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August 6, 2016

New research suggests nature videos can help reduce prison violence

This new science article reports on notable new research on prison violence under the headline "Nature Documentaries May Help Ease Aggression in Prisons." Here are excerpts:

Violent altercations in prisons can be dangerous for inmates and prison staff alike. Now, a new small study suggests that showing nature documentaries to inmates may help to ease aggression in prisons.

The study took place in the Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon, in a maximum-security unit housing 48 inmates. Over a year in which half of the inmates had an opportunity to watch nature videos projected in a recreation yard, those who saw the videos were involved in 26 percent fewer violent infractions than those who didn't.

"This is equivalent to 13 fewer violent incidents over the year," study researcher Patricia Hasbach, a clinical psychotherapist in a private practice, said ... at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. The reduction is important, Hasbach said, as most violent altercations end in injury for either inmates or staff....

The videos showed everything from oceans to African savannas. Surveys revealed that 80 percent of the inmates who saw the videos said they felt calmer after viewing them, Hasbach reported. Seventy percent said they remembered the nature videos later, in times of stress, and were able to calm themselves down. The researchers could find no downsides of the videos — everyone surveyed disagreed, for example, that the videos made them more agitated. In in-depth interviews, inmates spoke of the benefits of the nature imagery....

The researchers didn't test whether other types of videos would have had similar effects, Hasbach said, but previous research in health care settings has found nature videos to be more mentally beneficial than other content, such as daytime television, urban scenes and abstract art. Other psychological research has found that nature-based activities improve function in kids with attention deficit disorder and that outdoor activities boost self-esteem. Just the color green may boost mood and motivation during exercise.

Prison officials are now transferring the nature videos to other parts of the facility, Hasbach said, and a lower-security women's prison in Oregon is also starting the same program. Prisons in six other states have contacted the researchers for information on how to institute similar video programs in their own correctional facilities, she said.

August 6, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Interesting results from survey of crime victims suggests they support "smart on crime" reforms

This Washington Post article, headlined "Even violent crime victims say our prisons are making crime worse," reports on this results of an interesing survey of crime victims.  Here are excerpts:

A first-of-its-kind national survey finds that victims of crime say they want to see shorter prison sentences, less spending on prisons and a greater focus on the rehabilitation of criminals.  The survey, conducted in April and released Thursday by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform group, polled the attitudes and beliefs of more 800 crime victims pooled from a nationally representative sample of over 3,000 respondents....

 "Perhaps to the surprise of some, the National Survey on Victims’ Views found that the overwhelming majority of crime victims believe that the criminal justice system relies too heavily on incarceration, and strongly prefer investments in treatment and prevention to more spending on prisons and jails," according to the report.

By two-to-one, victims said the criminal justice system should focus more on rehabilitating people who commit crimes, as opposed to punishing them.  By similar margins, the victims preferred shorter prison sentences over keeping criminals incarcerated "as long as possible."...

More recent surveys have uncovered overwhelming support for eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for federal crimes.  But congressional efforts to implement policies like these have often been stymied by "tough-on-crime" senators, including Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who are skeptical of many reform efforts. They often cite the experiences of crime victims and their families in their arguments against reform.  For instance, in 2009 Feinstein and Republican Sen. Jon Kyl argued in an op-ed that "for too long, our court system has tilted in favor of accused criminals and has proven appallingly indifferent to the suffering of crime victims." In 2014, Grassley argued on the Senate floor that "lower mandatory minimum sentences mean increased crime and increased victims.  Why would we vote to increase crime and create more crime victims?"

But the new survey suggests that crime victims' interests don't always align with those of the tough-on-crime lawmakers who invoke their names. The survey suggests this may be because many crime victims don't see prison as an effective tool for reducing the crime rate and preventing others from being victimized.

In the survey, 52 percent of victims said that prison makes people more likely to commit crimes again. Only 19 percent said that prison helps rehabilitate people into better citizens.  This skepticism of prisons is in line with most social science research, which has generally shown that mass incarceration causes more crime than it prevents, that institutionalizing young offenders makes them more likely to commit crime as adults, and that spending time in prison teaches people how to be better criminals....

The survey report quotes Judy Martin, an Ohio woman whose son was shot and killed in a parking lot.  "The way our criminal justice system is set up currently doesn’t allow for redemption," Martin says.  "We must treat each other, even those among us who have made serious mistakes, with more humanity.  It’s the only way forward." 

The full report, which is titled "Crime Survivors Speak," is available at this link.

August 6, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

August 5, 2016

"Behind the Olympics: Brazil's Dirty Incarceration Secret"

I thought this Ozy article, which has the headline that I am using as a post title, woud make a fiting and timely posting in light of tonight's Opening Ceremonies.  Here are excerpts:

“Brazil’s prisons are illegal, and if I wanted to, I could set thousands of prisoners free,” Luis Carlos Valois declares. It is both a comment on the power of judges in Brazil to interpret the law at will, and an insight into Valois’ rebelliousness.  Seated behind his huge wooden desk, with an enormous flag of Brazil posted nearby, he cuts an imposing figure.  But his shaved head, muscles and tattoos make Valois resemble the Brazilian jujitsu champion he was in 1995 more than an establishment man.

