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July 9, 2016

Notable sparring over sequence of capital trials for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof

In this post not long after the racist mass murderer committed by Dylann Storm Roof, I flagged the possibility of a double capital prosecution by both the feds and South Carolina in this post. Now that, a year later, this prospect has become a reality, the logistical dynamics are presenting interesting legal issues. And this new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Death Penalty Freeze Puts Charleston Church Shooting Trials in Conflict: State prosecutors say likelihood of execution gives their case precedence," explores some of this novel capital ground:

The alleged shooter of a South Carolina church congregation is scheduled to appear in state court next week amid a dispute over whether a state or federal case against him should go to trial first.

State prosecutors said in June their case against Dylann Roof should happen first because, in part, it is more likely to result in the death penalty. There is currently an effective moratorium on executions in the federal prison system, due to an internal review of the drugs used to execute prisoners.

South Carolina prosecutors charged Mr. Roof, 22 years old, with nine counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder last year for the June 2015 slaying of nine parishioners at an African-American church, and Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has said she would pursue the death penalty. Federal prosecutors, who charged Mr. Roof within weeks of the state indictment, are also seeking a death sentence.

Mr. Roof has pleaded not guilty but his lawyers have said he would plead guilty if the state or federal governments dropped requests for the death penalty. A lawyer for Mr. Roof didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The federal trial is scheduled to begin in November, while the state trial is slated for January. A hearing in state court is set for Wednesday to discuss the scheduling issues.

The dueling prosecutions have raised complicated procedural issues. Ms. Wilson said in court papers that because Mr. Roof is in the state’s custody, if he were sentenced to death in the federal trial, but received a life sentence in the state trial, the state would likely never relinquish custody of him, defeating any chance of an execution.

Ms. Wilson also argued that because the federal government last executed a prisoner in 2003, the state couldn’t trust that a death penalty verdict in the federal trial will actually result in an execution. “Because of the apparent unwillingness of the United States to implement a sentence of death, the state submits that the outcome of the federal trial has little to no relevance to the defendant’s ultimate fate,” Ms Wilson wrote. “For that reason, it disserves the victims to ask them to endure two trials, but the United States nonetheless has imposed its contrary will.”

Lawyers for Mr. Roof argued in court papers filed Wednesday that issues surrounding scheduling could be easily resolved if prosecutors would remove their request for the death penalty and accept Mr. Roof’s plea. “It was predictable that the unprecedented decision of both the state and federal governments to seek the execution of the same man at the same time would lead to scheduling problems,” defense attorneys wrote.

Federal prosecutors haven’t responded to the requests for the state trial to go first. In a letter to victims’ families Wednesday, South Carolina U.S. Attorney Beth Drake wrote, “While it may appear in court pleadings that the state and federal court are both working towards a speedy trial, at the end of the day, we are all after the same thing—justice.”

Mr. Roof’s attorneys have moved to dismiss the federal case, saying it ignores the division between state and federal jurisdictions.

A few prior related posts:

July 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

July 8, 2016

More distrust, more hatred and more killing... sigh...

Ever eager to stay focused on sentencing issues and  to blog only on topics related to my research expertise, I generally do not post about police-citizen encounters or mass shootings.  And I do not have anything especially insightful to say about the awful sequence of events this past week in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas.  But maybe some readers have some thoughts to help everyone gain some extra perspective during a time when I just feel profound sadness about these recent events.

July 8, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (42)

The demise of irreducible life sentences in the Netherlands

I am pleased to be able to provide this guest posting from Dirk van Zyl Smit, who runs the Life Imprisonment Worldwide Project at the University of Nottingham, concerning a big recent ruling from the Netherlands:

The Netherlands has long been an exception to the general European rule that all persons sentenced to life imprisonment must have a realistic prospect of release before they are too old or ill to again lead a full life in free society. There are only a small number of life-sentenced prisoners in the Netherlands, 32 at the last count, but they all serve sentences akin to US-style life without parole, and are rarely, if ever, released. On 5 July 2016, that position changed dramatically. The Hoge Raad, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, ruled that the remote possibility of a pardon, which hitherto has been the sole mechanism by which Dutch life-sentenced prisoners theoretically could be released, was inadequate. The current pardon system did not provide them with a clear prospect of being considered for release and was therefore contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In coming to this conclusion the Hoge Raad quoted extensively from the standards developed by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2013 in Vinter and others v United Kingdom and in 2016 in Murray v The Netherlands but then set them out and developed them further in its own words. (The translations are my own.)

The Hoge Raad began cautiously (para 3.2), noting

that the life sentence is not inherently contrary to the provisions of art. 3 of the ECHR, even if it is fully executed. From the jurisprudence [of the European Court of Human Rights] however, it follows that life imprisonment cannot be imposed if it is not already clear at the time of imposition that in due course there will be a real opportunity to reassess the life sentence, which in the appropriate cases can lead to the shortening of the sentence or (conditional) release. This does not mean that providing an opportunity for review of the sentence will always lead to a reduction of the penalty. Reassessment can indeed also lead to a finding that there is no ground for reducing the sentence.

