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July 16, 2016

Michigan appeals court rejects "sentencing by videoconference" as a violation of state rules

As reported in this AP piece, a Michigan appeals court said a state trial court erred when sentencing Trenity Heller by video in a drug case.  Here is the background and basic details of the ruling:

The use of technology has been hailed as a great way to save money in Michigan's criminal justice system, and state rules allow video from jail for a variety of hearings, including arraignments, guilty pleas and misdemeanor sentences. "Felony sentencing is not on the list," the appeals court said in its 3-0 decision that Heller's rights were violated.

"Sentencing by video dehumanizes the defendant who participates from a jail location, unable to privately communicate with his or her counsel and likely unable to visualize all the participants in the courtroom," the court said, adding that it "clashes with the judge's duty to acknowledge the humanity of even a convicted felon."

But Smith, the only Circuit Court judge in Hillsdale, said he gives everyone a fair shake. He sees other benefits, too. "The jail is across town so we do save money and security" by using video, Smith told The Associated Press. "If they don't leave jail, then we don't have them in the courthouse and have the problems Berrien faced."

He was referring to the fatal shooting of two bailiffs Monday at the Berrien County courthouse. The sheriff said an inmate somehow got a deputy's gun while being moved between the court and jail.

Smith also said he doesn't choose a sentence depending on whether someone is standing in front of him or appearing by video. "I sentence on facts, not on emotions," the judge said.

Smith said nearly all felons at the jail have chosen video and waived their right to stand in court since he began offering a choice earlier this year.

July 16, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (2)

July 15, 2016

"Prosecuting Collateral Consequences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Eisha Jain and recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Criminal law scholars have long agreed that prosecutors wield vast and largely unreviewable discretion in the criminal justice system. This Article argues that this discretion now extends beyond criminal penalties and broadly reaches civil public policy decisions, such as deportation and licensing.

As a result of ubiquitous plea bargaining and collateral consequences — state-imposed civil penalties that are triggered by criminal convictions — prosecutors can deliberately exercise discretion to trigger or avoid important civil consequences. This aspect of prosecutorial discretion has been underexamined, partly because of a lack of awareness of collateral consequences. But as a result of important new initiatives designed to promote information about collateral consequences, prosecutors as well as defendants are becoming more likely to know that even minor convictions can trigger much more serious civil penalties.

As some commentators have pointed out, prosecutors who are aware of collateral consequences may have powerful incentives to drop charges or otherwise structure pleas to minimize the likelihood of certain collateral consequences. But importantly, prosecutors also have strong structural incentives to take the opposite approach and reach pleas to maximize the likelihood of civil penalties. For some prosecutors, enforcing collateral consequences serves as an administratively efficient substitute for a criminal conviction, as a source of leverage, as a way to circumvent the requirements of criminal procedure, as a means of achieving deterrence or retribution, or as a way to promote their own public policy preferences.

This Article develops an analytic framework for understanding the structural incentives that lead prosecutors to influence collateral consequences; exposes legal and ethical problems associated with plea bargaining in light of collateral consequences; and argues that collateral consequences can undermine important interests in transparency and accountability.

July 15, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 14, 2016

Scouting Mike Pence on criminal justice: likely Trump VP pick with notably mixed reform record

According to the latest headlines and alerts Mike-pence on my smart phone, the word today is that GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump is poised to select Indiana Gov Mike Pence as his running mate.  As a supporter of sentencing reform, I am disappointed a bit that Newt Gingrich did not make the cut, as he has been a recent vocal and repeated supporter of the "Right on Crime" sentencing reform efforts.  (That said, Newt often sounded like a member of the tough-and-tougher GOP crowd in the past, and thus I would not have felt confident that even a Newt pick would signal a Trumpian affinity for sentencing reform.)

Gov Pence's record on criminal justice reform is decidedly mixed, and these linked press stories about various aspects of his work as Indiana's chief executive document the basics:

From May 2013 here, "Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signs sentencing, expungement bills into law":

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has signed bills to revamp the state's felony sentencing laws and give some offenders the ability to expunge their records. "Indiana should be the worst place in America to commit a serious crime and the best place, once you've done your time, to get a second chance," Pence said in a statement.

The sentencing legislation — House Bill 1006 — is the product of three years of work by lawmakers, judges, prosecutors and others. It's the first wholesale overhaul of the criminal code since the 1970s. It will move Indiana's system of four felony classes to one that has six felony levels. It also requires offenders to serve 75 percent of their sentences instead of the 50 percent currently required....