OK, he concedes, he would end up behind bars himself if he really unleashed thousands of prisoners into the streets. But he’s serious about using the system to do just that.  His work agitating for better prison conditions and offering lenient sentences for petty drug offenses has earned him at least one death threat and a flurry of bad press.  Under Brazilian and international law, prisons in Brazil are supposed to provide inmates access to healthcare, individual cells and protection from death threats.  In reality, however, prisons in Manaus are two to three times more crowded than they should be, Valois says, with scores of inmates sharing the same cell.  Access to basic healthcare was described as “inadequate” in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report.  Inmates sleep in hammocks or in corridors, with cockroaches and rats scuttling past.  A study in Rio de Janeiro last year found 54 percent of those in pretrial detention may be innocent.

The conditions recall America’s prison system, overcrowded and rife with drug offenders.  Brazil trails only the U.S., China and Russia in size of prison populations, according to Human Rights Watch.  The homicide rate among the prison population — totaling half a million — reaches 150 for every 100,000, says Ilona Szabó of think tank Igarapé Institute. Additional terrifying stats: More than half of prisoners are 18 to 29 years old, many of whom are incarcerated for carrying small amounts of drugs.  Those young men often remain in prison for five to 15 years. In rural locales, men and women sometimes share cells.  Oh, and race: “It seems like they lock up more poor and Black people every time,” Valois says with a sigh.  “Many are more afraid of someone who has stolen a cellphone than a politician who has stolen millions from the people.”  (This in a nation embroiled in its own debates over the 2,000-plus people, many of them Black, killed by police in 2013, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum.)...

Meanwhile, Brazil has increased its prison population by 74 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to the UNDP; the charitable explanation of the hard-on-crime stance is chalked up to a society fed up with violent crime and the increasing power and presence of drug gangs across Brazil.  A “bullet bench” of mainly ex-military or law enforcement officers is busy whipping up popular hard-line laws lowering the age of criminal responsibility.  Yet Valois drives a car that isn’t bulletproof, letting state-funded security men care for his two children instead.  He is best seen as local cartoonist Jack Cartoon depicted him: with a gavel in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other — a pacifist at heart.

August 5, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Are sex offender registries uniquely harmful to the LGBTQ community?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Advocate commentary headlined "Injustice: How the Sex Offender Registry Destroys LGBT Rights."  The piece is more focused on youths placed on registries than on the broader issues of registries and the LGBTQ community, but the article still highlights many important intersectional elements of age, sexual orientation and registries:

It’s hard to believe that until recently, there were still laws on the books that made it illegal to be gay.  Our legal system may no longer explicitly prohibit same-sex relationships, but we have found new ways to criminalize queer kids.  We label them as sex offenders.

Across the country, children are put on sex-offense registries for behaviors that range from “playing doctor” to streaking to having consensual sex with peers a few years apart in age.  The statistics are scary: out of 800,000 people on registries, one out of four — more than 200,000 — are under the age of 18. A child as young as 8 years old can be labeled as a “deviant.”  Additionally, initial investigations show a disproportionate number of these youth are queer.

To be clear, kids do commit serious harm. Regardless of the behavior, though, two decades of research have shown that registration does not reduce recidivism or prevent harm in the first place.  And the LGBTQ disparity isn’t a reflection of justice — or public safety.  It’s an indication of the implicit and explicit bias woven throughout the legal and welfare systems and all the more reason to make eliminating the practice of registering youth a priority.

A report, called "Give the Kid a Break — But Only if He’s Straight," found that LGBTQ young people are given harsher punishments than their straight, gender-conforming counterparts.  In the study, participants suggested disciplinary consequences for an older teenager having sex with a 14-year-old. A 16-year-old straight culprit was much less likely to end up on the registry than a gay 16-year-old....

Even the laws themselves can be blatantly discriminatory.  In the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex sodomy; however, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion included this single negating phrase: “[the] present case does not involve minors, which this comment will refer to as “the minor exception.’” Kennedy was referring to adult-on-minor sexual conduct, but states have used it as a loophole.  Texas law, for example, considers sexual contact with a minor under the age of 17 a felony, unless both participants are under 18, no more than three years apart, and they are of different sexes.

Once young people are on the registry, the trauma grows.  Children are ostracized, socially isolated, and often physically banished from their homes and communities by child safety zones.  Their life becomes a struggle for employment, and they must regularly check in with law enforcement; if they fail to report even a minor change in their lives, they can be sent to prison with a felony.  LGBTQ youth in prison can also be both the targets of sexual abuse and homophobia.  One out of five youth on the registry have attempted suicide. Queer youth already have high rates of suicide, so this adds to the risk.

