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January 30, 2016

Judge Jack Weinstein disregards severe federal child porn guidelines again

A helpful reader alerted me to this notable local story describing the latest notable child porn downloading sentence imposed by US District Judge Jack Weinstein.  The piece is headlined "Judge Gives Man 5 Days for Child Porn, Rails Against Harsh Sentences," and here are excerpts:

A Brooklyn man who faced 10 years for downloading child pornography was sentenced to five days by a federal judge who sharply criticized punishment guidelines for failing to distinguish between dangerous offenders and those who pose little threat.

U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein wrote a 98-page decision explaining why he bypassed the guidelines and chose not to put the man in prison for possessing two dozen photos and videos — some showing men sexually assaulting girls as young as 3 years old, according to court papers.  "Removing R.V. from his family will not further the interests of justice," Weinstein wrote, using the defendant's initials. "It will cause serious harm to his young children by depriving them of a loving father and role model and will strip R.V. of the opportunity to heal through continued sustained treatment and the support of his close family."

His opinion, first reported in the New York Law Journal, is the latest salvo in a war over whether penalties for possessing child pornography have gotten too harsh.  The existing guidelines, Weinstein wrote, do not "adequately balance the need to protect the public, and juveniles in particular, against the need to avoid excessive punishment."

The defendant, who agreed to speak to NBC News on the condition his name was not used, said he was surprised and relieved that Weinstein was so lenient after his guilty plea.  "I prayed to God and took my chances," the 53-year-old father of five said.  "I feel very remorseful. It's something that will never happen again."

But child-abuse victims' advocates said they were appalled by Weinstein's reasoning. "I think Judge Weinstein's opinion minimizes the harm that is done to victims of these crimes from the mere act of viewing their images. It's a gross violation of privacy and an invasion of privacy that traumatizes them throughout their lives," said Paul Cassel, a former federal judge who is now a law professor at the University of Utah.

In 2013, investigators remotely connected to the man's computer and downloaded four photos and videos showing men engaged in sexual acts with girls, including a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old, and they seized more porn on thumb drives with a search warrant, court papers said. The man also had "sexual" chats with underage girls online, but there was no evidence he sought physical contact with minors. When he pleaded guilty, the defendant said he understood the charge carried up to 10 years behind bars. Based on the specifics of his case, the federal guidelines called for a sentence of 6.5 to 8 years in prison.

But Weinstein thought that was too much time for an offender who did not make, swap or sell child porn or try to abuse children. He said the five days the man served before making bail, plus seven years of court supervision and a fine, were punishment enough. The judge noted that the man was undergoing sex offender treatment and was deemed unlikely to relapse and that a psychiatrist testified he was not a danger to his own or other children. He also noted that the Internet has made child pornography accessible to a much wider group of Americans who might not otherwise have been exposed to it.

The man — who lost his $75,000-a-year job as a restaurant manager after his arrest — told NBC News that he stumbled on child pornography while consuming legal, adult pornography online. "I just got caught up in it," he said. "It's not like I woke up and said, 'Listen, let me look at this stuff.' It kept popping up every time I was downloading."

Weinstein is among a group of federal judges who have argued that sentencing ranges for possessing child pornography — which were doubled by Congress in 2003 — are too severe. The federal bench handed down sentences below the guidelines 45 percent of the time, the Associated Press reported in 2012. Those who favor tougher sentences point out that while many consumers of child pornography may not never lay a hand on a child, some do. And all, they say, play a role in a system that promotes the abuse of children....

Jennifer Freeman, an attorney who represents child-porn victims in efforts to obtain restitution, called Weinstein's opinion "a diatribe" and said he was using the particulars of one case to indict the entire sentencing structure. "He's basically saying it's not worth too much punishment," she said, adding that she did not want to comment on whether the man Weinstein sentenced deserved more time than five days.

That man said that he had done something wrong and was ashamed of it but that locking him up would not have served any purpose and would have "put my family living out on the street."

"It should be illegal," he said of child pornography. "No child should be put through that process." But he added, "I would never physically do anything. I never had even a thought of it."

I will need to track down and review closely Judge Weinstein's lengthy opinion in this case before I would feel comfortable weighing in on this specific sentencing decision. But I already can state that I am sure federal prosecutors involved in this case are sure to feel quite uncomfortable when trying to decide whether to appeal this sentencing decision to the Second Circuit as unreasonable.

Assuming Judge Weinstein did not disregard any applicable mandatory minimum statute nor made any other clear doctrinal error, federal prosecutors might have a hard time establishing on appeal that Judge Weinstein's exercise of his post-Booker discretion in this case was unreasonable (especially in light of the Second Cicuit's significant 2010 Dorvee ruling which stressed the "irrationality" of the child porn guidelines).  But a decision by federal prosecutors not to appeal this sentence might be viewed, perhaps properly, as a tacit admission by the government that a non-prison sentence can be appropriate in some child porn downloading cases.

UPDATE:  A helpful reader sent me a copy of Judge Weinstein's sentencing opinion in this case, so I can now provide it here for downloading:  Download US - v- RV weinstein sentencing opinion

January 30, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25)

You be the state sentencing judge: how much prison time for former state official guilty of (small-time?) marijuana dealing

R_schmidt-262x272The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story from Michigan, headlined "Ex-state Rep. Roy Schmidt pleads, sold marijuana as 'source of income,' judge says."  Here are the basics (with my emphasis added):

Former state Rep. Roy Schdmidt pleaded no contest Thursday, Jan. 28, to manufacture of marijuana.  Schmidt initially fought charges as a registered medical marijuana caregiver and disputed the amount of marijuana he possessed.

