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March 19, 2016

"Voices on Innocence"

The title of this post is the title given to a collection of short essays by a number of notable authors now available at this link via SSRN. Here is the abstract for the collection:

In the summer of 2015, experts gathered from around the country to sit together and discuss one of the most pressing and important issues facing the American criminal justice system — innocence.  Innocence is an issue that pervades various areas of research and influences numerous topics of discussion.

What does innocence mean, particularly in a system that differentiates between innocence and acquittal at sentencing?  What is the impact of innocence during plea bargaining? How should we respond to growing numbers of exonerations?  What forces lead to the incarceration of innocents? Has an innocent person been put to death and, if so, what does this mean for capital punishment? As these and other examples demonstrate, the importance and influence of the innocence issue is boundless.  As the group, representing various perspectives, disciplines, and areas of research, discussed these and other questions, it also considered the role of innocence in the criminal justice system more broadly and examined where the innocence issue might take us in the future.

This article is a collection of short essays from some of those in attendance — essays upon which we might reflect as we continue to consider the varying sides and differing answers to the issue of innocence.  Through these diverse and innovative essays, the reader is able to glimpse the larger innocence discussion that occurred in the summer of 2015. As was the case at the roundtable event, the ideas expressed in these pages begins a journey into an issue with many faces and many paths forward for discussion, research, and reform.

March 19, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Judge Richard Posner takes notable shots at "the legal profession in all three of its major branches"

In the Winter 2016 issue of The Green Bag, US Circuit Judge Richard Posner has this notable new article titled "What Is Obviously Wrong With the Federal Judiciary, Yet Eminently Curable, Part I." Like so much of Judge Posner's work, the piece is a fascinating read, and these introductory passages should whet everyone's appetite for what is here and to follow:

In the present article, however, and its sequel (Part II, to be published in the next issue of this journal), I try to retreat some distance from controversy by confining my discussion to those features of the federal judicial process that are at once demonstrably unsound and readily corrigible without need for federal legislation or radical changes in legal doctrines or practices.  That is not to say that anything I criticize will be changed, however convincing my critique.  For law is wedded to the past as no other profession is.  You don’t hear doctors bragging about thirteenth-century medicine, but you hear lawyers bragging about the thirteenth-century Magna Carta (without even understanding it — they think it guaranteed the ancient liberties of the English, whereas in fact it guaranteed just the rights of barons, and in any event was soon annulled, later restored, and eventually demoted to the purely symbolic).

Another way to characterize the legal profession in all three of its major branches — the academy, the judiciary, and the bar — is that it is complacent, self-satisfied. Chief Justice Roberts in his annual reports likes to describe the American legal system as the envy of the world.  Nonsense.  The system has proved itself ineffectual in dealing with a host of problems, ranging from providing useful (as distinct from abstract theoretical) legal training at bearable cost to curbing crime and meting out rational punishment, providing representation for and protection of the vast number of Americans who are impecunious or commercially unsophisticated (so prey to sharpies), incorporating the insights of the social and natural sciences (with the notable exception of economics, however), curbing incompetent regulatory agencies such as the immigration and social security disability agencies, and limiting the role of partisan politics in the appointment of judges.  The system is also immensely costly (more than $400 billion a year), with its million lawyers, many overpaid, many deficient in training and experience, some of questionable ethics.

I focus on the three principal phases of the federal judicial process: trials, intermediate appeals, and decisions by the Supreme Court.  But much that I’ll be saying is applicable to state judiciaries as well, all of which (so far as I know) have a tripartite structure (trial court, intermediate appellate court, supreme court) similar to that of their federal counterpart.

I may have some comments in a later post about what Judge Posner has to say in this article about the judicary's failings at "curbing crime and meting out rational punishment."

March 19, 2016 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

March 18, 2016

Making the (Trumpian?) case for winning the drug war via full legalization

HarpersWeb-Cover-201604-302x410_black This cover story of the April 2016 issue of Harper's magazine is authored by Dan Baum and is headlined "Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs."  And, as I mean to suggest via  the headline of this post, this article may be channeling what GOP Prez candidate front-runner Donald Trump really thinks about how to improve modern drug policy in the US.  (Recall that I had this post on my marijuana reform blog, way back when Trump first announced his serious run for the Oval Office last summer, which highlights that Trump not all that long ago had once suggested full legalization would be the only way to "win" the drug war.)  Here are is an except from the first part of the lengthy Harper's piece:

Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool was cynical, but every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another. Meanwhile, the growing cost of the drug war is now impossible to ignore: billions of dollars wasted, bloodshed in Latin America and on the streets of our own cities, and millions of lives destroyed by draconian punishment that doesn’t end at the prison gate; one of every eight black men has been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.

As long ago as 1949, H. L. Mencken identified in Americans “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” an astute articulation of our weirdly Puritan need to criminalize people’s inclination to adjust how they feel.  The desire for altered states of consciousness creates a market, and in suppressing that market we have created a class of genuine bad guys — pushers, gangbangers, smugglers, killers.  Addiction is a hideous condition, but it’s rare. Most of what we hate and fear about drugs — the violence, the overdoses, the criminality — derives from prohibition, not drugs. And there will be no victory in this war either; even the Drug Enforcement Administration concedes that the drugs it fights are becoming cheaper and more easily available.

Now, for the first time, we have an opportunity to change course. Experiments in alternatives to harsh prohibition are already under way both in this country and abroad. Twenty-three states, as well as the District of Columbia, allow medical marijuana, and four — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska — along with D.C., have legalized pot altogether.  Several more states, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, will likely vote in November whether to follow suit.

Portugal has decriminalized not only marijuana but cocaine and heroin, as well as all other drugs.  In Vermont, heroin addicts can avoid jail by committing to state-funded treatment. Canada began a pilot program in Vancouver in 2014 to allow doctors to prescribe pharmaceutical-quality heroin to addicts, Switzerland has a similar program, and the Home Affairs Committee of Britain’s House of Commons has recommended that the United Kingdom do likewise.  Last July, Chile began a legislative process to legalize both medicinal and recreational marijuana use and allow households to grow as many as six plants.  After telling the BBC in December that “if you fight a war for forty years and don’t win, you have to sit down and think about other things to do that might be more effective,” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos legalized medical marijuana by decree. In November, the Mexican Supreme Court elevated the debate to a new plane by ruling that the prohibition of marijuana consumption violated the Mexican Constitution by interfering with “the personal sphere,” the “right to dignity,” and the right to “personal autonomy.”  The Supreme Court of Brazil is considering a similar argument.