The laws created to protect our children from harm have potential to be very harmful, potentially fatal, and definitely life-altering.  Registering youth is contrary to public safety and a costly burden to law enforcement, but it is our LGBTQ youth who are paying the high prices.  While they have shown great resilience and courage, this debt is not theirs to pay.  As a society, we need to redress this miscalculation and eliminate youth registration laws.

August 5, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

August 4, 2016

After inquiries by members of Congress, Oregon US Attorney agrees to drop federal marijuana charges against Native American teen

I reported in this post last week about the suprising federal prosecution in Oregon of Devontre Thomas, 19-years-old Native American subject earlier this year to a one-count federal misdemeanor charge for possessing "about a gram" of marijuana.  The press coverage of this case prompted members of Congress from Oregon, as reported in this local piece, to inquire about this prosecution:

Three members of Oregon's congressional delegation are demanding U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams explain why his office is prosecuting a Native American teenager for allegedly possessing a gram of marijuana.  In letter [sent August 4, 2016], U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, all Oregon Democrats, ask Williams to give them a full list of the marijuana crimes his office has pursued since 2014, when Oregon voters legalized recreational cannabis.

"Marijuana possession charges have declined in Oregon over the past few years, and we hope to see that trend continue," the delegation writes. "We hope that your office continues this focus on dangerous criminal activity, rather than pursuing crimes involving a substance legal in Oregon."

Now, and surely not coincidentally, this piece from Marijuanapolitics.com reports in its headline that federal prosecutors are "to Drop Charges Against Oregon Teen Devontre Thomas." Here are the latest details:

Even those that don’t support legalizing cannabis were hard pressed to support the federal government threatening Oregon teen Devontre Thomas with a year long prison term over about a gram of marijuana.  Drug War reform advocates and concerned citizens across the nation were frankly appalled of such a harsh sentence facing a nonviolent teenager in a state that had legalized cannabis with over 56% of the vote in 2014.

Thomas’ attorney, Ruben Iniguez worked tirelessly for his client and he left me a message stating that the charges would be dismissed in 60 days so long as Thomas stayed out of trouble and stayed employed and/or in school, conditions he was confident the teen would fulfill.  Iniguez thanked advocates for reaching out and offering to help with Thomas’ case.

August 4, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"A New Era for Expungement Law Reform? Recent Developments at the State and Federal Levels"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Brian Murray and now available via SSRN. Here is the abbstract:

In the past decade, due to heightened interest in criminal law reform, several states have enacted specific laws attempting to expand the range of expungement remedies available to individuals with publicly available criminal records.  This article evaluates these efforts.

It begins with a discussion of the pervasive availability of arrest and conviction records, both publicly and privately.  It then surveys the myriad collateral consequences that enmesh individuals who have made contact with the criminal justice system and details how jurisdictions have responded with somewhat unambitious expungement regimes.  It notes that while these remedies were crafted with good intentions, they were often limited by skepticism of the soundness of their legal basis.

The article proceeds to evaluate a few legislative efforts at the state level that are geared towards increasing relief, discussing the texts of the laws in depth and comparing them with previously existing remedies.  The article also evaluates recent federal legislative efforts and efforts in the federal courts to allow for expungement at the federal level.  The piece concludes by situating these recent reforms within a broader discussion about how to alleviate the effects and collateral consequences of criminal records.

August 4, 2016 in Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

State public defender, lamenting funding issues, appoints Mizzou Gov to represent indigent defendant

As reported in this local article, headlined "Missouri's head public defender assigns case to Gov. Nixon, cites overburdened staff," Missouri's head public defender as ordered the state's Governor to put his mouth where his money isn't. Here are the details and context:

Fed up with what he says is the governor’s failure to properly fund his overwhelmed office, the state’s lead public defender ordered Gov. Jay Nixon this week to represent a poor person in Cole County this month. Michael Barrett said he was using a provision of state law that allows him in extraordinary circumstances to delegate legal representation “to any member of the state bar of Missouri.” He’s starting with the state’s highest-profile lawyer: Nixon.

Barrett says the governor has repeatedly declined to give the public defender system the money it requests and is withholding promised funding increases this year. “Providing counsel to poor people who face incarceration is the obligation of the state. It’s not fair to go after private attorneys who are trying to pay the rent when they had nothing to do with contributing to this,” Barrett said in an interview Wednesday.

Barrett never exercised this power before because he thought it was wrong to place the burden of public cases on private attorneys “who have in no way contributed to the current crisis,” he wrote in a letter to the governor dated Tuesday. “However, given the extraordinary circumstances that compel me to entertain any and all avenues for relief, it strikes me that I should begin with the one attorney in the state who not only created this problem, but is in a unique position to address it,” Barrett wrote, referring to Nixon, a Democrat who was a four-term attorney general before becoming governor.

Studies have found that the Missouri Public Defender System lacks the resources or staff to serve the state’s neediest. The system has struggled with high caseloads, high turnover, low salaries and tired, overworked attorneys for years. The Missouri constitution allows the director of the public defender system to assign cases to any lawyer in the state, regardless of whether the lawyer is a public defender, Barrett said.