Pence had expressed concerns about an earlier version of the bill, saying it was too soft on offenders convicted of drug crimes. But lawmakers made changes that appeased the governor. Pence said Monday that the bill will "reform and strengthen Indiana's criminal code by focusing resources on the most serious offenses."

House Bill 1482 gives those Hoosiers previously convicted of crimes the opportunity to essentially have their records wiped clean — if they've had a sustained period without a new offense. The bill sets different standards for different crimes.

Pence the bill will strengthen their opportunities for gainful employment. Businesses will no longer be able to ask applicants if they've been convicted of felonies. Instead, they'll have to ask if they've been convicted of felonies that have not been expunged. The new law "will give a second chance to those who strive to re-enter society and become productive, law-abiding citizens," Pence said. 

From March 2016 here, "Pence reinstates mandatory minimum prison terms for some drug crimes":

Gov. Mike Pence is toughening his stance toward drug dealers ahead of a likely bruising re-election campaign where he'll have to answer for Indiana becoming the nation's methamphetamine capital on his watch. The Republican signed into law House Enrolled Act 1235 on Monday, reinstating a 10-year mandatory minimum prison term for a person convicted of dealing meth or heroin who has a prior conviction for cocaine, meth or heroin dealing.

"Drug-abuse problems are not unique to our state, but I'm determined to meet this challenge head-on," Pence said. "We need to make it clear that Indiana will not tolerate the actions of criminals, and I'm pleased to sign into law HEA 1235 to increase penalties on drug dealers."

An analysis of drug-dealing convictions since criminal sentencing reform was enacted in 2014, conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, found just four of the 119 individuals convicted of meth or heroin dealing had a prior conviction and were sentenced to less than 10 years in prison — receiving on average 7.5 years.

More concerning for some lawmakers, including state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, is Pence reversing course on his past actions to eliminate mandatory minimums by now reducing the ability of judges to issue the appropriate sentence for each criminal and giving prosecutors the upper hand in plea bargaining with an accused.

Given this governing histry, I am inclined to call Gov Pence comparable to Prez candidate Trump (and also Prez candidate Clinton) in the arena of criminal justice reform: if you try hard enough, you can readily find a basis to be very encouraged or a basis to be very discouraged by his statements and record.

July 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Reentry and community supervision, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

First trader federally convicted for "spoofing" gets significant (below-guideline) prison term

As reported in this local article, headlined "Trader Michael Coscia 1st in nation to be sentenced under 'anti-spoofing' law," a notable new type of federal white-collar offender got a notable old-school type of punishment yesterday in federal court in Chicago. Here are some details:

In the outcome of a closely watched trial that could set precedent, convicted futures trader Michael Coscia was sentenced in federal court Wednesday to three years in prison and two years of supervised release for spoofing and commodities fraud.

Coscia, 54, of Rumson, N.J., was the first defendant in the country to stand trial under new anti-spoofing laws included in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act.  In November, he was found guilty of six counts of spoofing — the use of computer algorithms to rig markets in fractions of a second — and six counts of commodities fraud.

Prosecutors had recommended five to seven years in prison, while the defense had sought probation.  Ultimately, U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber settled in the middle, citing Coscia's age and health, as well as the ambiguous amount of financial loss incurred by the victims.

"This is a very serious crime and it has serious consequences. ... (Coscia) has helped a lot of people over the years, not only family and friends, but also fellow traders.  But he also engaged in spoofing and had no financial need to do so," Leinenweber said shortly before announcing the sentence.

Federal prosecutors were pleased with the outcome. "There was and has been this sort of suggestion throughout the course of this prosecution that this criminal case is somehow murky or unclear because of technology, because of the use of algorithms. Well, guess what?  A lie is a lie.  Deceit is deceit. ... The defendant cheated faceless victims out of money through deceit over the internet.  Today's result and sentence, I think, is a reflection of that," U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sunil Harjani added that the sentence of imprisonment would send a message to traders in Chicago and throughout the U.S.

Coscia made about $1.4 million in only about two months by victimizing traders including those at Citadel, the Chicago financial services firm formed by billionaire Ken Griffin, when he manipulated the prices of futures contracts on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, prosecutors have said.

Upon leaving the courtroom, Coscia declined to comment.  He smiled as he hugged friends and family who had come to show support.  During the hearing, he gave a brief statement asking for leniency and saying that he takes responsibility for his actions.