Depending on how the issue is framed, legalization of all drugs can appeal to conservatives, who are instinctively suspicious of bloated budgets, excess government authority, and intrusions on individual liberty, as well as to liberals, who are horrified at police overreach, the brutalization of Latin America, and the criminalization of entire generations of black men.  It will take some courage to move the conversation beyond marijuana to ending all drug prohibitions, but it will take less, I suspect, than most politicians believe.  It’s already politically permissible to criticize mandatory minimums, mass marijuana-possession arrests, police militarization, and other excesses of the drug war; even former attorney general Eric Holder and Michael Botticelli, the new drug czar — a recovering alcoholic — do so. Few in public life appear eager to defend the status quo.

A few prior related posts:

March 18, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"How many times should a state be able to try to execute someone without running afoul of the Constitution?"

The question in the title of this post is the first line of this notable new commentary authored by Austin Sarat concerning the work of the Ohio Supreme Court  in Ohio v. Broom (previously discussed here).  Here is more of the commentary:

[T]he Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that neither the federal nor the state constitution forbids Ohio from trying to execute someone more than once.  While this ruling may set up another opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of capital punishment, it nonetheless allows the nightmarish possibility that the state can proceed in a negligent manner in carrying out an execution and, if it fails in the first attempt, to try, try again.  This should shock and trouble those who support capital punishment as well as those who oppose it....

On Sept. 15, 2009, Broom, who had been convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder, was brought to Ohio's death chamber where he was to be executed by lethal injection.  His executioners repeatedly attempted to insert an intravenous line into Broom's arms and legs.  As they did so, Broom winced and grimaced with pain.  At one point, he covered his face with both hands and appeared to be sobbing, his stomach heaving.

After an hour had passed, Broom tried to help his executioners, turning onto his side, sliding the rubber tubing that served as a tourniquet up his left arm, and alternatively squeezing his fingers together and apart. Even when executioners found what they believed to be a suitable vein, it quickly collapsed as they tried to inject the saline fluid. Broom was once again brought to tears. After more than two hours of executioners sticking Broom's arms and legs with the needle, the prison director decided that the execution team should rest.  The governor of Ohio issued a reprieve stopping the execution....

It is almost certain that the Bromell case now will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and that it will offer that court the chance to revisit the unfortunate precedent it set more than 60 years ago [allowing Louisiana to try again after a failed electrocution in the Francis case].

One can only hope that the Court will now insist that if the government is going to carry out executions that there be no room for error. Neither simple human decency nor the 8th Amendment can tolerate a government carrying out a death penalty sentence in a shoddy manner.  If we are going to have a death penalty, we cannot allow death, as the dissenting justice in the Francis case put it, to be carried out on the installment plan.

Prior related post:

March 18, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

March 17, 2016

Hello, it's sentencing, I was wondering if after singing I'd get fewer years....

66389510My students as well as regular readers know that I like to say that any and all matters in our crazy dyanmic world has a sentencing story lurking somehwere.  Thanks to a recent local court case, I now have a great reference if anyone ever questions how singing goddess Adele is linked to sentencing. This press piece is headlined "Convicted Felon Sings Adele-Inspired Apology at Sentencing Hearing," and here are the details:

A 21-year-old convicted felon sang an Adele-inspired apology to the judge overseeing his case at his sentencing hearing. On March 10, Brian Earl Taylor appeared at Washtenaw County Trial Court in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be sentenced for unlawful imprisonment and carrying a concealed weapon, court records indicate. When he addressed the court, he sang his soulful apology to the tune of Adele's smash hit "Hello," complete with lyrics he'd written himself.

"I'm gonna start with a song," Taylor, a Belleville, Michigan, resident, said when he addressed the court. Taylor then began his one-minute song with a greeting to the judge. "Hello, your honor," Taylor sang.

As the song went on, he apologized to the victim, his mother and Judge Darlene O'Brien. "I want to say I’m sorry for the things I’ve done, and I try to be stronger in this life I’ve chosen," Taylor sang. "But I want you to know, that door I closed, your honor.

"I’m sorry, sorry, sorry," Taylor continued.

Prior to the hearing, one of Taylor's lawyers asked O'Brien to give Taylor permission to sing the song, the judge told ABC News. O'Brien looked at the lyrics and found them to be remorseful, she said. So, she allowed Taylor to proceed.

O'Brien said she found the song's melody to be familiar. "I love Adele's music," she said. One of the lawyers representing Taylor said he expressed the night before the hearing that he'd like to sing, but only if the judge was okay with it.

"That was all his idea," said Washtenaw County Assistant Public Defender Stephen Adams. "It was the way he could most comfortably tell her how he felt." The judge told Taylor that he obviously has talent and that she hopes he finds an appropriate way to use it, Adams told ABC News.

Police arrested Taylor after he was found struggling with a man in an apartment building in Ypsilanti, Michigan, while holding a gun to the man's abdomen on Nov. 9, according to a press release. Police said they believe that Taylor planned to rob the man. Taylor was sentenced to two years in a state prison for illegally carrying a concealed weapon and 18 months to 15 years for the unlawful imprisonment charge, court records show. Five other charges against him in the case were dismissed. Taylor pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal, Adams told ABC News.

"I’ve been here 23 years, and I’ve never seen a defendant sing at their sentencing hearing," said Ypsilanti Police Department Lt. Deric Gress, who oversees the detective department that handled Taylor's case.

March 17, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Easing Mandatory Minimums Will Not Be Enough"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable article in Judicature authored by one of my old bosses, Second Circuit Judge Jon O. Newman.  I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts:

Congress is finally considering easing mandatory minimum penalties.  However, this effort, even if successful, will need to be complemented by actions taken by the United States Sentencing Commission and federal district judges.

If some mandatory minimum requirements are repealed or at least modified, there will be two immediate consequences.  First, prosecutors will be deprived of the awesome power to coerce a guilty plea by threatening to charge an offense that will subject a defendant to a mandatory minimum sentence.  Second, sentencing judges will be spared the often distasteful obligation to impose a required sentence that is more severe than the one they would have selected had they been free to use their sentencing discretion.

But these immediate consequences, desirable as they are, will be only the first of three steps needed to reduce the severity of sentences currently subject to mandatory minimum requirements.  The Sentencing Commission must take the second step of revising the Sentencing Guidelines, and then district judges must take the third step of using their authority to impose non-Guidelines sentences.

March 17, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thoughtful nuanced comments from George Will on modern crime and punishment

The Washington Post has published this astute new commentary by Geoge Will under the headline "Sentencing reform alone won’t fix crime and punishment in America." I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts and ends:

Sen. John Cornyn recalls visiting a Texas prison where some inmates taking shop classes could not read tape measures. Cornyn, who was previously a district court judge and Texas Supreme Court justice, knows that prisons are trying to teach literacy and vocations, trying to cope with the mental illnesses of many inmates and trying to take prophylactic measures to prevent drug-related recidivism by people imprisoned for drug offenses.  “The criminal-justice system,” he says, “has become by default a social services provider.”