Just this June, the legislature granted the public defender system a $4.5 million increase, which would’ve helped in hiring 10 more employees and some private attorneys on a contractual basis. The office currently employs more than 370 attorneys. Officials with the public defender’s office had asked for a $23.1 million boost, while Nixon recommended a $1 million increase.

Last month, Barrett and the Missouri State Public Defender Commission filed a lawsuit claiming that Nixon withheld $3.5 million of that $4.5 million increase. Barrett claims Nixon is targeting the public defender system for budget cuts while leaving more money for other programs he likes. Nixon’s office could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday night.

A 2014 study found that the state’s public defender system needs almost 270 more attorneys to meet its current case volume, which fluctuates between 70,000 and 100,000 cases every year. In 2009, Missouri’s was the second-lowest-funded public defender system in the country. Now, Barrett says that he has even fewer lawyers than when that study was done. He’s lost 30 lawyers because he doesn’t have the money to hire replacements as employees leave for private law firms. Meanwhile, the system’s caseload has gone up 12 percent over the past year to about 82,000 cases, Barrett said. Each of his lawyers has to handle 125 to more than 200 cases at a time.

The full letter that the state public defender wrote to Gov Nixon when appointing him is available at this link.

August 4, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

August 3, 2016

Prez Obama commutes 214 more federal sentences

Commutations_chart_0As reported here by Politico, "President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 people on Wednesday, bringing his total number of commutations to 562." Here is more about this latest encouraging clemency news, with some political context:

The president's biggest batch of commutations comes as Donald Trump touts a "law and order" message. But for advocates of sentencing reform, it's a sign that the administration isn't letting up on the 2014 Justice Department initiative to ease punishments for low-level drug offenders who received long sentences due to mandatory minimums. It includes 67 people who had been facing life sentences.

Obama has granted more commutations than his nine most recent predecessors combined, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston noted in a blog post on Wednesday.  However, he added, “Our work is far from finished. I expect the President will continue to grant clemency in a historic and inspiring fashion.”

While criminal justice reform advocates have cheered the intention behind the initiative, they’ve complained that the pace of commutations has failed to meet expectations and that the process appears arbitrary. Eggleston promised to speed things up this spring, noting new resources for the Pardon Attorney, and in April, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote to a consortium of defense attorneys helping prisoners to submit applications, urging them to get applications in by May....

This latest batch of commutations comes at a politically sensitive time, just two weeks after Trump stressed a “law and order theme” at the Republican National Convention, with warnings of danger in the streets fueled by attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.... The focus on policing issues has drawn public attention away from the broader criminal justice reform agenda. Though there is bipartisan support for changes that would reduce mass incarceration, and the House is expected to vote on sentencing reform when it returns in September, advocates acknowledge that prospects for full passage before the election look grim.

The chart reprinted above comes from the White House blog posting by Eggleston, which also includes these statements of note:

Today began like any other for 214 federal inmates across the country, but ultimately became a day I am confident they will never forget. This morning, these individuals received a message from the President: your application for clemency has been granted.

This news likely carries special weight to the 67 individuals serving life sentences – almost all for nonviolent drug crimes – who, up until today, could only imagine what it might be like to once again attend a loved one’s birthday party, walk their child to school, or simply go to the grocery store. All of the individuals receiving commutation today, incarcerated under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws, embody the President’s belief that “America is a nation of second chances.”...

To date, President Obama has granted 562 commutations: more commutations than the previous nine presidents combined and more commutations than any individual president in nearly a century. Of those, 197 individuals were serving life sentences. And, today’s 214 grants of commutation also represent the most grants in a single day since at least 1900.....

In each of these cases, the President examines the application on its individual merits. As a result, the relief afforded is tailored specifically to each applicant’s case. While some commutation recipients will begin to process out of federal custody immediately, others will serve more time.

For some, the President believes that the applicant’s successful re-entry will be aided with additional drug treatment, and the President has conditioned those commutations on an applicant’s seeking that treatment. For others, the President has commuted their sentences to a significantly reduced term so they are consistent with present-day sentencing policies. While these term reductions will require applicants to serve additional time, it will also allow applicants to continue their rehabilitation by completing educational and self-improvement programming and to participate in drug or other counseling services. Underlying all the President’s commutation decisions is the belief that these deserving individuals should be given the tools to succeed in their second chance.

The individual nature of the clemency process underscores both its incredible power to change a person’s life, but also its inherent shortcoming as a tool for broader sentencing reform. That is why action from Congress is so important. While we continue to work to act on as many clemency applications as possible, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system. It is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to work on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President's desk.

August 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

"It's Silicon Valley vs. law enforcement on California death penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this local press report on the alignment of various participants in the debate over the future of the death penalty in California, where voters will be considering reform initiatives this fall.  Here are the details:

Two competing November ballot measures that aim to abolish or expedite California’s long-dormant death penalty each raised more than $3 million through the first half of the year, according to state campaign finance records, and largely drew their funding from a narrow group of major donors: Silicon Valley executives and law enforcement unions.

