the crime was considered non-violent, Angelos carried a firearm during a series of marijuana sales to a Salt Lake City police informant —  so federal mandatory minimums required that he be put in jail until he’s 80 years old. Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”...

Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.  He has more than 40 years left to go.  Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.  His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.

“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem.  And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.

This is where the Koch brothers come in.  The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.  They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week. “[This year] offers a unique moment in history in which people of different backgrounds and political leanings are coming together to facilitate a substantive dialogue on how to fix [the criminal justice system],” said Evan Feinberg, the group’s president. “We can work towards a more just system that reflects the rule of law without overcriminalizing non-violent offenses.”

The new campaign will target the overcriminalization of non-violent crime, mandatory minimum laws, and helping criminals who have served their sentences reintegrate into society.  The demilitarization of police and the excesses of civil asset forfeiture will also be addressed.

Generation Opportunity worked with Families Against Mandatory Minimums on the documentary.  FAMM founder Julie Stewart was in the room during Angelos’ first sentencing hearing.  It was, she said, a severe example of a worrisome trend in the criminal justice system....

“A lot of people just thought that because of the amount of time my brother was [sentenced to], he had done something terrible, just because of the ignorance that is out there about mandatory sentencing,” said Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s older sister and advocate. “Before the case, I had no idea that this was possible in America.”  The judge who was forced to hand down the sentence, Paul Cassell, said the Angelos case is an example of “clear injustice marring the public perception” of the federal courts — and victimizing taxpayers who have to pay to keep him locked up.

“We have in place in our country today some very draconian penalties that distort our whole federal sentencing scheme,” Cassell said.  “When people look at a case like Weldon Angelos and see that he got 55 years, and they see other cases where victims have gotten direct physical or psychological injuries and don’t see a similar [result] from the system, they start to wonder if the system is irrational.”

When he was sent to prison, Angelos’ children were small, now both are in their teens. Without their father, the family fell on hard financial times.  His children rarely talk to him, Weldon’s sister says, because they can’t afford a cell phone on which they can be reached.  “When I tell him stories about his kids, you can tell how very hard it is for him to hear it… to know that he can’t be here,” Lisa Angelos said. “It’s destroyed him in many ways.”

The Angelos’ have waited for more than two years for word on their executive clemency request.  The average successful clemency request takes approximately four years, according to his lawyer.  Weldon Angelos deserves clemency, Osler said, because his sentencing “doesn’t correlate in this country with what’s wrong, and what those wrongs deserve.”

Long-time readers are likely familiar with the Angelos case, which came to my attention on a few months after I started this blog 11 years ago. I litigated pro bono, unsuccessfully, Weldon's 2255 motion with claims (that I still find compelling) that his prosecution and sentencing involved violations of the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. I continue to hope Weldon will receive clemency or some other form of relief soon not merely to remedy the injustice of his extreme prosecution and sentencing, but to vindicate critical constitutional principles.

Related prior posts providing some Angelos case history:

February 3, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

"How to Stop Revolving Prison Doors With Books"

The title of this post is the title of this extended piece in the Harvard Political Review authored by Alice Hu.  Here is how it starts and ends: 

Education reduces crime.  This connection seems like common sense, and indeed it has been researched, analyzed, and affirmed countless times.  According to a 2007 collaborative study by Columbia University, Princeton University, and City University of New York, higher education reduces the crime rates of both juveniles and adults by impacting social behavior and economic stability.

The effect of education on crime-reduction is even more dramatic for a certain group within the population: the incarcerated.  To many, the idea of convicts receiving a free college education behind bars is confounding and, more often, infuriating.  When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a plan to publicly finance basic college education programs in state prisons, legislators in Albany called it “a slap in the face” for law-abiding citizens.

While this response is understandable, the arguments themselves neglect the actual effects of college-in-prison programs.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, inmates who participated in education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prisons than those who did not.  By drastically reducing the recidivism rate of former inmates, education in prisons returns a tremendous social benefit for all members of society.  Prison education programs not only save an enormous sum of tax dollars spent on prisons annually, but they also have a profound effect on thousands of families and communities.  The current resistance to college-in-prison is founded upon political rhetoric rather than any factual evidence. Indeed, this type of rhetoric by politicians is perhaps indicative of a large, troubling trend in education and incarceration....