Stephen Senderowitz, Coscia's attorney, said he will file an appeal.  During the hearing, Senderowitz emphasized that it's not clear how much money any individual trader lost because of Coscia's actions.  That will be among the issues argued further during the appeal, during which the defense will also challenge the constitutionality of the spoofing law, he said afterward....

The Coscia case is "just the tip of the iceberg" in terms of the government's increasingly active role in such prosecutions, said Renato Mariotti, lead prosecutor on the case before recently joining a private practice.  "For years, many people scoffed at the notion that the government could explain high-frequency trading strategies to judges and juries. No one is laughing anymore," Mariotti said in a statement after the sentencing.

Coscia commissioned the design of computer programs, known as algorithms, to manipulate prices in the markets of various commodities, including gold, soybean meal, soybean oil, high-grade copper, Euro FX and Pounds FX currency futures, prosecutors said.

Among Coscia's family, there was some feeling that the sentencing could have gone worse. During the hearing, Anthony Coscia, Michael Coscia's uncle and a counselor at a Catholic high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., quoted passages from Shakespeare and the Bible while speaking on behalf of his nephew's character.... "The judge seemed to show some compassion," the elder Coscia said as he left the courtroom.

July 14, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Alaska joins ever-growing list of "red states" enacting significant sentencing reforms

As reported in this local article, headlined "Alaska gov. signs bill to cut down on incarceration using data analytics," earlier this week the largest US state by land mass became the latest "red state" to enact significant data-driven sentencing reforms intended to reduce prison populations. Governor Bill Walker penned this op-ed in conjunction with his bill signing, which includes these notable passages highlighting the successes of reforms in other "red states":

The criminal justice reform bill makes a number of very positive changes.  A 13-member criminal justice commission — comprised of judges, prosecutors and members of the law enforcement community — spent seven months participating in a rigorous, data-driven process that led to 21 recommendations.

Each recommendation was rooted in research, and most were modeled after successful policies in other states. Those recommendations became SB 91.  The bill was vetted through more than 50 hearings in five legislative committees. It passed with two-thirds majorities in both the House and the Senate.

For the past decade, criminal justice policy has been developed without data or research.  That needed to be changed. Senate Bill 91 is a reform effort aimed at maximizing the public safety return for each dollar spent.

Alaska has the highest per-capita rate of violent crime and one of the highest recidivism rates in the country.  Rather than continue to spend more money on longer sentences that did not change criminal behavior or reduce crime, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative redirects some of those resources into proven strategies.

Senate Bill 91 reinvests $99 million over six years into crime-reduction programs, such as substance abuse treatment, re-entry services, pretrial supervision, violence prevention and victims’ services.  Senate Bill 91 is expected to produce significant savings to the state by averting projected growth in the prison population and reducing the current prison population by 13 percent over the next decade.  The reforms are estimated to save a total of $380 million ($211 million in direct net savings; $169 in savings from averted growth).

These reforms are working in other states:

• South Carolina has seen a 12 percent reduction in crime since reform was adopted in 2010.

• Kentucky has seen a 17 percent reduction in crime since adopting reform in 2011.

• South Dakota has seen an 8 percent reduction in crime since adopting reform in 2013.

• Texas stopped building more prisons and invested instead on programs proven to reduce recidivism. The state has now averted $3 billion in prison costs, and crime has declined 26 percent — the lowest since 1968.

All of these states reduced their prison populations and reinvested in crime-reduction strategies.

The current approach in Alaska is not working.  It can be likened to taking a broken car to a mechanic who only has a wrench and a screwdriver.  More time in the shop with the same limited tools won’t fix the car.  Senate Bill 91 provides more tools.

About 9 in 10 of our prisoners will eventually return to our communities.  Our task is to ensure proper supervision and treatment to change criminal behavior.  Lower recidivism rates mean fewer prisoners and fewer victims, and a healthier, safer Alaska for all of us.

July 14, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Law Enforcement Leaders write letter to Prez candidates Trump and Clinton to urge sentencing reform

As reported via this press release from Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, in a letter addressed "to Republican Donald J. Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, leading groups representing more than 30,000 current and former police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, district attorneys, attorneys’ general and U.S. Attorneys from all 50 states call for sensible steps to address burgeoning prison populations." According to the press release, this letter "marks the first time the law enforcement community has united with one voice to ask major party candidates to support reducing imprisonment" and thus represents "a powerful reversal from law enforcement’s past support of rigid sentencing laws, and signatories asked the candidates to consider the expertise and perspective that led them to the change of heart."