Proposition 62, which would replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, led its rival campaign with nearly $4.1 million raised through June 30, filings show. Proponents argue that executions are costly, inhumane and bound to kill wrongly convicted people.

The dozen top contributors, each of whom gave at least $50,000, are nearly all affiliated with the technology industry in the Bay Area. They include Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, venture capitalist John O’Farrell, and data management company Integrated Archive Systems, which was founded by major Democratic donor Amy Rao. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Nicholas McKeown, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University who has started several technology companies, have each given $1 million to the effort so far. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Y Combinator CEO Paul Graham both put in $500,000.

Supporters of Proposition 66, an initiative to speed up the death penalty by putting the California Supreme Court in charge of a revised appeals process with strict time limits, raised almost $3.5 million through June 30, according to financial records. It currently can take decades for a death row inmate to exhaust their appeals, though California has not executed anyone since 2006 because of legal challenges to its lethal drug cocktail.

Nearly 80 law enforcement groups have given to the campaign, led by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association with $325,000, the Peace Officers Research Association of California with $305,000, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen with $250,000 and the Los Angeles Police Protective League with $225,000. Among the largest contributors, twenty of whom have donated more than $50,000 to the campaign, are a handful of individuals, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, Orange County businessman Henry T. Nicholas III, and A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former CEO of Univision....

California voters last weighed in on capital punishment in 2012, when another initiative to repeal the death penalty narrowly failed. A January Field Poll showed an even split, with 48 percent of respondents supporting speeding up the process and 47 percent favoring abolishing it. If both Proposition 62 and Proposition 66 pass in November, whichever has a higher number of votes will become law.

Prior related posts:

August 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Does the weather and MLB baseball impact federal sentencing outcomes more than racial factors?

The seemingly somewhat kooky question in the title of this post is prompted by this seemingly somewhat kooky empirical paper now available via SSRN and authored by a group of data researchers and titled "Events Unrelated to Crime Predict Criminal Sentence Length." Here is the paper's abstract (with a key sentence emphasized to explain my post title query):

In United States District Courts for federal criminal cases, prison sentence length guidelines are established by the severity of the crime and the criminal history of the defendant.  In this paper, we investigate the sentence length determined by the trial judge, relative to this sentencing guideline.  Our goal is to create a prediction model of sentencing length and include events unrelated to crime, namely weather and sports outcomes, to determine if these unrelated events are predictive of sentencing decisions and evaluate the importance weights of these unrelated events in explaining rulings.

We find that while several appropriate features predict sentence length, such as details of the crime committed, other features seemingly unrelated, including daily temperature, baseball game scores, and location of trial, are predictive as well.  Unrelated events were, surprisingly, more predictive than race, which did not predict sentencing length relative to the guidelines.  This is consistent with recent research on racial disparities in sentencing that highlights the role of prosecutors in making charges that influence the maximum and minimum recommended sentence.  Finally, we attribute the predictive importance of date to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Booker, after which sentence length more frequently fell near the guideline minimum and the range of minimum and maximum sentences became more extreme.

Based on a quick scan of the paper, I came to the conclusion that one would need to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of both federal sentencing patterns and empirical methods to assess the soundness of the analysis here.  Still, the paper's penultimate paragraph reinforces that this analysis led to some notable conclusions (with my emphasis again added):

A justice system reasonably aspires to be consistent in the application of law across cases and to account for the particulars of a case. Our goal was to create a prediction model of criminal sentence lengths that accounts for non-judicial factors such as weather and sports events among the feature set. The feature weights offer a natural metric to evaluate the importance of these features unrelated to crime relative to case-specific factors. Using a Random Forest, we found several expected crime related features appearing within the top 10% most important features. However, we also found defendant characteristics (unrelated to the crime), sport game outcomes, weather, and location features all predictive of sentence length as well, and these features were, surprisingly, more predictive than the defendant’s race. Further investigating this predictive ability would be of interest to those studying the criminal justice system.

August 3, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

August 2, 2016

In wake of Hurst, Delaware Supreme Court declares state's death penalty unconstitutional

The post-Hurst hydra took an especially big bite out the the death penalty in the First State this afternoon: as reported in this local article, via "a landmark decision, the Delaware Supreme Court has ruled that the state's death penalty statute is unconstitutional." Here are the basics:

A 148-page opinion released Tuesday afternoon said that the current law is a violation of the Sixth Amendment role of the jury. The decision of whether and how to reinstate the death penalty should now be left to the General Assembly, the opinion said.

The question before the top state court arose after the U.S. Supreme Court found in January that Florida's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it gave judges – not juries – the final say to impose a death sentence. Delaware and Alabama are the only other states that allow judges to override a jury's recommendation of life....

The last execution in the state was in 2012, when Shannon Johnson, 28, was killed by lethal injection. All pending capital murder trials and executions for the 14 men on death row are currently on hold while the court considered the constitutionality issue.