College stops the revolving prison doors. It allows inmates the opportunity to reintegrate into society, to work, pay taxes, and contribute to society.  It saves the public billions of tax dollars, money that can go toward higher education aid for students rather than prison expansion.  The “tough on crime” rhetoric may have helped past politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — to win elections, but it has done little to help the people inside or outside the prisons.  Indeed, the adverse effect of forgoing college programs for inmates cuts across partisan lines and prison bars.  Perhaps this is why President Clinton, who was once adamant about being “on the side of those who abide by the law,” has since commended Bard Prison Initiative as a “good investment in a safer, more productive society.”  Politicians can choose to neglect the evidence and paint college-in-prison programs as unfair to law-abiding citizens, but the true injustice lies in the continuation of ineffective and costly practices when a solution is readily available — education.  It is common sense, after all.

February 3, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 2, 2015

Getting a European perspective on crowded prisons

WO-AV345_EUPRIS_9U_20150202185222This new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Overcrowding Puts Strains on Europe’s Century-Old Prisons," highlights that the US does not have the most densely populated prisons in the world even though we have the largest total prison population. Here are some details from the article:

While cities and states across the U.S. are selling off prisons as the inmate population shrinks, Europe faces the opposite challenge: how to cope with chronic overcrowding in old, cramped jails.

The fortresslike structure of Forest prison is in the otherwise chic Saint-Gilles district of Brussels. Built in 1910 to house 380 inmates, it currently holds 600, most of whom are awaiting trial. In two of the four wings, three inmates are held in 90-square-foot cells designed for one. Two share bunk beds while the third has a mattress on the floor. They eat there and share a toilet. In the other half, prisoners have individual cells but no running water. They must relieve themselves in a bucket that can go unemptied for 48 hours....

“It is medieval,” said Vincent Spronck, who became warden four years ago after a decade working in other prisons. “I didn’t know these conditions still existed until I got here.” The problem isn’t limited to Forest or even Belgium.

In central London, the 170-year-old Pentonville Prison houses 1,303 men in a space designed for 913. An official report found “significant, easily visible vermin infestations,” dirty cells, and rampant drug abuse, and suggested shutting it down.

La Modelo in Barcelona, built in 1904, held 1,781 inmates in space designed for 1,100 when it was last inspected by a team from the intergovernmental Council of Europe, the continent’s human-rights watchdog. Lisbon Central Prison (built 1885) has an official capacity of 886, but was holding 1,310 prisoners in May 2013. Korydallos Prison, built in the 1960s in Athens, should hold 840 people, but held 2,300 in April 2013.

“The whole structure is in a state of crisis,” said Hugh Chetwynd, head of division for the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture. Overcrowding means “staff struggle to keep proper control, so they resort more to excessive force.” Prison populations per capita are growing in most European countries....

One solution is to send prisoners abroad. Belgium pays €43 million ($48 million) a year to the Netherlands to hold 600 prisoners over the border in a former military barracks in Tilburg. Belgium and Italy, which also has a long-term overcrowding problem, are building new prisons, but some experts argue this doesn’t resolve the problem. “You build big prisons…that leads to higher population rates,” said Peter Bennett, who was warden at four prisons before becoming director of the London-based ICPS. “All the research shows that sending people to prison doesn’t reduce the crime rate.”

Still, while there appears to be no strong relationship across countries between incarceration and crime rates, the crime rate in the U.K. has fallen as the prison population has risen. Peter Cuthbertson, director of the Center for Crime Prevention, said taking serial criminals off the streets cuts crime. “If you don’t do anything else,” he said, a criminal “can easily end up committing hundreds of crimes a year.” He said that longer sentences reduce recidivism rates and while overcrowding isn’t ideal, his solution is to build more prisons.