The full letter is available at this link and it gets started this way

Dear Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton:

We write to you as representatives of our nation’s largest law enforcement organizations.  Collectively our membership includes more than 30,000 law enforcement professionals — current and former police chiefs, sheriffs, district and assistant district attorneys, attorneys’ general and U.S. Attorneys from all 50 states.

As the presumptive nominees for President of the United States, we hope that you will take into consideration the perspective of law enforcement as you set your policies.  We believe there is an urgent need for the next Administration to help promote the public safety of this country, reduce recidivism, and reform sentencing policies.

As the men and women who dedicate our lives each day to protect this country’s people, public safety and the administration of justice is our utmost priority.  Every day, we are required to make tough judgment calls.  Sometimes, that judgment call involves locking-up individuals for a long period of time for a heinous crime that damaged a community.  We want dangerous offenders off our streets, and behind bars.  We want to make sure the people in the communities we serve are protected.  Today we are proud that our country is safer than it has been in a generation, and we work hard every day to ensure it remains that way.

However, we also know that our burgeoning prison population is creating a new public safety challenge.  Though this may seem counterintuitive, we know from our experience as law enforcement officials that over-relying on incarceration does not deter crime.  As prison budgets have continued to rise, funding for state and local law enforcement has been slashed, negatively impacting innovative work in the field including diversion programs, updating information-sharing systems, and smart policing tactics.  With finite prison space, we believe prison should be used for the most dangerous offenders.

Budget aside, law enforcement across the country has shifted to embrace rehabilitation and the opinion that certain individuals in our prison system are serving sentences that are too long for the crime they committed.  We also realize that, as we see the same offenders reenter the criminal justice system time and time again, we must be creative and devise innovative programs to reduce recidivism, including job training, addiction counseling, and other productive activities.

July 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

July 13, 2016

Wisconsin Supreme Court rejects due process challenge to use of risk-assessment instrument at sentencing

In prior posts here and here, I noted the notable Loomis case in Wisconsin in which the defendant was contesting on due process grounds the reliance by a sentencing court on risk-assessment tools.  Today the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued this lengthy opinion rejecting the defendant's constitutional challenge.  The Court's extended introduction to its extended opinion is thoughtful, and includes these passages:

In 2007, the Conference of Chief Justices adopted a resolution entitled "In Support of Sentencing Practices that Promote Public Safety and Reduce Recidivism." It emphasized that the judiciary "has a vital role to play in ensuring that criminal justice systems work effectively and efficiently to protect the public by reducing recidivism and holding offenders accountable." The conference committed to "support state efforts to adopt sentencing and corrections policies and programs based on the best research evidence of practices shown to be effective in reducing recidivism."

Likewise, the American Bar Association has urged states to adopt risk assessment tools in an effort to reduce recidivism and increase public safety. It emphasized concerns relating to the incarceration of low-risk individuals, cautioning that the placement of low-risk offenders with medium and high-risk offenders may increase rather than decrease the risk of recidivism. Such exposure can lead to negative influences from higher risk offenders and actually be detrimental to the individual's efforts at rehabilitation.

Initially risk assessment tools were used only by probation and parole departments to help determine the best supervision and treatment strategies for offenders. With nationwide focus on the need to reduce recidivism and the importance of evidence-based practices, the use of such tools has now expanded to sentencing.  Yet, the use of these tools at sentencing is more complex because the sentencing decision has multiple purposes, only some of which are related to recidivism reduction....

Use of a particular evidence-based risk assessment tool at sentencing is the heart of the issue we address today. This case is before the court on certification from the court of appeals. Petitioner, Eric L. Loomis, appeals the circuit court's denial of his post-conviction motion requesting a resentencing hearing.

The court of appeals certified the specific question of whether the use of a COMPAS risk assessment at sentencing "violates a defendant's right to due process, either because the proprietary nature of COMPAS prevents defendants from challenging the COMPAS assessment's scientific validity, or because COMPAS assessments take gender into account."

Loomis asserts that the circuit court's consideration of a COMPAS risk assessment at sentencing violates a defendant's right to due process.  Additionally he contends that the circuit court erroneously exercised its discretion by assuming that the factual bases for the read-in charges were true.

Ultimately, we conclude that if used properly, observing the limitations and cautions set forth herein, a circuit court's consideration of a COMPAS risk assessment at sentencing does not violate a defendant's right to due process.

We determine that because the circuit court explained that its consideration of the COMPAS risk scores was supported by other independent factors, its use was not determinative in deciding whether Loomis could be supervised safely and effectively in the community.  Therefore, the circuit court did not erroneously exercise its discretion.