The full 148-page opinion in Rauf v. Delaware is available at this link.  A brief per curiam summary kicks off the opinion, starting this way:

The State has charged the Defendant, Benjamin Rauf with one count of First Degree Intentional Murder, one count of First Degree Felony Murder, Possession of a Firearm During those Felonies, and First Degree Robbery.  The State has expressed its intention to seek the death penalty if Rauf is convicted on either of the First Degree Murder counts.  On January 12, 2016, the United States Supreme Court held in Hurst v. Florida that Florida‘s capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death."  On January 25, 2016, the Superior Court certified five questions of law to this Court for disposition in accordance with Supreme Court Rule 41.  On January 28, 2016, this Court accepted revised versions of the questions certified by the Superior Court and designated Rauf as the appellant and the State as the appellee.

In this case, we are asked to address important questions regarding the constitutionality of our state‘s death penalty statute. The Superior Court believed that Hurst reflected an evolution of the law that raised serious questions about the continuing validity of Delaware‘s death penalty statute.  Specifically, Hurst prompted the question of whether our death penalty statute sufficiently respects a defendant‘s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.

Because answering the certified questions requires us to interpret not simply the Sixth Amendment itself, but the complex body of case law interpreting it, we have a diversity of views on exactly why the answers to the questions are what we have found them to be.  But that diversity of views is outweighed by the majority‘s collective view that Delaware‘s current death penalty statute violates the Sixth Amendment role of the jury as set forth in Hurst.  We also have a shared belief that the importance of the subject to our state and our fellow citizens, reflected in the excellent briefs and arguments of the parties, makes it useful for all the Justices to bring our various perspectives to bear on these difficult questions.

August 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"The Effects of DNA Databases on the Deterrence and Detection of Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new empirical paper available via SSRN authored by Jennifer Doleac, Rasmus Landersø and Anne Sofie Tegner Anker. Here is the abstract:

Countries around the world use databases of criminal offenders' DNA profiles to match known offenders with crime scene evidence.  The purpose is to ease police detection work and to increase the probability that offenders get caught if they reoffend, thereby deterring future criminal activity.  However, relatively little is known about the behavioral effects of this law enforcement tool.  We exploit a large expansion of Denmark's DNA database in 2005 to measure the effect of DNA profiling on criminal behavior.  Individuals charged after the expansion were much more likely to be added to the DNA database than similar offenders charged just before that date.

Using a regression discontinuity strategy, we find that the average effect of the DNA database is a reduction in recidivism.  By using the rich Danish register data, we further show that effects are heterogeneous across observable offender characteristics; it is mainly offenders initially charged with violent crime that are deterred from committing new crimes.  We also find that DNA profiling has a positive detection effect, increasing the probability that repeat offenders get caught.  Finally, we find evidence that DNA profiling changes non-criminal behavior: offenders added to the DNA database are more likely to get or remain married.  This is consistent with the hypothesis that, by deterring future criminal behavior, DNA profiling changes an offender’s life course for the better.

August 2, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (2)

Charleston mass murderer now making mass attack on constitutionality of federal death penalty

As reported in this BuzzFeed News piece, headlined "Dylann Roof Challenges Constitutionality Of Federal Death Penalty Law," a notorious mass murderer filed a notable motion in federal court yesterday in an effort to prevent being subject to the ultimate punishment.  Here are the details:

Lawyers for Dylann Roof on Monday filed a motion challenging the federal government’s intention to seek the death penalty in his murder trial, arguing that the penalty is unconstitutional. “[T]his Court should rule that the federal death penalty constitutes a legally prohibited, arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments,” lawyers write in defense of Roof, who is charged with murder for the shooting deaths of nine people inside a historically black South Carolina church this past summer.

In the filing, the lawyers argue that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional, as is the federal death penalty law. “[T]he [Federal Death Penalty Act] may have been designed with as much care as possible under the circumstances, the capital sentencing process that the statute provides is constitutionally inadequate in practice,” the lawyers write. “The results of jurors’ good-faith grappling with the law — arbitrary, biased, and erroneous death verdicts — are intolerable as a matter of due process and proportional punishment.”

The challenge is only being brought, the lawyers write, because the federal government is seeking the death penalty in Roof’s case after rejecting his offer to plead guilty and accept multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole....

In addition to the two broad constitutional challenges, Roof’s lawyers are also challenging the jury selection process referred to as “death qualification” — finding a jury willing to impose the death penalty. As the lawyers note, “conscientious objectors to the death penalty are systematically excluded” from such juries. “Because the practice of death qualifying a jury has no constitutional or statutory underpinnings, distorts the jury function, introduces arbitrariness into capital sentencing and increases the influence of racism and sexism on the death determination, there is no justification for maintaining it,” the lawyers write.

The lawyers are also challenging related to the use of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) in the prosecution, noting that the legislation considered including the death penalty as a punishment but ultimately rejected it. “[D]espite Congress’s deliberate decision not to provide for the death penalty in HCPA prosecutions, the government has effectively amended the statute to permit a death sentence to be imposed,” the lawyers argue. 

