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May 14, 2016

"The Death Penalty & the Dignity Clauses"

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

“The question now to be faced is whether American society has reached a point where abolition is not dependent on a successful grass roots movement in particular jurisdictions, but is demanded by the Eighth Amendment.”  Justice Thurgood Marshall posed this question in 1972, in his concurring opinion in the landmark case of Furman v. Georgia, which halted executions nationwide.  Four years later, in Gregg v. Georgia, a majority of the Supreme Court answered this question in the negative.

Now, forty years after Gregg, the question is being asked once more.  But this time seems different. That is because, for the first time in our Nation’s history, the answer is likely to be yes.  The Supreme Court, with Justice Kennedy at its helm, is poised to declare the death penalty unconstitutional.  No matter what the Court’s answer, one thing is certain: dignity will figure prominently in its decision.

Dignity’s doctrinal significance has been much discussed in recent years, thanks in large part to the Supreme Court’s watershed decisions in U.S. v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down laws prohibiting same-sex marriage as a deprivation of same-sex couples’ dignity under the Fourteenth Amendment.  Few, however, have examined dignity as a unifying principle under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, which have long shared a commitment to dignity, and under the Court’s LGBT rights and death penalty jurisprudence, in particular, which give substance to this commitment.  That is the aim of this Article.

This Article suggests that dignity embodies three primary concerns — liberty, equality, and life.  The triumph of LGBT rights under the Fourteenth Amendment and the persistence of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment expose a tension in dignity doctrine: the most basic aspect of dignity (life) receives the least protection under the law. Because dignity doctrine demands liberty and equality for LGBT people, it must also demand an end to the death penalty. If dignity means anything, it must mean this.

In anticipation of the Court’s invalidation of the death penalty on dignity grounds, this Article offers a framework to guide the Court, drawn from federal and state supreme court death penalty decisions new and old, statistics detailing the death penalty’s record decline in recent years, and the Court’s recent LGBT rights jurisprudence.  It also responds to several likely counterarguments and considers abolition’s important implications for dignity doctrine under the Eighth Amendment and beyond.

May 14, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Ho, Ho, Ho: symbolic and sound sentence for SEPTA screw-up

A helpful reader altered me to this local sentencing story that would likely make both Socrates and Santa Claus smile.  The piece is headlined "Ex-SEPTA police officer is sentenced to Christmas service," and here are the details:

For falsely arresting a nurse on Christmas 2013, former SEPTA Police Officer Douglas Ioven must spend four hours each Christmas for the next four years doing community service. That was part of a novel Noel sentence handed down Friday by a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge.

In March, Ioven, 44, was found guilty of false imprisonment and official oppression for arresting nurse Muibat Williamson at Suburban Station, following a contentious confrontation between the two at a Dunkin' Donuts store. On Friday, Judge Anne Marie B. Coyle sentenced Ioven to serve 30 days in prison over 15 consecutive weekends and 3-1/2 years of probation, according to court records.

Coyle also sentenced Ioven to 50 hours of anger management and 50 hours of community service each year over Ioven's four years of supervision. She noted that Ioven is to serve four hours of his annual 50 hours of service on Christmas. Coyle said his service should focus on serving low-income and homeless people....

Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock, who prosecuted the case, said he was satisfied with the sentence. "This is an individual who abused his power and abused his badge and really needed to know what it feels like to take someone's liberty," Wellbrock said.

May 14, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Inside a prison where inmates can actually vote for president"

160504-voting-in-prison1The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Fusion article discussing voting realities in Vermont. Here is how the interesting piece starts and ends:

On February 16, 2000, Scott Favreau, then 17, committed a crime that shattered a family and shocked the state of Vermont.  In the early hours of the morning, he walked up to his foster mother, who was up grading high school English papers at the kitchen table, and shot her in the head with a .22 caliber rifle, immediately killing her. After leading police on a high-speed car chase, Favreau and his accomplice, the foster mother’s stepdaughter who was later found to be implicated in the crime, were arrested.

For the small community around West Burke, Favreau’s murder of his guardian, Victoria Campbell-Beer, represented a rare act of violence that robbed it of one of its beloved schoolteachers.  For Favreau, the crime marked the deplorable end to a tumultuous childhood largely defined by neglect and abuse, both physical and sexual, allegedly at the hands of his biological father.

Upon settling into his new day-to-day life as a prisoner, he came to believe that, for all practical purposes, his life had ended. During these first years of incarceration, Favreau says, his identity became defined by his status as a non-entity in society.  “It teaches you to be just an inmate,” he said of prison.  “There’s not a lot of responsibility in here. You can sleep all day.  You can do nothing at all. And that’s what a lot of us do.” Favreau says after his first years in prison he even began to see the guards — “the closest thing we have to society” — as strange, unrelatable visitors from the outside world.

During the first years of his term, Favreau began to mend ties to his biological mother, talking to her over the phone with some frequency. More often than not, their conversations would wind back to her financial struggles and desperate search for a well-paying job.  Incarcerated with no way to help, Favreau says that these conversations often underscored his sense of powerlessness behind prison walls.

Ahead the 2006 election, partially propelled by the economic woes of his family, Favreau did something he describes as pivotal: He registered to vote, a rare privilege available to United States prison inmates in only Vermont and Maine.

Favreau says that participating in the electoral process brought a new feeling of agency in and connection to society at large. This, he said, helped to change his life.  “It was one thing I could do that I can have control of, the one thing that could let me feel that I can make a difference in something.”  After registering, he gradually began to follow developments in the news, informally debating other inmates about current events. He even began talking politics with prison guards, who eventually became a lot less otherworldly. “It helped me accept them because it gave me something in common with them,” Favreau said. “You can bond through a shared experience.”

Maine and Vermont — the nation’s first- and second-whitest states, respectively — provide America’s only opportunity to see what happens when prison inmates vote.  In Favreau’s telling, however, the largest significance of voting as an inmate might go beyond his relationships with prison guards, his conversations with other inmates, or even any effect his vote might have on an election outcome. Favreau believes it has improved his chances of reintegrating with society upon his release, which he expects will come in roughly two years. “I grew up in prison and voting helped me learn responsibility,” Favreau said. “It taught me how to be a part of the community, and how to prepare me for it.”...

Having made an ill-fated attempt to rebuild his life in society in Vermont’s closely supervised probation program, Favreau has personal experience with the difficulties of reintegration.  After his release in 2013, Favreau found a job in a warehouse in Brattleboro, and soon met and moved in with a girlfriend and her young son.  Yet, Favreau was struggling with a large debt he had incurred largely during his first few months of freedom and, to ease his anxiety, he had begun to smoke pot, a fact he knew would become known by his probation officer because of required urine tests.

“One night I was at work and I felt like my life was a failure because I was thousands of dollars in debt,” Favreau said. “I figured I would be better off back in jail.”  That night, Favreau violated his probation by crossing into Massachusetts, where he quickly called his girlfriend and told he what he’d done.  By the end of the following day, Favreau was back in custody.

Favreau, who began making art in prison, said he has been using his failed year of freedom to work on strategies for his second try at reintegration, which he anticipates will come in approximately two years.  In the meantime, he says he will continue to vote whenever an opportunity arises.  “It’s my lifelong goal to make amends for what I did and to give back to community and to the people I hurt,” Favreau said. Being able to vote has “taught me about my responsibility,” he added. “I can get out and make a difference one day.”

May 14, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

May 13, 2016

Pfizer gives states yet another reason to seriously consider execution alternatives other than lethal injection

As long time readers know, I have been urging states to seriously explore alternatives to lethal injection for the better part of a decade: in this December 2006 post, for example, I flagged a discussion of various new and old execution procedures and suggested that "states interested in continuing to employ the death penalty should start exploring alternatives to lethal injection." Today, via this New York Times article, states have yet another reason to take this advice to heart: "The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced on Friday that it has imposed sweeping controls on the distribution of its products to ensure that none are used in lethal injections, a step that closes off the last remaining open-market source of drugs used in executions."  Here is more:

More than 20 American and European drug companies have already adopted such restrictions, citing either moral or business reasons. Nonetheless, the decision from one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical manufacturers is seen as a milestone. “With Pfizer’s announcement, all F.D.A.-approved manufacturers of any potential execution drug have now blocked their sale for this purpose,” said Maya Foa, who tracks drug companies for Reprieve, a London-based human rights advocacy group. “Executing states must now go underground if they want to get hold of medicines for use in lethal injection.”

The obstacles to lethal injection have grown in the last five years as manufacturers, seeking to avoid association with executions, have barred the sale of their products to corrections agencies. Experiments with new drugs, a series of botched executions and covert efforts to obtain lethal chemicals have mired many states in court challenges.

The mounting difficulty in obtaining lethal drugs has already caused states to furtively scramble for supplies. Some states have used straw buyers or tried to import drugs from abroad that are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, only to see them seized by federal agents. Some have covertly bought supplies from compounding pharmacies while others, including Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio, have delayed executions for months or longer because of drug shortages or legal issues tied to injection procedures.

A few states have adopted the electric chair, firing squad or the gas chamber as an alternative if lethal drugs are not available. Since Utah chooses to have a death penalty, “we have to have a means of carrying it out,” said State Representative Paul Ray as he argued last year for reauthorization of the state’s death penalty.

Lawyers for condemned inmates have challenged the efforts of corrections officials to conceal how the drugs are obtained, saying this makes it impossible to know if they meet quality standards or might cause undue suffering. “States are shrouding in secrecy aspects of what should be the most transparent government activity,” said Ty Alper, associate director of the death penalty clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

Just a few prior related posts on firing squads and other alternatives over the last decade:

May 13, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Reviewing a notable week at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Regular readers know they should be regularly checking out my blogging at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform for updates on marijuana reform stories.  This past week, like most these days, included a number of notable developments highlighted in these posts: 

May 13, 2016 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Was 1960'S Liberalism the Cause of Today's Overincarceration Crisis?"

9780674737235The title of this post is the headline of this notable book review by Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the Brennan Center for Justice of this notable new book by Elizabeth Hinton "From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America." Here is how the review starts and concludes:

The statistics are stunning.  This very second, more than 2.2 million people sit behind bars in America.  To put this into perspective, the United States is home to the largest prison system on the planet. But corrections today encompasses more than just metal bars.  An estimated 6,851,000 people are under some sort of correctional supervision, such as probation or electronic monitoring. If you do the math, it’s about one in 36 adults.  The racial disparities are striking: according to the Sentencing Project, one in every 10 African-American men in his thirties is in prison or jail on any given day.

Elizabeth Hinton, professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University, examines how mass incarceration happened in America in her new book, appropriately titled From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Hinton’s approach is novel.  Most criminal justice experts cite President Ronald Reagan’s War on Crime as the driver for today’s current levels of incarceration.  Hinton argues that President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society policies — which aimed at improving conditions for the most impoverished Americans — laid the foundation for mass incarceration and its attendant racial injustices. Reagan’s policies, she says, were merely “the fulfillment of federal crime control priorities that stemmed initially from one of the most idealistic enterprises in American history during the era of civil rights.”

This may be a surprising claim, but it is not a unique one: there are a growing number of academics today who are blaming liberals for creating mass incarceration and for the sizable racial disparities that exist in the justice system. Naomi Murakawa, political scientist and associate professor of African American studies at Princeton, made this argument in her recent book The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America.  Murakawa points to federal legislation written by liberals to reduce discretion in sentencing and parole.  The liberals’ goal was to avoid racially disparate punishment — judges, they argued, generally used their discretion in ways that hurt racial minorities.  Time has shown, however, that reducing judicial discretion only resulted in more racial disparities, as African-Americans ended up spending more time in prison as a result.

University of Pennsylvania professor of political science Marie Gottschalk, made a similar case in her 2015 book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics.  Gottshalk contends that African-American advocacy groups have not always led the way in criminal justice reform and have in fact, at various points in history, supported measures that created more punitive criminal justice policies that have harmed African-Americans.  She notes that the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus supported the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a law that notoriously, and controversially, punished crack cocaine use (a crime African-Americans are more likely to be convicted of) 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine use (which skews more white).

Building on this theme, Hinton’s well-researched book is filled with historical anecdotes painting a colorful picture of the nation’s persistent struggle with crime since President Johnson coined the phrase “War on Crime” more than fifty years ago.  A year before President Johnson declared this war, Congress passed his Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which Hinton calls “the most ambitious social welfare program in the history of the United States."  The Economic Opportunity Act, which invested almost $1 billion in fighting poverty, would prove to be one of the most important parts of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, and his larger Great Society initiative, in which billions of dollars were spent on dozens of antipoverty programs. Hinton, however, criticizes President Johnson for not spending more money on job creation measures and revamping public schools in poor, urban areas.  What came next, in her opinion, set the stage for decades of punitive measures that ultimately resulted in today’s phenomenon of mass incarceration....

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime is smart, engaging, and well-argued.  Its one flaw, however, is that it does not adequately recognize that many of the policies it criticizes, with 50 years of hindsight, were well-intentioned at the time – and, their implications for criminal justice aside, did a great deal of good.  It is not until the very end of the book — pages 335 and 340 to be exact — that Hinton throws some morsels of recognition their way, conceding that these policies may have been “a product of their time” and that there are “questions of intent”.  But the concession is a grudging one — Hinton writes that these questions of intent “are only relevant to a certain extent” as the real issue is to “uncover the series of decisions that made contemporary mass incarceration possible.”

The last 50 years have brought valuable research about crime, evidence-based programs, and how to improve the lives many Americans through education, community support, and mental health and drug treatment services.  To give short shrift to the well-meaning efforts of so many of the nation’s academics, researchers, and policymakers is an unfortunate blind spot in an otherwise well-researched and provocative analysis of the causes of our mass incarceration crisis.

May 13, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Assailing the former drug czars for "their demagoguery" and "fact-free fearmongering"

Earlier this week I posted this commentary arguing against federal statutory sentencing reform headlined "Drug dealing is a violent crime" and authored by William J. Bennett, the director of drug control policy for President George H. W. Bush, and John P. Walters, the director of drug control policy for President George W. Bush. Now I see that Kevin Ring, Vice President of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has this new Daily Caller commentary in response headlined "Drugs Czars Peddle Fear." Here are excerpts:

Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, once offered his insight into America’s nascent drug problem: “There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers.  Their Satanic music, jazz and swing, result from marijuana usage.  It’s easy to laugh off Anslinger’s ignorant comments because they were made in another era. But recent claims from two other former drug czars are similarly anachronistic and wrongheaded.

William Bennett and John Walters, who served as drug czars for Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, respectively, wrote in a recent Washington Examiner op-ed, “Considering all that America knows about drug addiction, only the dishonest or willfully blind can claim that drug trafficking is a non-violent crime.”  But who’s being dishonest? After all, words have meanings. “Violent,” for example, means to use physical force to do harm.  Yet Bennett and Walters would like people to believe that Debi Campbell, a drug addict herself who sold drugs to buyers in other states through the mail, was violent.  Campbell’s most violent act was opening an envelope, yet she served 17 years in federal prison. Stephanie Nodd was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for helping a friend sell drugs for one month. Stephanie was just 23 years old and had never lifted a finger against any person. Neither Campbell nor Nodd could by any conceivable measure be considered “violent” criminals.  Bennett and Walters don’t want you to know they exist. But they do, and there are thousands more just like them.

Indeed, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that of the 22,000 federal drug offenders sentenced in fiscal 2104, only 142 — or 0.7 percent — used actual violence or threats of violence. 84 percent neither used nor had a weapon during the commission of their offense.  And while Bennett and Walters are correct that most federal drug offenders are not college kids who were caught smoking a joint, they mislead readers when they describe them as “experienced traffickers.”  Nine out of ten federal drug offenders played no leadership or management role.  Many sold drugs solely for the purpose of feeding their own addiction.  Again, words mean things.  Pretending every drug sale is by definition an act of “violent victimization” is simply false....

One wonders if Bennett and Walters realize how increasingly out of step they are with conservatives across the country. Conservative governors and state lawmakers are utilizing evidence-based solutions to reduce crime and bloated prison budgets, a win-win situation for taxpayers.  Many conservatives in Washington, including Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) support sentencing reform. Cruz has written, “Harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes have contributed to prison overpopulation and are both unfair and ineffective relative to the public expense and human costs of years-long incarceration.”

But, the old drug czars say, “The cost of incarcerating drug dealers is small compared to the true cost of their crimes to society.” Even if that’s true, it’s irrelevant. The choice before Congress is not between incarcerating drug offenders and doing nothing. The more important question is whether sentencing flexibility for drug crimes can more effectively reduce recidivism — and at less cost to taxpayers — than harsh mandatory minimums.  The indisputable answer, based on decades of states’ experiences, is yes.

Refusing to let any tragedy go to waste, Bennett and Walters suggest that the frightening increase in heroin overdoses is further evidence of the need for tough drug sentencing laws.  What they fail to mention is that heroin dealers are already subject to stiff mandatory minimum sentences and have been for the past 30 years.  This heroin epidemic is occurring under the regime Bennett and Walters helped to create.  If that were not damning enough to their case, consider that the rate of illegal drug use by teenagers is the same today as it was when Bennett quit as drug czar in 1988.

I know that Bennett and Walters are genuinely concerned about making the country safer.  And I agree with them that drug dealing is reprehensible and deserving of swift and certain punishment.  Too often, however, their demagoguery appears calculated to exploit the public’s fears about safety the way Harry Anslinger exploited its racial prejudices decades ago.  Conservatives interested in reducing crime and drug abuse should ignore fact-free fearmongering and support reforms that are rooted in science, evidence, and experience.

Prior related post:

May 13, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Maximum security Nordic 'open prisons' look more like college dorms than penitentiaries"

Rtr2pcsdThe title of this post is the headline of this Tech Insider piece (which includes lots of interesting pictures). Here are excerpts:

In countries like Finland, Sweden, and Norway, maximum-security prisons look more like college dorms than stone-cold penitentiaries. In these facilities, which are known as "open prisons," inmates aren't kept in tiny cells with near-zero daylight.

They're given full access to roam around the prison's grounds, the ability to watch TV, and the trust not to abuse those privileges.  In essence, criminals are treated more like people than as forces of evil.

"We are parents, that's what we are," Kirsti Njeminen, then-governor of Finland's Kerava prison, told the New York Times in 2003.  More than a decade later, the philosophy has stayed the same.  As a result, the places that house Northern Europe's most violent offenders might as well be showrooms at Ikea. If the policies seem more like "decarceration," that's by design.

Finland in the mid-20th century looked a lot like the US does today. Imprisonment rates were high, and the policy didn't seem to be doing much good to rehabilitate anyone.  But then a group of researchers discovered the unlikely solution: Relax the policies. "The lesson from Finland was that it was perfectly possible to drop the use of imprisonment [by two-thirds,]" Tapio Lappi-Seppälä, head of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Helsinki, tells PRI, "and that did not disturb the crime trend development in Finland."  The lesson soon spread through Northern Europe: If you treat even the worst offenders as people, giving them a chance to integrate back into society, they'll often turn around....

In Kerava prison, inmates tend their own gardens. Visitors can even stroll through the garden and buy the plants directly from the prison. And at the Suomenlinna open prison, inmates live in communal housing.  The only partition from the outside world is white picket fencing.  There is no barbed wire in sight.

Scholars debate endlessly whether a country as big and diverse as the US could implement such a system.  Nordic countries have only a few million people, mostly of homogeneous ethnicities, so opponents of the Nordic model tend to argue the results can't be replicated in an immigrant-rich country of more than 300 million.

Those who are more hopeful say there is nothing particular in the DNA of Finns, Norwegians, and Swedes that makes them more peaceful.  Instead, they may be products of their environment just as much as those who go on to re-offend in the US.  The only difference may be the degree to which people are given the opportunity to change.

May 13, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 12, 2016

An effective accounting of why "Sentencing Reform is Seriously Stuck"

The quoted portion of the title of this post is from the headline of this effective new Roll Call commentary authored by David Hawkings, and it carries this astute subheadline "Presidential politics, poison pills and attack ads threaten hopes for bipartisan accord." Here are excerpts:

For more than 18 months, a rewrite of laws governing federal criminal punishments has been touted as the exception that was going to prove the rule: An effort that had so galvanized both conservatives and liberals that it would become one of the few memorable policy achievements of the current Congress.  Well, the rule has held true about the deadlocked-by-polarization Capitol becoming only more so in the sessions before a presidential election. But the exception, by fits and starts, is growing ever less likely to be exceptional.

“Sentencing reform,” as it’s known on the Hill, is seriously stuck.  On the surface, it may not appear that way.  Just offstage, there’s a fundamental impasse that looks as if it can only be broken if one sitde caves in, thereby imperiling the highly unusual bipartisan coalition that has been the issue’s signature feature.

Complicating matters further, there are solid presidential and congressional campaign rationales for a deal, but also political arguments in opposition being at least as forcefully expressed. All this is on clearest display in the Senate, where the legislation looks to be riding a little wave of momentum but may be close to publicly coming off the rails – buffeted by anxieties about Willie Horton on the right and anger at Wall Street greed on the left....

[T]here’s a decent chance the [latest revised sentencing reform] bill will come to the floor this summer, assuming the appropriations process inevitably seizes up and there no longer is the need to devote the Senate’s time to spending bills.

Along the way, the measure is going to face one assault from powerful Republicans determined to kill it outright, and another from Republicans willing to love it to death. Ted Cruz of Texas, who returned to the Capitol this week vowing to press ahead with the combative outsider tone of his presidential campaign, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the first senator to endorse de facto GOP nominee Donald Trump, are leading the lambasting of the bill as going way too soft on crime.

A floor debate would give Cruz an opportunity to put his scorched-earth style for opposing legislation back on C-SPAN display.  And though Trump has not taken an explicit position on the bill, his many authoritarian statements suggest he’ll take Sessions’ advice and come out emphatically against it – especially if his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, who’s become newly critical of “mass incarceration,” decides to endorse the bill. So it’s quite easy to envision law-and-order groups producing 30-second TV spots, evocative of the legendary Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign, chiding even the GOP backers of the bill as pro-drug-dealer criminal justice weaklings.

The other big obstacle, which might prove even more problematic, goes by the much nerdier label, mens rea.  That Latin phrase, which translates as “guilty mind,” is law school shorthand for the way prosecutors are sometimes required to prove a defendant’s criminal intent in order to obtain a conviction. Under federal law, many categories of behavior are crimes only when the accused know what they’re doing is wrong and do it anyway – but some actions can bring convictions and imprisonment whether or not there’s any willful criminal intent.

Many influential Republicans, urged on by their business allies and such conservative fundraising forces as the Koch brothers, are eager to apply a blanket mens rea requirement across the federal criminal code.  They say the government has too much power to convict companies and their executives without having to prove any criminal intent. And they are eyeing the sentencing overhaul bill as their best available vehicle for getting the job done.

Lawmakers and activists from the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party deride this proposal as a thinly veiled effort to deliver a permission slip for more “What, me worry?” sketchy behavior to the same sort of bad actors in the corporate and investment worlds who melted down the economy eight years ago.  These liberal forces, too, have the ability to produce punchy campaign commercials targeting those in Congress who go along.

Even if the bill gets through the Senate without having to swallow the mens rea poison pill, top Republicans in the House are insisting that sentencing legislation will only move if it’s lashed together with their efforts to expand the need to prove criminal intent. The Obama administration argues the opposite, that the only way to sign a bill on sentencing this year is to negotiate protections for unwitting white collar criminals on a separate track.

One again this campaign season, it’s the small clusters of combative voices at the edges that are likely to have more power than any collaborative majority in the middle.

Not only does this piece effectively detail all the ways in which and reasons when the revised SRCA might not make it through the legislative process over the next six month, it also hints at an intriguing and perhaps disconcerting reality that for me has now emerged: GOP Prez front-running Donald Trump is now perhaps the political power-player with the greatest opportunity to "unstick" the SRCA.

If GOP Prez candidate Trump were to make nice to certain key GOP leaders like Paul Ryan and Chuck Grassley and John Cornyn (not to mention key GOP funders like the Koch brothers) by getting seriously and vocally behind the significant sentencing reform efforts by the "establishment right" (with or without mens rea reform), then I would increase my optimism about the odds of these reforms becoming a reality. But if Trump stays mum on this front, or especially if prodded by folks like Jeff Sessions and Chris Christie to oppose any reforms, I think the 2016 campaign dynamics will come to doom reform at least until we get to the lame duck period.

A few 2016 related posts:

May 12, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Can and should Missouri, after completing its last execution for a while, send any extra execution drugs to other needy states?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP article about the first and likely last execution in Missouri this year.  The piece is headlined "Missouri man put to death for killing deputy, 2 others; could be last execution for some time," and here are the basics:

A man who killed two people in a drug dispute and a sheriff’s deputy in a subsequent shootout was put to death Wednesday in what could be Missouri’s last execution for some time.

Earl Forrest, 66, went to the home of Harriett Smith in December 2002 and demanded that she fulfill her promise to buy a lawn mower and mobile home for him in exchange for introducing her to a source for methamphetamine. During an argument, Forrest shot Smith and Michael Wells, who was visiting Smith’s home. Forrest later fatally shot Dent County Sheriff’s Deputy Joann Barnes after she arrived at Forrest’s home.

Missouri has executed 19 men since November 2013. But the remaining 25 death row inmates either have appeals still pending or other reasons they will not face imminent execution. Forrest’s fate was sealed hours before his punishment when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt the execution and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, turned down a clemency request.

According to court documents, Forrest had been drinking when he went to Smith’s home in the southern Missouri town of Salem. Wells was visiting Smith at the time. An argument ensued, and Forrest shot Wells in the face. He shot Smith six times and took a lockbox full of meth valued at $25,000. When police converged on Forrest’s home, he fatally shot Barnes and injured Dent County Sheriff Bob Wofford, according to court documents. Forrest was also injured in the exchange of gunfire, along with his girlfriend, Angela Gamblin.

Missouri has been one of the most prolific states for executions in recent years, second only to Texas. The state has executed 19 prisoners since November 2013, including six last year. Forrest’s execution was the first in 2016.

Missouri’s death row population is dwindling. Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said juries today are less likely to opt for capital punishment, in part because of greater awareness of how mental illness sometimes factors in violent crime. Just 49 people were sentenced to death nationally last year, the fewest since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty as a possible punishment in 1976. No one was sentenced to death in Missouri in 2014 or 2015, Dunham said. “As these executions take place, fewer and fewer people are being sentenced to death, so the death penalty is withering on the other end,” Dunham said.

None of the 25 other men remaining on Missouri’s death row face imminent execution.  Sixteen have yet to exhaust court appeals and aren’t likely to do so soon.  Execution is on hold for nine others.  Two were declared mentally unfit for execution. Two were granted stays because of medical conditions that could cause painful deaths from injections. Two had sentences set aside by the courts due to trial attorney errors.  One inmate was granted a stay while his innocence claim is reviewed. One case was sent back to a lower court to consider an appeal.

And in one unusual case, inmate William Boliek was granted a stay by Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan in 1997. The case wasn’t resolved before Carnahan died in a 2000 plane crash, and a court determined that only Carnahan could overturn the stay. Nixon’s office has said Boliek will not be executed.

As regular readers may recall and as Ohio capital lawyers know well, while Missouri has had the lethal injection drugs needed to carry out nearly 20 executions in the last few years, the Buckeye state has more than two dozen execution scheduled that have been persistently delayed because the state cannot seem to get its hands on any lethal injection drugs.  I do not know where Mizzou gets its lethal injection drugs or whether it has some additional drugs on hand now without any executions scheduled for the foreseeable future.  But I do know that a functioning legal system with large percentages of voters and elected officials supporting a functioning death penalty ought to be able to figure out some way for nearby states to help each other out in this arena.

I bring this up because I have long believed in the aphorism "where there's a will, there's a way."  And thus, I have also come to believe that the main reason Ohio has not been able to figure out how to secure needed execution drugs (while many other states seem to have these drugs) is because there just is not the political will to fix the state's enduring capital punishment administrative problems.

May 12, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

May 11, 2016

"Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the folks at the Prison Policy Initiative. Here are some excerpts from the start of the report:

In addition to the 1.6 million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons, there are 646,000 people locked up in more than 3,000 local jails throughout the U.S.  Seventy percent of these people in local jails are being held pretrial — meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime and are legally presumed innocent.  One reason that the unconvicted population in the U.S. is so large is because our country largely has a system of money bail, in which the constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty only really applies to the well off.  With money bail, a defendant is required to pay a certain amount of money as a pledged guarantee he will attend future court hearings. If he is unable to come up with the money either personally or through a commercial bail bondsman, he can be incarcerated from his arrest until his case is resolved or dismissed in court.

While the jail population in the U.S. has grown substantially since the 1980s, the number of convicted people in jails has been flat for the last 15 years.  Detention of the legally innocent has been consistently driving jail growth, and the criminal justice reform discussion must include a discussion of local jails and the need for pretrial detention reform. This report will focus on one driver of pretrial detention: the inability to pay what is typically $10,000 in money bail. Building off our July 2015 report on the pre-incarceration incomes of people in prison, this report provides the pre-incarceration incomes of people in local jails who were unable to post a bail bond.  This report aims to give the public and policymakers the foundation for a more informed discussion about whether requiring thousands of dollars in bail bonds makes sense given the widespread poverty of the people held in the criminal justice system and the high fiscal and social costs of incarceration.

We find that most people who are unable to meet bail fall within the poorest third of society.  Using Bureau of Justice Statistics data, we find that, in 2015 dollars, people in jail had a median annual income of $15,109 prior to their incarceration, which is less than half (48%) of the median for non-incarcerated people of similar ages.  People in jail are even poorer than people in prison and are drastically poorer than their non-incarcerated counterparts....

Because a system of money bail allows income to be the determining factor in whether someone can be released pretrial, our nation’s local jails are incarcerating too many people who are likely to show up for their court date and unlikely to be arrested for new criminal activity.  Although, on paper, it is illegal to detain people for their poverty, such detention is the reality in too many of our local jails.  Our country now has a two-track system of justice in which the cost of pretrial liberty is far higher for poor people than for the well off.

May 11, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sixth Circuit panel sends Miller litigation about Michigan juve LWOPers needs review anew after Montgomery

A Sixth Circuit panel today issues an interesting (non)opinion about the state and fate of federal litigation over the fate and future of Michigan juveniles serving LWOP sentences that are unconstitutional because imposed under a mandatory sentencing system. Here is how the opinion in Hill v. Snyder, No. 13-2661 (6th Cir. May 11, 2012) (available here), gets started:

This long-running case returns us to the difficult topic of juvenile crime and punishment. Our return, however, is to a new legal landscape, one defined by the Supreme Court’s developing jurisprudence recognizing that the unique characteristics of youth matter in determining the propriety of their punishment.  This case began when Michigan charged and tried the named plaintiffs as adults for acts they committed while under the age of 18.  Each received a conviction for first-degree murder and a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Michigan laws in place at the time rendered anyone convicted of firstdegree murder ineligible for parole, meaning that the plaintiffs in this case effectively received mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for acts they committed as children.

Plaintiffs filed suit in federal district court in 2010 challenging, among other things, the constitutionality of the Michigan statutory scheme that barred them from parole eligibility. Since that time, at least three important legal events have come to pass.  First, the Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), “that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’” Id. at 2460.  Second, Michigan amended its juvenile offender laws in light of Miller, but made some of those changes contingent upon either the Michigan Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court announcing that Miller’s holding applied retroactively.  See Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. §§ 769.25, 769.25a (2014).  And, third, the United States Supreme Court recently held in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), that Miller’s prohibition on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders is indeed retroactive.

The district court wisely (and presciently) reached the conclusion that Miller should apply retroactively when it ruled on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment in 2013.  That conclusion also drove the district court’s issuance of an injunctive order against defendants requiring compliance with Miller.  In light of the legal changes described above, however, and for the reasons that follow, we VACATE the challenged district court orders and REMAND for the district court to address these issues under the legal landscape established by Montgomery v. Louisiana, Miller v. Alabama, and this opinion.

May 11, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Retribution and the Limits of Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this book chapter recently posted to SSRN and authored by Michael Louis Corrado. Here is the abstract:

Those who claim that retributivism is a morally defensible position point to two things in support of that claim: retribution is said to justify the deliberate imposition of suffering as a way of controlling crime, and it is said to limit that imposition by the boundaries it sets.  First of all, assuming that what we seek from punishment is to deter wrongdoers, we still need some way to justify the heaping of pain upon past wrongdoers as a means to that end. Desert, says the retributivist, solves this problem: what justifies harming the wrongdoer is that he brought it on himself. But the second thing is that although the fact that they have committed crimes in the past means that we are entitled to punish them, retribution sets down limits.  The punishment the wrongdoer deserves is limited by his culpability and by the seriousness of his crime.  If the punishment exceeds what is deserved, it is not justified. That at least is the story that the retributivist tells.

The second part of this argument is important in its own right. There are those who would argue that whether or not retribution and desert have any foundation in fact it is important that we act as though they do, especially in connection with the criminal law, because the consequences of abandoning them are too dire to be born.  We would lose the limits that come with retribution.  Regardless, then, of whether in fact human beings actually have free will, regardless of whether they are responsible for what they do, regardless of whether anyone actually deserves to be punished, regardless of whether retribution is ever justified, it is still morally desirable to insist on desert and retribution because without them we are bereft of the principles that limit the state’s use of the coercive machinery of criminal justice.  The idea is that if we do not pretend human beings have free will and responsibility, the law will not know where to draw the line in its use of the instruments of the criminal justice system against wrongdoers.

My aim in this Chapter is to devalue retributivism as a boundary-setter and to show that even if retribution were an acceptable aim, even if some individuals did deserve punishment and even if punishment had to be limited to what those individuals deserve, that would not limit state’s use of coercive force and in particular its use of the preventive methods of quarantine in any way.

May 11, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

How many death sentences nationwide would get overturned if juror unanimity were constitutionally required for death sentences?

The question in the title of this post came to my mind after seeing this Los Angeles Times opinion piece headlined "Florida's death penalty should require unanimous jury votes." Here are excerpts from piece:

In a criminal jury trial, a conviction requires a unanimous verdict of guilt, whether the crime is a low-level drug possession charge or capital murder. But in Florida, after all 12 members of a jury have found the accused guilty, only 10 of them have to agree that the defendant should die for the crime. It’s absurd to require a lower level of agreement to send someone to death than is required to find the person guilty in the first place.

Florida Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch reached the same conclusion in a decision Monday that declared Florida’s latest death penalty law in violation of the state’s constitution. That decision followed arguments a few days earlier before the state’s Supreme Court over whether the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, which found the state’s sentencing-decision process unconstitutional, meant that all 390 people on Florida’s death row should have their sentences converted to life. Yes, it does. If the sentencing process is unconstitutional, then the sentences are, too....

In the Hurst case, the Supreme Court affirmed that only a jury can make a finding of fact. Florida, in an effort to save its death penalty, rewrote its law to say the jury must decide whether the death penalty was appropriate. But the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t say how many jurors must make that call, and the revised state law raised the threshold to 10 of the 12 jurors.

Hirsch’s decision on Monday said that no, under the state’s constitution, a super-majority is not enough. His logic is a bit attenuated, but sound. Florida’s constitution guarantees trial by jury but doesn’t specify that a unanimous verdict must be reached. However, decades of practice, and common law, set unanimity as the standard threshold for a verdict. And since the revised law calls the jury’s finding for the death penalty a verdict, then it must be unanimous....

The least Florida can do is require unanimity by a jury before deciding to kill someone. And it should either grant fresh sentencing trials for those on death row or — and this is the preferred, more humane solution — commute the death sentences to life sentences.

Notably, two of the four states in the US with the largest death rows (Florida and Alabama) have sentenced a significant number of murderers to death without a unamimous jury recommendation to that effect. Though it is not clear that roughly all 600 persons on those states' death rows would be sure to get relief from a constitutional rule requiring jury unanimity for death recommendations, a suspect a significant number would. And even if only half of those condemned would get relief, that could cut the size of the US death row population down by more than 10 percent.

The Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst studiously avoided weighing in on this jury unaniminty issue, but I am not sure it is point to be able to avoid it for too much longer in light of what is going on in Florida and perhaps other places in the post-Hurst world.

A few prior related post:

May 11, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

May 10, 2016

New study suggests California's prison population reduction via realignment has been generally successful

This new entry at The Crime Report, headlined "California's Prison Downsizing Offers a Model for Other States, Study Says," reports on notable new research suggesting that crime has not increased dramatically after California was force in the wake of the Plata ruling to reduce its prison population.  Here is the start of the entry describing the research:

The success of California's Public Safety Realignment Act in reducing state prison populations without a corresponding increase in crime suggests that other jurisdictions around the country can enact similar reforms without endangering public safety, according to a study published in the latest issue of Criminology & Public Policy, an American Society of Criminology journal.

The study, entitled “Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous? The Effect of California’s Realignment Act on Public Safety” [available here], cites already published data showing that the 17 percent reduction in the size of California’s prison population over a 15-month period, beginning with the Act's implementation in 2011, did not have an effect on aggregate rates of violent crime or property crime.

"Moreover, 3 years after the passage of Realignment, California crime rates remain at levels comparable to what we would predict if the prison population had remained at 2010 levels," write authors Jody Sundt of Indiana University, Emily J. Salisbury of University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Mark G. Harmon of Portland State University.

The California results demonstrate that "we make a mistake...when we assume that prisons are the only meaningful or viable response to crime,” the authors add.

According to the data referenced in the study, the California Realignment Act reduced the size of the state’s prison population by 27, 527 inmates within 15 months. Many of the inmates were transferred to local jails or released into the community. Critics of the Act linked the policy to recorded increases in offenses such as auto theft. But the authors argued that the slight uptick in such offenses leveled off over time--and was not necessarily linked to realignment.

These results should serve as an object lesson for other jurisdictions, said the authors. "For the first time in decades it appears that a 'window of opportunity' for justice reform is opening to allow for a reevaluation of the effectiveness and wisdom of policies that have created the largest prison population in the world," they wrote, citing a phrase used by criminologist Michael Tonry.

May 10, 2016 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tenth Circuit finds Fifth Amendment problems in sex offender treatment program requirement as part of conditions of supervised release

A helpful reader alerted me to think interesting new Tenth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Von Behren, No. 15-1033 (1th Cir. May 10, 2016) (available here), which gets started this way:

Brian Von Behren is serving a three-year term of supervised release stemming from a 2005 conviction for distribution of child pornography.  One of the conditions of his supervised release was modified to require that he successfully complete a sex offender treatment program, including a sexual history polygraph requiring him to answer four questions regarding whether he had committed sexual crimes for which he was never charged.  The treatment program required him to sign an agreement instructing the treatment provider to report any discovered sexual crimes to appropriate authorities.  Mr. Von Behren contended that the polygraph condition violates his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The district court disagreed and held that the polygraph exam questions do not pose a danger of incrimination in the constitutional sense.  Mr. Von Behren refused to answer the sexual history questions, thereby requiring the treatment provider to expel him from the program and subjecting him to potential revocation of his supervised release for violating the condition of supervision.  The district court denied Mr. Von Behren’s request to stay further proceedings pending appeal, but this court granted a stay.  We reverse on the Fifth Amendment issue.

May 10, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Litigating from the Prison of the Mind: A Cognitive Right to Post-Conviction Counsel"

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

This article attempts to draw a picture of the incarcerated without counsel, who are separated from justice by the inhumanity of their imprisonment, the poverty of their information resources and the detriments of their cognitive life.

Part I sets the stage by describing the conditions of confinement, the confined, and the state of pro se personhood.  Part II addresses the reality of petition or perish created by Bounds and Casey.  Part III concentrates on the necessity of a right to counsel borne from the conditions of confinement and the technological, physical and psychological barriers that burden the incarcerated.  Among the most significant barriers to be considered are: (1) legal illiteracy and inferior research media; (2) impaired learning and thinking due to stress of confinement; and (3) cognitive disadvantage engendered by the gap between print and electronic research.

May 10, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 9, 2016

Florida state judge declares unconstitutional state's post-Hurst revised death penalty procedures

As reported in this new local article, a "Miami-Dade judge has ruled that Florida’s death penalty is unconstitutional because jurors are not required to agree unanimously on execution." Here is more:

Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch on Monday issued the ruling in the case of Karon Gaiter, who is awaiting trial for first-degree murder. Hirsch wrote that Florida’s recently enacted “super majority” system – 10 of 12 juror votes are needed to impose execution as punishment for murder – goes against the long-time sanctity of unanimous verdicts in the U.S. justice system.

“A decedent cannot be more or less dead. An expectant mother cannot be more or less pregnant,” he wrote. “And a jury cannot be more or less unanimous. Every verdict in every criminal case in Florida requires the concurrence, not of some, not of most, but of all jurors – every single one of them.”...

In January, in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state’s death sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries. For decades, jurors only issued majority recommendations, with judges ultimately imposing the death penalty. The high court, however, did not rule on the unanimity question. Except for Alabama and Florida, all other states that have the death penalty require a unanimous jury verdict to impose the death sentence....

After the Hurst case was decided in January, Florida lawmakers were forced to fix the death-penalty sentencing scheme. Florida’s new law requires juries to unanimously vote for every reason, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence. Whether to actually impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors. “All of these changes inure to the benefit of the defendant,” Assistant State Attorney Penny Brill wrote in a motion in the Gaiter case earlier this year. “These requirements render Florida’s system constitutional under the United States Supreme Court’s precedents.”

Judge Hirsch, in his order, said the fixes don’t matter. “Arithmetically the difference between twelve and ten is slight,” Hirsch wrote. “But the question before me is not a question of arithmetic. It is a question of constitutional law. It is a question of justice.”

The full 18-page order referenced here is available at this link, and a quick scan of opinion reviews that it includes quotes from William Shakespeare, William Blackstone, Winston Churchill, Glanville Williams, the prophet Elijah, and lots of other notable sources.

May 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Former federal drug warriors assail sentencing reform efforts because "drug dealing is a violent crime"

William J. Bennett, the director of drug control policy for President George H. W. Bush, and John P. Walters, the director of drug control policy for President George W. Bush, have this notable new Washington Examiner op-ed headlined "Drug dealing is a violent crime."  Here are excerpts:

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act now before Congress is based on a lie — that drug dealing is not a violent crime.  Americans have been told this lie for years even as we witness the violence and death caused by drug dealers in our communities.  Now, this lie is propelling legislation through Congress that will destroy more lives.

As former directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, we carry a particular responsibility to speak up when so many who should know better claim that drug trafficking has been treated too harshly under federal law.

Claims by President Obama and others that federal prisons are filled with "nonviolent drug offenders" and that drug dealing is a "victimless crime" are grotesquely dishonest.  How can the drug trade be victimless when most Americans know a victim?  How can it be non-violent when we witness the carnage every night on the local news?...

In the federal prison system, 99.5 percent of those incarcerated for drug convictions are guilty of serious trafficking offenses.  And according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study of state drug inmates, 77 percent reoffend within five years of release, with 25 percent committing violent offenses.  Most of these convicted drug dealers are career criminals with long rap sheets.  By softening punishments for these traffickers, as this legislation does, Congress would give convicted dealers shorter sentences and early release causing destruction to communities across America. Moreover, this push to release experienced traffickers is occurring at the same time our nation is enduring a 440-percent increase over the past seven years in heroin overdose deaths.

Drug dealing is inseparable from violent victimization.  Illegal drugs kill tens of thousands each year in overdose deaths.  More die in violent acts and accidents under the influence of drugs.  Still more die slowly of blood-borne diseases contracted through injection drug use and through high-risk behavior while under the influence of drugs, including prostitution to support addiction.  Street-level dealers look into the eyes of these victims daily as they take addicts' money and foster their self-destruction.  Traffickers at levels above the street know this reality and take their wealth from it, spreading death across neighborhoods and across the globe....

Considering all that America knows about drug addiction, only the dishonest or willfully blind can claim that drug trafficking is a non-violent crime.  Drug dealing depends on addiction; addicts consume the vast majority of the drug supply; the dealer cultivates users to create more addicts in a murderous cycle.

Drug dealers know drugs will eventually impair judgment and bend free will, altering personality and poisoning bonds to loved ones.  We know drug use and addiction degrade millions of lives — impairing education, employment and parenthood.  Drugs are at the root of much of the child abuse, endangerment and domestic violence perpetrated against the innocent.

But the destruction is much wider. Addiction and drug dealing ravage whole communities, urban and rural.  We need look no further than the daily reports of the heroin epidemic today, or the still-vivid memories of the meth epidemic and the crack epidemic.  Drug dealing makes whole neighborhoods war zones, places of economic blight and large-scale victimization.  There is no greater single source of actual harm to Americans today — none.  The cost of incarcerating drug dealers is small compared to the true cost of their crimes to society.

Knowing this, it is an utterly irresponsible effort to release experienced drug dealers from federal prison before they have completed their just sentences, arguing they are merely misguided business people or desperate individuals caught up in an unfair system.  The truth about drug dealing is this: It requires cruelty and willful indifference to the visible suffering inflicted on others — over and over again — harming individuals, families and whole communities.

May 9, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"Louisiana’s Color­-Coded Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial, which gets started this way:

The last time a white person in Louisiana was executed for a crime against a black person was in 1752, when a soldier named Pierre Antoine Dochenet was hanged after attempting to stab two enslaved black women to death with his bayonet.

This is just one of many grim facts in a new report describing the history of capital punishment in Louisiana and analyzing the outcome of every death sentence imposed in that state since 1976, when the Supreme Court reversed its brief moratorium on executions and allowed them to resume.

Racism has always been at the heart of the American death penalty. But the report, in the current issue of The Journal of Race, Gender, and Poverty, drives home the extent to which capital punishment, supposedly reserved for the “worst of the worst,” is governed by skin color.