Prior related posts:

July 13, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

What should we make of Donald Trump declaring himself the "law and order" and "compassion" candidate?

At the risk of prompting an excessive focus on politics over policy, I am genuinely interested in hearing reader thoughts on this recent Politico article, headlined "Trump: 'I am the law and order candidate'."  Here are excerpts:

Hillary Clinton can add the title “secretary of the status quo” to her political résumé, according to Donald Trump, who on Monday also bestowed another moniker upon himself: “the law and order candidate.”

“We must maintain law and order at the highest level or we will cease to have a country, 100 percent,” he said during a speech in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in which he heaped praise upon America’s law enforcement officers. “We will cease to have a country. I am the law and order candidate.”...

“Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is weak, ineffective, pandering, and as proven by her recent email scandal which was an embarrassment not only to her but to the entire nation as a whole,” Trump continued. “Not only am I the law and order candidate, but I am also the candidate of compassion, believe it. The candidate of compassion.”

Trump’s remarks backing America’s law enforcement officers came at the top of a planned speech in which he outlined plans to fix health care for U.S. military veterans and offered a 10-point proposal to reform the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs....

The presumptive Republican nominee was preceded at his rally by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who likewise praised law enforcement. “We need a president who will once again put law and order at the top of the priority of the presidency in this country,” Christie said. “Our police officers, the men and women who stand each day to protect us need to understand that the president of the united states and his administration will give them the benefit of the doubt, not always believe that what they’ve done is somehow wrong.”

July 13, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Two articles asking the hard questions about criminal justice reform circa summer 2016

These two recent pieces from two distinct sources ask, in their headlines, two astute questions about the prospects for significant criminal justice reform in the weeks and months ahead:

July 13, 2016 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 12, 2016

"Pokémon Go Craze Sparks Worries About Sex Offenders, Cybercriminals"

MaxresdefaultMy students and regular readers know I am eager to assert that any and every aspect of modern law and life has a sentencing/crime and punishment angle. In service to that claim, I could not resist highlighting this new local NYC article which shares the headline of this post and demonstrates that the latest gaming craze in not immune from criminal justice concerns. Here are the (serious?) particulars:

The Pokémon Go app has been all the rage in recent days, but new concerns have mounted about criminals abusing the game.  As CBS2’s Jennifer McLogan reported, there are worries that sex offenders might use the app to lure children, and cybercriminals might steal people’s information.

Sulma Rivas is part of a Pokémon Go scavenger hunt adventure craze. So are her three children. Rivas keeps a watchful eye. “I don’t want to do it when my mom’s not around, because I could get hurt,” said Mylie Rivas, 10.

Pokémon Go is exploding in popularity, and Babylon town officials have been monitoring hundreds of people of all ages circling the lake in Argyle Park -- with their heads down and their smartphones in hand.  When asked if he was playing unsupervised, Ethan Fortaleza, 12, smiled and said, “Maybe.” Ethan said his parents dropped him off in a safe area. But county officials are worried about the luring component of the game.

With 38,000 registered sex offenders in New York state, police fear that it might be easy for someone to fake a Pokémon Go ID and stalk a child player. “The people who are the quickest to adapt to new trends in social media technology are criminals and predators,” said Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.  Bellone wants Pokémon developer Niantic to install e-stop technology, making it tougher for predators to sign on and demanding more checks and balances.

After downloading the app, players are asked to sign up with their Google accounts, using existing credentials to ensure the process is fast and simple. But that can put at risk users’ emails, cameras, photos, and storage.  That pool of data could be a boon for cybercriminals.

“I haven’t heard anything about that. That would be unfortunate,” said Samara Katini, 21. “I probably wouldn’t play the game if that was a real problem.”...

Ninatic said it is working closely with authorities to keep all players safe. The company said it has no plans to share the data it collects with third parties.

July 12, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (14)

Some mid-summer highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Because federal statutory sentencing reform has stalled in Congress and with the Supreme Court now on its extended summer break, major new sentencing stories are relatively rare these days.  In contrast, over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, I have been struggling greatly to keep up with all the marijuana reform news.  These recent posts from the last few weeks highlight just some of the significant summer stories that seem worth following:

July 12, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Why Capital Punishment Is No Punishment at All"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative article by Jason Iuliano just recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Capital punishment has generated an incredible amount of public debate.  Is the practice constitutional?  Does it deter crime?  Is it humane?  Supporters and opponents of capital punishment disagree on all of these issues and many more. There is perhaps only one thing that unites these two camps: the belief that the death penalty is society’s most severe punishment.