The full 34-page filing seeking to "strike the death penalty as a possinle punishment" is available at this link.

A few prior related posts:

August 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

August 1, 2016

Quickly responding to (nonexistant?) problem, NY Gov bars paroled sex offenders from playing Pokemon Go

Pokemon1n-5-webAs reported in this New York Daily News article, headlined "Cuomo orders Pokémon Go prohibition for sex offenders on parole," the chief executive of a state has decided he must chiefly concern himself with who plays with a new video game.  Here are the details (with one seemingly important fact from the story highlighted):

For sex offenders in New York, it will be Pokémon No Go. Gov. Cuomo Sunday ordered that the state make it a condition of parole for sex offenders that they stay away from Pokémon Go and similar interactive games, the Daily News has learned.

The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is barring all registered sex offenders under supervision from downloading, accessing, or playing such Internet gaming activities, under the directive.

Roughly 3,000 predators currently on state parole will be immediately impacted, state officials said.  The state will also be sending guidance to the counties around the state that supervise another 5,000 lower level convicted sex offenders urging them to adopt the new policy.

"Protecting New York's children is priority number one and, as technology evolves, we must ensure these advances don't become new avenues for dangerous predators to prey on new victims," Cuomo said.  "These actions will provide safeguards for the players of these augmented reality games and help take one more tool away from those seeking to do harm to our children."

The Pokémon Go app sends players on a hunt to catch digital Pokémon characters.  If a sex offender is caught playing the game in New York, it would be a violation of the terms of their parole and they could be returned to prison, a Cuomo aide said.

Cuomo also sent a letter to software developer Niantic Inc. to request assistance in keeping Pokémon Go out of the hands of sex predators. "The State has taken action to prohibit sex offenders from using this game, but we need your assistance to make certain that sex offenders will not continue to use Pokémon GO by technologically barring their use," Cuomo wrote in the letter. "Working together, we can ensure that this danger today does not escalate into a tragedy tomorrow."

The governor also directed the Department of Criminal Justice Services to provide Niantic with the most recent version of the state's sex offender registry in the hopes the company will use the list to keep people from having access to the app. The Department of Criminal Justice Services will also contact Apple and Google "to inform them of these public safety concerns and work with them to enhance user safety," Cuomo said.

The order and letter came two days after state Sens. Jeffrey Klein and Diane Savino released a report titled "Protecting Our Children: How Pokémon Go and Augmented Reality Games Expose Children To Sex Offenders." After sending staffers over a two-week period to more than 100 homes of level-2 and level-3 sex offenders in the city, the senators found that characters generated by the Pokémon Go app appeared 57% of the time. That figure rose to 73% when related items like PokeStops and Pokémon gyms are factored in, the report showed. The two senators called for passage of legislation that would keep young children and other players at least 100 feet away from a convicted sex offender's home.

Officials have also expressed concern that a feature of Pokémon Go called a "lure" can make it easier for sex predators to tempt potential victims to come to their homes. Savino on Friday said there's no evidence to any kids were sexually abused after being lured by the Pokémon app.

In light of the last line I have highlighted above, suppose New Yorkers should be grateful that state officials have been so quick to deal with the problem of "Poke Perves" even before such a problem even exists.  Sigh.

August 1, 2016 in Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Will there be fewer than 20 executions in 2016?

As I changed the month on my calendars, I thought to take a looks at the Death Penalty Information Center's list of recent executions and list of scheduled executions.  These lists confirmed my sense that, after a notable number of executions a notable number of states in the first part of 2016 (a total of 14 executions in five different states through early May), there is now almost a de facto moratorium on executions throughout nearly all of the United States.

Specifically, there has been only a single execution in summer 2016 (a few weeks ago in Georgia), and Texas appears to be the only state right now with any serious execution dates scheduled for the rest of 2016.  And if only a couple of the remaining 2016 scheduled Texas executions get delayed, there will be the fewest executions in the US this year in a quarter-century.

With highly symbolic votes on the death penalty's future in California and Nebraska in November, I have already begun thinking about 2016 as a possible "tipping point" year for capital punishment.  But this year's execution realities highlights that, for most functional purposes, the death penalty is continuing to die a slow death throughout the United States.

August 1, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (2)

July 31, 2016

"Boot-Camp Prisons Find Their Time Running Out"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Wall Street Journal article. Here are is how it gets started:

At 5:30 on a misty morning in the Adirondacks, 180 prisoners leapt out of bed when a bugle call blasted over a loudspeaker.  Fifteen minutes later, they were performing synchronized exercises while a drill instructor barked orders. “Motivated! Motivated! Motivated, sir!” the men shouted in unison between calisthenics.

These inmates are serving six-month sentences at Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, one of the last prisons in the U.S. that seek to “shock” inmates out of criminal behavior through a military-style boot camp.  Inmates at the facility typically trade multiyear sentences for six-month stints.