It is not, however, equipped to perform so many functions.  Cornyn, a Republican, is part of a bipartisan congressional group negotiating sentencing reform, one of many needed repairs of the criminal-justice system.  What justice requires, frugality encourages: Too many people are in prison for too long, and too often, at a financial cost disproportionate to the enhancement of public safety....

Old theories about the causes of crime need to be rethought.  During the Great Depression, unemployment soared to 25 percent, yet in many cities crime fell.  Demographic factors?  Crime rates often vary with the size of society’s cohort of young males: Crime declined considerably during World War II not just, or even primarily, because unemployment was negligible but also because so many young males were in military discipline.

In 2010, one year after the Great Recession’s jobs destruction doubled the unemployment rate, the property crime rate fell and violent crime reached a 40-year low.  Current high incarceration rates had something to do with that.  But how much?  James Q. Wilson, the most accomplished social scientist since World War II, accepted the estimate that increased incarceration explains “one-quarter or more of the crime decline.”  Wilson also suggested an environmental factor: “For decades, doctors have known that children with lots of lead in their blood are much more likely to be aggressive, violent and delinquent.”  Since the 1970s, lead has been removed from gasoline and paint for new homes, and “the amount of lead in Americans’ blood fell by four-fifths between 1975 and 1991.”  Wilson cited a study that ascribed more than half the 1990s’ decline in crime to the reduction of gasoline lead.  Clearly, sentencing reform is just one piece of a complex policy puzzle.

March 17, 2016 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

March 16, 2016

"The Emerging Eighth Amendment Consensus Against Life Without Parole Sentences for Nonviolent Offenses"

The title of this post is the title of this article authored by Bidish Sarma and Sophie Cull recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

As the nation moves away from the policies that built a criminal justice system bent on mass incarceration, it is an appropriate time to reassess a sentencing regime that has doomed thousands of individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses to die in prison.  Over the last thirty years, those policies have resulted in more than 3,000 offenders across the country receiving life sentences without the possibility of parole when they were convicted of a nonviolent crime. While it seems clear to many today that this harsh punishment is inappropriate for offenses that involved no physical harm to other people, the individuals serving these sentences continue to face life and death in prison.  The Eighth Amendment offers these offenders an opportunity to demonstrate the unconstitutionality of their punishment to the Supreme Court — the institution in the best position to redress these excessive sentences of a bygone era.

This Article analyzes the claim that there is a national consensus against life without parole sentences for individuals convicted of non-violent offenses.  First, it defines the problem, exploring how and why some offenders received life without parole sentences for nonviolent crime.  This entails a look at the historical development of a series of harsh sentencing policies that made nonviolent offenses punishable by life without the possibility of parole.  The historical developments are then traced through to current times to explain the seismic shift in how leaders in all three branches of government approach punishing low-level and nonviolent crimes.

This Article situates the punishment in the Eighth Amendment context.  How have the Supreme Court's previous Eighth Amendment rulings framed the relevant constitutional questions?  And how can a change in the way the Court considers the link between the nature of the offense and the challenged punishment create new possibilities?  This Article explores how treating individuals sentenced to life without parole for nonviolent offenses as a discrete category based on the nature of the crimes can alter the Eighth Amendment framework that the Court will use to determine the punishment's constitutionality.  The unfavorable "gross disproportionality" cases that have previously been considered by the Court do not need to govern the claim and, therefore, do not foreclose the possibility that the Constitution itself prohibits these sentences.

After exploring how to understand the constitutional claim in a way that brings the Supreme Court's categorical approach to bear (rather than the gross disproportionality approach), this Article assesses the factors the Court considers in its consensus-based categorical test.  It sets out, and then evaluates, the various indicators of consensus upon which the Court relies: the number of jurisdictions that legislatively authorize a punishment; the number of sentences actually imposed; and the degree of geographic isolation.  It also evaluates the various considerations that assist the Court in making an independent judgment of the punishment.  Ultimately, based on binding Eighth Amendment precedent, sufficient evidence is available now to enable the Court to strike down life without parole sentences for nonviolent offenses.  In other words, there is an emerging consensus that the Court should recognize.

March 16, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Split Ohio Supreme Court decides state allowed to try again to execute Rommell Broom after prior botched attempt

This official summary from the Ohio Supreme Court office of public information provides a detailed summary of a notable capital punishment ruling today, and it starts this way:

An execution had not begun when an IV line could not be established to deliver lethal drugs into an inmate’s body even though a needle was inserted multiple times, and neither the U.S. nor Ohio constitution bars the state from carrying out the execution, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that a second attempt to execute Romell Broom by lethal injection would not violate the cruel and unusual punishment or the double jeopardy clauses of the federal and state constitutions. Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger stated in the majority opinion that by law the death penalty begins with the application of lethal drugs, and since the execution team stopped after it could not keep an IV catheter functioning, Broom’s punishment had not started.

In separate opinions, dissenting justices countered that Broom is entitled to a hearing to prove a second attempt would also fail under the state’s procedures, and that the first attempt constituted cruel punishment.

The full opinion in Ohio v. Broom, 2016-Ohio-1028 (Ohio S. Ct. March 16, 2016), is available at this link.  I may comment more about this novel Eighth Amendment case in coming days.  But even without having a chance to review the opinions, I can predict with relative certainty that there will be an appeal to the US Supreme Court that may well interest some of the Justices.  Given that likelihood, as well as the difficulties Ohio has had with obtaining execution drugs, I think we can and should still expect Romell Broom to remain alive for many, many more future election days in bellwether Ohio.

March 16, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

After a month, Prez Obama makes ("consensus"?) pick of DC Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland for SCOTUS opening

Still0316_00037_1458141169766_1031097_ver1.0Color me deeply disappointed by this big SCOTUS news.  A president who campaigned on a promise of hope and change and who indisputably was elected to the Oval Office twice thanks to the strong support of minority and younger Americans has now decided to nominate to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, an old white guy who graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for the Justice Department before serving on the DC Circuit, none other than Chief DC Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, another old white guy who graduated from Harvard Law School and worked for the Justice Department before serving on the DC Circuit. 

In this prior post, I (apparently foolishly) suggested that Prez Obama might be leaning to appointing a former federal defense lawyer to the Supreme Court given his comments about looking for a nominee with "a keen understanding that justice is not about abstract legal theory, nor some footnote in a dusty casebook [but who has] life experience earned outside the classroom and the courtroom."   But Chief Judge Garland, like far too many of the current Justices in my view, is a career "inside-the-Beltway" lawyer having served in the Justice Department during the Clinton Administration and having spent the last two decades serving on the most insulated and isolated of all the US Circuit Courts.  Notably, at a time when American voters on both sides of the aisle have shown an interest in changing "politics as usual" in Washington DC, the President has decided to nominate the most "old-school" SCOTUS candidate I could imagine.