In this Article, I argue that this belief is mistaken. Capital punishment is not at the top of the punishment hierarchy.  In fact, it is no punishment at all.  My argument builds from a basic conception of punishment endorsed by the Supreme Court: for something to qualify as a punishment, it must be bad, in some way, for the person who is punished.  By drawing upon the philosophical literature regarding death, I show that this is not the case.  Contrary to our intuitions, the death penalty is not bad, in any way, for a condemned criminal.

This conclusion should not be understood to suggest that death is never bad. In most circumstances, death is bad.  There are, however, situations in which it is not, and capital punishment, as employed in the United States penal system, is one such situation.  By showing that capital punishment is not bad for the condemned criminal, I provide a strong constitutional objection to the practice.

July 12, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

Federal prosecutors want former Gov Blagojevich to get same 14-year prison term at resentencing despite a few vacated convictions

As reported in this local article, headlined "Feds: Give Blago 14 years all over again," federal prosecutors do not believe that the partial success that former Illinois governor had when appealing his corruption convictions should produce any benefit at his upcoming resentencing. Here are the details from resentencing memos filed this week:

Federal prosecutors want former Gov. Rod Blagojevich sentenced to 14 years in prison all over again. But Blagojevich hopes the federal judge who originally hammered him with that 14-year sentence will reconsider and give him as little as five years behind bars.

Blagojevich has already been locked up for four years in a Colorado prison. Next month, his battle to overturn his conviction could land him back in front of U.S. District Judge James Zagel for re-sentencing, after years of cries that Blagojevich was dealt too severe a punishment. The feds stood by the sentence in a sentencing memo filed just before midnight Monday, though.

“Corruption spreads unless it is deterred,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Riggs Bonamici wrote in the memo. “Public officials who gain from corrupt deals are incentivized to do more, and successes inspire other public officials to see if they can do it too.”

Meanwhile, Blagojevich’s lawyers made an appeal for mercy and opened a window into Blagojevich’s four years behind bars. They said the former governor worked in the kitchen warehouse, taught Civil War and World War II history and studied music as a way to connect to his daughter Annie, who studied classical piano. Lawyer Leonard Goodman wrote that Blagojevich formed a band with another inmate called “The Jailhouse Rockers” that broke up when the other inmate was released.

“Blagojevich’s number one priority during his four plus years of incarceration has been to repair and mitigate the harm that his actions have done to his wife and children,” Goodman wrote. “Blagojevich speaks to his family nearly every evening.”

Some older related posts on the Blagojevich case:

July 12, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

July 11, 2016

PBS widely premiering sex offender documentary "Prevert Park"

Pervert-ParkposterAs detailed via this PBS page, tonight is the official premiere for a notable film about a notable group of criminal offenders. The film is titled "Pervert Park," and here are excepts from the PBS description of this hour-long film:

Pervert Park by Scandinavian filmmakers Frida Barkfors and Lasse Barkfors takes place at Florida Justice Transitions in St. Petersburg, Fla., founded in 1996 by Nancy Morais, the mother of a sex offender who had difficulty finding a place to live after his conviction.  It looks like your average trailer park, but this is the place 120 residents call home.  Their lives are heavily regulated: Offenders are forbidden by law from living within 1,000 feet of any place children congregate. The residents are required to check in with the Florida State Police twice a year, are monitored by satellite surveillance and are listed in a sex-offender registry easily available online as a phone app. But the park also provides space for small businesses, including a hair salon. All of the program’s staff are convicted sex offenders as well.

There are currently more than 800,000 convicted sex offenders in the United States, and the country has seen an estimated 15% increase in registered sex offenders over the past five years.  But the film offers a mindset-challenging look at this deeply stigmatized category of criminals.  According to Florida Justice Transitions president and CEO Jim Broderick, the park’s residents want to “become productive members of society and want to give back.”

The documentary does not stint on candid discussions of the offenses committed by the residents, who say they feel free to open up in-group sessions led by therapist Don Sweeney. Stories vary from that of Jamie, a 22-year-old man caught in an Internet sting after expressing interest in having sex with a minor — which Sweeney characterizes as a common case of entrapment — to far more disturbing and unforgivable crimes.

A resident named Patrick confesses to an early infatuation with pornography and a life marked by failed personal relationships. He raped a young Mexican girl, which he characterized as an act of revenge “against all women.” Several residents tell of being sexually abused as children.  Will says he was “fondled by a babysitter when I was 6 years old.”  As an adult, he exposed himself to a young girl and spent several years in jail.