Such programs used to be widespread, but fell out of favor in much of the country amid debate about their effectiveness. Only a handful remain and two of them are in New York, where correction officials say their brand of military-style training reduces recidivism and saves taxpayer money through shorter sentences.  “It instills self-discipline,” said Boyce Rawson, a captain at Moriah. “Inmates take personal pride in themselves as well as their platoon.”

As recently as 1995, according to federal research, there were 75 state-operated boot camps nationwide for adult offenders, 30 for juveniles and 18 in local jails, including at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex.  A 1994 federal crime bill allocated millions for such programs.

While the camps were popular with tough-on-crime politicians, reviews were mixed.  One Justice Department analysis found the camps had a positive effect on inmates’ attitudes, behavior and safety while in prison.  But that analysis and other studies found the programs had no notable impact on recidivism.

The programs gradually closed.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons ended its boot camps in 2005.  New York has closed two facilities in the past several years, leaving Moriah and Lakeview, in Chautauqua County, as the only ones left in the state. Other states have shifted their camps toward what they call more “evidence-based,” rehabilitative models.

July 31, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Reviewing disconcerting realities when kids are put on sex offender registries

Eric Berkowitz has this notable New York Times commentary, headlined "Punishment That Doesn’t Fit the Crime," about juveniles and sex offender registries. Here are excerpts:

When Matthew Grottalio was 10 years old, he and his older brother initiated a touching “game” with their 8-year-old sister. “None of us knew what we were doing,” he said, and he soon forgot about the episode.  But later that year, 1998, his sister’s teacher found out and notified the authorities.  Just weeks after Matthew’s 11th birthday, police officers handcuffed him outside his fifth-grade classroom.

Matthew and his parents agreed to a guilty plea in exchange for two years of probation, which he spent in a foster home. (His brother also pleaded guilty.)  When he returned to his family, they were stunned to learn that he was listed on the Texas sex offender registry website, and would be for 10 years.  He was just 13 years old.  Neighbors threw a Molotov cocktail at his house and shot and killed his family’s dog.  Local newspapers listed him by name along with adult sex offender “monsters” in the area.

He soon “hated life, hated everybody.”  Their sons’ ordeals shattered their parents’ marriage of two decades. Matthew dropped out of high school, ran away, was homeless for two years, sank into drugs and served time for burglary and parole violations.  His decade on the registry had ended by 2011, but internet searches continued to show him on the list — and still do.  Even worse, his parole included restrictions suitable to a serial child rapist.  He was barred from any unsupervised and unapproved contacts with people under 17, and from any contact with his sister, who was by then an adult. (She says she never considered him a threat.)  He also was barred from contact with the children of the woman he married in 2013. Even contact with the baby the couple had together was in limbo until he passed a sex offender evaluation....

Mr. Grottalio’s story is not unusual. In about 40 states, juveniles are listed on sex offender registries, often for their entire lives.  In about 19 states, there is no minimum registration age.  Prepubescent children are listed along with violent adult sex criminals.  While precise data is unavailable, it appears that as many as 24,000 of the nation’s more than 800,000 registered sex offenders are juveniles, and about 16 percent of that population are younger than 12 years old.  More than one-third are 12 to 14....

In her career as a criminal defense lawyer for juveniles and a researcher on juvenile sex offenders, Nicole Pittman, now a vice president at Impact Justice, defended or reviewed about 2,000 juvenile sex cases.  Most involved what she called “normative” sexual behavior and “experimentation.”  Nevertheless, on many sex offender websites, there are juveniles’ photos, names and addresses, and even maps to their homes....

2006, about 32 states had sex offender laws registering juveniles.  That year, the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act mandated, for the first time, that certain youths 14 and over be registered in the state where the violation occurred. (Once that happens, the person also goes on the national registry.) The law also said that offenses such as indecent exposure and public urination had to be included. At least six states now require juveniles to be on the register for life.  Given that state and federal laws have grown into an often conflicting tangle of requirements and penalties, there can be no end to some kids’ ordeals....

The expansion of sex offender laws to include juveniles was based on the assumption that kids who sexually transgress cannot be reformed.  However, research has shown this assumption to be false. Only 1 percent to 7 percent of children who commit sexual offenses will do it again — much lower than the 13 percent recidivism rates for adult sexual offenders.

The policy seems to succeed only in making life difficult for offenders, subjecting them to harassment and isolation. Of the more than 500 youth sex offenders whose cases Ms. Pittman examined, about 100 had attempted suicide.... Knowing this, prosecutors like Vicki Seidl, the senior lawyer in the juvenile division of the Kent County district attorney’s office in Michigan, now push for pleas that keep youths off registries.  Other prosecutors are following suit.

But that alone will not solve the problem.  Juveniles, particularly ones under 14, need to be off the registries entirely. In 2011, the Department of Justice relaxed the requirement for registering juveniles, but legislators still fear that they’ll be accused of being “soft” on sex crimes.

July 31, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)