February 2, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Indiana sentencing reforms highlight how low-level criminal justice is forced to fill public health gaps

This lengthy local article from Indiana, headlined "County jails fear onslaught of addicts, mentally ill from prisons," provides an effective showcase of the relationships between criminal-justice issues and public-health issues. Here is how:

With the passage of sentencing reforms last year, one study estimates that more than 14,000 low-level offenders, some with serious addictions and mental illnesses, will no longer be kept in prison.  They will be diverted to county jails and community corrections programs that [Franklin County Sheriff Ken] Murphy and others say are ill-equipped to handle the onslaught.

Many such offenders need expensive mental health care — some requiring hundreds of dollars a month in medication.  "These are people with real problems that need treatment," Murphy said. "We need a secure facility or work release or whatever where we can send these folks ... where they can receive treatment, and when they're released, somebody follows up with them."

Sheriffs across the state say jails are not designed for all that.  Jails are meant to hold people awaiting trial, not to house and rehabilitate those who have been convicted. Many do not have mental health services.  Some counties also lack money to expand treatment programs or to launch community corrections programs that provide alternatives to jail, such as housing and GPS monitoring.  That, Murphy said, makes this legislative session critical for public safety.

The success of the criminal code reform under House Enrolled Act 1006, which took effect in July, hinges largely on providing funds for county programs.  Without them, Murphy and others say, people with mental illness and substance abuse problems have a higher risk of failing and re-offending....

"County jails are totally based on the idea in our society that you are innocent until proven guilty," said Howard County Sheriff Steve Rogers. "(HEA) 1006 wants us to hold folks after they've been convicted. Then they won't be pretrial detainees." Rogers said HEA 1006 will put a strain on his jail's mental health resources. "If we can reduce the amount of people that have these mental health issues in our jail," Rogers said, "I think we can handle what 1006 will bring us."

Jails also lack educational programs and vocational training offered in the DOC. "We're not here to rehabilitate," said Capt. Harold Vincent, commander at the Howard County Jail. "That doesn't happen in the jail setting."

Inmates with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems are expensive to incarcerate because of their medical and psychiatric needs. In Marion County, for instance, about 30 percent of inmates are mentally ill, and they take up roughly $7.7 million of the sheriff's budget every year, Layton said. Eighty-five percent have substance abuse problems.

Medication for the mentally ill costs about $800 to $1,500 per dose per person, said Dr. Erika Cornett, medical director for the behavioral health division of Community Howard Regional Health.  Some need an injection once a month, while others need two. That means one mentally ill inmate can cost a jail up to $3,000 a month in medication alone....

Will the political atmosphere be agreeable to spending more money on programs and services that help criminals?  Some hope so....   Some, however, think there will be political resistance.  Investing in other areas, such as education, is more popular.

This article is notable in part because it helps highlight that efforts to reduce prison populations and associated costs could be "penny wise, pound foolish" if there are not adequate resources devoted to services needed to aid localities with community supervision and reentry needs.  More broadly, by detailing various links between health-care needs and criminal justice institutions, this article suggests that effective health-care reform (especially for the poor) may be as critical to public safety and to the public fisc as is effective sentencing reform.

February 2, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Highlighting how apathy may help the criminal justice reform cause

This new Slate commentary by Jamelle Bouie spotlights why maybe I should not complain too much about criminal justice problems not getting enough attention from the media and the general public. The piece is headlined "Why Public Apathy Isn’t All Bad: It has actually helped pave the way for significant criminal justice reform," and here are excerpts:

[A]s much as intensity contributes to politics, we shouldn’t give short shrift to its sibling: public apathy. Apathy gets a bad rap, but when you look at its full place in the world of public policy, it’s underrated.

To be clear, apathy’s reputation isn’t undeserved.  Politicians have long used voter disinterest as cover for corrupt behavior.  And on issues toward which voters aren’t attentive — but interest groups are — the public can get shafted. But the same shadows that cloak the worst of our lawmakers can also shield the best of them.  On issues with which the problems are severe and about which voters are indifferent, politicians have a chance to act effectively for the public good without watching their rears.