In Louisiana, a black man is 30 times as likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white woman as for killing a black man. Regardless of the offender’s race, death sentences are six times as likely — and executions 14 times as likely — when the victim is white rather than black.

May 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

May 8, 2016

Some critical reflections on Prez Obama's clemency efforts and some ideas about what could have been

Late last week, the Washington Post had this lengthy article reviewing the various problems encoutered during President Obama's clemency push over the last few years.  The piece is headlined "Lack of resources, bureaucratic tangles have bogged down Obama’s clemency efforts," and it effectively summarized many of the difficulties previously reported on this blog. Here are excerpts:

In the waning months of his presidency, Obama has made commutations for nonviolent drug offenders a centerpiece of his effort to reform the country’s criminal-justice system. But behind the scenes, the administration’s highly touted clemency initiative has been mired in conflict and held up by a bureaucratic process that has been slow to move prisoner petitions to the president’s desk.

Obama has granted 306 commutations to federal prisoners — more than the past six presidents combined. But as of Friday, 9,115 commutation petitions were pending with little time left to review them. Of these, fewer than 2,000 appear to be eligible for the president’s clemency program, according to a Justice Department official. Thousands more are still being reviewed by outside lawyers.

From the beginning, the program was beset by problems, including a lack of resources and a cumbersome, multilevel review system. The U.S. pardon attorney at the Justice Department makes recommendations that move to the deputy attorney general, who reviews the cases and sends them to the White House counsel, who considers them again before choosing which ones go to Obama.

The pardon attorney became so frustrated that she quit earlier this year and wrote a scathing resignation letter to Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. Deborah Leff said that despite her “intense efforts” to do her job, the Justice Department had “not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the president.”...

On Thursday, Obama commuted the sentences of 58 prisoners, his second round of clemencies in three months as the program has picked up steam. Administration officials say that they are addressing obstacles that have plagued the clemency initiative. The Justice Department has added lawyers to the pardon office. And White House Counsel Neil Eggleston has promised that many more petitions will be granted in the president’s final eight months.

“The President is deeply committed to the clemency initiative. That is evident not only by the historic number of commutations he’s granted to date, but by his wholesale approach to revamping the way the government approaches commutations,” White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said in a statement. “That change helped spark a long overdue conversation about reforming our criminal justice system, which we hope will result in Congressional action so that many more deserving individuals can benefit from a second chance.”...

An attorney who worked in the pardon office at the same time as Leff said that with petitions flooding in, it was extremely difficult with so few lawyers to sort out complicated drug cases and figure out whether they met the department’s strict criteria. To get more help, Cole reached out to the private bar to set up another layer of lawyers to read applications.

Outside lawyers formed an organization called Clemency Project 2014, which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. An army of about 4,000 volunteer lawyers from across the country signed up to help in what has become one of the largest pro bono efforts in the history of the American legal profession. Seventy large law firms, more than 500 small firms and solo practitioners, and 30 law schools are involved, according to Cynthia W. Roseberry, the project’s manager. But it took nearly a year for the group to get organized and recruit and train lawyers, many of whom had no experience in criminal law.

An overwhelming 36,000 inmates — about 17 percent of the federal prison population — filled out surveys asking for help from the Clemency Project. Even though the Justice Department had its own backlog, officials there privately complained that the outside Clemency Project lawyers, with their multiple levels of review, were taking too long to send more petitions. That in turn frustrated the Clemency Project attorneys, who said they were working carefully to locate old legal documents, contact prosecutors and judges, look at prison behavior records and try to get pre-sentencing reports and sentencing transcripts. At the same time, they have been weighing risks to public safety....

Some critics say the White House could have avoided many of these headaches by modeling the process after the way President Gerald Ford handled clemencies for Americans who had deserted the Army or failed to show up for the draft during the Vietnam War.  With 600 people working on a special commission to review the cases, Ford granted 14,000 clemencies in one year. Law professor Mark Osler, co-founder of New York University’s Clemency Resource Center, said the initiative also might have gone more smoothly if Obama had moved the pardon attorney’s office into the White House rather than keeping it under career prosecutors who may find it difficult to reverse other prosecutors’ decisions.

This recent Fusion piece, headlined "The bold step President Obama could take to let thousands of federal inmates go free," provides a thorough discussion of the special clemency commission that President Ford had set up to deal with a massive number of Veitnam draft dodgers and desserters and which was able to process tens of thousands of clemency cases in just a year.  Here is how it concludes:

If Obama had appointed a Ford-style clemency board, he could have cut down the bureaucracy to three or four steps: a review by the board’s staff, a review by the board, a review by the White House counsel, a review by the president.

In the last few months, Obama’s advisers have been making the argument that he’s granted “more [clemencies] than the previous six Presidents combined.” But that calculation is false, as it incorrectly ignores the clemencies granted through Ford’s commission. (A White House spokesperson noted that Department of Justice statistics only count the 22 non-Vietnam related clemencies that Ford granted.)

For many recent presidents, clemency has been treated more like an afterthought. Until recently, Obama announced them at the end of each year, before he jets off to Hawaii with his family — a last-minute Christmas gift to a tiny handful of prisoners.

With fewer than 10 months left in office, even if Obama had a change of heart and decided to create a clemency board today, it would almost surely be too late. But [clemency advocates Nkechi] Taifa and Osler say it’s an idea that should be picked up by the next president. “This should not end with the Obama administration,” Taifa said.

“I do not want to delay another day in resolving the dilemmas of the past, so that we may all get going on the pressing problems of the present,” Ford said when he announced his clemency board. If President Obama—or the next president—wants to resolve the past failings of our criminal justice system, then they should also take lessons from one of its rare success stories.

May 8, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Designing Plea Bargaining from the Ground Up: Accuracy and Fairness Without Trials as Backstops"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Stephanos Bibas now available via SSRN. here is the abstract:

American criminal procedure developed on the assumption that grand juries and petit jury trials were the ultimate safeguards of fair procedures and accurate outcomes.  But now that plea bargaining has all but supplanted juries, we need to think through what safeguards our plea-bargaining system should be built around.

This Symposium Article sketches out principles for redesigning our plea-bargaining system from the ground up around safeguards.  Part I explores the causes of factual, moral, and legal inaccuracies in guilty pleas.  To prevent and remedy these inaccuracies, it proposes a combination of quasi-inquisitorial safeguards, more vigorous criminal defense, and better normative evaluation of charges, pleas, and sentences.  Part II then diagnoses unfair repercussions caused by defendants’ lack of information and understanding, laymen’s lack of voice, and the public’s lack of information and participation.  To prevent and fix these sources of unfairness, it proposes ways to better inform pleas and to make plea procedures more procedurally just.

May 8, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)