Readers will not be surprised to hear that what really has me irked about this SCOTUS choice is that it provides yet more proof that President Barack Obama is never actually willing to "walk the walk" on criminal justice reform when he has a real opportunity to use his power and platform to engineer real change.  Appointing someone with a public defender background would be a powerful statement that lawyers who defend those accused of crimes have a critically important perspective on the operation and application of the rule of law.  Instead, Prez Obama has nominated a former Criminal Division DOJ lawyer who supervised the Oklahoma City bombing case and the case against the Unabomber.  Tellingly, in his announcement this morning, Prez Obama stressed Chief Judge Garland's "sterling record as a prosecutor" and expressed admiration for his prosecutorial efforts to avoid the possibility that the  Oklahoma City bomber "might go free on a technicality."

On the criminal justice front, here is part of what SCOTUSblog had to say about Judge Garland back in 2010 when he was on a prior short-list concerning a replacement for Justice Stevens:

On a number of issues, particularly those related to criminal law, Judge Garland is the least likely to adopt a liberal position....

The most significant area of the law in which Judge Garland's views obviously differ materially from those of Justice Stevens is criminal law. Judge Garland rarely votes in favor of criminal defendants' appeals of their convictions....

Most striking, in ten criminal cases, Judge Garland has disagreed with his more-liberal colleagues; in each, he adopted the position that was more favorable to the government or declined to reach a question on which the majority of the court had adopted a position favorable to a defendant. Because disagreement among panel members on the D.C. Circuit is relatively rare, this substantial body of cases is noteworthy.

In the end, and perhaps ironically, I suspect that Prez Obama has made this selection because he does not believe the Senate will move forward with any nominee, and because Chief Judge Garland at age 63 may be uniquely willing now to be the focal point of the already on-going battle royale over the current empty SCOTUS seat.  Also, Prez Obama is sure to have fun making much of the fact in 2010 Senator Orrin Hatch had urged Prez Obama to nominate Judge Garland as "a consensus nominee" who would "be very well supported by all sides."  (Of course, left out of this analysis is that critical Senators Mitch McConnell and Charles Grassley voted against confirmation of Judge Garland back in the 1990s and that Judge Garland's record on gun control seems very likely to be a focal point of criticism from many GOP officials and advocacy groups.)  

Maybe it was true in 2010 that Chief Judge Garland would be "very well supported by all sides," but I seriosuly doubt this will prove true in 2016.   Moreover, in light of both Chief Judge Garland's judicial record and the unique opportunity and open SCOTUS seat presents to diversify perspectives and backgrounds on this Court, I am now thinking I will be rooting for the Senate to refuse to move forward with his nomination. 

Prior related posts on new SCOTUS nominee possibilities:

March 16, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (31)

"Why many black voters don't blame Hillary for tough-on-crime laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable Christian Science Monitor article from earlier this week which strikes me as especially timely given that Hillary Clinton's success in the most recent state primaries would seem to put her on a near-certain path to a Prez candidate nomination. Here are excerpts from the lengthy piece:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, [gang violence and open-air drug dealing] was the everyday reality in African-American neighborhoods around the country. It was in this context that black political leaders, under pressure from their communities, pleaded for the federal government to address the drug problem. The now infamous response from the federal government was a series of bipartisan “tough on crime” laws that, instead of just cracking down on drugs and violent crime as intended, filled the country’s prisons to a breaking point, disproportionately with young black men.

Now amid bipartisan efforts to undo many of these laws, and the rise of a new generation of civil rights activists, this history has created a strange dissonance. Black Lives Matter activists have criticized Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, for supporting these tough-on-crime policies as first lady in the ’90s. But Mrs. Clinton has ridden overwhelming support from black voters to a commanding lead in the Democratic primaries. Earlier this month, the urban black vote helped her edge out a victory in the Massachusetts primary over challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“If you read some intellectuals on the left, they’d suggest there should be a grudge against the Clintons, but I think the primary results show there isn’t a grudge at all,” says Michael Fortner, a professor of urban studies at the City University of New York and author of the book “Black Silent Majority.”

Part of the reason, he notes, is that black communities are aware that for decades they were some of the loudest advocates for tough drug laws. Tough-on-crime policies, he adds, “weren’t something that just happened to black people, that were imposed on the black community…. Political leaders, mayors, and pastors played an important role in pushing for these policies.”

Another reason, he says, is that most black voters aren’t just concerned about criminal justice policy, past or present. “They’re also, like everybody else, concerned about paying their bills, they’re concerned about good schools, concerned about achieving the American dream,” he says....

“I think the African-American community, like Hillary Clinton, they’ve had to rethink their approach,” says Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social sciences at Boston University. “And you have to. In a so-called drug war, you can’t be rigid in your position and hope to be ultimately successful — you have to be as flexible as possible based on the conditions on the ground.”...

For many decades, however, drugs were a priority.  As early as June 1970, for example, Ebony magazine published an article titled: “Blacks declare war on dope.”  In 1986, 16 of 19 African-American members of the House co-sponsored President Reagan’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act.  And eight years later, 22 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted for Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill that boosted funding to police, expanded the death penalty, and created the “three strikes” sentencing law.

March 16, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

March 15, 2016

Interesting account of effort to take sentencing reform directly to voters in Oklahoma

This article from The Frontier provides an interesting account of sentencing reform efforts in Oklahoma and why supporters of reform are turning to direct democracy to move forward.  The piece is headlined "After several stalled attempts, Oklahoma group taking prison reforms to vote of the people," and here are excerpts:

Kris Steele stepped up to the microphone in a packed room at Tulsa’s Women in Recovery office and declared this time, in 2016, Oklahoma was going to break through the “political gridlock” by taking criminal justice reform to a vote of the people....

For more than five years, Steele, a former speaker of the state House of Representatives, has been talking about the importance of criminal justice reform for Oklahoma’s fiscal bottom line, its citizens and children.  Now, facing a $1.3 billion budget crisis and prisons packed above 120 percent of capacity, it appears Oklahoma is finally ready to listen.

Steele, along with a bipartisan coalition of state power players, is hoping Oklahoma voters will accomplish what elected officials did not in several prior attempts: reducing the state’s staggering prison population.  They hope to redirect some of the savings toward addressing root causes of crime, shifting the state toward a corrections system that focuses on rehabilitation, not solely punishment.

As chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, Steele is leading efforts to collect more than 65,000 petition signatures that would allow two state questions to be added to November’s ballot.  State question 780 would reclassify certain low-level offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, such as drug possession and smaller property crimes. The idea is that reclassification would reduce Oklahoma’s prison population and trigger cost savings, badly needed in a state facing a budget crisis where leaders are considering trimming school days to make ends meet.