The best example is criminal justice reform. During the last decade, lawmakers across the country have pushed bold experiments in shrinking prisons and reducing incarcerated populations, unscathed by any kind of public backlash.  In 2010, after two decades of ceaseless prison growth, Texas officials — supported by Gov. Rick Perry — moved to counter increasing costs of prison construction and incarceration with a new regime of treatment and mental health programs to give prosecutors and judges a third option besides jail or parole.  It worked.  The Texas inmate population has dropped from its peak of 173,000 in 2010 to 168,000 in 2013, without any increase in violent or property crime. Recidivism is down, and the state has saved an estimated $3 billion.

You see a similar story in Georgia, where Gov. Nathan Deal has led the state to drastically change its approach to criminal justice. In 2012, lawmakers passed reforms that gave prosecutors non-prison options for adults arrested for minor crimes, and that gave judges more options for drug offenses, with a goal of reserving prison beds for violent offenders. And in 2013 the state passed reforms that would place minor juvenile offenders in social service programs, skipping the criminal justice system entirely....

On crime, in other words, the broad public just isn’t that interested. And as such, there isn’t a strong incentive for “tough on crime” rhetoric, crime-focused politicians, or punitive anti-crime policies.  But for those on the other side of the issue — for politicians who want fewer prisons and less incarceration — there’s an opportunity to push reform without fear of attack. And slowly, lawmakers are taking it.

Thanks in part to public apathy, the country is beginning to make progress on one of our most important problems.  But we shouldn’t get too optimistic.  Bills against asset forfeiture or for flexibility in sentencing are like the first few boards in a game of Ms. Pac-Man — easy to clear if you know what to do.  To tackle the larger problems — overcriminalization, disinvestment in prison alternatives, and robust reintegration for former offenders — you need more: more will, more skill, and more support.  You also need more money beyond the savings you gain from reform.  And in politics, the moment you ask for cash is the moment the public starts to pay attention.

February 2, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 1, 2015

"Should Veterans With PTSD Be Exempt From the Death Penalty?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece from The Atlantic. Here are excerpts:

PTSD is a severe mental disorder that can affect intellectual and adaptive functioning, trigger flashbacks to traumatic events, and impair one's judgment. As its name implies, it can develop after exposure to a life-threatening event.... About 20 percent of military personnel who served in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and up to 30 percent of Vietnam War veterans have experienced it in their lifetimes, according to National Center for PTSD statistics....

Despite the stigma attached to PTSD, the Department of Veterans Affairs emphasizes that most veterans suffering from the condition are not violent.... “Rambo is not the face of PTSD,” Paula Schnurr, executive director of the VA's National Center for PTSD, said in an interview with The Desert Sun. “It's extremely important that we recognize that the majority of people with PTSD don't engage in criminal and violent actions.”

The risk of criminal behavior isn’t necessarily higher among combat veterans than with civilians, according to mental health experts. "I am unaware of data showing that people with PTSD are more violent than other people," Richard McNally, the director of clinical training in Harvard University's psychology department, told Reuters.

But some legal scholars and mental health experts suggest the criminal justice system should treat convicted veterans suffering from war trauma differently than other criminals. In a 2009 Fordham Law Review article, Anthony Giardino, an attorney and former Marine, argued that veterans suffering from service-related PTSD and traumatic brain injuries should receive a categorical exemption from the death penalty. "If the death penalty is truly only for the worst offenders, justice requires that combat veterans suffering at the time of their offenses from service-related PTSD or TBI [traumatic brain injuries] not be executed or sentenced to death," he wrote....

Giardino isn’t alone in making this argument. Mental-health experts Hal S. Wortzel and David B. Arciniegas made a similar case for exempting veterans affected by war trauma from the death penalty. Military training and combat, combined with traumatic experiences, may have an impact on aggression and behavioral control, the authors said in a 2010 article....

It's difficult for the legal system to truly grasp what veterans with PTSD have experienced. This lack of empathy is a key obstacle to change.... Until society realizes how combat can change service members, the fate of capital defendants with combat PTSD will remain an open question.