But a police report, read by Grand Rapids District Judge Michael Distel to establish a basis for Schmidt's guilt, said he told police that he sold marijuana to 10 to 15 people who were not his registered medical marijuana patients.   He told police that "he was operating his business as a source of income," Distel said.

Schmidt was charged last year with manufacture or delivery of marijuana after police raided his home on Seventh Street NW and a house he rented from his son on Myrtle Avenue NW.  Police said Schmidt possessed nearly three pounds of marijuana and 71 marijuana plants.  Caregivers are allowed to possess 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana for each of up to five patients. Schmidt has maintained that his drying marijuana was not considered usable.

He faces up to four years in prison when sentenced on March 22 in Kent County Circuit Court....  Under the plea, Schmidt admits no guilt but the plea is treated as such at sentencing.  He was allowed to plead no contest because he could face civil forfeiture proceedings related to his marijuana operation.

Schmidt is free on bond.  Kent County prosecutors will drop a second charge of manufacturing marijuana.

His arrest followed an ill-fated scheme to switch parties while he served in the House of Representatives.  After being elected as a Democrat in 2008, he lost his seat four years later after a controversial switch to the Republican Party.  He had spent 16 years on a Grand Rapids City Commission on the West Side of town.

This case raises more than a few interesting classic "offender-based" sentencing issues: e.g., (1) should Schmidt's history as a relatively prominent politician be viewed as an aggravating sentencing factor (because it makes him more culpable as someone who was involved in making the state laws he broke) or as a possible mitigating sentencing factor (because he would seem like the type of person unlikely to be a serious recidivist); (2) should the prospect of Schmidt losing his home and/or his son's home through civil forfeiture proceedings significantly influence what criminal sentence he receives?    

But, what really captured my attention in this case (and prompted my cross-posting over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog) is the different ways this defendant's offense might be viewed by a sentencing judge.  His lawyers could perhaps claim, given the legalization of medical marijuana in Michigan, that Schmidt's crime is essentially a regulatory violation comparable to a liquor store owner who sold a dozen or so times to underage college students.  But prosecutors likely will assert that Schmidt should be viewed and sentenced like any other greedy drug dealer.

Thoughts, dear readers?

January 30, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

January 29, 2016

Forces in Oklahoma talking about criminal justice reform via ballot initiative ... prompting question "is direct democracy the best way to approach criminal justice reform?"

This local article, headlined "Coalition wants to give voters a choice on criminal justice reform in Oklahoma," highlights that a number of prominent advocates for criminal justice reform in the Sooner State want to soon have citizens voting directly on these reforms. Here are the basics:

A politically diverse group of state officials, policy advocates, and members of the business community came together Wednesday to announce they were joining forces to stop a problem the state can no longer ignore: Oklahoma's high incarceration rates. “We're running a factory to create future felons,” said Bancfirst Corp. Chairman Gene Rainbolt.  “It's ridiculous.”

Addressing the media at the state Capitol, Rainbolt was among about one dozen other prominent Oklahomans who said they had formed a coalition, known as Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, and they plan to take the issue straight to the voters through two ballot initiatives.

“We need to correct corrections, and if we're going to call it the Department of Corrections we need to do some correcting. If not now, when? We are at 119 percent capacity,” said Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, referencing the state's swelling prison population. More than 28,000 inmates — the highest prison population the state has ever seen — sit behind bars in Oklahoma today.

If successful, the coalition will place two ballot measures before voters, said former state House Speaker Kris Steele. The first will lower several nonviolent felonies that would warrant prison time, such as simple drug possession and writing fraudulent checks, to misdemeanors that would call for community-based treatment....

The second initiative would task the Office of Management and Enterprise Services with tracking the number of offenders who would be diverted to treatment rather than prison and calculate the savings.  Those funds would be held in a lock box, to be distributed to county governments for substance abuse treatment, mental health care, and offender supervision. This money could be going to schools, health care, and “the other building blocks for a good state,” said David Blatt, president of the Oklahoma Policy Institute....

In order to get both questions on a state ballot, the coalition will have to gather almost 68,000 signatures for each initiative. Several bills have been filed for the upcoming Legislative session that will address many of the same solutions proposed in the ballot measures, said Rep. Peterson, and their hope is to complement those efforts.

Peterson noted Steele's work years before with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a sweeping criminal justice reform bill passed by the state Legislature in 2011. JRI would have moved Oklahoma's justice system in a similar direction, but it was never fully funded and eventually stymied. Peterson said reform of this level doesn't happen overnight. “Speaker Steele really started in 2011, but it's taken this long to get to this point,” she said when asked if the political climate is right for sentencing reform. “So, it takes a while.”

I find this story of taking reform efforts directly to the voters in Oklahoma especially in the wake of California Gov Jerry Brown earlier this week (as blogged here) proposing a state ballot initiative to expand parole and make other reforms that I would usually expect to be pursued via traditional legislative action. And, of course, as often highlighted in posts at my other blog, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, ballot initiatives have been the primary driver of major marijuana reforms in the states over the last decade.

I tend to be a huge fan of so-called "direct democracy" for a wide number of legal process reasons, but these latest developments in California and now Oklahoma leave me to wonder a lot if criminal justice reform by plebiscite ought to be seen as a truly welcome development.