State question 781 would then invest those prison cost savings in programs designed to address the root causes of crime — including addiction, mental health issues and poverty — and programs that provide job training and education to offenders as they leave prison....

Other states, including Texas and North Carolina, have used their own Justice Reinvestment Initiatives to realize significant savings on corrections spending.  North Carolina’s reforms, passed in 2011, have helped the state close nine prisons and officials expect to save $560 million in averted costs and cumulative savings by 2017, according to the Council on State Governments.  Those savings have also made it possible for North Carolina to re-invest nearly $4 million into community-based treatment programs, the council reported.

After Texas officials implemented sentencing reforms in 2007, including probation, drug treatment, pre-trial diversion programs and intermediate sanction facilities, cost savings from the measures allowed Texas to close three existing prisons and scrap plans to build three new ones.

As Oklahoma has watched other states — including Texas — implement those reforms, the political climate surrounding criminal justice reform here has changed, Steele told The Frontier in an interview.  Steele, who left office due to term limits, became the executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry in Oklahoma City.

“When we first started having this conversation in 2009 to 2011, our prisons were at 99 percent capacity.  Now, they’re over 122 percent capacity,” he said.  “The fact that the problem has not gone away — in fact, it’s gotten worse — causes us to be more willing to have this conversation.”...

“I think the public is ready to have that conversation.  I think the public is way ahead of the legislature on this issue. There’s actually a pretty significant disconnect between the voters and elected officials on this issue.”  Hence taking the issue to the voters through the two state questions....

Now several bills in the legislature aim to achieve similar goals of the two state questions backed by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice reform.  But Steele’s group wants to put the decision directly in the hands of voters.  And he’s got the backing of organizations like Right on Crime and the ACLU of Oklahoma.

“It’s a little more work, but in the end we think it’s going to be well worth it,” he said.  “The people of Oklahoma ought to be able to have a direct say so in this issue.”  It is the citizens who pay the $500 million each year to fund Oklahoma’s prison system, after all.

The Rev. Ray Owens, pastor of Tulsa’s Metropolitan Baptist Church, was one who offered an “amen” after Steele and Neal spoke to the crowd at Women in Recovery last week.  “Instead of investing more money in prisons, I believe it’s time for us to invest more in our people,” Owens said.

March 15, 2016 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Is Proposition 47 to Blame for California's 2015 Increase in Urban Crime?"

The question in the title of this post is a question a lot of persons who are following the broader national debate over sentencing reform are asking (as highlighted via this post by Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences). It is also the title of this new research report authored by a researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. Here is the full textual of the introduction to the eight-page CJCJ report:

In November 2014, nearly 60 percent of California’s electorate voted to pass Proposition 47. This proposition made substantial sentencing reforms by reducing certain nonviolent, non-serious offenses, such as minor drug possession and shoplifting, from felonies to misdemeanors (CJCJ, 2014). Because the changes made by the new law applied retroactively, incarcerated people serving felony sentences for offenses affected by Proposition 47 were eligible to apply for resentencing to shorten their sentences or to be released outright.  Those who already completed felony sentences for Proposition 47 offenses could also apply to change their criminal records to reflect the reforms.

Critics of Proposition 47 contended it would increase crime by releasing those convicted of dangerous or violent felonies early (see “Arguments Against Proposition 47,” 2014). Opponents also suggested that reducing the severity of sentences for certain felonies would fail to deter people from committing crimes or completing court-ordered probation requirements.

In the initial months following the passage of Proposition 47, California’s jail population dropped by about 9,000 between November 2014 and March 2015 (the most recent date for which county jail figures are available at this time) (BSCC, 2016).  State prisons reported over 4,500 releases attributed to Proposition 47 (CDCR, 2016), for a total incarcerated population decline of more than 6 percent — a substantial decrease. Similar to the initial year after Public Safety Realignment took effect, January-June 2015 saw general increases in both violent and property crime in California’s cities with populations of 100,000 or more (Table 1).  During this period, homicide and burglary showed slight declines, while other Part I violent and property offenses experienced increases.

Is Proposition 47 to blame for the increases in reported urban crimes?  This report tests this question by comparing changes in crime rates, from January–June 2014 and January–June 2015, in California’s 68 largest cities to changes in: (a) county jail populations and (b) Proposition 47-related discharges and releases from prison to resentencing counties.

March 15, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (4)

US Sentencing Commission hearing on proposed immigration and other guideline amendments

Tomorrow, as detailed at this webpage with the official agenda, the US Sentencing Commission is holding a public hearing to receive testimony from invited witnesses on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines. This event is being streamed live, and can be watched at this link.  I am hopeful that, as is the usual USSC practice, this webpage with the official agenda will eventually provide links to any and all submitted written testimony of the scheduled witnesses. 

Most of the conceptual and technical debate about guideline amendments this cycle are to be focused on the immigration guidelines, which have been subject to an array of criticisms over the years.  I will be especially interested to see what federal judges, practitioners and advocates have to say concerning the amendments that have been proposed by the USSC in this important arena.  As federal sentencing fans likely know, immigration cases are a huge part of the total federal criminal docket, especially in border states. Thus, any significant changes to the immigration guidelines is sure to have significant ripple effects throughout the entire federal criminal justice system.

March 15, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another disconcerting report about the failings of the Obama clemency initiative and Clemency Project 2014

USA-JUSTICE-CLEMENCYRegular readers know that, ever since Prez Obama and his Aministration started talking up efforts to get serious about using clemency powers, I have been regularly expressing concerns about how structurally peculiar and procedurally belabored the new (and now not-so-new) clemency push has been.  Here are just a few of my prior related posts on this front:

Still more reason for concern has now emerged via this new Reuters article headlined "Obama's prisoner clemency plan faltering as cases pile up." Here are excerpts:

In April 2014, the administration of President Barack Obama announced the most ambitious clemency program in 40 years, inviting thousands of jailed drug offenders and other convicts to seek early release and urging lawyers across the country to take on their cases.

Nearly two years later the program is struggling under a deluge of unprocessed cases, sparking concern within the administration and among justice reform advocates over the fate of what was meant to be legacy-defining achievement for Obama.

More than 8,000 cases out of more than 44,000 federal inmates who applied have yet to make it to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for review, lawyers involved in the program told Reuters. That is in addition to about 9,000 cases that are still pending at the DOJ, according to the department's own figures.

Only 187 inmates have had their sentences commuted, far below the thousands expected by justice reform advocates and a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million people behind bars in the United States, which has the world's highest incarceration rate....

A senior DOJ official told Reuters it is calling on the lawyers' group -- Clemency Project 2014 -- to simply hand over the outstanding cases without further vetting, saying it is not working fast enough. So far, the group estimates it has handed over around 200 cases.

But criminal justice experts say the administration itself should bear much of the blame. The idea to tap pro-bono attorneys to help vet the cases originated with the DOJ, and critics say it should have prepared its own staff to handle the large volume of applications. “It’s unfair to criticize the volunteer group that you asked to help,” said Rachel Barkow, a criminal law professor at New York University who has studied clemency in U.S. prisons. She estimates that about 1,500 prisoners should be eligible for commutation, saying the 187 granted so far does not "fulfill the promise of the program."...

The delays have left prisoners like Linda Byrnes, 69, in limbo. “I thought clemency was for people like me,” Byrnes told Reuters through an electronic messaging system from a federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia. Byrnes, who has spent 20 years in prison for distributing marijuana and has two years left on her sentence, was recently diagnosed with mouth cancer and has yet to hear whether she has been assigned a lawyer after submitting her application to Clemency Project in August 2014....

Clemency Project 2014 said it does not comment publicly on the individuals it represents. The group vets the applications, writes the petitions and sends them to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which oversees all pardons and sentence commutations and makes recommendations for the president's approval.

So far, 25,000 of 34,000 applications received by Clemency Project have been rejected for failing to meet the basic criteria - no record of violence, no significant ties to a gang or drug cartel, good behavior in prison and completion of at least 10 years of sentence. About 10,000 inmates did not go through the Clemency Project and either applied directly to DOJ or through a paid attorney. "It really would be a sad state of affairs if individuals who had asked for a lawyer weren't considered in time because their petitions never reached the pardon attorney's office," a DOJ official told Reuters on the condition of anonymity.

A large number of mostly unqualified applications, a shortage of lawyers and the complexity of the cases have slowed progress, said Cynthia Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014. "There are a lot of gray areas," said Roseberry, who estimates it takes 30 days for one lawyer to review one case on average. "We've got to unpack each of these applicants to see specifically what factors affect them... and so that takes a little more time."

This includes finding pre-sentencing reports for each case, determining if the person would have received a shorter sentence under current law and reviewing prison behavior records. Roseberry said the group was unaware of any request from the Justice Department to hand over the pending applications. Roseberry said the group's initially slow pace has picked up in recent months....

Roseberry said about 3,000 applicants still need to be assigned to a lawyer, and that it was not certain whether the group will be able to submit all of the applications it has received before Obama leaves office. The group has more than 570 law firms and 30 law schools contributing to the effort.

Some rejected prisoners and those who have yet to hear a decision say they believe they would have had a better chance if they had sent their clemency petition directly to the government.

Josie Ledezma was sentenced to life for conspiracy to transport cocaine and applied for clemency through Clemency Project 2014. She said she did not hear from them for six months and later learned that her assigned lawyer had shut down her legal practice. In January, nearly one year after applying, she was told Clemency Project 2014 could not help her and encouraged her to apply directly. “I wrote back and asked what was it that made me not qualify, but never got a response,” Ledezma told Reuters through an electronic messaging service for federal prisoners.

March 15, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

March 14, 2016

"The Tyranny of Small Things" observed during local sentencing proceedings

I have long told my student that you can learn a lot by just watching, and this new paper on SSRN authored by Yxta Maya Murray reinforces this point in an interesting sentencing setting. The paper is just titled "The Tyranny of Small Things," and here is the abstract:

This legal-literary essay recounts a day I spent watching criminal sentencings in an Alhambra, California courthouse, emphasizing the sometimes quotidian, sometimes despairing, imports of those proceedings.  I take leave of the courthouse marshaling arguments that resemble those of other scholars who tackle state overcriminalization and selective enforcement.  My original addition exists in the granular attention I pay to the moment-by-moment effects of a sometimes baffling state power on poor and minority people.  In this approach, I align myself with advocates of the law and literature school of thought who believe that the study (or, in this case, practice) of literature will aid the aims of justice by disclosing buried yet critical human experience and emotions.

March 14, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (4)

Interesting moment concerning Hillary Clinton and the death penalty at CNN town hall

I largely stopped watching much TV coverage of the Prez campaign except on election nights, in part because crime and justice issues continue to get precious little attention in debates or in coverage of what the various candidates might do if elected.  But, as reported here, last night's CNN town hall included a notable exchange concerning the death penalty:

An exonerated former death row inmate challenged Hillary Clinton on Sunday night to defend her continued support for capital punishment in some instances despite cases in which innocent people have been wrongly convicted.

"I came perilously close to my own execution," Ricky Jackson said during the CNN-TV One town hall event Sunday at Ohio State University, where he described the circumstances of his case and exoneration. He asked the Democratic front-runner, "In light of what I just shared with you and in light of the fact that there are documented cases of innocent people who have been executed in our country, I would like to know how you can still take your stance on the death penalty in light of what you know right now?"

In 2014, Jackson was freed after spending nearly four decades in prison for a crime he did not commit.  Convicted at the age of 18 for the 1975 killing of a money-order salesman in Cleveland, the Ohio man was exonerated after the prosecution's key witness, only 12 years old when he gave his damning account to police, recanted in court.

Calling his a profoundly difficult question, Clinton first criticized the states, saying they "have proven themselves incapable of carrying out fair trials that give defendants the rights that defendants should have."

"I've said I would breathe a sigh of relief if either the Supreme Court or the states themselves began to eliminate the death penalty."

But the former secretary of state did not retreat from her broader position.  "Where I end up is this, and maybe it's a distinction that is hard to support, but at this point, given the choices we face from terrorist activities primarily in our country that end up under federal jurisdiction, for very limited purposes, I think it can still be held in reserve for those."

Clinton referenced the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, an act of domestic terrorism that killed 168 people, as one example of the kind of crime she considered punishable by death.  "That is the exception that I still am struggling with, and it would only be in the federal system," she said.

Interestingly, this afternoon CNN just published this commentary authored by Ricky Jackson under the headline "Exonerated death row inmate: Clinton wrong on death penalty." Here is an excerpt from the later part of the commentary:

I know that the death penalty does not deter.  That can no longer be seriously debated. I also know that it is very expensive at a time when states are struggling financially and many are on the brink of bankruptcy.  As an expensive government program with no proven track record of effectiveness, it is, indeed, the proverbial "bridge to nowhere." But I also know that it sends innocent people to death row, and sometimes kills them.

Some of those likely innocents, such as Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna, have been executed at the hands of the government.  Other innocent inmates -- in fact more than 150 of them -- have been lucky enough to have been exonerated and freed before their execution.

Furthermore, I learned from my time on death row that even the guilty are worthy of salvation. As an innocent and scared 18-year-old boy sent to death row, it was only the kindness and humanity of death row's guilty, who took me under their collective wing, that kept my sanity and maintained my faith in humanity.  These inmates made horrible mistakes, and deserved to be punished, but they are not the animals our criminal justice makes them out to be.