February 1, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Seemingly without a "grim roster of victims," California reduces extreme prison crowding as ordered in Plata

DownloadAs long-time readers will recall, the US Supreme Court in 2011 in Plata upheld, by a 5-4 vote, a lower-court order that imposed on California a requirement to have its prison population reduced below 137.5% of capacity to remedy extreme Eighth Amendment violations in prison conditions (basics here).  In their dissenting Plata opinions (as noted here and here), Justices Alito and Scalia predicted this ruling would likely produce "a grim roster of victims" and a massive number of "murders, robberies, and rapes" in California.  Similarly, as noted here, in response to Gov Jerry Brown's realignment plan to deal with the Plata problems, the Los Angeles DA predicted "the greatest spike in crime of the last several decades."

Fast forward a few years and this local story now reports that "California’s prison system has hit a milestone, with new figures showing that the inmate population inside the state’s 34 adult prisons has fallen below a court-ordered cap more than a year ahead of schedule."  Here is more: 

California’s prisons steadily filled in the 1990s as tough-on-crime measures such as the “three-strikes” law won public support. In November 2006, the prison population hit 162,804 -- larger than Elk Grove’s current estimated population -- or 200.2 percent of the design capacity at that time.

Lawyers for the inmates said overcrowding had reached the point that medical and mental health care services for prisoners were unconstitutional, and they renewed their legal challenge to a system in which inmates were being housed in triple-deck bunks in prison gyms and other open spaces.  The state disagreed and continued to fight, but in August 2009 a panel of three federal judges said the situation had “brought California’s prisons to the breaking point.”

The panel decreed that within two years the state would reduce inmate populations to 137.5 percent of capacity.  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed in a 5-4 decision in 2011 that the prison population had to be reduced, prompting a series of efforts under Gov. Jerry Brown that led to Thursday’s levels.

Under the latest court orders, California has until Feb. 28, 2016, to cut its inmate population to the 137.5 percent benchmark. The early success in getting to that point can be traced largely to the governor’s prison realignment plan, passed in 2011, which shifted responsibility for nonviolent, low-level offenders from the state to counties.

Before that plan, as many as 60,000 inmates annually were sent to prisons as parole violators and served an average of 90 days. The Department of Corrections says realignment has cut the prison population by about 25,000 inmates. Counties statewide have seen an increase in jail inmates during that time frame....

[In addition,] 2,035 inmates have been released since passage of Proposition 47 in November, which redesignated several felony-level crimes, including some drug possession and property offenses, as misdemeanors. [And] 1,975 inmates in prison after a “third strike” have been released since voters approved Proposition 36 in 2012.  The measure allows for inmates to seek resentencing if their third strike was not considered serious or violent.

So, one should ask, what has happened recently in California with respect to crime rates, especially violent crimes that produce the greatest harms to victims.  This Crime & Consequences post provides a quick summary of the latest official data: "California property crimes per 100k population totaled 2,665.5 in 2013, a 3% drop from the 2012 figure although still above the rate before the realignment law went into effect.  Even better, the rate of violent crimes, less affected by that law, is down to a level not seen since 1967."

Posts at C&C highlight data indicating an increase in car thefts and other property crimes in recent years in California.  But I do not think even the greatest critics of Plata and the state's responses can assert that, as was predicted by a prominent prosecutor, California has experienced "the greatest spike in crime of the last several decades."  In sharp contrast, violent crime has continued to drop in the state in the wake of Plata.  

Though I doubt we will be hearing any sort of mea culpa from those who predicted that the public safety sky was sure to fall after Plata, I hope the California story will help inform assessments of future Chicken-Little-type predictions.

February 1, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

"Why Judges [and criminal case decisions] Tilt to the Right"

The title of this post is a slight modification of the headline of this interesting new piece by Adam Liptak in the New York Times. Here are excerpts:

Lawyers on average are much more liberal than the general population, a new study has found. But judges are more conservative than the average lawyer, to say nothing of the graduates of top law schools. What accounts for the gap?  The answer, the study says, is that judicial selection processes are affected by politics.

Judges are, of course, almost without exception lawyers.  If judges reflected the pool from which they were selected based on politically neutral grounds like technical skill and temperament, the bench might be expected to tilt left.  But something else is going on.