January 29, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Lots of notable new sentencing stories via How Appealing

I still think of Howard Bashman and his How Appealing blog as the granddaddy or godfather in the world of law blogging.  And mornings when a lot of the newest contents at How Appealing includes links to interesting sentencing stories, I am sometimes tempted in this space to just provide links to Howard's links.  Today I am giving in to this temptation via links here and here.

January 29, 2016 in On blogging | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 28, 2016

"Gender, Risk Assessment, and Sanctioning: The Cost of Treating Women Like Men"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper authored by Jennifer Skeem, John Monahan and Christopher Lowenkamp now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Increasingly, jurisdictions across the U.S. are using risk assessment instruments to scaffold efforts to unwind mass incarceration without compromising public safety. Despite promising results, critics oppose the use of these instruments to inform sentencing and correctional decisions. One argument is that the use of instruments that include gender as a risk factor will discriminate against men in sanctioning.

Based on a sample of 14,310 federal offenders, we empirically test the predictive fairness of an instrument that omits gender, the Post Conviction Risk Assessment (PCRA). We found that the PCRA strongly predicts arrests for both genders — but overestimates women’s likelihood of recidivism.  For a given PCRA score, the predicted probability of arrest — which is based on combining both genders — is too high for women.  Although gender neutrality is an obviously appealing concept, it may translate into instrument bias and overly harsh sanctions for women.  With respect to the moral question of disparate impact, we found that women obtain slightly lower mean scores on the PCRA than men (d= .32); this difference is wholly attributable to men’s greater criminal history, a factor already embedded in sentencing guidelines.

January 28, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Diving deep into latest data showing significant uptick in homicides in 2015

The folks at Wonkblog have this effective new posting, headlined "More people were murdered last year than in 2014, and no one’s sure why," which provides lots of interesting data on the significant increase in homicides in major cities in 2015.  It also highlights why simple explanations for this recent homicide increase (or prior decreases) are hard to come by.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Wonkblog analysis of preliminary crime data found that about 770 more people were killed in major cities last year than the year before, the worst annual change since 1990.

The killings increased as some law enforcement officials and conservative commentators were warning that violent crime was on the rise amid a climate of hostility toward police. They said protests and intense scrutiny of officers who used lethal force had caused officers to become disengaged from their jobs, making streets more dangerous. Some have called it the "Ferguson effect," after the St. Louis suburb in which Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014.

A closer look at the figures, however, suggests no single explanation for the increases and reveals no clear pattern among those cities that experienced the most horrific violence. Several cities that recorded the largest increases in homicides -- Nashville and Washington, D.C., for instance -- had no widely publicized, racially charged killings by police. Many other big cities recorded modest increases or even declines in the number of homicides, with no deviation from the pattern of recent years....

Public safety has been improving for two decades, and lethal violence in large cities is still rare by historical standards. Twice as many people were killed in those 50 cities in 1991 as in 2015. "You certainly wouldn't want to say the sky is falling," said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

Nonetheless, last year's interruption in the decline in homicides has experts concerned. They say it's too early to know what caused the change, or whether it will endure. It's not clear if there is a Ferguson effect, or if the homicides are a result of the heroin epidemic, reduced police department budgets, a decline in the number of convicts behind bars or other factors entirely. "There's no national pattern," said Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California at Berkeley....

Stephens, of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, ticked off a list of other theories for the increase in violence. Perhaps relaxed gun laws in some states are making firearms more widely available, and more arguments are being settled with lethal weapons as a result. Stephens also noted that authorities are locking up fewer people in prison, and perhaps more dangerous criminals were on the street last year.

Federal data, however, suggest that the reduction in the incarcerated population over the past several years is mainly a consequence of decreasing admissions, rather than a change in the number of prisoners released annually, which has also declined. In 2014, just 582,000 prisoners were let go from state and federal prisons, compared with 683,000 in 2008....

Additionally, both those explanations are complicated by the absence of any regional pattern in the data. There were more killings in Nashville, but the total in Memphis declined by 1 percent. The number of homicides increased 25 percent in Houston, but decreased 9 percent in San Antonio. There were seven fewer homicides last year than in 2014 in Fresno, Calif., a decline of 15 percent. Meanwhile, up Highway 99 in Sacramento, there were 43 killings last year, an increase of 54 percent. "Everything is basically anecdotal," Stephens said. "There's not a clear national picture that I've been able to discern of what might be contributing to the changes that we’ve seen in so many cities."

Bill Otis has some sharp commentary about these data and how Wonkblog reports it in this post at Crime & Consequences titled "The National Murder Crisis, Worse Than We Thought."  In that post, Bill quickly mentions "that the increase in murder in 2015 was more than 25 times the total number of killers executed that year," but he disappointingly does not follow-up by noting that the one major city with the biggest decline in homicides in 2015 was also the city with the most headline-grabbing 2015 capital punishment trial: Boston.  (I am generally disinclined to suggest there is a close relationship between the administration of the death penalty and homicide rates, but I still find notable that the dozen cities with the largest homicide increases in 2015 are all in states without the death penalty or with a capital punishment system not functioning properly.) 

January 28, 2016 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (18)

New poll shows that, even among younger voters, support for the death penalty remains solid

Deathpenalty3YouGov has conducted some recent polling concerning death penalty perspectives that included a number of interesting questions and interesting demographic data. This brief summary of the poll results with a focus on age divisions includes this accounting of some of the poll results:

Most Americans still favor the death penalty, but a quarter of young Americans would refuse to even consider the death penalty if they were on a jury.....

YouGov's latest research shows that most Americans still favor the death penalty for people who have been convicted of murder. Support is highest among Republicans (71%) and over-65s (67%). Under-30s are the only group where there is not majority support for the death penalty, with 45% people aged 18 to 29 saying that they favor the death penalty and 35% saying that they are opposed.

Despite the fact that only 58% of Americans actively support the death penalty 73% say that, if they were on the jury for a murder trial, they would consider all sentencing options, including the death penalty. 18% of Americans say that, regardless of their jury duty, they would never consider the death penalty. Younger Americans are the most likely to say that they could never consider condemning someone to death, with a quarter of under-30s (24%) stating that they'd never consider the death penalty.  

Full poll results can be found here and topline results and margin of error here.

I am not at all surprised that younger people, who tend to be more liberal than older people on a wide range of issues, are generally less supportive of capital punishment than their elders. Indeed, as the title of this post suggests, I am somewhat surprised that only 1 of 3 millennials voice general opposition to the death penalty and tht only 1 of 4 would be unable to return a capital verdict if on a jury.

January 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

California Gov Jerry Brown proposes state ballot initiative to expand parole and make other reforms

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Gov. Brown to seek November ballot initiative to relax mandatory prison sentences," the chief executive of the largest state in our Union is asking voters to give certain executives and judges more power to reduce state sentences after their imposition. Here are the basic details:

Almost four decades after he signed a law mandating strict sentences for the most serious crimes, Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday moved to ease its effect, proposing inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses be given a chance at early release.  “Let's take the basic structure of our criminal law and say, when you've served fully the primary sentence, you can be considered for parole,” Brown said in announcing a November ballot initiative to streamline the rules — one he estimated could affect thousands of current inmates.

Rather than change sentencing policy, the proposal would allow corrections officials to more easily award credits toward early release based on an inmate's good behavior, efforts to rehabilitate or participation in prison education programs. “It's well-balanced,” Brown said. “It's thoughtful.”

The effort is largely in response to the lingering effects of a 2009 federal order for California to reduce its prison population, Brown said.  But he made clear that it also is meant to improve a criminal justice system that offers too few chances at rehabilitation. “By allowing parole consideration if they do good things,” the governor said of some inmates, “they will then have an incentive … to show those who will be judging whether or not they're ready to go back into society.”

Brown had been hinting for months that he was considering a key change in criminal justice policy, and consulted with a number of academics and inmate advocates on how to proceed.  He was joined Wednesday by a handful of prominent law enforcement and religious leaders.  While it was unclear whether they were ready to fully embrace each detail of the measure, they praised Brown's focus on weeding out those serving time for nonviolent offenses. “I think this will effectively open bed space for those who richly deserve to be there,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said.

The initiative also would authorize the state parole board to consider early release for nonviolent inmates who complete a full sentence for their primary offense and it would require a judge to decide whether felons as young as 14 should be tried in juvenile or adult court.  That final element of the initiative would undo a system approved by voters in 2000 that handed that power to prosecutors.

Once the measure is given a formal title and summary by the attorney general's office, Brown and his political team will need to gather more than 585,000 valid voter signatures to qualify it for the Nov. 8 statewide ballot. The governor likely has the needed resources: Campaign funds left over from his 2014 reelection bid and previous successful ballot measures total some $24 million....

Patrick McGrath, district attorney of Yuba County, said Brown's plan — by offering more pathways to parole — also may send the wrong message to crime victims who believe their perpetrators received a certain punishment. “Now, down the line, they're told 10 year [sentences] are not really 10 years,” he said. “I think this is very, very corrosive to the faith that the public has ultimately in the criminal justice system.”  Loyola Law professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, said the proposal would make a judge's sentence only a starting point. “People could be released from prison years earlier based on what the parole board wants to do,” she said....

Of particular interest will be how Brown shapes the narrative of the political campaign in support of his parole initiative. The fall statewide ballot already is expected to be one of the longest in more than a decade, which will mean voters are deluged with a flood of advertisements, mailers and messages. The ballot also likely will feature other high-profile public safety debates, including a gun violence initiative promoted by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and perhaps dueling initiatives to either eliminate or strengthen California's death penalty.

Prof David Ball, who has researched and written a lot about California sentencing realities, provides a deeper dive into what all this could really mean in this Reality-Based Community post. Here is how this post starts:

Governor Jerry Brown introduced the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 (link to initiative text), a sentencing reform ballot initiative slated to appear on the November ballot.  This is potentially huge news — if nothing else, it may signal that the political calculation on crime could be changing — but I have some caveats about how significant it could end up being. The PRSA expands the potential for parole release, expands good-time credits, and puts judges, not DA’s, in charge of deciding whether a given juvenile offender can be tried in adult court.

The most significant part of the PRSA, in my opinion, is the expanded role of parole. California never quite did away with indeterminate sentencing, as I have written about here, reserving X-years-to-life sentences for non-capital murder, three strikes offenses, and some sex offenses. This proposal is definitively not a return to the Indeterminate Sentencing Law of the early 1970’s, where sentences could be as vague as “one year to life.”  Instead, it makes all those who have served their primary (determinate) sentence eligible for parole. The key here is how primary sentence is defined: it “exclude[es] the imposition of an enhancement, consecutive sentence, or alternative sentence.” As I wrote about here, (see this page for a link to the article and the data on sentencing), there are many people serving very long consecutive sentences (100 years plus).  More importantly, the tail-wagging-the-dog enhancement structure of the California penal code means a lot of time actually served is from enhancements.  I expect this to be the main source of pushback, since so much of plea bargaining is, in fact, charge bargaining, and so much of charge bargaining is about enhancements.

January 28, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Judicial Power to Regulate Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Darryl Brown available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Plea bargaining in the United States is in critical respects unregulated, and a key reason is the marginal role to which judges have been relegated.  In the wake of Santobello v. New York (1971), lower courts crafted Due Process doctrines through which they supervised the fairness of some aspects of the plea bargaining process.  Within a decade, however, U.S. Supreme Court decisions began to shut down any constitutional basis for judicial supervision of plea negotiations or agreements.  Those decisions rested primarily on two claims: separation of powers and the practical costs of regulating plea bargaining in busy criminal justice systems.  Both rationales proved enormously influential.  Legislative rulemaking and state courts both largely followed the Court in excluding judges — and in effect, the law — from any meaningful role.

This article challenges these longstanding rationales.  Historical practice suggests that separation of powers doctrine does not require the prevailing, exceedingly broad conception of “exclusive” executive control over charging and other components of the plea process.  This is especially true in the states, many of which had long traditions of private prosecutors and judicial oversight over certain prosecution decisions, as well as different constitutional structures.  By contrast, English courts — based on both common law and legislation — retain some power to review such decisions. Moreover, assertions that legal constraints on plea bargaining would fatally impair the “efficiency” of adjudication is belied by evidence of very high guilty plea rates both in England, where bargaining is more regulated, and in U.S. courts before the Supreme Court closed off meaningful grounds for judicial review.

January 28, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 27, 2016

Florida trial judge refuses to allow capital case to proceed in wake of SCOTUS Hurst ruling

A helpful reader altered me to this notable local article reporting on a notable local ruling concerning the administration of the death penalty in Florida in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst earlier this month.  Here are the basic details:

Days after the Supreme Court struck down the way Florida sentences people to die, a Pinellas County circuit judge has ruled that the death penalty cannot be pursued in a first-degree murder case scheduled for trial next month.

In an order filed Friday, judge Michael Andrews rejected prosecutors' notice that they intend to seek the death penalty in the case of a Pinellas Park father, Steven Dykes, accused of fatally shaking and striking his 3-month-old daughter in February of last year. "This court concludes that there currently exists no death penalty in the State of Florida in that there is no procedure in place," Andrews wrote.

The order is the first of its kind in the state following the Hurst vs. Florida decision on Jan. 12, said Pinellas-Pasco public defender Bob Dillinger. In an 8-1 opinion, the Supreme Court found Florida's death penalty procedures unconstitutional because juries play only an advisory role in recommending life or death. Judges make the ultimate decision after giving "great weight" to jurors' recommendations....

Dillinger, whose office is representing Dykes, said he agreed with Andrews' ruling. "What the judge has done is absolutely correct," Dillinger said, adding Andrews is "right on point."

Prosecutors could file an appeal in the case. Another hearing is scheduled on Feb. 16, court records show, with the trial slated to begin Feb. 29. Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said his office "respectfully" disagrees with judge Andrews, adding that the Hurst decision is not final yet. That will happen after the state asks for a rehearing. Bartlett also said the Legislature still has to create new sentencing guidelines in response to the court's decision.

"They issue an opinion and they don't issue any guidelines on how to fix it, and what to do next," Bartlett said of the Hurst opinion. "It's just a dilemma that faces us because the question is how exactly do you fix it? And they didn't really lay out how they thought it should be fixed, so it kind of lends you to, you know, potentially all kinds of challenges."

Lawmakers have previously said that they are making fixes to the death penalty sentencing system a priority this session. "It's not the Supreme Court's job to lay out the procedural guidelines," said Charles Rose, a Stetson University law professor and the director of the Center for Excellence in Advocacy. "That's an issue for every legislature in every state to deal with independently."

The fate of other murder cases remains in flux until new sentencing guidelines are signed into law, said St. Petersburg criminal defense lawyer Marc Pelletier. "Until the Legislature does its part," he said, "we're still going to be in a situation where everything's unclear."...

[L]aw experts across the state agreed with Andrews' order. "The judge has it absolutely right," said Teresa Reid, a University of Florida Levin College of Law professor and assistant director of the Criminal Justice Center. "You need to have a statute in place regarding sentencing, and we don't have that right now."

She said that the judge's responsibility is to make sure the trial is fair and is conducted under law. "It seems to me the appropriate thing to do is wait," she said. "We can't proceed when we don't have the procedure in place."

Rose, the Stetson law professor, said the decision "makes perfect sense." "Judge Andrews should be commended for doing what the law requires," he said. "It's not only sound, it's courageous because he's the first to step out on the ledge on this issue."

Rose predicted that judges across the state would and should follow suit. "My expectation is that there won't be any new death penalty cases tried," he said.

Prior related posts on Hurst and its aftermath:

January 27, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

New York Times editorial highlights "Mr. Obama’s Pardon Problem"

Today's New York Times includes this notable editorial about the Obama Administration's recent clemency efforts and the need to revamp the entire way in which federal clemency has been approached in modern times. Here is how it begins:

The sudden resignation of the federal pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, an Obama appointee, is the latest evidence that until the clemency process is pried from the grip of the Justice Department, it will remain broken.

The pardon attorney’s office, which operates out of the Justice Department, is responsible for reviewing thousands of petitions for pardons and sentence commutations and for making recommendations for clemency to the president. The president’s power to grant mercy in these cases is nearly unlimited, but for most of his time in office, Mr. Obama, like his recent predecessors, has exercised this power only rarely.

Since 2014, Mr. Obama has focused more attention on this issue. To overhaul the notoriously backlogged pardon office, he announced new standards encouraging tens of thousands of federal prisoners to request reductions of their inordinately long drug sentences.  And he hired Ms. Leff to replace Ronald Rodgers, whose incompetent tenure included a finding by the Justice Department’s inspector general that in 2008 he hid information from President George W. Bush in recommending the denial of a clemency petition.

Ms. Leff’s appointment was a promising sign that the dysfunctional pardon process would be repaired.  But her tenure didn’t last long.  On Jan. 15, barely one year after she was formally appointed, she abruptly announced she would step down at the end of this month, saying only that the work of the office should “move ahead expeditiously and expand.”

As she leaves, more than 10,000 clemency petitions are waiting for review. While the pardon office, which has 10 lawyers, has remained virtually the same size it was 20 years ago, the number of petitions has increased almost sevenfold. The department recently announced plans to hire 16 new lawyers, but this would still be far below the number needed to process the backlog.

The lack of resources is only part of a deeper problem, which is that the pardon office is caught in an incurable institutional conflict.  The deputy attorney general has authority to review the pardon attorney’s clemency recommendations, and federal prosecutors generally have little interest in revisiting or undoing the department’s convictions.  As one former pardon attorney put it, the prosecutors are “determinedly and irreconcilably hostile” to clemency.

January 27, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Legislation to clarify intent requirements is long overdue brake on prosecutorial excess"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary in The Hill authored by Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Here are excerpts:

For several years now, unprecedented bipartisan support for an array of criminal justice reforms, including addressing criminal intent deficiencies, has been building.  Leaders from across the political spectrum have reached across the political divide to work together for a fairer, more rational, and more humane criminal justice system.  This emerging coalition seeks to restore a measure of restraint to a criminal justice system that is out of control.  The United States has more than 2 million people behind bars, recent FBI statistics indicate that we arrest more than 14 million annually, and we have more than 70 million adults with a criminal record.

These shocking statistics do not make the case that this is a nation of criminals; rather they reflect an unprecedented and unrestrained use of the prosecutorial power of government to regulate all manner of disfavored social and personal behavior. There are many ways to address this problem.  One modest, but critical step is to ensure that there is clarity in the criminal law, and that we do not enact vague criminal provisions and count on prosecutorial discretion to ensure that they are not misapplied.  Recently proposed legislation in the House and Senate that would provide a default intent provision where a statute is silent on the level of intent necessary to brand a person as a criminal is a responsible, measured, and incremental step to reign in governmental abuse of its prosecutorial power....

When the government brings to bear its most awesome power short of warfare, the power to prosecute an individual, it has an obligation to do so with precision and clarity, so that the average person can understand what is illegal.  A fundamental principle of law is that to establish criminal behavior it must be demonstrated that a person committed a bad act, and did so with some culpable mental state.

Unfortunately, the federal criminal code has exploded from a handful of criminal provisions a century ago to what is now estimated to be more than 4,500 criminal statutes, and hundreds of thousands of additional criminal provisions in federal regulations.  In its headlong rush to criminalize, Congress has become careless by writing laws and authorizing agencies to enact criminal provisions that can send people to jail, but do not define the required criminal mental state.  That failing opens the door to prosecutorial abuse.  Nonetheless, the Department of Justice is raising concerns about the proposed legislation.  Heaven forbid we should actually make prosecutors prove that someone actually intended to commit a crime!

What the DOJ criticism does not recognize is that criminal intent reform merely provides that if a criminal law or regulation lacks a prescribed mental state then judges and prosecutors should presume that there really is one.  It does not undo any criminal provision that already has a prescribed state of mind.  Government prosecutors can still go after people to their heart’s content, and, despite claims to the contrary, they can do so based on willful, reckless, or negligent behavior if that is what the law provides.  And they can even prosecute based on strict liability – that is without showing a guilty state of mind – provided that is what the law expressly authorizes.  But if the law is silent, rather than ceding to prosecutors unchecked authority to wield the prosecutorial power indiscriminately, this new law provides a modest brake on that power by requiring proof that the person knew that they were breaking the law.

Some recent and older related posts:

January 27, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

What should we expect after Montgomery from states that had resisted Miller retroactivity?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this extended and effective Intercept article headlined "Supreme Court Gives New Hope to Juvenile Lifers, But Will States Deliver?".  Here are excerpts:

[I]t took three-and-a-half years and much litigation for the Supreme Court to force the states to apply Miller retroactively. Even now, the Montgomery ruling is no guarantee for release. “Today’s decision simply provides an opportunity for review,” Mark Plaisance, the Louisiana attorney who argued the case before the Court last fall, reminded reporters on Monday. The ruling is “just the first step in a long process for Mr. Montgomery.”

At 69, Henry Montgomery does not have the luxury of time. Yet he is among the lucky ones — at least he has representation. For other prisoners, finding a lawyer to challenge their continued incarceration is the first in a daunting series of hurdles. According to [Sister Alison] McCrary, word at Angola is that local attorneys will soon be visiting the prison to instruct “offender counsel substitutes” — jailhouse lawyers — on how to begin filing petitions on behalf of fellow inmates. But juvenile lifers must also wait for the state to decide on the legal venue for such a challenge. Then, ultimately, they must convince the state’s chosen decision-makers that they are worthy of early release.

From state to state, the question of who will make these decisions is still up in the air. After Miller, several states simply abolished juvenile life without parole, restoring parole eligibility or imposing lesser determinate sentences on those already imprisoned. Other states opted for resentencing hearings, putting individual prisoners’ fates in the hands of a judge. For those recalcitrant states that refused to do either, Justice Kennedy sought to provide reassurance in Montgomery that the 6-3 ruling “does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convictions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole.” Instead, he suggested, writing for the majority, states can give a chance for such prisoners “to be considered for parole.”

In New Orleans, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights was quick to embrace this suggestion. The state “has a choice to make,” the legal nonprofit explained on its website following Monday’s ruling. It can offer prisoners “costly, lengthy, substantive hearings” to the tune of $3 million to fund the first year of defense attorneys alone, according to an estimate by the Louisiana Public Defender Board. Or it can grant juvenile lifers some shot at release by allowing them to go before a parole board — an option the group’s director argues saves money, preserves public safety (“by ensuring that nobody is released without review”), and is “fairer for victims, because it will mean that they do not have to go through the difficulties of a new court hearing.”...

Still, as in most states, winning parole in Louisiana is exceedingly difficult. Last summer, following a thorough review of the state of parole across the country, the Marshall Project found parole boards nationwide to be secretive, driven by politics, and “vested with almost unlimited discretion to make decisions on almost any basis. Hearsay, rumor and instinct are all fair game.”...

As lawyers and scholars continue to parse the ruling in Montgomery, the broader implications are yet to be seen. For now, although it continues to chip away at the harshest sentences for youth, with Montgomery, the Supreme Court has decided once more to preserve the option of juvenile life without parole, meaning that defendants will continue to be sent to die behind bars for crimes they committed as children. There is good reason to think such sentences will be rare — existing data after Miller shows a large drop in new sentences of life without parole for juvenile crimes across the country. And some legal experts have interpreted Montgomery to mean that a prosecutor pursuing such a punishment will now have to somehow “prove to a judge that a particular youth is beyond saving as a reformed person” — a dubious proposition that should be burdensome in theory.

Yet, it is not hard to imagine that in such cases, the “nature of the crime” will continue to have the final say. After all, even as it seeks to narrow life without parole sentences for youth offenders, Montgomery keeps intact the same assumption that set the stage for them in the first place. “Miller drew a line between children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity and those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption,” Kennedy wrote in Montgomery. It remains possible that a court “might encounter the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.”

It was this image of irredeemably bad youth — applied along starkly racist lines — that created the superpredator myth, fueling the very sentences states are now being forced to reconsider. After all, while it may be easy to accept that, as an old man, Henry Montgomery is not the same person he was in 1963, it is difficult to imagine such sober perspective governing the fate of a 17-year-old who today committed the same crime — the fatal shooting of a police officer. These are the very crimes for which mandatory sentencing was invented — and for which parole will be routinely denied.

It is this enduring idea — that a crime tells us everything we need to know about the person who committed it — that must be overcome, by parole boards, by judges, and by the legions of people who now claim the broader mantle of criminal justice reform. The Supreme Court has taken another important step in recognizing that people in prison can change. It is up to the states to give juvenile lifers a meaningful chance to go home — before prison becomes the only home they know.

Prior related post on Montgomery:

January 27, 2016 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Maine Gov calls for return of death penalty to state for drug dealers and others

This notable recent local article, headlined "Maine should have death penalty for drug dealers, LePage says," reports on some notable recent comments by the chief executive in the Pine Tree state. Here is how the piece starts:

Gov. Paul LePage came out Tuesday in support of reinstating capital punishment in Maine.  After starting his day with an apparent joking reference to using the guillotine to stage public executions of drug traffickers, he ended it by saying he believes in the death penalty for drug traffickers, criminals who invade homes and sexually assault the residents, and people convicted of murder.

“What we ought to do is bring the guillotine back,” LePage said during a morning interview on WVOM radio in Bangor. “We could have public executions.”  The Governor’s Office said the remark was just a joke to illustrate his support for tougher penalties for drug crimes.

On Tuesday night, LePage was asked whether he supported the death penalty, specifically using the guillotine, during a town hall meeting at Husson University in Bangor broadcast by WVII-TV.  “I talk about people dying (from drug overdoses) every day, but no one wants to hear that,” LePage told the audience.  “When I talk about the death penalty everyone wants to protect the drug traffickers. I want to protect the people of Maine.”

The death penalty was abolished in Maine by the Legislature in 1887.  His comments about the guillotine, made just a few weeks after he made national headlines with a remark about drug traffickers coming to Maine and impregnating a young white girl before they leave the state, were picked up by several national media outlets, including CNN and The Washington Post.

“The only time Maine makes the national news is when the governor says something crazy like this,” said Democratic House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan.  McCabe said such remarks produce a “spectacle,” but do little to solve the issue of ending the drug epidemic.