A harrowing story is told by Tracy, who says her father began having sex with her when she was a child. She was later abused by her mother’s boyfriends, which “caused my body to want those same feelings.”  She eventually had sex with cousins and underwent an abortion at 11 years old; she would later have sex with her own son.  According to therapist Sweeney, Tracy was “groomed” for abuse by her father, who insisted sex was a natural way to show affection. She in turn groomed her son by asking his “permission.” He continued the cycle of abuse, later sexually assaulting a 3-year-old boy....

Pervert Park raises significant questions.  Should America give these criminals a second chance?  And can their experiences help in devising a successful strategy for reducing the growing number of sex crimes?

“The typical reaction of normal citizens is, ‘We don’t care. They committed a crime and we don’t care if they die,'” says Sweeney.  Yet one offender says it is time not only for greater public understanding of sexual crimes, but for the offenders to take the lead in stating their case.  “You have to look at the bigger picture,” he says. “Nobody will stand up and fight for us, and that’s why we’ve got to do something about it now.”

“These are the crimes that are often too painful or uncomfortable to discuss,” say filmmakers Frida and Lasse Barkfors. “These are the people no one wants to live amongst.  These are the neighbors we wish away and, through sex offender laws and labeling, literally and figuratively move to the outskirts of our towns and our lives.  And yet there they are, 1,000 feet away from our schools and our parks and playgrounds and churches.

“Although many of their crimes are unspeakable, what do we, as a community, gain from our willful silence?  If we hope to curb the cycle and culture of sexual violence, is there value in exploring the lives of sex offenders, regardless of how heartbreaking and difficult it might be?”

July 11, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (45)

Spotlighting that the death penalty, practically speaking, is now really dying

BuzzFeed News reporter Chris Geidner has this lengthy and timely article highlighting some notable capital realities circa 2016. The piece carries this full headline: "Practically Speaking, The Death Penalty Is Disappearing In The United States: Although nearly 3,000 people are on death row in America, there has not been an execution in the country for two months — and few executions are expected in the coming months."  Here is the start of a piece that merits a full read:

It has been two months since any state in the United States has carried out an execution. This marks the longest time between executions in the U.S. since the Supreme Court effectively halted them in the fall of 2007 through spring 2008 while considering a case about the constitutionality of lethal injection.

This time, the situation is very different. Although there are pending court cases about the death penalty’s application, the source of the two-month stoppage in executions isn’t the Supreme Court. It’s a variety of state-specific issues, ranging from the aftermath of Supreme Court rulings that come down earlier this year to drug availability to fallout from botched executions.

The pause on executions — since it is state-specific — won’t last forever.  The stoppage could end as soon as Thursday if an execution scheduled for Georgia goes ahead as planned.  It isn’t, however, only that there have been no executions in the past two months.  This year, there have been fewer executions overall — just 14 in the first half of the year — than in years past.  It’s extremely unlikely, moreover, that the number will be higher in the second half of the year.

There are, in fact, only three states — Georgia, Missouri, and Texas — that have executed anyone since January of this year. What’s more, these states appear to be the only ones that could hold an execution today — despite the nearly 3,000 people on death row across the country.  The only other state where executions still seem to be a possibility this year is Arkansas, and that is only so if the state obtains a new supply of execution drugs — which is by no means a sure thing.

Before the 2007-08 gap in executions, the next most recent time when there was such a gap was nearly 25 years ago, when there were no executions held between Nov. 12, 1991, and Jan. 22, 1992.  Even then, the stoppage is not entirely comparable to the current one because there often have been shorter periods with no executions surrounding the holiday season.  Gaps prior to then were more common, but they were due to the fact the states were still passing and implementing their execution process in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision approving execution statutes after a nationwide ruling against the death penalty laws four years earlier.

In short, this is an unprecedented moment in the modern era of the death penalty.  Why, in the absence of any overarching federal prohibition on executions, is this so?

July 11, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (34)

First Circuit finds sentence enhanced based on a song (and thrice longer than guideline range) substantively unreasonable

Thanks to Howard Bashman at How Appealing, I did not miss the interesting First Circuit panel ruling in Alvarez-Núñez, No. 15-2127 (1st Cir. July 9, 2016) (available here), declaring an above-guideline sentence substantively unreasonable. Here are excepts from an opinion that has a wordy flair that would justify reading in full:

In this case, the sentencing court confused the message with the messenger. That led the court to blur the line between the artistic expression of a musical performer and that performer's state of mind qua criminal defendant. Concluding, as we do, that this line-blurring undermined the plausibility of the court's sentencing rationale (and, thus, rendered the sentence substantively unreasonable), we vacate and remand for resentencing....