“Politics plays a really significant role in shaping our judicial system,” said Maya Sen, a political scientist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and one of the authors of the study. Since judges tend to be more conservative than lawyers, she said, it stands to reason that the officials who appoint judges and the voters who elect them are taking account of ideology.  She said the phenomenon amounted to a politicization of the courts, driven largely by conservatives’ swimming against the political tide of the legal profession.

Eric A. Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said the paper might have drawn the wrong conclusion from the right data. “The authors argue that a court is politicized if the judges deviate from the ideology of the underlying ideological distribution of attorneys,” he said. “Maybe.”

But an equally powerful case could be made, he said, for viewing courts as politicized if they failed to reflect the ideology of people generally.  “On this view,” Professor Posner continued, “we should congratulate rather than condemn Republicans for bringing much-needed ideological balance to the judiciary.”

Either way, said Tracey George, a law professor and political scientist at Vanderbilt University, the study explored a distinctive feature of American justice.  Foreign legal systems tend to be homogeneous, she said, with lawyers and judges closely aligned ideologically. “You would think there would be a better match” in the United States, she said. “Why would the attorneys facing the bench be so different from the people looking back at them in robes?”

The study is based on an analysis of the campaign contributions of American lawyers, a group that turns out to be exceptionally active in the financial side of elections.... Federal judges and many state judges are barred by ethics rules from making contributions, but a majority did write checks to political campaigns before they joined the bench. Indeed, future judges gave at an even higher rate than lawyers generally.  About 67 percent of future federal trial judges made contributions.  Future state Supreme Court justices gave at the same rate.  And 80 percent of future federal appeals court judges wrote checks to politicians....

The new study considered how judges are selected, not how they rule.  It is possible that the political leanings of judges before they took the bench tell us nothing about how they do their jobs.  But earlier research on the federal courts has found correlations between the political parties of the presidents who appoint judges and how those judges rule.

“The role of ideology increases as cases move up the judicial ladder,” said Lee Epstein, a law professor and political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis.  “That’s because the constraints on judicial discretion lessen as one moves up.” She and two co-authors — William M. Landes, an economist at the University of Chicago, and Judge Richard A. Posner of the federal appeals court in Chicago — documented the trend in a 2013 book, “The Behavior of Federal Judges.”

Comparing votes in the same set of cases heard at all three levels of the federal judiciary from 1995 to 2008, the book found that judges appointed to trial courts by Republican presidents were only slightly more likely to cast conservative votes than those appointed by Democrats.  But the disparity grew to almost 2-to-1 on the appeals courts and to 2.5-to-1 on the Supreme Court.

Professor Posner, who is Judge Posner’s son, said the new study made a particular contribution in assessing the political inclinations of the American Bar.  “It confirms,” he said, “what everybody always thought: that lawyers are to the left of other professions.”

Every subgroup of practicing lawyers examined by the study was more liberal than the general population. Public defenders and government lawyers generally were particularly liberal, as were women and the graduates of top law schools. But prosecutors and law firm partners were pretty liberal, too.

Law professors, too, are quite likely to lean left, a finding that matched those in earlier studies. Indeed, when Professor Posner and a colleague, Adam S. Chilton, tried to assess whether the liberal tilt of the legal academy affected its scholarship, they had a hard time finding law professors at the top 14 law schools who had contributed more to Republican candidates than to Democratic ones.

Why are judges different? After all, they, too, are a subset of a generally liberal legal culture. Professors Bonica and Sen said that conservatives had worked hard and effectively to ensure representation of their views on the courts. They have cultivated candidates for the bench, notably through the Federalist Society, the conservative legal group active on law school campuses. But if the numbers of conservative candidates remains small, they wrote, it makes strategic sense to deploy candidates on the courts that matter most. The study’s authors call this “strategic politicization.”

“The most conservative courts (and thus the least representative of the overall distribution of lawyers) are the federal courts of appeals, followed by the state high courts, the federal trial courts and state trial courts,” the study found....

There may be reasons besides politics for the overrepresentation of conservatives on the courts, at least as compared with the pool of lawyers.  Judges do tend to be older than the average lawyer, and older lawyers are more conservative than younger ones. Even so, the study found, judges are more conservative than other lawyers their age.

February 1, 2015 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack