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August 20, 2016

Notable academic pitch: "Don’t end federal private prisons"

Sasha Volokh has this interesting lengthy commentary explaining his negative response to the announcement this past week (discussed here) that the Justice Department plans to end its use of private prisons. I recommend the full piece (with all its links) for anyone interested in a serious understanding of modern prison policies and practices. Here is how it gets started:

Yesterday, the DOJ announced that it would gradually end its use of private prisons.  You can read the memo by Deputy AG Sally Yates here.  She writes: “I am directing that, as each contract [with a private prison corporation] reaches the end of its term, the Bureau [of Prisons] should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope in a manner consistent with the law and the overall decline of the Bureau’s inmate population.”

Why?  The Yates memo says: “Private prisons . . . compare poorly to our own Bureau facilities. They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security.  The rehabilitative services that the Bureau provides, such as educational programs and job training, have proved difficult to replicate and outsource — and these services are essential to reducing recidivism and improving public safety.”

This is unfortunate, for two reasons.

First, Yates seems to be exaggerating what empirical studies tell us about private vs. public prison comparisons.  They do save money (though how much is a matter of dispute).  And they don’t clearly provide worse quality; in fact, the best empirical studies don’t give a strong edge to either sector.  The best we can say about public vs. private prison comparisons is a cautious “We don’t really know, but the quality differences are probably pretty minor and don’t strongly cut in either direction.”  The Inspector General’s report doesn’t give us strong reason to question that result.

Second, even if all the bad things people say about private prisons were true, why not pursue a “Mend it, don’t end it” strategy?  there’s a new trend in corrections to develop good performance measures and make payments contingent on those performance measures.  If the private sector hasn’t performed spectacularly on quality dimensions to date, it’s because good correctional quality hasn’t been strongly incentivized so far.  But the advent of performance-based contracting has the potential to open up new vistas of quality improvements — and the federal system, if it abandons contracting, may miss out on these quality improvements.

Just some (of many) prior posts about private prisons:

August 20, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Is "tough-on-crime" talk really now a losing political strategy?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Hill commentary authored by Holly Harris and Andrew Howard. Here are excerpts:

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s primary opponent, Paul Nehlen, frequently attacked Ryan’s support for criminal justice reform. Nehlen accused Ryan of pushing Obama’s agenda on jailbreak criminal justice reform policies.  Not only was Nehlen’s narrative wrong, his political calculus was flawed.  Ryan clobbered him on Election Day, winning the primary with more than 80 percent of the vote.

This isn’t the first time justice reform opponents, clinging to the old school thought that “tough on crime” rhetoric still sells with voters, have attempted to use their opposition to these reforms for political benefit.  What they got was the opposite, and here’s why.

First and foremost, it is conservatives in big red states like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina who have led the way on justice reform issues for a decade.  These efforts yielded great success in safely reducing the prison population, saving significant taxpayer resources, and most importantly lowering crime and recidivism rates.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin are just a few of the conservative leaders who are the most ardent champions of, and effective spokespersons for, criminal justice reform.  Given all the state successes, President Obama’s support is actually a bit late to the party.

Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter, vying for conservative Louisiana gubernatorial seat, learned the hard way that attempting to tie his opponent to Obama’s criminal justice reforms was unproductive.  With support from law enforcement, John Bel Edwards doubled down on his push for “bipartisan” criminal justice reforms.  Edwards is now the Governor of Louisiana.

Additionally, polling data from dozens of states across the country shows overwhelming support across the political and ideological spectrum for criminal justice reform.  Replacing one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences with penalties that reflect individual cases polls out the roof in battleground states like Michigan (91%) and Ohio (87%).

Surveys in states that will have hotly-contested Senate races such as Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Nevada, and Speaker Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin show support for reform issues ranging from the 60s to high 80s. The smart political play is to embrace these reforms.

Doing otherwise could backfire. Just ask Alaska’s then-incumbent Senator Mark Begich.  In the state’s 2014 U.S. Senate race, Begich attacked his Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan, alleging he was soft on crime.  Sullivan emerged victorious over Begich and is currently serving as the junior senator from Alaska.

In a time when one in three American adults has a criminal record and every single American family is impacted by our broken justice system, supporting reform not only makes for sound policy but also smart politics.  Which is why this irrational fear of supporting federal legislation similar to the aforementioned state reforms is all the more baffling....

Paul Ryan’s trouncing of his ill-advised primary opponent could be a game changer.  After all, in the new era of smart on crime policy, reform opponents are 0-3.

August 20, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

August 19, 2016

"The Firing Squad as a 'Known and Available Alternative Method of Execution' Post-Glossip"

The title of this post is the title of this timely article now available via SSRN authored by execution-method expert Deborah Denno. Here is the abstract:

In Glossip v. Gross, the United States Supreme Court’s most recent effort to review a state’s lethal injection protocol, the Court affirmed Oklahoma’s use of a drug called midazolam and also stressed that petitioners had failed to “identify a known and available alternative method of execution that entails a lesser risk of pain.”  This Article proposes that the Glossip Court’s “known and available alternative method of execution” requirement, however objectionable, adds another dimension to execution method challenges that attorneys must address.

As Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in Glossip notes, the requirement also strengthens the viability and suitability of the firing squad as an appropriate means of execution.  For example, the firing squad has a long history and world-wide application, making it a “known” method; it is also an easily “available” method, given the pervasive use of firearms in our society for purposes such as law enforcement and self-protection.  There is also ample evidence suggesting that the firing squad is currently the most humane and reliable method of execution and that it meets the “lesser risk of pain” standard.  

Indeed, the primary hurdle faced by advocates of the firing squad is the method’s “primitive” or “violent” image.  Yet this Article contends that there is no evidence that such an image is deserved, quite the contrary. Witnesses to modern firing squad executions describe a process that may be far more sterile in perception and procedure than lethal injection — a viewpoint that may come to be shared by the public and prisoners alike.  In Glossip, Justice Sotomayor’s dissent briefly yet convincingly touches on reasons why death row inmates may prefer the firing squad over lethal injection, marking the first time that a Justice proactively and favorably compared the firing squad — or any other execution method — to lethal injection.  Such practicality may with time trump perceived barbarity in favor of the firing squad as states are increasingly unable to obtain acceptable lethal injection drugs.

August 19, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

A noble and important effort to unpack and contextualize recent crime data

P025_1_00Regular readers surely know about all the original important work done at The Marshall Project, and today they earn my admiration and praise for this lengthy feature piece attempting to bring needed clarity to the latest discussions and debates over crimes rates.  The piece, which is headlined "Crime in Context: Violent crime is up in some places, but is it really a trend?," really demands a full-read (in part because it has a lot of charts and images); the start of the piece provides a flavor of the analysis:

Is crime in America rising or falling? The answer is not nearly as simple as politicians sometimes make it out to be, because of how the FBI collects and handles crime data from the country’s more than 18,000 police agencies. Those local reports are voluntary and sometimes inconsistent.  And the bureau takes months or years to crunch the numbers, so the national data lags behind the current state of crime.

To present a fuller picture of crime in America, The Marshall Project collected and analyzed 40 years of FBI data — through 2014 — on the most serious violent crimes in 68 police jurisdictions. We also obtained data directly from 61 local agencies for 2015 — a period for which the FBI has not yet released its numbers.  (Our analysis found that violent crime in these jurisdictions rose 4 percent last year. But crime experts caution against making too much of year-over-year statistics.)

In the process, we were struck by the wide variation from community to community.  To paraphrase an aphorism about politics, all crime is local.  Each city has its own trends that depend on the characteristics of the city itself, the time frame, and the type of crime.  In fact, the trends vary from neighborhood to neighborhood within cities; a recent study posited that 5 percent of city blocks account for 50 percent of the crime.  That is why most Americans believe crime is worse, while significantly fewer believe it is worse where they live.

We’re making the data we collected available to download, for anyone who might be interested in examining the historic trends.

And here is some more of the crime accounting in this piece:

Are we in the throes of a crime wave sweeping across the nation, or is this a period of stability and safety unlike any we’ve seen in a generation?

The Marshall Project used a widely accepted statistical calculation to get a weighted average of recent years -- essentially smoothing out the year-to-year fluctuations that are common to crime data.  We found that the reported violent crimes rose in our cities last year to its highest point since 2010.  But viewed in the broader context of the past five decades, crime remains near record lows.  Note that we focused on cities, where crime is most prevalent, excluding more affluent suburbs or the sparsely developed rural areas that make up the rest of the country.

President Obama is correct when he says violent crime is near an all-time low. Since 2008, the national rate of violent crime has been lower than at any point since 1976. Although recent data, such as a report compiled by the Major Cities Chiefs Association a professional organization of the leaders of the country’s largest police departments, show crime in several major cities has risen in the past year, the uptick is still dramatically lower than the highs reached in the early 1990s.  That is not expected to change once the FBI releases national numbers for 2015.

Donald Trump’s assertion that the nation has become more dangerous than he (or anybody) has ever seen is clearly inaccurate.  Since Obama was sworn into office, violent crime in the major cities and across the nation has dropped, albeit not as dramatically as in recent history.  New studies such as one published this summer by the National Institute of Justice show homicides rose in dozens of cities last year, though much of that increase was concentrated in just 10: Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Tenn., Philadelphia, Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis.

August 19, 2016 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (2)

US Sentencing Commission finalizes its priorities for the guideline amendment cycle ending May 1, 2017

This new Federal Register notice from the US Sentencing Commission reports on the results of the USSC's meeting yesterday in which the Commission "identified its policy priorities for the upcoming amendment cycle."  Here are what I consider to be highlights from the fourteen listed priorities:

[T]he Commission has identified the following priorities:

(1) Continuation of its work with Congress and other interested parties on statutory mandatory minimum penalties to implement the recommendations set forth in the Commission’s 2011 report to Congress, titled Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System, including its recommendations regarding the severity and scope of mandatory minimum penalties, consideration of expanding the “safety valve” at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), and elimination of the mandatory “stacking” of penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), and to develop appropriate guideline amendments in response to any related legislation.

(2) Continuation of its multi-year examination of the overall structure of the guidelines post-Booker, possibly including recommendations to Congress on any statutory changes and development of any guideline amendments that may be appropriate. As part of this examination, the Commission intends to study possible approaches to (A) simplify the operation of the guidelines, promote proportionality, and reduce sentencing disparities; and (B) appropriately account for the defendant’s role, culpability, and relevant conduct.

(3) Continuation of its study of approaches to encourage the use of alternatives to incarceration.

(4) Continuation of its multi-year study of statutory and guideline definitions relating to the nature of a defendant’s prior conviction (e.g., “crime of violence,” “aggravated felony,” “violent felony,” “drug trafficking offense,” and “felony drug offense”) and the impact of such definitions on the relevant statutory and guideline provisions (e.g., career offender, illegal reentry, and armed career criminal), possibly including recommendations to Congress on any statutory changes that may be appropriate and development of guideline amendments that may be appropriate.

(5) Continuation of its comprehensive, multi-year study of recidivism, including (A) examination of circumstances that correlate with increased or reduced recidivism; (B) possible development of recommendations for using information obtained from such study to reduce costs of incarceration and overcapacity of prisons, and promote effectiveness of reentry programs; and (C) consideration of any amendments to the Guidelines Manual that may be appropriate in light of the information obtained from such study....

(9) Study of offenses involving MDMA/Ecstasy, synthetic cannabinoids (such as JWH-018 and AM-2201), and synthetic cathinones (such as Methylone, MDPV, and Mephedrone), and consideration of any amendments to the Guidelines Manual that may be appropriate in light of the information obtained from such study.

(10) Possible consideration of whether the weapon enhancement in §2D1.1(b)(1) should be amended to conform to the “safety valve” provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) and §5C1.2 (Limitation on Applicability of Statutory Minimum Sentences in Certain Cases)....

(14) Consideration of any miscellaneous guideline application issues coming to the Commission’s attention from case law and other sources, including possible consideration of whether a defendant’s denial of relevant conduct should be considered in determining whether a defendant has accepted responsibility for purposes of §3E1.1.

August 19, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

August 18, 2016

"Justice Department says it will end use of private prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this Washington Post report on some big news emerging from the US Department of Justice this afternoon.  Here is how the report starts:

The Justice Department plans to end its use of private prisons after officials concluded the facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates announced the decision on Thursday in a memo that instructs officials to either decline to renew the contracts for private prison operators when they expire or “substantially reduce” the contracts’ scope. The goal, Yates wrote, is “reducing — and ultimately ending — our use of privately operated prisons.” “They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security,” Yates wrote.

In an interview, Yates said there are 13 privately run privately run facilities in the Bureau of Prisons system, and they will not close overnight. Yates said the Justice Department would not terminate existing contracts but instead review those that come up for renewal. She said all the contracts would come up for renewal over the next five years.

The Justice Department’s inspector general last week released a critical report concluding that privately operated facilities incurred more safety and security incidents than those run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. The private facilities, for example, had higher rates of assaults — both by inmates on other inmates and by inmates on staff — and had eight times as many contraband cellphones confiscated each year on average, according to the report.

August 18, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Poll suggests Californians will vote in November 2016 to mend rather than end the death penalty in their state

This new press release from the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, which is titled "IGS Poll Finds Support for Retaining Death Penalty," suggests that California voters have some strong preferences regarding competing death penalty ballot initiatives.  Here are the interesting details via the main text of the press release:

California voters oppose an effort to abolish the death penalty and strongly support a competing measure that would streamline procedures in capital cases, according to a new poll released today by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Respondents opposed the abolition measure 55.1 percent to 44.9 percent, while three out of four respondents supported the streamlining proposition, the survey found. Since the two measures conflict, if both should pass, the measure receiving more votes would take effect.

The poll used online English-language questionnaires to survey respondents from June 29 to July 18. All respondents were registered California voters, and the responses were then weighted to reflect the statewide distribution of the California population by gender, race/ethnicity, education and age. The sample size for the questions on the two death penalty initiatives was 1,506 respondents for one question and 1,512 for the other.

A stark partisan difference emerged on Proposition 62, which would abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Democrats supported the measure, 55.1 percent to 44.9 percent. Republicans overwhelmingly opposed it, 70.2 percent to 29.8 percent. Independents were also opposed, though by only 60.6 percent to 39.4 percent. By contrast, there was support across partisan lines for Proposition 66, which would streamline procedures in capital cases to speed up the resolution of those cases. Even among Democrats there was strong support (69.7 percent) for the measure, and support was even higher among independents (81.1 percent) and Republicans (85 percent).

A majority (60 percent) of African-Americans favored abolishing the death penalty, but among all other ethnic groups, most respondents opposed that proposal. Support for the death penalty was stronger among older people.

Interestingly, religious differences were reflected in views about abolishing the death penalty, but mostly that difference was related to whether the respondent was or was not religious, rather than to differences among various religious denominations. Among all religious groups there was majority opposition to eliminating the death penalty; only among the self-identified atheists and agnostics did most voters support abolition of capital punishment.

Prior related posts:

August 18, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Empirical SCOTUS highlights how sentencing cases of OT 15 already "have the greatest downstream effects" in lower courts

I just saw this fascinating new Empirical SCOTUS post by Adam Feldman titled "Five SCOTUS Decisions Making Waves in the Lower Courts." I was not at all surprised that three of the five cases making the list are sentencing cases (and the other two deal with criminal procedure matters), and here are snippets from the post providing the highlights:

[Supreme Court] rulings in many cases each Term go under the radar [because] they deal with less politically salient issues. Some of these cases, however, have the greatest downstream effects.

This post looks at five “sleeper cases” from this past Term that have made their major impact through the lower courts. The immediate significance of these decisions is in how they change or clarify rules and laws and consequently the trajectory of many lower court decisions. They are especially impactful in criminal cases as they tend to arise when dealing with rights of those accused or convicted of crimes.

The post ranks the cases based on the relative number of times they have been cited by a combination of federal and state lower courts (even though these decisions were made across several months of the Term, the number of times they were cited makes it unlikely that the variation in decision timing has a substantial effect on this list of cases).

5) Mathis v. United States, decided June 23, 2016 (75 lower court citations)...

4) Ross v. Blake, decided June 6, 2016 (107 lower court citations)...

3) Mullenix v. Luna (per curiam), decided November 9, 2015 (213 lower court citations)...

2) Montgomery v. Louisiana, decided January 25, 2016 (373 lower court citations) ....

1) Welch v. United States, decided April 18, 2016 (765 lower court citations) ...

My colleagues and students are certainly tired of hearing me claim that sentencing issues are often the most important public policy issues of this generation and that SCOTUS sentencing rulings are often the most consequential of all cases. Needless to say, these notable empirics is not going to reduce my tendency to aggrandize the issues and cases that are my own professional obsession.

August 18, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

New York Times editorial pushes for "Mercy on Texas’ Death Row" for condemned getaway driver

Today's New York Times has this notable new editorial discussing a notable capital case in Texas under the headline "Rare Chance for Mercy on Texas’ Death Row." Here are excerpts:

When it comes to capital punishment, there is not much official mercy to be found in the state of Texas.  As 537 death row inmates were executed there over the last 40 years, only two inmates were granted clemency.  The last commutation to life in prison occurred nine years ago, when Gov. Rick Perry, despite his formidable tally of 319 executions, chose to make an exception and spare a man convicted of murder under the state’s arcane and patently unfair “Law of Parties.”

This law in effect holds that someone waiting outside at the wheel of a getaway car deserves the same capital punishment as his associate inside who shoots and kills a store clerk.  This is the rough equation that now finds Jeffrey Wood on death row in Texas, 20 years after his involvement in just such a crime.  The actual killer was executed in 2002; Mr. Wood faces execution next Wednesday as a somehow equally culpable party, unless the state commutes his sentence to life in prison.

The Law of Parties has been on trial as much as Mr. Wood has in the arduous criminal justice process in which he faces death. With an I.Q. of 80 and no criminal history, Mr. Wood, who was 22 then, was initially found by a jury to be incompetent to stand trial. But the state persisted, and he was convicted in a slipshod proceeding in which no mitigating evidence or cross-examination was attempted in his behalf during the crucial sentencing hearing....

The theory underpinning the Law of Parties — that an accomplice deserves to die even though he did not kill the victim — has been abandoned as difficult to apply if not unjust in most state jurisdictions in recent decades.  It holds that an accomplice should have anticipated the likelihood of a capital murder and deserves the ultimate penalty.  Since the death penalty was restored in 1976, there have been only 10 executions in six states under accomplice culpability laws, in which defendants did not directly kill the victim, according to Texas Monthly.  Five of them have been in Texas. Jared Tyler, Mr. Wood’s lawyer, who specializes in the state’s death row cases, says he has never seen a sentence of execution “in which there was no defense at all on the question of death worthiness.”

This is just one of many grounds for the clemency that four dozen evangelical leaders have recommended to avoid a gross injustice. The state parole board would have to make this recommendation, with the final decision by Gov. Greg Abbott, who has not granted clemency in 19 executions.

The Law of Parties stands as a grotesque demonstration of how utterly arbitrary capital punishment is. The only true course for justice in Texas is for the law to be scrapped and Mr. Wood’s life to be spared.

UPDATE:  For more interesting and timely coverage of this case, check out this new Texas Tribune article headlined "State Rep. Leach Tries to Stop Jeff Wood Execution."  Here is how the article gets started:

It’s not often that a staunch conservative loses sleep over imposition of the death penalty, but state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, says he is up nights over the impending execution of Jeff Wood.

The two-term legislator has spent the past week poring over court documents and speaking with the governor’s office and Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, hoping to prevent what would be the state’s seventh execution of the year. Wood is set to die by lethal injection Aug. 24.  “I simply do not believe that Mr. Wood is deserving of the death sentence,” Leach told the Tribune. “I can’t sit quietly by and not say anything.”

August 18, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

August 17, 2016

"Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the Vera Institute of Justice.  This Vera webpage provides this overview of the report:

Since 1970, there has been a nearly five-fold increase in the number of people in U.S. jails — the approximately 3,000 county or municipality-run detention facilities that primarily hold people arrested but not yet convicted of a crime. Despite recent scrutiny from policymakers and the public, one aspect of this growth has received little attention: the shocking rise in the number of women in jail.

Women in jail are the fastest growing correctional population in the country — increasing 14-fold between 1970 and 2014. Yet there is surprisingly little research on why so many more women wind up in jail today. This report examines what research does exist on women in jail in order to begin to reframe the conversation to include them. It offers a portrait of women in jail, explores how jail can deepen the societal disadvantages they face, and provides insight into what drives women’s incarceration and ways to reverse the trend.

This Vera fact-sheet provides this additional information about some of the report's various findings and themes:

Available research to help explain why women are increasingly incarcerated in U.S. jails is scarce, dated, and limited in scope. Nevertheless, general data about women in the criminal justice system provides clues about who these women are, and why they end up in jail. Like men in jail, they are disproportionately people of color, overwhelmingly poor and low-income, survivors of violence and trauma, and have high rates of physical and mental illness and substance use.

The majority are charged with lower-level offenses—mostly property and drug-related—and tend to have less extensive criminal histories than their male counterparts. Unlike incarcerated men, women in jails are often primary caregivers to their young children—nearly 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, and most are single parents.

Once incarcerated, women must grapple with systems, practices, and policies that are designed for the majority of the incarcerated population: men. With limited resources, jails are often ill-equipped to address the challenges women face when they enter the justice system. As a result, many women leave jail with diminished prospects for physical and behavioral health recovery, with greater parental stress and strain, and in even more financially precarious circumstances than before becoming caught up in the justice system.

As interest in rolling back the misuse and overuse of jail increases, women frequently remain an afterthought in discussions about reform; yet the roots and trajectory of their increasing rate of jail incarceration demand further study. This report documents the existing foundation for reform that can potentially set the stage for further, well-crafted programs and practices to stem the flow of women cycling through the nation’s local jails.

August 17, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal district judge assails prosecutors for not seeking more prison time for cooperators in government corruption cases

This local article from New Jersey, headlined "Judge blasts U.S. attorney during sentencing of Guttenberg contractor in theft," reports on a federal judge expressing concern that federal prosecutors are being too soft in sentencing recommendations in a notable white-collar setting.  Here are the details:

A federal judge repeatedly criticized the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark during a hearing Wednesday, scolding prosecutors for seeking light sentences -- sometimes with no prison time -- for people who plead guilty to corruption and related offenses.

Before sentencing a Guttenberg contractor who conspired with Union City officials to steal federal housing funds, U.S. District Judge William H. Walls spent several minutes upbraiding the U.S. Attorney's Office for a "ridiculous" pattern of bringing corruption cases and then seeking lenient sentences for defendants who plead guilty.

"That is so ridiculous it makes no sense in the context of true law enforcement," Walls said from the bench. "This is sheer legal nonsense." "If you swindle the government, regardless of your status, you should go to jail," he added.

Despite his protests, Walls agreed in the end with prosecutors, who had filed motions to avoid mandatory sentencing guidelines, and sentenced the defendant in Wednesday's case to three years of probation instead of prison.

Walls, a senior judge appointed by President Bill Clinton, is also presiding over the corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.  Attorneys for Menendez, D-Paramus, deny the charges and have sought to quash the indictment. Justice Department officials in Washington are handling that prosecution, not the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark.

U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman has made corruption cases a hallmark of his tenure and his office is prosecuting Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, two former associates of Governor Christie's who have been implicated in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure case.  Christie, who was U.S. attorney before Fishman, also made corruption cases a highlight of his term.

Since President Obama appointed him in 2009, Fishman has secured convictions for several top officials including the former chairman of the Bergen County Democratic Organization, Joseph Ferriero; a former Trenton mayor, Tony Mack; and the former chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, David Samson, who is also a former New Jersey attorney general.

A spokesman for Fishman, in response to Walls's comments, noted that defendants who cooperate with prosecutors are entitled to "some consideration" at sentencing.  “It is firmly rooted in our system of justice that a defendant who admits his own guilt and cooperates in the government's investigation or prosecution of criminal conduct is entitled to some consideration at the time of sentencing," said Fishman spokesman Matthew Reilly.  "It is the prosecution's responsibility to bring that information to the attention of the court, and the court has the discretion to determine how much weight to give it.”

Darren Gelber, a lawyer at the Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer firm and a former president of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey, said "Judge Walls has a reputation of being a tough sentencer."

"I'm sure he like others has become increasingly frustrated with the perception that corruption is all too prevalent in our state," said Gelber, who was not involved in Wednesday's case.

The U.S. Attorney's Office charged that Leovaldo Fundora, the owner of Falcon Remodeling of Guttenberg, conspired with two public officials in Union City to steal federal housing funds. The two Union City officials instructed Fundora to collude with two other businesses, which are unnamed in court papers.... Prosecutors estimated losses from the scheme between $120,000 and $200,000.

"I deeply regret what I have done," Fundora told the court as his wife and daughter sat behind him. "I know it's going to take a long time to get my reputation back, but I will try my best."  His attorney, Raymond Flood, said Fundora was a Cuban immigrant who had been working since he was 12 years old. "He's been a criminal for four years," Walls noted, "four years that he swindled the government."

Fundora pleaded guilty in 2013 and his theft conviction carried a maximum sentence of 10 years and a $250,000 fine.  At Fundora's sentencing hearing Wednesday, prosecutors recommended a much lighter sentence and Walls, despite his critical comments, agreed.  The U.S. Attorney's Office filed what is known as a "5K1.1" motion, asking the judge to depart from the federal sentencing guidelines to impose a lighter punishment on Fundora.  Walls sentenced Fundora to three years of probation, ordered him to pay $73,753 in restitution, and imposed a $2,000 fine.

"This is absolutely ridiculous and I will not do it again," Walls told the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, Barbara Llanes.  Walls said businesses that win contracts from government agencies should hold themselves to a higher standard.  He suggested the U.S. Attorney's Office was more interested in getting favorable conviction statistics than pursuing tough punishments.  "The society is being swindled, and your office seems to care about notching wins," the judge told Llanes.

Responding to Walls's questions, Llanes noted that the two Union City public officials -- Johnny Garces and Washington Borgono, who both pleaded guilty -- have not been sentenced.  Prosecutors would not file "5K1.1" motions for them, she added.

August 17, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable new posts about notable news at Collateral Consequences Resource Center

As regular readers know, I have made a habit of noting here some posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center because the topics covered there are so interesting and get so little attention in the mainstream media (or many other places in the blogoshere).  Here are just some of the many recent posts of note from CCRC:

August 17, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noting that the 2016 major Prez candidates seem disinclined to say much about the death penalty

Donald-Trump-Hillary-ClintonThe Guardian has this lengthy new article providing an interesting take on the modern realities of presidential politics and capital punishment. The article is headlined "Politics and the death penalty: for Clinton and Trump, safest stance may be silence: Neither candidate seems keen to take on the controversial topic of capital punishment in the 2016 election, despite waning public support for it." Here are excerpts:

Donald J Trump phoned in to Fox & Friends in May 2015, shortly after two police officers were shot dead in Mississippi. Presenter Steve Doocy wanted to know what an appropriate punishment for the killers would be. “Well, it’s the death penalty,” Trump said airily.  “We have people who are, these two, animals who shot the cops … the death penalty, it should be brought back and it should be brought back strong.”

A month later, Trump announced he was running for president. He has barely said the words “death penalty” in public since, although a top adviser has called for Hillary Clinton’s execution, saying she “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason”.

Clinton only talks about capital punishment when pressed and then, clumsily. Unlike most of her own party — including running mate Tim Kaine — the Democrat supports death in the case of terrorists. She has said she would be happy if someone would outlaw execution. Someone else.

In campaign 2016, the safest stance on the ultimate punishment may be silence. Both candidates need to woo disaffected members of the other’s party.  Neither can afford to lose their own loyal base.  “Why bring it up if it’s going to stir the pot if you don’t have to?” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

For the first time since 1972, the Democratic party platform advocates repealing the death penalty. Mainstream Republican opinion has begun to turn away from it, too. Executions and death sentences are down nationwide, while the number of exonerated death row inmates creeps upward.

The percentage of Americans who support the death penalty has been steadily declining since its high of 80% in the mid-1990s, although a comfortable majority — 61% according to Gallup, and 56% according to the Pew Research Center — still favor the use of capital punishment for a person convicted of murder.  And California — with the biggest death row in the country — could become the sixth state in recent years to do away with executions as voters there face dueling ballot measures in November, one to repeal the death penalty, the other to streamline it.

Trump has increasingly positioned himself as a law and order candidate. He doubled down on fear of immigrant criminals in his speech to the Republican national convention and recently said he supported “extreme vetting” of people from other countries. Yet he has so far shied away from promising grisly execution for murderers.  The main exception was a December speech to the New England Police Benevolent Association, a police officers’ union, in which he promised an executive order mandating death sentences for cop-killers. (This would not work out, in any case; mandatory death sentences were rendered unconstitutional by a 1976 supreme court decision.)...

The Republican platform, recently ratified at the party’s convention in Cleveland, contains just two sentences on the subject of capital punishment.  “The constitutionality of the death penalty is firmly settled by its explicit mention in the Fifth Amendment,” it says.  “With the murder rate soaring in our great cities, we condemn the Supreme Court’s erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment in their states.”...

In the 1980s and 90s, opposition to the death penalty was “political poison in most elections”, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Now, you are seeing Republican legislators, many of them conservative Republicans, openly oppose the death penalty.”  Still, most of the decline in death penalty support comes from Democrats, according to a 2015 study by Pew Research Center.  Nearly 60% of Democrats oppose the death penalty, compared to just 25% in 1996.

Which may be part of the problem for Clinton, who was roundly criticized for her awkward responses to questions about the death penalty during the primary season. Both of her primary rivals — Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley — opposed capital punishment. Now that the general election is under way, a Clinton challenge will be getting Sanders’ fervent and progressive supporters to the polls.

August 17, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Split Pennsylvania Supreme Court limits reach of state's lifetime sex offender registry requirement

As reported in this local article, a "ruling issued by a sharply-divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court could greatly alter the registration requirements imposed on some types of convicted sex offenders." Here is more about the ruling and its likely impact:

The decision by the court's majority states that offenders who commit some kinds of sex crimes, such as possessing child pornography, cannot be made to register with state police for life unless they commit at least one more sex crime after their initial convictions. In other words, they have to become recidivists to qualify for the lifetime registration. State police have been requiring such first-time offenders to register for life if they have multiple sex crime convictions stemming from just one criminal incident.

Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said Tuesday that the high court's decision likely will have an impact on plea negotiations in certain sex-crime cases. The difference in registration requirements - some offenses carry registration terms as low as 10 years - can prompt a defendant to plead guilty to a lesser sex crime to avoid the lifetime registration. "The biggest impact will be with plea negotiations," Marsico said. "These registration requirements are often at issue."

The dispute before the Supreme Court hinged on the interpretation of the wording of a state law that requires lifetime registration for some sex offenders who receive "two or more convictions." A Supreme Court majority consisting of Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor and Justices Kevin M. Dougherty, Max Baer and Christine Donohue concluded the wording means sex offenders in some cases must be convicted of such crimes for two separate incidents to trigger the lifetime registration mandate. Justices Debra McClosky Todd and David N. Wecht dissented.

The majority decision means sex offenders convicted of "Tier 1" crimes including kidnapping of minors, child luring, institutional sexual assault, indecent assault, prostitution involving minors, possessing child porn and unlawful contact with a minor won't be required to register for life on their first offense, no matter how many charges their first convictions entail. They will still have to register with police for 10 years.

The Supreme Court majority opinion written by Dougherty dealt with the case of a 21-year-old Montgomery County man who was convicted of persuading his 16-year-old girlfriend to take and send sexually explicit photos of herself. He was arrested in 2000 when her father found the pics. After pleading guilty to seven child porn counts, he was sentenced to 5 to 23 months in county prison, plus 5 years of probation.

At the time of his plea and sentencing, the man, who is identified in the court opinion as A.S., along with the judge, prosecutor and defense attorney believed he would be subject to a 10-year registration, Dougherty noted. State police told him he had to register for life because of his multiple convictions in that single case....

Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed agreed with Marsico that the Supreme Court ruling could affect some plea talks. Still, he said it won't greatly alter the course of sex crime prosecutions. "As prosecutors, we'll be able to handle this," Freed said. The question is whether there will be moves in the Legislature to alter the law in light of the high court's decision.

Defense attorney Brian Perry praised the Supreme Court ruling for giving some offenders a chance to reform. "The court's decision allows individuals to rehabilitate themselves and not have to deal with (registration) for the rest of their lives," Perry said. "From the first-time defendant's perspective, it certainly makes sense."

The full opinion from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this case is available at this link.

August 17, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

August 16, 2016

Ninth Circuit panel rules appropriations rider precludes federal prosecution of individuals in complaince with state medical marijuana laws

A Ninth Circuit panel today finally ruled in US v. McIntosh, No. No. 15-10117 (9th Cir. Aug. 16, 2016) (available here), on a series of appeals concerning "whether criminal defendants may avoid prosecution for various federal marijuana offenses on the basis of a congressional appropriations rider that prohibits the United States Department of Justice from spending funds to prevent states’ implementation of their own medical marijuana laws." Here is a key passage from the heart of the opinion:

DOJ, without taking any legal action against the Medical Marijuana States, prevents them from implementing their laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana by prosecuting individuals for use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana that is authorized by such laws.  By officially permitting certain conduct, state law provides for nonprosecution of individuals who engage in such conduct.  If the federal government prosecutes such individuals, it has prevented the state from giving practical effect to its law providing for non-prosecution of individuals who engage in the permitted conduct.

We therefore conclude that, at a minimum, § 542 prohibits DOJ from spending funds from relevant appropriations acts for the prosecution of individuals who engaged in conduct permitted by the State Medical Marijuana Laws and who fully complied with such laws.

Some previous related posts:

August 16, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Want to Stop Gun Violence? End The War On Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this notable commentary by Jay Stooksberry that backs up an effective argument with lots of helpful links to support his claims.  Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

Every December 5th, American beer, wine, and spirit enthusiasts celebrate Repeal Day.  It was on this day in 1933 that the United States officially passed the 21st Amendment, effectively ending the failed “noble experiment” known as Prohibition.  This was not only a good day for liberty and libations; it also marked the end of a violent era in American history.

The transport and sale of illicit booze became a prolific criminal enterprise backed by well-armed, violent gangs. The result: a homicide rate in the United States that steadily climbed between 1920 and 1933.  In addition, the rise of “victimless crimes” — namely, consumption or possession of alcohol — added to the already overburdened judicial system.  Furthermore, alcohol consumption — what Prohibition laws sought to minimize — actually increased nearly 70 percent.

To call Prohibition a failure would be an understatement.   Repealing Prohibition destroyed the monopoly on alcohol maintained by organized crime. Disempowering the black market produced a noticeable decline in the homicide rate. In fact, homicides continued to diminish each year for eleven years straight.

Fast forward 82 years, and we are in the midst of Prohibition 2.0. This time we call it the “War on Drugs,” and its impact is even more deadly. If concerned citizens want to get serious about reducing gun violence, then they should be encouraged to focus less on policies that are ineffective — “assault weapons” bansgun buyback programs, and outright confiscation — and focus more on ending our failed, four-decade long, overly-militarized, trillion-dollar battle against narcotics.

Let’s put gun violence into perspective. There is no doubt that gun violence is a problem. Guns are used in nearly three-fourths of all American homicides.  What typically brings gun control to the forefront of our political dialogue is the recurring tragedy of a mass shooting.  However, mass shootings receive a disproportionate amount of media attention considering how much they actually contribute to our national homicide rate.

According to Mass Shooting Tracker, in 2014, mass shooting incidents resulted in the deaths of 383 people—about 3% of total gun homicides for the year. In comparison, the violence caused by the Drug War overshadows the bloodshed of mass shootings. Though difficult to quantify due to inconsistent reporting, estimates of drug-related homicides reach as high as 50 percent of the total homicides in the United States....

Without legal mechanisms in place, the only option for arbitration in the black market is violence.  This violence takes many forms: turf wars between drug suppliers where civilians are also caught in the crossfire; no-knock police raids (sometimes occurring at the wrong house) where suspects are gunned down; drug addicts assaulting others to secure money for their addiction. The multi-faceted nature of the violence makes the task of fully grasping the available data difficult.

The violence of the American Drug War has even spilled over internationally — primarily in Latin America.  Between 2007 and 2014, Mexican authorities estimates that 164,000 homicides were the result of cartel violence.  For perspective, during the same time period, civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq totaled 103,000 combined....

Despite our backwardness regarding most drug policies, the United States is ahead of most of the international community when it comes to the legalization of cannabis—and we are witnessing some of the positive effects of those efforts.  Colorado legalized recreational marijuana with Amendment 64 in 2013, resulting in a “green rush” of population growth. Despite the increase in population, Denver police reports indicate a drop in overall crime, including a 24 percent drop in reported homicides.

Granted, the Colorado experiment with legalized marijuana and its benefits is still new. Plus, it is difficult to demonstrate correlation with such a small sample of data. However, there is a distinct correlation between increased policing of controlled substances and the escalating violence of the black market in those substances. The Independence Institute examined arrest and homicide rates throughout the 20th century and concluded that the greatest contributor to violence is “a violent black market caused by the War on Drugs today, and Prohibition in the 1920’s.”

August 16, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Portmanteau Ascendant: Post-Release Regulations and Sex Offender Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper by J.J. Prescott now appearing on SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The purported purpose of sex offender post-release regulations (e.g., community notification and residency restrictions) is the reduction of sex offender recidivism.  On their face, these laws seem well-designed and likely to be effective.  A simple economic framework of offender behavior can be used to formalize these basic intuitions: in essence, post-release regulations either increase the probability of detection or increase the immediate cost of engaging in the prohibited activity (or both), and so should reduce the likelihood of criminal behavior.  These laws aim to incapacitate people outside of prison.  Yet, empirical researchers to date have found essentially no reliable evidence that these laws work to reduce sex offender recidivism (despite years and years of effort), and some evidence (and plenty of expert sentiment) suggests that these laws may increase sex offender recidivism.

In this Article, I develop a more comprehensive economic model of criminal behavior — or, rather, I present a simple, but complete model — that clarifies that these laws have at best a theoretically ambiguous effect on recidivism levels.  First, I argue that the conditions that must hold for these laws to increase the legal and physical costs of returning to sex crime are difficult to satisfy.  There are simply too many necessary conditions, some of which are at odds with others.  Second, I contend that even when these conditions hold, our intuitions mislead us in this domain by ignoring a critical aspect of criminal deterrence: to be deterred, potential offenders must have something to lose.  I conclude that post-release laws are much more likely to succeed if they are combined with robust reintegration efforts to give previously convicted sex offenders a stake in society, and therefore, in eschewing future criminal activity.

August 16, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Should I be more troubled by drug dealers facing homicide charges after customers' overdose death?

The question in the title of this post reflects my ambivalent reactions to this lengthy and interesting AP article headlined "Prosecution trend: After fatal OD, dealer charged with death." Here are excerpts:

He knew he was in trouble even before he read the text message: "Did u hear what hapnd 2 ed?"  Ed Martin III had been found dead in the bathroom of a convenience store, slumped over on his knees with a needle and a residue-stained spoon in his pocket.  He'd mainlined fentanyl, an opioid up to 50 times more powerful than heroin.  A pink plastic bag of white powder sat on the sink.

Michael Millette had heard. The overdose death of his friend, just 28, brought tears to his eyes.  But he was scared, too. He was Martin's dealer, the man who'd sold him his final fix.  In panic, Millette fled to Vermont.  But within a day he was back, selling again. He needed money for his own habit.

Now, though, police had a tip that "Mike on Main Street" had been Martin's dealer.  Undercover officers began watching his furtive deals on a pedestrian bridge behind his apartment; they secretly photographed his visitors.  After he sold drugs to an informant, they swooped in and arrested him.

That's when Millette earned a dubious distinction: He became one of a growing number of dealers around the nation to face prosecution for the fatal heroin and fentanyl overdoses of their customers.  He was charged not just with drug dealing, but with causing Martin's death.  Maximum penalty: life behind bars.

In many states, including Ohio, Maine, West Virginia and New Jersey, authorities grappling with an alarming surge in opioid abuse are filing homicide, involuntary manslaughter or related charges against dealers.  They argue the overdose deaths should be treated as crimes leading to stiff sentences that deter others — and deliver a measure of justice.

"We need to send that message that you can't sell things that are the functional equivalent of poison," says New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster, whose state has witnessed an explosion in drug-related deaths in recent years....

Littleton is the essence of New England charm, with a white clapboard inn that has welcomed visitors since they arrived by stagecoach, a 19th-century opera house and even a bronze statue of Pollyanna, the fictional optimist whose author was born here.

But beyond the postcard image is the crime blotter police Capt. Chris Tyler sees every day. In recent years, he says, drugs have been linked to 85 to 90 percent of the major crimes — burglary, theft, armed robbery, forgery, identity fraud....  When heroin first took hold here around 2013, Tyler explains, "there was just a general sense of denial. That was something that happens in big cities where people fall between the cracks. It wasn't going to happen here. But unfortunately it has."

It's not just heroin, but cocaine, fentanyl and a resurgence of crystal methamphetamine.  In one seven-month stretch last year, there were three overdose deaths, all connected to fentanyl.  In May, a police informant was fatally shot; he'd allegedly cooperated in identifying dealers in the area.

In New Hampshire, drug-related deaths have soared from 163 in 2012 to a projected 478 this year.  Fentanyl is increasingly the culprit.  From 2011 to last year, deaths caused solely by the synthetic opioid exploded from five to 161, according to the state coroner's office.  In that same period, the number of deaths caused by fentanyl combined with other drugs, including heroin, rose from 12 to 122....

Millette, 55, had been linked to another young man's fatal fentanyl overdose, but the witness wasn't credible so police didn't pursue the claims.  Millette insists he never was a big-time dealer, just a desperate addict.  But Tyler notes he peddled fentanyl, heroin and cocaine to more than 30 customers.  His strongest stuff was called "the fire."

Millette says he wasn't sure what he'd sold Martin, only that it was stronger than heroin.  He never tested what he sold. "If he's going to do it to a friend, who else will you do it to?" Tyler says. "He was somebody who needed to be stopped."

The prosecution of Michael Millette was part of a new thrust against opioid dealing in New Hampshire. In the spring, the U.S. attorney's office and the state's attorney general formed a task force to pursue dealers who sell opiates that result in fatal overdoses.  So far, 56 cases are being investigated, says Benjamin Agati, senior assistant attorney general.  In July, his office trained law enforcement throughout the state on how to identify these deaths and work with special prosecutors on investigations.

Though New Hampshire isn't ruling out filing homicide charges if needed — a strategy used in some other states — Agati says his office is pursuing dealers based on a law in which it must show they knowingly provided a drug that resulted in death.  The heightened focus on dealers, he says, partly stems from a sense among social workers, pharmacists and rehab experts that "'we can't treat our way out this. We can't do this alone. There has to be some way to stem the supply.  That's one reason we're trying the new approach."

But is this the right strategy?  The legal community is divided. "I just don't think the ultimate responsibility lies with the person who sells another addict a drug," says Marcie Hornick, who was Millette's public defender.  "I find it so counterproductive that they think sending these people to prison for long periods of time is going to have any deterrent effect.  It's an easy fix and perhaps it satisfies part of the population.  In reality, they come out and don't have the tools or skills to return to society."

But James Vara, who prosecuted the case and now is the governor's special drug adviser, rejects suggestions this is a politically motivated plan without merit. "Say that to a family who lost their child, their son, their brother, their daughter," he says. "Say that to Ed Martin's two children who are without their father as a result of this."

I agree with the statement by the public defender that the "ultimate responsibility" for an overdose death lies with the drug user not the drug dealer. But, especially as the number of these OD deaths are skyrocketing and drug dealers are seemingly not deterred from selling deadly drugs even when customers end up dead, it is not obvious to me that prosecuting dealers for homicide really is "counterproductive" or that it will not have some beneficial deterrent impact.

One reason I am generally supportive of marijuana reform and often troubled by long mandatory minimum sentencing terms for drug trafficking is because I dislike the nanny-state paternalism I see in decisions to criminalize and severely punish behaviors that do not obviously inflict serious harms upon innocent victims.   But if and when drug dealers (whether on street corners or Big Pharma corner offices) are profiting from knowingly and recklessly selling a product that is regularly killing purchasers, my disaffinity for criminalization and significant punishment fades.

August 16, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

August 15, 2016

Poll suggests Nebraska voters will reject legislature's rejection of death penalty

As this local article reports, "poll results released Sunday by death penalty supporters suggest a majority of Nebraska voters favor repealing the bill that ended capital punishment in the state last year." Here is more from this press report:

In the poll of 600 likely general election voters conducted Aug. 7-10, 47.8 percent said they would definitely vote to keep the death penalty and another 10.5 percent said they probably would vote to keep the death penalty, Nebraskans for the Death Penalty said. Combined, voters favoring a vote to repeal the bill outpaced voters in support of the bill eliminating the death penalty by a 58.3-30.3 percent margin. The poll's margin of error is 4 percent.

“If the election were held today, Nebraskans would vote in overwhelming numbers to repeal LB268 in order to keep the death penalty,” Don Stenberg, honorary co-chair of Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, said in a news release. Stenburg is a former Nebraska attorney general and current state treasurer....

In a response to the poll, a spokesman for Retain a Just Nebraska said residents of the state are tired of spending millions of dollars on a failed government program. “This is a flawed poll and should not be viewed as an accurate measurement of how Nebraskans view the death penalty," Dan Parsons said. "It’s a push poll that misleads Nebraskans into thinking they have no other option than getting rid of the death penalty. When in reality, the question that will appear on the November 8 ballot asks voters if they wish to replace the death penalty with life in prison.

"Our polling and numerous others across the country show that when given that choice, voters chose life in prison.”...

According to the survey, support for the death penalty is strong among men and women, across all of Nebraska’s congressional districts and among members of different political parties. The Legislature passed LB268 last year over a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts, but a successful petition drive last summer blocked the law until voters have their say in November.

Helpfully, we will have an actual vote in a few months and so will not have to figure out whether this poll is accurate or not as a reflection of Nebraskan voters' perspective on capital punishment.