The Hoge Raad then explained the various conditions it regarded as essential prerequisites for a review of a life sentence (para 3.3):

In the review, the question that needs to be addressed is whether there have been such changes on the part of the convicted person and whether he or she has made such progress in their resocialisation that the continued implementation of life imprisonment is no longer justified. The criteria used in this context should not be so stringent that release is allowed only when a serious illness or other physical obstacle stands in the way of the further implementation of life imprisonment, or upon reaching an advanced age. The review must be based on information with respect to the convicted person as an individual as well as the opportunities offered for resocialisation. Moreover, at the time of the imposition of a life sentence, it must be clear to the convicted person to a sufficiently precise extent what objective criteria will be applied in the review, so that he knows what requirements must be met, if he wants - eventually – to be considered for a reduction of his sentence or for (conditional) release.

The point of departure in the future must be that the review must take place after no more than 25 years after the imposition of life imprisonment and that after that period the possibility of periodical re-assessment is required. The reassessment shall be surrounded with sufficient procedural safeguards. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights does not require that a provision to curtail a life sentence can only consist of a statutory periodic review of the sentence by a judge. That does not detract from the view of the Hoge Raad that assigning the reassessment to a judge in itself represents an important guarantee that the implementation of life imprisonment will take place in accordance with Art. 3 of the ECHR.

Finally, in order to provide a real opportunity for reassessment, it is important that the convicted person during the execution of the life sentence - even before the reassessment takes place - must be able to prepare for a possible return to society and that, related to this, possibilities for resocialisation should be offered within the framework of the implementation.

The very basis of this decision is a rejection of official Dutch policy on the treatment of life-sentenced prisoners, for until now they have not been offered opportunities for resocialisation, because it had been presumed that they would never be released. The prison regimes for these prisoners will have to change.

The remedy that the Hoge Raad put forward is equally drastic. It ordered the Dutch government to legislate in order to reform the law relating to life imprisonment so that it would meet the standards it had spelled out. Such reforms have to be introduced by 5 September 2017. The Hoge Raad will remain seized with the case until then, when it will again consider the matter and decide whether the legislative reform meets the standards it has now set.

The decision of the Hoge Raad of 5 July 2016 is recognition that Dutch jurisprudence on life imprisonment must move forward to take account of the development in European human rights law that has led to a clear rejection of irreducible life sentences. It stands in contrast to the much more conservative approach of the English Court of Appeal, in R v Mcloughlin, which has insisted that English provisions that would allow life-sentenced prisoners, subject to a whole life order, to leave prison only when ill or dying are sufficiently flexible to be regarded as a form of release to meet the standards of Art. 3 of the ECHR. This interpretation of European standards by the Court of Appeal has been challenged before the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR in Hutchinson v the United Kingdom. Judgment in this last case, which was argued in October 2015, is keenly awaited. What remains to be seen is how the British authorities, including the UK courts, will respond if the ECtHR follows the trend that the Dutch Supreme Court has endorsed and rejects the interpretation of the Court of Appeal. The recent British referendum in favour of leaving the European Union does not affect the legal status of the United Kingdom as a party to the ECHR. However, there has been much press speculation that a decision against the United Kingdom in this latest case about irreducible life sentences may prompt a reconsideration of Britain’s relationship with the ECtHR and lead eventually to a formal withdrawal from its jurisdiction. The measured decision of the Hoge Raad on 5 July 2016 is an example of a less confrontational approach to European jurisprudence by a national apex court. One can only hope that the courts and indeed the government of the United Kingdom will learn from it.

July 8, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

July 7, 2016

"Can Obama Pardon Millions of Immigrants?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable New York Times commentary authored by Peter Markowitz. Here are excerpts:

When the history of President Obama’s legacy on immigration is written, he will not go down as the president who boldly acted to protect millions of families from the brutality of our nation’s unforgiving immigration laws. The Supreme Court made sure of that last month, when it deadlocked on the legality of his program to defer the deportation of parents of American citizens and residents. Instead, he will be judged on what he actually did: deport more immigrants than any other president in American history, earning him the moniker “deporter in chief.”

However, President Obama can still act to bring humanity and justice to an immigration system notoriously lacking in both. He can do so by using the power the Constitution grants him — and only him — to pardon individuals for “offenses against the United States.”

The debate over the deportation deferral program has been framed as a question of the division of powers. Both sides agree that Congress is the only entity that gets to define offenses against the United States.... There is one area, however, where the president’s unilateral ability to forgo punishment is uncontested and supported by over a hundred years of Supreme Court precedent: the pardon power. It has been consistently interpreted to include the power to grant broad amnesties from prosecution to large groups when the president deems it in the public interest....

It’s a common assumption that pardons can be used only for criminal offenses, and it’s true that they have not been used before for civil immigration violations. However, the Constitution extends the power to all “offenses against the United States,” which can be interpreted more broadly than just criminal offenses.

A pardon could not achieve everything the deferred deportation program aspired to — notably, it could not deliver work permits. However, it has a certain operational elegance to it that would avoid many of the political battles surrounding the deferral program....

President Obama has plenty of time left to issue such a pardon. There is solid historical and legal precedent for him to do so. And although it would probably bring about legal challenges, opponents could not use the legal system to simply run out the clock, as they have with his deferred deportation program. A deferred deportation program could be undone by a President Trump. Unconditional pardons, in contrast, are irrevocable.

Finally, some would surely argue that a pardon protecting a large category of immigrants from deportation would, just like the deportation deferral program, effectively amount to a repeal of laws enacted by Congress. However, pardons do nothing to alter the law. They protect certain past offenders from punishment and prosecution, but leave the law unchanged as applied to any future violators.

President Obama has deported around 2.5 million people. That is about the same number as were deported in the entire 20th century. His apparent strategy was to demonstrate his bona fides on enforcement in order to persuade recalcitrant Republicans to work with him on immigration reform. It didn’t work. It turns out that you don’t convince people to be more humane on immigration by deporting immigrants hand over fist. We are left with a brutal legacy of millions of families torn apart, many simply for doing what they needed to do to protect and feed their children. President Obama will not be judged on his intentions or his attempts on immigration, but rather on his real impact. This is his last chance to establish a legacy of pragmatic compassion.

July 7, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sharp criticisms of bladerunner Oscar Pistorius being sentenced only to six years for murdering his girlfriend

A high-profile defendant, Oscar Pistorius, was resentenced this week after the South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal had concluded he should be convicted of murder and not just manslaughter for shooting girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Regular readers may recall the trial judge seemed to accept his self-defense claims when first giving him only a five-­year sentence. This time around, the sentence only was increase by a year, and more than a few commentators have expressed disappointment in this result:

My complete ignorance about South African sentencing laws, procedures and practices lead me to be unable to comment intelligently on either the Pistorius resentencing or these sharp reactions to it.  But this case provides still more evidence that sentencing outcomes, especially for high-profile figures, are often controversial no matter where in the world they take place.

Prior related posts:

July 7, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Does Massachusetts have a problem with under-punishment of convicted rapists?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Boston Globe article headlined "Dozens of convicted rapists in Mass. have avoided prison. " Here are excerpts:

More than three dozen people convicted of rape in Massachusetts in recent years have received no prison time for their crimes, state data show, including several who had lengthy criminal histories.  A Globe review of Massachusetts court system statistics on 305 rape convictions in the 12-year period that concluded at the end of June 2013 found that in 42 cases, or about 14 percent of the time, defendants received no prison time.

They included two defendants who had a record of either “repetitive” or “violent” convictions, and three had a “serious record.” Seven had a “moderate record” of convictions, while 30 had either never been convicted of a crime or had been convicted of what the court system considered minor offenses. The figures come from annual reports by the Executive Office of the Trial Court.

“If you look at any other violent, serious felony, this would never happen,” said Colby Bruno, an attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston.  Rapists should not be given leniency when it comes to sentencing, Bruno said.

In Massachusetts, state sentencing guidelines call for anyone convicted of certain serious crimes, including rape, to be sentenced to some period of incarceration. For rape, the minimum recommended sentence is five years. But judges aren’t required to follow the guidelines.  The Massachusetts data reviewed by the Globe showed that convicted rapists who were incarcerated were typically sentenced to between five and 10 years in prison, and that defendants with more troubling criminal histories usually received lengthier sentences....

National statistics on criminal sentencing are limited. But a federal study on cases that began in 2009 in large urban US counties found 11 percent of convicted rapists were not sentenced to jail or prison time. For those who were incarcerated, the median prison sentence length was 10 years....

The Globe’s review of the data focused on convictions under Massachusetts’ definition of rape, which is described as nonconsensual sex with someone by using force or the threat of bodily injury. The review did not look at other classifications of the crime, such as aggravated, statutory, or child rape. The reports did not detail specific cases. The state trial court office, which is exempt from public record disclosure laws, declined to release further details. The most recent year for which data was available was fiscal year 2013.

Defense attorneys, as well as former judges and prosecutors, offered several potential reasons why someone convicted of rape might not get prison time. One of the most likely scenarios, experts said, would be a plea bargain.  A prosecutor with a weak case could offer, in exchange for a guilty plea, to recommend a lesser sentence such as probation to the judge.

Getting a conviction and at least some punishment for the defendant is sometimes viewed as a better option than risking losing the case at trial.  It also removes the possible need to bring a traumatized victim to testify. “The ultimate goal is to decrease crime and hold people responsible, and sometimes that can come in different forms and packages,” said law professor Mary G. Leary, a former prosecutor whose focus included sexual assault cases.

In another possible scenario, a victim might ask the judge not to incarcerate the assailant. “Sometimes, when you have parties who know each other, they want the person convicted, but they don’t want them to be incarcerated,” said Christine Cole, executive director of the Crime & Justice Institute, part of the Boston-based nonprofit Community Resources for Justice.

In addition, judges carefully weigh many factors when making sentencing decisions. Factors can include the specific facts of the crime, and whether the defendant cooperated with prosecutors, showed remorse, has a criminal past, and is likely to reoffend, specialists said. The details of each case are critical, said Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge in Boston and a former defense attorney. For example, Gertner said, she routinely encountered cases where defendants, particularly those with drug addiction problems, “wound up with these very long rap sheets, but of relatively minor offenses.”

Some observers, including Cole and Gertner, said they believe judges sentence appropriately in the vast majority of cases. Martin Rosenthal, a longtime criminal defense attorney and Massachusetts Sentencing Commission member, agreed, saying that while “it’s certainly unusual for someone to be convicted of rape and not get incarcerated . . . I don’t think that rape is being diminished in any way” by judges or the justice system.  “The idea that we’re being soft on rape as a society is just not true,” he said.

July 7, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

July 6, 2016

"Implementing Proportionality"

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

Over the last fourteen years, the Supreme Court has issued five decisions that impose substantive constraints on our harshest punishments -- forbidding the execution of those with “mental retardation” in Atkins v. Virginia, of juveniles in Roper v. Simmons, and of those convicted of child sexual assault in Kennedy v. Louisiana, and forbidding the sentence of life without parole for juveniles who had not killed in Graham v. Florida and for all juveniles when it is imposed mandatorily in Miller v. Alabama.  Because the offenders in question were categorically less culpable, the proscribed punishment was disproportionately severe, the Court held.  

In many respects, these decisions reinvigorated the Court’s substantive proportionality jurisprudence, which had been virtually dormant for two decades.  Yet, three of the five decisions simply have not yielded in practice what they promised in principle.  The implementation of Atkins, Graham and Miller has been so protracted, litigious and encumbered by procedural obstacles that, of the nearly 3,000 inmates nominally impacted by the decisions, only a fraction has been relieved of their sentences.  In the meantime, inmates with IQs of 61 have been executed, and others have died waiting to hear whether the Court’s decisions apply retroactively.

This Article argues that, despite its transformative potential, the Court’s contemporary proportionality jurisprudence has been diminished in scope and potency in the course of its implementation -- a dynamic that has been called “slippage.”  In many respects, the “slippage” of these mandates can be attributed to the decisions themselves, which are deregulatory and, in concert with the Court’s broader efforts to limit federal court jurisdiction over state criminal justice processes, tie the scope of relief to the political whims and majoritarian preferences of the States.  On some issues, the procedural docility of these decisions has proven so problematic that the Court has twice within the last two years had to intervene, striking portions of Florida’s capital sentencing scheme in 2014 and, just weeks ago, declaring in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller does in fact apply retroactively.  

While the Court’s reluctance to regulate the implementation of its proportionality mandates may be rationalized as necessary deference to the principles of federalism and finality, these justifications are far less compelling in the Eighth Amendment context.  The very establishment of federal habeas, executive clemency, and Supreme Court review suggests that the Framers themselves recognized that there are normative points when interests in federalism and finality simply must yield.  By contrast, the risk of offending constitutional norms through slippage may be at their most pronounced since one of the Eighth Amendment’s primary purposes is to protect the politically powerless from government overreach.  I conclude that, if the Court is serious about implementing in practice the substantive constraints on punishment it has imposed over the last fourteen years, it must accompany its substantive mandates with a minimum threshold of procedural prescription.

July 6, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Split Eighth Circuit panel affirms three-month sentence for Iowa egg executives whose company caused salmonella outbreak

As reported in this AP piece, the Eighth Circuit today rejected an array of challenges to upheld short jail sentences for two egg industry executives who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor corporate crimes. Here is more about the case and the ruling:

In a 2-1 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld three-month jail sentences issued last year to 82-year-old Austin "Jack" DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster, 53.

The DeCosters were aware of unsanitary conditions at their sprawling Iowa egg farms but failed to improve them before the outbreak, which sickened up to 56,000 people and left some with permanent injuries, Judge Diana Murphy wrote. "We conclude that the record here shows that the DeCosters are liable for negligently failing to prevent the salmonella outbreak," Murphy wrote, joined by Judge Raymond Gruender.

The case, a rare prosecution against those responsible for an outbreak of foodborne illness, was closely watched by advocates for consumer safety and food and drug manufacturers. The Justice Department praised the ruling, saying the DeCosters disregarded basic food safety standards for years and deserved jail time....

At issue was whether corporate executives could face imprisonment for violating the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which allows "responsible corporate agents" to be held criminally liable even if they were not aware of the wrongdoing. The DeCosters, who owned and operated Quality Egg LLC, had pleaded guilty to violating the law by introducing adulterated eggs into interstate commerce. They said they did not know the eggs were contaminated but acknowledged they were in a position to stop the problems had they known.

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett ordered the jail time in April 2015, saying they knew or should have known about the risks posed by the presence of salmonella in and around millions of egg-laying hens. But he allowed the DeCosters to stay free while they appealed the sentences, which they argued were unconstitutional and unreasonably harsh.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, filed friend-of-the-court briefs backing the DeCosters' appeal. They argued that it would be unfair to send corporate executives to prison for violations that they were unaware of or that were committed by subordinates.

Murphy rejected those arguments, saying Congress did not require executives to have known about the violations to be subject to the food safety law's criminal penalties. She said the jail terms were relatively short, within federal guidelines and "not grossly disproportionate to the gravity of their misdemeanor offenses." Gruender added in a concurring opinion that the DeCosters were not being punished for the acts of others, saying their own failure to take steps to prevent the outbreak was to blame.

Dissenting Judge C. Arlen Beam said prosecutors failed to show that the DeCosters had criminal intent, and therefore "there is no precedent" for sending them to jail. He said they were not aware the products were tainted with salmonella and that they immediately recalled hundreds of millions of eggs once the outbreak was confirmed "at great expense."...

Quality Egg paid a $6.8 million fine after pleading guilty to felony charges of shipping eggs with false processing and expiration dates and bribing a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector to approve sales of poor-quality eggs.

The full ruling in US v. DeCoster, No. 15-1890 (8th Cir. July 6, 2016), is available at this link.

July 6, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Examining Justice Sonia Sotomayor's unique SCOTUS voice on criminal justice issues

This past week as brought these two notable examinations of the work of Justice Sonia Sotomayor on criminal justice issues:

July 6, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Might the Nebraska death penalty repeal referendum in 2016 be even more important symbolically than the dueling California capital initiatives?

As highlighted in prior posts here and here, death penalty opponents and supporters will surely be focused on California during the 2016 election season as voters there will be have a clear capital punishment reform choice between "end it" and "mend it" based on two competing ballot proposals. But this local article from Nebraska, headlined "Death penalty debate heats up," provides a useful reminder that citizens in a very different state will also be voting on the future of the death penalty in their jurisdiction. Here are the basics:

Nebraskans will go to the polls four month from now and vote for an array of issues-one being whether or not to reinstate the death penalty in Nebraska. The legislature voted 30-19 to repeal it in the Spring of 2015, but supporters of capital punishment were able to get enough signatures to get the issue on the November ballot.

“It's a very complicated system, the system is broken and it doesn't work,” said Retain a Just Nebraska campaign manager Darold Bauer [campaign website here]. “The repeal of the death penalty was very unpopular across the state,” said Rod Edwards, state director for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty [campaign website here].

Those for the death penalty say murder victim’s families want justice. “They want that just penalty for the people who killed their loved ones,” said Edwards.

However the group Retain a Just Nebraska said the system doesn’t work and actually harms murder victim’s families. “Eliminate years and years of appeals, and eliminate the possibility of executing an innocent person,” said Bauer.

Both sides of this issue are now ramping up their campaigns this summer coordinating their army of volunteers and getting their message out. “We are re-energizing those volunteers we are working with our Facebook followers to make sure they get the message out and working with those 166-thousands signature gathers to expand that to an electorate,” said Edwards.

Even churches are getting involved-handing out materials urging their people to vote for a specific item. This past weekend, some parishioners likely saw a bit of politicking in the pews. “We are getting help from a number of different churches and different denominations, we are not turning anyone away, if they believe what we do in eliminating the death penalty, we welcome their support,” said Bauer.

Both campaigns will start airing ads on TV and radio soon.

Because California has the nation's largest death row (as well as the largest population of any state in the nation), the outcome of the death penalty reform initiatives in that state will, practically and politically, be far more consequential in the short-term than whatever happens in Nebraska.  But, as the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think the vote in Nebraska could have more symbolically importance and long-term significance for the future of the death penalty in the United States.

California is, of course, a "deep-blue" state and its quirky and complicated history with the death penalty will make it relatively easy for whichever side that loses in November to claim that the result is not really representative of the views of the national as a whole.  But Nebraska is a "deep-red" state, and its legislative repeal of the death penalty was driven by conservative elected officials.  If Cornhusker voters embrace capital repeal at the ballot this November, I think death penalty abolitionists can and will assert forcefully that this vote shows that even conservative citizens want to see an end of capital punishment int he US. But if Nebraska voters reject the repeal, and especially if they do so by a large margin, supporters of capital punishment can and still will be able to point to the outcome as proof that most voters in most states still support the punishment of death for some murderers.

July 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Deep dives into realities of sex offender registries two decades after they started to proliferate

Vox has these two lengthy new pieces looking at the realities of sex offender registries:

Here is an extended excerpt from the first of these pieces:

The registry was designed for "sexual predators" who repeatedly preyed on children (at least according to the fears of 1990s policymakers). The purpose was supposed to be not punishment but prevention. The theory: Sexual predators" were unable or unwilling to control their urges, and the government could not do enough to keep them away from children, so the job of avoiding "sexual predators" needed to fall to parents....

Twenty years later, the focus on sex crimes has shifted from sexual abuse of children to sexual assault and rape. The idea that criminals can’t control their behavior has been replaced by attention to the cultural and institutional failures that allow rapes to happen and go unpunished; the idea that it’s up to potential victims to change their behavior is usually criticized as victim blaming.

Yet the sex offender registry is still going strong.

It hasn’t worked as a preventive tool. Instead, it's caught up thousands of people in a tightly woven net of legal sanctions and social stigma. Registered sex offenders are constrained by where, with whom, and how they can live — then further constrained by harassment or shunning from neighbors and prejudice from employers.

Some of the people on the sex offender registry have had their lives ruined for relatively minor or harmless offenses; for example, a statutory rape case in which the victim is a high school grade younger than the offender.

Others are people like Brock Turner — people who have committed serious crimes that are nonetheless very different from the ones the registry was supposed to prevent, and which the registry might, in fact, make harder to fight.

This happens often in the criminal justice system: Something designed for one purpose ends up getting used for something else. As usual, it happened because people can't agree on what society wants to do with criminals to begin with.

July 6, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (18)

July 5, 2016

Detailing how challenges go up for federal probation officers as the federal prison population does down

The Wall Street Journal has this interesting new article discussing one of many echo effects of a large number of federal prisoners being released early in recent years due to various federal sentencing developments.  The article is headlined "Changes in Sentencing Policy Raise Pressure on Probation Officers: Wave of early inmate releases raises concerns over preventing relapses among high-risk population."  Here is how it gets started:

Karrie Springstead tries not to stand directly in front of the ex-inmate’s apartment door as she knocks. The veteran probation officer doesn’t expect trouble, but she never knows who might be on the other side. “It’s the third party that makes me a little more leery,” says Ms. Springstead, 31 years old. “It’s the people you don’t know, and they don’t know me.”

Ms. Springstead is one of 5,500 federal probation officers who oversee roughly 180,000 people across the country.  The current push for shorter prison sentences is putting more work on the force, federal officials say, and raising concerns that critical details might be missed that could prevent relapses among a high-risk population.

Overhauling the criminal-justice system, including shorter sentences, is a hot topic in Washington, with some Democrats and Republicans increasingly coalescing behind a view that incarceration times have gotten too long.  Even before any major bills have passed, however, federal officials have begun chipping away at sentences.  Since 2010, 14,100 people have been freed early because of changes in sentencing law and policies, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and the federal probation case load has increased 7% since 2010.  In the same period, the budget of the U.S. Office of Probation and Pretrial Services Office rose 0.5%, to $902 million.

The proportion of federal ex-inmates whose probation has been revoked dropped to 27% in 2015 from 29% in 2010.  That decline has been attributed in part to improved risk assessments that are more sophisticated than previous ones and include a wider array of factors, from an offender’s education levels to family makeup.

But probation officials say the drop is due chiefly to the fact there are fewer officers, relative to the number of ex-inmates, to spot violations, so more offenders are remaining free.  “There is a tie between revocation rates going down and a shortage of officers in the community checking on people,” said Steve Skinner, chief of the federal probation office in Oklahoma City, where Ms. Springstead works....

A change in 2014 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to the way drug sentences are calculated shows the potential impact.  The federal probation office asked for a year to prepare for the change, and hired 388 new probation officers, though attrition cut the net gain to 150, said Matthew Rowland, who heads the office.  As a result of the sentencing change, a service that usually gets about 1,130 new charges a week got about 5,000 in the space of a weekend around last Nov. 1.  Another 26,000 will be released early in coming years due to the change, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

July 5, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Anyone eager to discuss what likely will be the highest-profile "declination" in federal criminal justice history?

James-comey-fbi-director_29603_ver1.0_1280_720Lots of smart people recognize and discuss in lots of ways the unique and uniquely important role that prosecutors play in the operation of modern US criminal justice systems, and one theme of a lot of recent commentary and analysis is how little information we generally have about how prosecutors make decisions about who and how to prosecute (and who not to prosecute) for various alleged wrongdoing.  In particular, it is sometimes said that too often we fail to even know about a decision and the decision-making process of a prosecutor to decline to bring charges after a significant criminal justice investigation.