A society should not be judged on how it treats its best, but rather on how it treats is lowest.  And even the lowest are capable of incredible acts of humanity and are worthy of decency.  They are worthy of God's grace, just as they bestowed grace upon me.

When I asked Clinton why she still supports the death penalty, she said she supported it only for the worst of the worst: those who committed acts of mass killing or terrorism.  I cannot accept that.  In cases such as those, the societal pressure to convict is at its highest.  And when an intense pressure to convict is present, that is when the risk of convicting an innocent is greatest.  The death penalty is also not a deterrent in terrorism cases.  In fact, death can serve the purpose of many terrorists who wish to become "martyrs" for their cause.

During all the decades I sat in prison as an innocent man, I saw societal views gradually change.  Not too many years ago, a Democratic candidate could not publicly support same-sex marriage and stand a chance of getting elected in a general election.  Now, a Democratic candidate could not be taken seriously if he or she didn't support same-sex marriage.

Likewise, no serious Democratic candidate should be able to support the death penalty. We have evolved. We have seen the evidence that the death penalty doesn't work and that it kills the innocent.  Given this evidence, it is time that no candidate -- Democrat or Republican -- should be taken seriously if he or she supports capital punishment.

The fact that Clinton continues to hang on to this antiquated relic confuses me.  She touts "criminal justice reform" -- and much reform is needed -- but she misses one of the lowest hanging pieces of fruit.  I said last night that I am an "undecided" voter.  I hope that Clinton reconsiders her position on capital punishment before I do what I have been waiting my entire life to do: cast my first presidential vote as a free and vindicated man.

March 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Could three seemingly simple laws really reduce US gun deaths by more than 90 percent?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this CNN report from late last week about some recent notable empirical research.  The CNN piece is headlined "Study: 3 federal laws could reduce gun deaths by more than 90%,"  and here are excerpts (with a few links from the original):

Passing federal laws that require universal background checks for firearm purchases, background checks on ammunition purchases and firearm identification could reduce the rate of U.S. gun deaths by more than 90%, according to a new study.  "We wanted to see which restrictive gun laws really work, as opposed to saying 'restrictive laws work,' and figure out if we are pushing for a law which might not work," said Bindu Kalesan, assistant professor of medicine at Boston University and lead author of the study, which was published on Thursday in The Lancet.

Researchers arrived at the projection by looking at the number of gun-related deaths in every state in 2010 and the types of laws that existed in those states in 2009, including restrictive laws, such as background checks and child access prevention laws, and permissive laws, such as stand-your-ground laws.  They took into account differences in rates of gun ownership, unemployment and homicides that did not involve guns deaths.  Out of the 25 existing state laws that Kalesan and her colleagues studied, nine were associated with lower rates of gun-related deaths.
 
The researchers found the largest effects for universal background checks, which were associated with a 39% reduction in death, and ammunition background checks, which were associated with an 18% reduction in death. Laws around firearm identification, which make it possible to determine the gun that fired a bullet, were associated with a 16% reductions in deaths.

Researchers projected that federal laws expanding background checks for firearms purchases would reduce the U.S. gun death rate by 57%, while background checks for ammunition purchases would cut gun death rates by 81% and firearm identification would reduce the rate by 83%. The researchers said it would take many years to lower the rates so far.  Although a federal policy known as the Brady Law requires background checks on individuals who want to buy a firearm from a licensed dealer, it leaves a large gap, as an estimated 40% of firearms are acquired through unlicensed sellers, such as some online and at gun shows....

The researchers found that nine of the 25 laws they analyzed were linked to higher rates of gun-related deaths. Another seven laws did not seem to have an impact one way or the other on gun-related deaths.  Some of the laws that were linked with greater numbers of gun related deaths came as a surprise to the researchers. For example, bans on assault weapons, such as semi-automatic guns, were associated with a 15% increase in mortality....

In an editorial published with the study, Harvard School of Public Health Professor David Hemenway said the study was "a step in the right direction" to understand the scientific evidence about policies to reduce gun violence. But, he said, cutting mortality rates so dramatically is more complicated than simply implementing background checks for firearms and ammunition. "That result is too large -- if only firearm suicide and firearm homicide could be reduced so easily," Hemenway wrote.

Although there is good evidence that state laws requiring universal background checks, as well as handgun-purchaser licensing or permit requirements, reduce homicides and suicides, the current study does not add to the evidence base, said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, who was not involved in the current study. Webster recently carried out a study in which they found a 1995 Connecticut law requiring firearm purchasers to have a license was linked to a sharp drop in gun-related murders in the state. For that study, he and his colleagues compared murder rates in Connecticut with similar states.

The problem with the current study, Webster said, is that it compared the number of deaths between all states, which could vary in many more ways than the authors accounted for, such as differences in culture, race and ethnic makeup, poverty rates and access to mental health care.  "Not surprisingly, the findings don't make much logical sense when it comes to gun policies other than the finding that universal background checks are protective," Webster said. For example, it is not clear why there would be such a large association, as the study found, between firearm identification laws and reductions in gun-related deaths, he added.

March 14, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (2)

March 13, 2016

"Feds want convicted journalist to serve 5 years, his lawyers ask for no prison time"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting ArsTechnica article previewing an interesting federal sentencing scheduled for later this month in federal court in California.  Here are the particulars with all links from the original article to the parties' sentencing submissions and related materials:

Federal prosecutors have asked a judge to impose a sentence of five years against Matthew Keys, who was found guilty last year on three counts of criminal hacking under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.  That federal law, which was passed in 1984, was what the late activist Aaron Swartz was prosecuted under.  Last year, President Barack Obama called for Congress to expand prison sentences for those found guilty under this law.

Keys worked previously as an online producer for KTXL Fox 40, a Sacramento, California-based television station. Prosecutors argued that in December 2010, shortly after his dismissal, he handed over login credentials to a Tribune Media content management system (CMS), which allowed members of Anonymous to make unauthorized changes to a Los Angeles Times story. (At the time, both companies were both owned by Tribune Media.)  Those changes amounted to a short-lived prank: they lasted only 40 minutes, and there is little evidence that the prank was widely noticed. Criminal charges were not filed until March 2013.

Even after he was found guilty, Keys continued to deny the government’s narrative.  In a brief interview with Ars after his trial concluded, he described the prosecution’s theory as "total bullshit."

"A sentence of five years imprisonment reflects Keys’s culpability and places his case appropriately among those of other white-collar criminals who do not accept responsibility for their crimes," Matthew Segal, an Assistant United States Attorney, wrote in the Thursday sentencing memorandum.