August 15, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"What's Wrong With Sentencing Equality?"

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

Equality in criminal sentencing often translates into equalizing outcomes and stamping out variations, whether race-based, geographic, or random.  This approach conflates the concept of equality with one contestable conception focused on outputs and numbers, not inputs and processes. Racial equality is crucial, but a concern with eliminating racism has hypertrophied well beyond race.

Equalizing outcomes seems appealing as a neutral way to dodge contentious substantive policy debates about the purposes of punishment.  But it actually privileges deterrence and incapacitation over rehabilitation, subjective elements of retribution, and procedural justice, and it provides little normative guidance for punishment.  It also has unintended consequences for the structure of sentencing. Focusing on outcomes centralizes power and draws it up to higher levels of government, sacrificing the checks and balances, disaggregation, experimentation, and localism that are practically baked into sentencing’s constitutional framework.

More flexible, process-oriented notions of equality might better give effect to a range of competing punishment considerations while still policing punishments for bias or arbitrariness.  They also could bring useful nuance to equality debates that swirl around restorative justice, California’s Realignment experiment, federal use of fast-track plea agreements, and other contemporary sentencing practices.

I am very much drawn to the themes of this paper, and thus I am looking forward to finding time to read all the particulars.

August 15, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

August 14, 2016

Realistic (though incomplete) discussion concerning how marijuana reform is not a panacea for mass incarceration

Marc Mauer has this timely and effective new commentary in The Hill headlined "Can Marijuana reform end mass incarceration?". Any regular reader of this blog knows that the only simple and accurate answer to this question is "no," but the commentary provides a fuller accounting of some reasons why I see many possible positive synergies between sentencing reform and marijuana reform movements. Here are excerpts:

This week’s DEA decision to keep marijuana classified as a Schedule I drug (categorized as having no medical potential and a high potential for abuse) has disappointed advocates for drug policy reform. They contend that marijuana is less dangerous and addictive than drugs like cocaine and heroin, or even alcohol.  But many reformers also argue that marijuana reform is the first step in ending mass incarceration.  In many respects this appears to be wishful thinking.

There’s no question that the “war on marijuana” is overblown and unproductive. Since the early 1990s the focus of drug arrests nationally has shifted from a prior emphasis on cocaine and heroin to increasing marijuana arrests.  By 2014 marijuana accounted for nearly half of the 1.5 million drug arrests nationally. But while this elevated level of marijuana enforcement is counterproductive in many respects, there is little evidence to indicate that it has been a substantial contributor to mass incarceration.  Of the 1.5 million people in state or federal prisons, only about 40,000 are incarcerated for a marijuana offense.  The vast majority of this group is behind the walls for selling, not using, the drug, often in large quantities.  We could debate whether even high-level marijuana sellers should be subject to lengthy incarceration, but they constitute less than 3% of the prison population.

In other respects, though, marijuana law enforcement imposes substantial costs on the justice system.  Few marijuana arrests may result in a prison term, but they consume enormous resources through police time making arrests and court appearances, probation and parole revocations, and time spent in local jails following arrest or serving a short sentence. And all of this activity comes with public safety tradeoffs.  Time spent by police making marijuana arrests is time not spent responding to domestic violence disputes or guns on the streets.

While it may be misleading to portray the marijuana reform movement as the beginning of the end of mass incarceration, there are ways in which we could transform the national dialogue to make a more direct link.  For a start, we should call attention to the parallels between marijuana and the overall drug war.  In particular, the drug war has prioritized supply reduction through international interdiction campaigns and a heavy-handed law enforcement response.  This approach has had little impact on either drug availability or price, and has drained resources from more effective allocations to prevention and treatment programming.

The racial disparities of marijuana law enforcement are emblematic of the drug war as well, with African Americans more than three times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense as whites, despite similar rates of use. Such outcomes bring to mind the vast disparities in crack cocaine arrests, as well as the use of “stop and frisk” policing tactics often premised on drug law enforcement, and exacting a substantial toll in communities of color....

There is reason for hope that change may be at hand. National drug policy is shifting toward a greater emphasis on treatment approaches to substance abuse, and thoughtful leaders in law enforcement are serving as models for how to engage communities in collaborative efforts for promoting public safety.  The national debate on drug policy is worthwhile on its own, but we should also seek to extend that conversation into the realm of mass incarceration.

For reasons both practical and political, it is appropriate for Mauer and others to be quick to note that marijuana reform will not "end" mass incarceration. At the same time, given that a wealth of other reforms at the state and national level over the last decade has done no more than keep incarceration levels flat, a reduction of 40,000 prisoners in state and federal prisons would still mark a significant achievement in these modern times. Moreover, and as Mauer suggested, national marijuana reform not only could help demonstrate that public-health and regulatory approaches to drug issues are more cost-effective than criminal justice prohibitions, but also could provide a significant source of new public revenue for prevention and treatment programming.

One of many reasons I have become so interested in marijuana reform developments is because I have grown so frustrated in recent years at the seeming inability (or unwillingness) of elite policy-makers (especially in DC) to take bold action to deal with modern mass incarceration. Tellingly, modern marijuana reform in the United States is a ground-up movement that has been engineered at the local and state level despite disconcerting and persistent opposition by elite policy-makers (such as the Obama Administration at its DEA).  I continue to fear that elite policy-makers will continue to fail to see that the vast marijority of Americans are eager to move dramatically away from blanket federal marijuana prohibition, though I also expect a lot of significant developments in this space once we get through the 2016 election cycle.  With nearly 25% of the US population in numerous states that will be voting on marijuana reforms this November (most notably California and Florida), this election year will be the closest possible to a national referendum on marijuana prohibition.  If reform wins big with voters in most states this fall, I think elite policy-makers will finally fully appreciate which way these reform winds are now blowing.

In the meantime, here are some recent highlights on related front from my blogging efforts of late over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

August 14, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

"A reality check on crime: Rhetoric aside, new murder numbers are troubling"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective and important new piece from The Center for Public Integrity.  Here are excerpts:

There’s been a lot of rhetorical heat of late regarding crime in America — but not a lot of light.  Take Donald Trump.  He stirred the Republican convention with an apocalyptic vision of inner-city America as a Mad Max movie.  His first task, Trump said, “would be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities.” But wait. President Obama and others quickly countered that the imagery was nonsense — that violent crime today is dramatically lower than it was 30 years ago, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago.

There are multiple explanations for this confusion, and politics is only one of them. Reliance on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports is another; criminologists believe that many of the offenses tracked by the so-called UCR’s are terribly under-reported, and so are of limited utility.  And the reporting suffers from a serious time lag; the FBI’s full year report for 2015 won’t be released for another month or so.

Many criminologists believe that murder is the only truly reliable crime statistic because it is the only crime that’s virtually always reported.  Thus more recent reports on murder numbers are potentially illuminating, but have included a grab bag of cities, some of which showed murder increases while others showed decreases.

The Center for Public Integrity has gathered murder statistics for the first half of 2016 and compared them with totals for the first half of 2015, for America’s 10 most populous cities.... [which] contain some disturbing news. The 10-city total for January-June 2016 is up 20 percent over the previous year, and fully nine of the 10 municipalities showed increases, with big-percentage spikes in Phoenix, San Antonio, San Jose and especially Chicago. This seems to extend a jump in murders that showed killings up in early 2015 from 2014. The exception to the trend is the nation’s biggest city, New York, which so far in 2016 has sustained a drop in murders, continuing a trend there that stretches back to the early 1990s.