I provide this context for anyone eager to discuss and debate this high-profile news as reported in this New York Times article headlined "F.B.I. Recommends No Charges Against Hillary Clinton for Use of Personal Email."  As source materials for anyone eager to discuss this recommended declination, here is the full text of today's statement by FBI Director James B. Comey on the Investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s Use of a Personal E-Mail System."  It includes these key passages:

Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information....

While not the focus of our investigation, we also developed evidence that the security culture of the State Department in general, and with respect to use of unclassified e-mail systems in particular, was generally lacking in the kind of care for classified information found elsewhere in the government....

In our system, the prosecutors make the decisions about whether charges are appropriate based on evidence the FBI has helped collect. Although we don’t normally make public our recommendations to the prosecutors, we frequently make recommendations and engage in productive conversations with prosecutors about what resolution may be appropriate, given the evidence. In this case, given the importance of the matter, I think unusual transparency is in order.

Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.

In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts. All the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice. We do not see those things here.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now.

As a result, although the Department of Justice makes final decisions on matters like this, we are expressing to Justice our view that no charges are appropriate in this case.

UPDATE:  The folks at Crime & Copnsequences already have this quartet of posts up discussing Comey's findings and statement: 

July 5, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26)

Examining with decades of hindsight a (not-so-violent) violent crime spree resulting in LWOP sentences

The front-page of today's New York Times has this interesting piece examining one notable defendant serving multiple LWOP sentences for violent crimes that do not quite seem to justify the extreme sentence decades later.  The piece is headlined "One Robber’s 3 Life Sentences: ’90s Legacy Fills Prisons Today," and it gets started this way:

Lenny Singleton is the first to admit that he deserved an extended stay behind bars.  To fuel his crack habit back in 1995, he walked into 13 stores over eight days and either distracted a clerk or pretended to have a concealed gun before stealing from the cash register.  One time, he was armed with a knife with a six-inch blade that he had brought from his kitchen.

Mr. Singleton, 28 at the time, was charged with robbery and accepted a plea deal, fully expecting to receive a long jail sentence.  But a confluence of factors worked against him, including the particularly hard-nosed judge who sentenced him and the zero-tolerance ethos of the time against users of crack cocaine.  His sentence was very long: two life sentences. And another 100 years. And no possibility for parole.

There is a growing consensus that the criminal justice system has incarcerated too many Americans for too many years, with liberals and conservatives alike denouncing the economic and social costs of holding 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails.  And Congress is currently debating a criminal justice bill that, among other provisions, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.

But a divide has opened within the reform movement over how to address prisoners who have been convicted of violent crimes, including people like Mr. Singleton, who threatened shop owners but did not harm anyone.  Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union favor a swift 50 percent reduction in prison populations, while conservative prison reform organizations like Right on Crime prioritize the release of nonviolent offenders and worry that releasing others could backfire and reduce public support.

Nonviolent drug offenders make up only about 17 percent of all state prison inmates around the nation, while violent offenders make up more than 50 percent, according to federal data.

As the prison population has increased sharply over the past 30 years, so too has the number of those sentenced to life.  Mr. Singleton is among nearly 160,000 prisoners serving life sentences — roughly the population of Eugene, Ore. The number of such inmates has more than quadrupled since 1984, and now about one in nine prison inmates is serving a life term, federal data shows.

“People are celebrating the stabilization of the prison population in recent years, but the scale of mass incarceration is so substantial that meaningful reduction is not going to happen by tinkering around the edges,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates changes in sentencing policy.

July 5, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

New Philippines Prez wasting no time executing deadly "tough on crime" plans

In this post a couple of months ago, I noted then Philippine President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte was talking about bringing back capital punishment for drug users(!) and about give police shoot-to-kill powers to go after mobsters and drug dealers.  As now reported in this Newsweek article, President Duterte has followed up his talk with action his first week on the job.  The article is headlined "30 'Drug Dealers' Executed in Duterte's First Four Days as President," and here are the remarkable details:

The Philippines’s new president, Rodrigo Duterte, appears to be living up to his nickname after less than a week in office. Police in the island country have said that some 30 suspected drug dealers have been killed since Duterte — dubbed The Punisher for his hardline stance on drugs — was sworn into office Thursday.

Formerly the mayor of the southern town of Davao, Duterte, 71, was elected in May following an explosive campaign in which he vowed to kill thousands of criminals and “fatten the fish” in Manila Bay in the capital Manila by dumping their bodies there. Following his oath, Duterte urged his supporters to do away with drug traffickers, reportedly saying: “Go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful.”

The police chief for the Manila region, Oscar Albayalde, said that five drug dealers were killed following a gun battle with police Sunday, Reuters reported. Three other people were killed in other parts of Manila Sunday, while 22 were killed outside the capital. Police also made a seizure of 180 kilograms of methamphetamine — known locally as shabu — worth around 900 million Philippine pesos ($19 million), according to national police chief Ronald dela Rosa.