In the 12-page filing, Segal explained that, although Keys initially "succeeded in deflecting suspicion away from himself," the FBI changed course after it reviewed chat logs found on the computer belonging to Wesley "Laurelai" Bailey, a former Anonymous member.  Those chat logs between Bailey and Ryan Ackroyd (aka "Kayla"), included a line where Kayla wrote: "Iol he's not so innocent and we have logs of him too, he was the one who gave us passwords for LA times, fox40 and some others, he had superuser on alot of media."  Segal explains further that Keys’ attack was "an online version of urging a mob to smash the presses for publishing an unpopular story," adding that Keys employed "means that challenge core values of American democracy."

Keys’ defense lawyers filed their own sentencing memorandum on Wednesday, asking the court to impose no prison time at all or go with a "non-custodial sentence."  The 69-page filing goes to great lengths to illustrate Keys lengthy history in journalism, going way back to his elementary school days when he edited the school bulletin.  "In recent years, Matthew’s sacrifices have paid off in the form of impactful journalism that has received national attention," wrote Jay Leiderman, his attorney, who has also worked on many other Anonymous-related cases.  "His stories have encouraged discourse, influenced policy and won the attention and accolades from his peers in the industry, public interest groups and even law enforcement officials."

Leiderman also notes that if the government’s recommendations stand, "[Keys] faces a far more severe sentence than any member of Lulzsec served.  60 months, which the Government seeks, would be more than any person engaged in hacking crimes during this period — by about double!"

I am a bit sorry I am not teaching my sentencing class this semester because the issues raised in this case and the parties' filing provide a great primer on guideline calculation disputes and the application of post-Booker sentencing jurisprudence based in the factors set forth in 3553(a). (I am teaching a 1L legal writing class in which students have to develop variance arguments for a white-collar offender, and I may urge my students to look at the parties' submissions for inspiration.)

March 13, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Anyone dare to predict how many sentence commutations to expect from Prez Obama in coming weeks?

The biggest on-going guessing game involving Prez Obama these days concerns whom he will name to the open Supreme Court seat. But this Washington Post article, headlined "President Obama expected to grant more clemencies to federal prisoners in coming weeks," provide fodder for the distinct guessing game set forth in the title of this post (which may be fun for sentencing fans and is surely nerve-racking for prisoners). Here are excerpts from the article:

President Obama is expected to grant clemency to another group of drug offenders in the coming weeks, part of his ongoing effort to provide relief to inmates in federal prisons who were sentenced to harsh terms in the nation’s war on drugs.

The White House will also be holding an event on March 31 called “Life after Clemency,” that will include former inmates and their attorneys, along with some prison reform advocates. The White House gathering, which is not open to the press, will focus on one of the president’s centerpiece criminal-justice initiatives and will include a discussion on “ways to improve paths to reentry,” according to the invitation. Spokeswomen from the White House and the Department of Justice declined to comment....

In the spring of 2014, former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — who called mandatory-minimum drug sentences “draconian” — launched an initiative to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison. To qualify, prisoners had to have served at least 10 years of their sentence, and have no significant criminal history and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime. They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison. And they also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.

Since then, Obama has commuted the sentences of 184 federal inmates, including 95 prisoners he granted clemency to in December.  Another 9,115 clemency petitions from prisoners are pending before the Obama administration. It is unclear how many of them are still being reviewed in the U.S. Pardon Attorney’s office or how many are pending in the office of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates or the White House Counsel’s office because that information is not publicly available.

The Justice Department’s former pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, stepped down in January because she was frustrated by a lack of resources to process clemency petitions and recommend which ones should be sent to the White House. The new pardon attorney, longtime federal prosecutor Bob Zauzmer, said that his goal — whether he gets more needed resources or not — is “to look at every single petition that comes in and make sure an appropriate recommendation is made to the president.”

Responding to my own dare, I will predict that Prez Obama will commute around 90 sentences and do so in the days following his naming of a Supreme Court nominee.  I suspect based on his December grants that Prez Obama is generally disinclined to commute more than 100 sentences at one time.  And I imagine he will get a kick out of doing something like a big clemency grant that might otherwise be controversial but likely will not be (and will probably not get all that much medial attention) in the wake of a SCOTUS nominee.

March 13, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Why We Would Spare Walter White: Breaking Bad and the True Power of Mitigation"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking article authored by Bidish Sarma and recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

What if Walter White had been captured by the federal authorities?  Considering that he committed the murders of many individuals and orchestrated many more in the course of building and running his global meth trade, the prosecution would be able to seek the ultimate punishment against him.  But, would a jury give him the death penalty? Walt’s gripping journey stirred within viewers a range of complex emotions, but even those revolted by his actions must concede that it is extraordinarily difficult to envision a random collection of twelve people unanimously agreeing that he deserves a state-sanctioned execution.  Indeed, it seems that many of us actually rooted for Walt throughout the series, even when we struggled to understand why.

This Essay explores the answer to the question of why we would spare Walter White from the death penalty.  Its exploration underscores the critical importance of “mitigation” — a capacious term that refers to evidence introduced by capital defense lawyers to persuade jurors to hand down something less harsh than a death sentence.

Breaking Bad, through its masterful construction of its core narrative, situated us to empathize with Walt, to view him as someone we could understand, to feel about him the way we might feel about a friend or colleague or neighbor. Whether we argued vociferously in online forums that his actions were nearly always justified or simply watched with a suppressed but distinct hope that he might emerge as a partially redeemed man, many of us never condemned Walt. We did not want him to die an undignified death at someone else’s hands.  In fact, we were relieved that death came to him on his own terms.  And, if he had been captured, we would not have sent him to the death chamber.  Knowing Walt — understanding his “mitigation” — bent us towards mercy.

To start, this Essay explains how a capital trial unfolds and sets out the factors that jurors must take into account when they decide whether to choose death for a convicted capital defendant.  After establishing the basic framework for the death-determination in Part I, this Essay focuses on Walter White’s hypothetical penalty phase in Part II.  It describes both the “aggravating” evidence the prosecution would use to persuade jurors that death is the appropriate punishment and the “mitigating” evidence the defense would use to persuade jurors that a sentence less than death is appropriate.  Part II concludes with an explanation of why a jury likely would not sentence Walter White to die.

Part III steps back to identify distinct conclusions that we could draw from viewers’ prevailing willingness to ride with Walt until the end.  It concludes that it would be unwise to dismiss Walt as a fictitious outlier. Rather than ask ourselves what makes Walt’s particular case for mercy special, we should ask ourselves how the show managed to make him so real.  Breaking Bad’s storytelling proved so powerful that the show’s writers were themselves amazed that viewers continued to stand by Walt’s side through it all.  If we would spare Walter White, surely we would spare many others facing capital punishment.  But to get there, we need to do more than hear that they have struggles and triumphs of their own; we need to walk with them on their journeys.  We must feel like we did when the last episode of Breaking BadI began — wondering exactly how things will end, but unwilling to bring that end by our hands.

March 13, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)