Is there an explanation for the broader uptick in America’s biggest cities? That’s harder to say. There’s talk of a “Ferguson effect,” in which cops are pulling back from aggressive enforcement — but little hard evidence. Some blame a rise in gang activity, while others point to a relentless proliferation of guns in the hands of young people. A less-explored, if admittedly imperfect explanation: more young people. Criminologists have traditionally argued that ages 15-24 are the crime-prone years, and the number of people in that age cohort has fluctuated over recent history. There were 42 million of them in 1980, when violent crime was rising, but the total was down to 38 million by 1990; crime started to ebb just a few years later, aided by the end of the crack epidemic. However, the number of 15-24-year-olds jumped to 44 million by 2012, and has stayed relatively close to that number since.

I consider this piece of reporting effective because it highlights that homicide numbers are generally the most reliable of crime statistics, and I consider it important because it highlights that homicide number tell a "disturbing" tale in 9 of the 10 largest US cities. (I also respect the piece's sensible statement that it is hard to say right now what accounts for the recent uptick in murders in America’s biggest cities.)

I have been especially troubled lately by demonstraby false assertions that crime is, right now, "actually at historic lows" (which is what former AG Holder claims in today's New York Times), when in fact it seems we hit modern recent historic homicide/crime lows in 2014.   Those eager to contest Trump's expressed concern for law and order are on solid ground when saying that homicide/crime is now still much, much lower than when Barack H. Obama (or George W. Bush or William J. Clinton) first took office.  But the hard cold facts, which ought no be avoided or fudged by any serious academic or policy advocate, indicate that homicide/crime started to increase in calendar year 2015 and may been in the midst of increasing further in 2016.

August 14, 2016 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (8)

Former AG Eric Holder brags about his "too little, too late" approach to dealing with federal sentencing's myriad problems

Holder-covington-feature-heroEric Holder, who served as attorney general of the United States from 2009 to 2015, has this notable New York Times op-ed that I ultimately find more frustrating than encouraging. The article is headlined "Eric Holder: We Can Have Shorter Sentences and Less Crime," and here are excerpts that prompt my frustration (based on the dates I highlighed above, and related dates highlighted below, and a bit of inserted commentary):

The financial cost of our current incarceration policy is straining government budgets; the human and community costs are incalculable. Today, a rare bipartisan consensus in favor of changing drug-sentencing laws presents an opportunity to improve the fairness and efficiency of America’s criminal justice system. But to build on this coalition for reform, which includes senior law enforcement officials, we need action in Congress.

In February 2015, President Obama convened a group of lawmakers — including the Republican senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rand Paul of Kentucky and the Democratic senators Dick Durbin of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey — to build support for sweeping reforms. But the momentum has slowed thanks to opposition from a small group of Republican congressmen using language dredged from the past. One, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, even claimed recently that “we have an under-incarceration problem.”

The Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, is now fanning fears about the level of crime in America, which is actually at historic lows [Ed Note: crime was at historic lows in 2014 and has recently been going up]. Such pandering is a reminder of how we got here in the first place....

Controlling for other factors, the United States Sentencing Commission found that between December 2007 and September 2011, black male defendants received sentences 20 percent longer than their white counterparts. From 1983 to 1997, the number of African-Americans sent to prison for drug offenses went up more than 26-fold, compared with a sevenfold increase for whites. By the early 2000s, more than twice as many African-Americans as whites were in state prisons for drug offenses....

The Justice Department has pioneered reform.  Three years ago, as attorney general, I established the Smart on Crime initiative to reduce draconian mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses and encourage more investment in rehabilitation programs to tackle recidivism. The preliminary results are very encouraging. Over the last two years, federal prosecutors went from seeking a mandatory minimum penalty for drug trafficking in two-thirds of cases to doing so in less than half of them — the lowest rate on record. The initiative may not be solely responsible, but 2014 saw the first consecutive drop in the federal prison population in more than three decades, coinciding with a falling crime rate.

Those who argue that without the hammer of a mandatory minimum sentence defendants won’t cooperate are wrong — in fact, the rate of cooperation held steady under the initiative, and the rate of guilty pleas remained constant. The system remained effective and became fairer. Reform has not made us less safe....

Mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated for many offenses, and where they are still applied, their length should be reduced. The legislative proposals necessarily reflect a compromise, but we must ensure that they go far enough: The judiciary needs greater discretion in imposing mandatory minimums, as do our prosecutors in seeking them. Given the absence of parole in the federal system, we should increase the amount of sentence-reduction credit available to inmates with records of good conduct. And all offenders, regardless of their designated risk level, should get credit for participating in rehabilitation programs....

There is still a disparity in sentencing for offenses relating to crack and powder cocaine, chemically identical substances. Given the policy’s differential racial impact, which erodes confidence in the justice system, this disparity must go. In the light of recent events, we can’t afford criminal justice policies that reduce the already fragile trust between minority communities and law enforcement agencies....

Whatever the outcomes of the bills before Congress and the presidential election, the Justice Department existing reforms must be preserved. Important as they are, all these initiatives have a bearing only on the federal justice system, which houses about 10 percent of the prison population.  For the federal effort to be a template for reform in the states, where most prisoners are detained, Congress must lead.

The nation’s lawmakers must stiffen their spines, ignore divisive language and schedule votes in this congressional session on reform legislation.  An opportunity like this comes once in a generation. We must not miss it.  The over-reliance on mandatory minimum sentences must come to an end.

I have emphasized dates here because I consider former AG Eric Holder (and his boss President Obama) to be among those who really should bear much responsibility if federal policy-makers miss what Holder calls a "once in a generation" opportunity for federal sentencing reform.  Tellingly, much of the incarceration data Holder stresses were well known and widely discussed when he assumed office in early 2009. (For example, in this Harvard Law & Policy Review piece from Fall 2008, I stressed the problems of modern mass incarceration and urged progressives to "mine modern movements in Constitutional and political theory to make new kinds of attacks on mass incarceration and extreme prison punishments" and to "be aggressively reaching out to modern conservatives and libertarians in order to forge new coalitions to attack the many political and social forces that contribute to mass incarceration.")  And yet, as Holder notes, he did not establish DOJ's Smart on Crime initiative until August 2013, and Prez Obama did not convene a group of lawmakers to push for reform in Congress until February 2015.

In other words, both Prez Obama and AG Holder fiddled while the federal sentencing system was still burning with tough-on-crime, mandatory-minimum "over-reliance" from 2009 to 2013 during the entire first Obama Administration Term.  And, critically, we should not lose sight of the important reality that Prez Obama's party controlled both houses of Congress until early 2011 and contolled the Senate until early 2015.  Moreover, the enduring and continued (misguided) opposition of Prez Obama and the Justice Department to mens rea reforms supported by the GOP establishment has arguably been the most critical roadblock to getting sweeping reform legislation enacted even now.

Last but not least, and as Holder reveals in this op-ed, federal prosecutors are still charging mandatory minimum drug sentencing provisions in near half of all drug cases (including in many crack cases where there is still a major, race-skewing sentencing disparity).  I suspect that when Holder says "mandatory minimum sentences should be eliminated for many offenses," he is largely referencing drug offenses in which no guns or violence were involved (where other mandatory minimums are applicable).  If Holder really believed that it would be sound and sensible to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in such cases, he could have on his own included provisions in his Smart on Crime initiaitve to require line prosecutors to avoid charging under these statutes in all but the rarest drug cases rather than continuing to have these statutes still be applied in nearly half of all drug cases.

Sadly, I could go on and on and on about all the things former AG Holder could have and should have done while serving as U.S. Attorney General for six full years to deal with all the problems he now is quick to lament in the pages of the New York Times.  (Here it bears noting that he gets to write about these problems now from the safety of a corner office at a big DC firm where he is, according to this article, likely making more than $5,000,000/year, well over 20 times more than the hardest working federal prosecutors and federal defense attorneys make.)  Holder's closing sentiment urging federal lawmakers to "stiffen their spines" really gets my goat when his own spine struck me as so soft for his six years as Attorney General, and especially now that he gets to enjoy cashing in on the inside-the-Beltway privileges of allowing one's spine to blow back-and-forth with the prevailing political winds. 

August 14, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)