Evidence extrinsic to the protected words or conduct may make clear that a performance or artistic work speaks to a defendant's motive, state of mind, or some other attribute in a way that is relevant to sentencing.  In the absence of such extrinsic evidence, the mere fact that a defendant's crime happens to resemble some feature of his prior artistic expression cannot, by itself, establish the relevance of that expression to sentencing.

Evidence that might support such an inference is conspicuously lacking in this case. Nothing in the record indicates that the lyrics or music videos had any direct application either to the defendant or to his lifestyle.  Nor is there any basis for a claim that they are unlawful in any respect.  By like token, there is no hint that the defendant had any prior involvement with illegal firearms, much less with violence or murder.  The government did not so much as attempt to prove any uncharged conduct, nor did the district court make any findings about the defendant's involvement in any other criminal activity. To the contrary, the PSI Report — accepted in this regard both by the government and the district court — confirms that, at age 34, the defendant had no adult criminal history.

The district court's conclusions — that the lyrics and music videos comprised "objective evidence . . . that this [crime] was not a mistake," that they reflected that the defendant had a history of involvement "with firearms, with violence, [and] with murders," and that they made it likely that the defendant possessed the gun for nefarious purposes — thus rested entirely on naked inferences drawn from the content of the lyrics and music videos....

Taking the lyrics and music videos as "objective evidence" of factors relevant to sentencing, without an iota of corroborating evidence, results in a sentencing rationale wholly unsupported by the record. Like a house built upon a porous foundation, a sentence built upon a rationale that is unsupported by the record cannot stand.

July 11, 2016 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 10, 2016

"Inmates in NY get an Ivy League education behind bars"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy CBS News piece.  Here are excerpts:

Inside Building 82, down the hall from the cosmetology course, Columbia University Professor Christia Mercer is teaching philosophy. If education is said to free the mind, it is the only freedom a group of particular students in Bedford Hills, New York have. These students are inmates at the Taconic Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills.

"So having done Plato and thought about early Christianity, Roman notions of virtue, we now have a chance to really think seriously about Augustine and his views, and I think it's really pretty mind-blowing, right?" Mercer asked the class.

Perhaps more "mind-blowing" is the transformation from prisoner to pupil. Cecile Davidson is serving one to three years for grand larceny.  "Right now we're working on Plato, Socrates, and just the thought, the mindset of Socrates before he went into prison," Davidson said.

"I believe Plato.  I believe that if you separate the body from the soul, you can obtain that truth," said another student, Leah Faria, whose "truth" includes a second-degree murder conviction.  Faria has been incarcerated 19 years and goes before the parole board for the first time in 2018....

Faria is one of nearly 900 students enrolled throughout New York state prisons in an education program, offering associates, bachelors and even Master's degrees from some of the country's most elite universities.  Twenty-two colleges and universities — including Columbia, Bard, Cornell and Vassar — send professor behind walls in the empire state every week.

"It's basically pretty easy," said Columbia University Professor Mercer. Easy, because Mercer does not change the course much, even in a prison system where 50 percent of the inmates — one out of every two — didn't graduate from high school. "We did teach Aeschylus and Euripides and so on ... so I am not lowering my standards at all," Mercer said. "That would be an insult to them."

In fact, Mercer — a distinguished member of the faculty at one of the most prestigious universities in the land - admitted that even she has been schooled while behind bars, when teaching the play "Twelfth Night" by Shakespeare. "In all my years of thinking about the play, I've never heard anyone give an argument for why it was inappropriate to treat Malvolio in the way that he was treated," Mercer said. "It was just this astonishingly insightful analysis of this play in ways that I had never thought of before....

This fall, New York's education program will expand, over the objections of state lawmakers, who rebuffed Gov. Andrew Cuomo's request for more money.  So instead, Cuomo teamed up with Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance to divert $7.5 million in criminal forfeiture money to add at least 800 more students.

"This is a public safety issue. I know that data supports my decisions and therefore, I think the citizens of the state should understand that this makes sense in terms of community safety," Vance said.

According to the state, 39 percent of New York's inmates commit another crime once they get out. But with a college degree from the program, the recidivism rate slides to 16 percent - a drop of more than half. "They don't come back into our system. And that's really how we know it works," said Linda Hollmen, director of education for New York's Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.

July 10, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (4)