In total, more than 100 people have died — most suspected drug dealers, rapists and car thieves — in police operations since the election on May 9.

Prior related post:

July 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

July 3, 2016

"Utah Senator Meets Inmate Who Inspired Sentencing Law Rewrite"

Lee_BC_236_062916The title of this post is the headline of this recent Roll Call article reporting on a notable meeting between a prominent advocate for federal sentencing reform and a prominent (former) "poster child" defendant representing the need for reform. The article includes a short video, and here are excerpts of a story that seems worth profiling on a weekend for celebrating US freedoms:

Sen. Mike Lee has told the story of Weldon Angelos’ prison term hundreds of times, describing the 55-year sentence over three marijuana sales in 72 hours as “crazy” and “nuts.”

An improbable set of events brought the two men together Wednesday in the Utah Republican's office on Capitol Hill. The recently freed Angelos hugged the lawmaker who made him a living symbol of the push to overhaul the nation’s sentencing laws.

“I’ve been telling his story a lot,” Lee said during the meeting. “A lot of the time I was telling this good story, I would sit there and wonder, actually, I wonder if he’s going to care if I’m using his name this frequently.”

“But your story was very helpful in explaining to people why we need this legislation and why we need to reform the law,” Lee told Angelos, who has two sons, ages 19 and 17, and a daughter, age 13.

Angelos, 36 and the founder of a hip-hop music label, said he met others in prison with unjust sentences. He plans to tell his story himself in Washington in support of the bipartisan bill. The legislation appears unlikely to pass in this election-shortened year, and amid disagreements among Republicans in both chambers.

“It kept me together, and my family,” Angelos said to Lee. “Your support was amazing and I just wanted to come here and thank you personally for supporting me and your commitment to criminal justice reform.” Lee has credited Angelos' case, which has attracted national attention, for sparking his work to change sentencing laws.

The legal action that freed Angelos on May 31 is somewhat mysterious and extraordinary. There is recent action in his court case — but no sign of a judge’s order releasing him. Lee said President Barack Obama set in motion a way to reopen the case and seek his release.  It wasn’t a commutation or pardon but “another type of action,” Lee said.  The senator, a former assistant U.S. attorney, is among dozens of people who have urged Obama to commute Angelos’ sentence, including former U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, who sentenced Angelos.

That shows what a lot of extra attention on a case can accomplish, said Molly Gill, government affairs counselor for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that flew Angelos to Washington this week and is working to end the types of sentencing laws that resulted in his sentence. “But it also shows there are a lot a people who don’t have and are never going to have that level of support,” Gill said.

Lee said Angelos’ release does not undercut the need for the legislation, since there are others out there who can’t get relief like Angelos. “We know there’s more to be done,” Lee said. A provision in the bill would prevent prosecutors from stacking mandatory minimum sentences related to certain gun possession crimes together in one case. It would reduce that mandatory minimum sentence from 25 years to 15 years.  It would also allow judges to reduce the sentence for prisoners who are in Angelos’ situation.

Angelos was a first-time offender who was arrested in 2002 after Salt Lake City police set up controlled drug deals between Angelos and a confidential informant.... A jury convicted him of 13 charges, including three counts of possession of a gun in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Angelos in 2004 received a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the first charge of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime; a consecutive 25-year sentence for the second, and another consecutive 25-year sentence for the third, FAMM said.

After nearly 12 years in federal prison, Angelos was surrounded Wednesday by the dark wood and art in Lee’s office. “It’s just overwhelming,” Angelos said. “I feel like I’m in a dream.”

Prior related post:

July 3, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (6)

Draft DNC party platform calls for abolition of death penalty ... which means?

In this post last week, I wondered whether it really mattered what the traditional political parties had to say about criminal justice issues in their party platforms.  But this latest platform news as reported by CNN from the Democratic National Committee will surely matter to those who are eager to see abolition of the death penalty in the United States:

Democrats are calling for an end to capital punishment.  The latest draft of the party's platform, released Friday, says the death penalty "has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment" that "has no place in the United States of America."

The inclusion of the provision represents a victory of sorts for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- a longtime opponent of the punishment who has said he is remaining in the presidential race in order to fight for progressive causes.  Sanders offered mild praise for the platform Friday evening, tweeting, "The Democratic Platform includes some accomplishments that will begin to move this country in the right direction."

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has supported the death penalty in the past, albeit on a limited basis, suggesting that there could be cases for "very limited use" of the punishment in "horrific" terrorist crimes.  She was confronted over the issue during a CNN-TV One town hall event in May by an exonerated former death row inmate who spent 39 years in jail for a murder he did not commit.

For a host of reasons, I would be very surprised to hear Hillary Clinton now express opposition to the death penalty for the likes of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or even Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof. Thus, it would seem the DNC is charting a path toward adopting a party platform that will not be fully embraced by its Prez nominee. And that, in turn, means .... I have no idea.

July 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)