January 27, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

January 26, 2016

"Congressionally Mandated Task Force Calls for Bold Transformation of Federal Corrections System"

CCTFThe title of this post is the headline of this press release which summarized the contents and import of a new report released this morning by the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections.  Here are excerpts from the press release (which includes a link to the report):

Today, the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections issued a set of bold recommendations to reform the federal justice system, enhance public safety, and save the government billions of dollars. In a new report, Transforming Prisons, Restoring Lives, the Congressionally mandated blue-ribbon panel released the findings of its year-long investigation into the nation’s overcrowded and costly federal prisons....

“We have laid out a detailed roadmap of ambitious, consensus-based recommendations that place public safety first while reserving prison for those who truly need it,” said task force chair, former Republican congressman from Oklahoma J.C. Watts, Jr. “If taken together, these reforms are projected to reduce the federal prison population by 60,000 people in the coming years and save more than $5 billion.”

Congress established the bipartisan panel in 2014 in response to mounting concerns about the scale and cost of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which currently houses 197,000 people with a budget of almost $7.5 billion this year. Alan Mollohan, the task force’s vice-chair, said that the seven-fold increase in the BOP’s population since the 1980s is unsustainable. 

"The BOP has been operating at crisis levels for decades," said Mollohan, a former Democratic congressman from West Virginia. "As a result, its policies and practices have not kept up with best practice in the field, presenting a missed opportunity to rehabilitate those who are confined in federal prisons and thus promote public safety.”...

In the report, the task force recommends that the federal justice system move away from its current “one size fits all” approach to meting out punishment and delivering treatment and programs. Instead, they advise that sentencing decisions and correctional responses be based on the individual case–an approach grounded in research evidence as the most effective means of reducing recidivism.

Observing that prison is expensive and imposes tremendous harm to individuals, families, and communities, the Task Force recommends that prison sanctions be used sparingly and long terms of incarceration be reserved for only the most serious federal crimes. They advise incentivizing participation in programs that are proven to lower recidivism and increase the odds of success for individuals reentering society. And, in following the example of successful reforms in states like Texas, Utah, Georgia, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania, they advocate for a more diversified, evidence-based approach to criminal justice that delivers public safety at less cost.

In more specific terms, the Task Force recommends that:

  • Mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses should be reserved for “drug kingpins”–those found to have served a leadership role in a large cartel;
  • Program and treatment participation in prison should be incentivized through earned time off one’s sentence; and
  • The BOP should better assess the risks, needs, and assets of its population and align programming and treatment accordingly to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.

Along with the release of this important report, J.C. Watts, the chair of the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, authored this Washington Post commentary headlined "Prisons are full of low-level offenders. It’s time to rethink federal sentencing laws.: Americans believe in redemption, but for too long, our reflexive reliance on incarceration has left us little room to show it."

January 26, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

What lessons are to be learned from California's recent experiences with sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new post authored by Michael Rushford at Crime & Consequences (and supplemented by Bill Otis) titled "Congressional Supporters of Sentencing Reform Need to Look at California."  As regular readers know, I have long pointed to California as a state to watch closely in the sentencing reform arena, and thus I am pleased to see this post urging federal legislators to look at California's modern reform experiences.  But while the C&C folks seem to think the California experience should lead Congress to back away from proposed statutory sentencing reforms, I see many of the problems emphasized by the C&C folks to be a result of the abject failure of California's legislature to respond wisely with statutory reforms when there was an obvious need to improve its sentencing structures.

I have previously highlighted some of these California realities in this extended 2014 post titled "Can and should California's enduring CJ problems be blamed on those who've long opposed a state sentencing commission?".  In that post, I stressed that while the tough-on-crime crowd over at C&C is eager to blame recent California developments on recent sentncing reform required by a federal court order in Plata and resulting from voter initiatives, it was this same tough-on-crime crowd that vehemently opposed and effectively blocked efforts to create a California sentencing commission to deal proactively and systematically with the state's enduring sentencing problems before they became so acute that federal court intervention was required.

The critical part of the California reform story left out from the C&C discussion is that the California legislature from 2005 to 2010 completely failed to respond in any sound way to sensible calls by sentencing reformers to deal with the state's unconstitutional prison overcrowding and the statutory sentencing problems aggravating these problems.  The court orders requiring prisoner release in Plata and the voter-approved sentencing reforms passed in subsequent elections were the direct result of federal courts and Californian voters no longer being able to trust the state's elected representatives to move responsibly forward with needed state statutory sentencing reform.   

In some ways, this potentially problematic, reactive-reform dynamic is already playing out in the federal sentencing system.  For example, the US Supreme Court has been saying in various ways for many years that Congress needed to fix various problems with the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Congress long failed to respond, and we ultimately get the Justices in Johnson striking down the ACCA statute as partially unconstitutional (which will now require the release of many offenders previously sentenced as armed career criminals).  Similarly, the US Sentencing Commission and the US Department of Justice have been saying in various ways for many reasons that Congress needs to address record-high federal prison populations.  I suspect the USSC concluded, after Congress failed to heed its repeated calls for broad statutory reforms, that it had to do something big itself (with DOJ's support) and thus voted unanimously to reduce guideline sentences for all drug offenses across the board and to make these reforms retroactive.

Now, after years of failing to heed calls by sentencing reformers (and the bipartisan US Sentencing Commission) to get ahead of statutory sentencing problems, much of Congress (now led by the GOP) has seemingly come to realize that failing to deal proactively and systematically with sentencing and corrections reform could produce even more long-term problems and challenges.  But, yet again, the tough-on-crime crowd at C&C and elsewhere is vehemently opposed to a legislature moving forward proactively and systematically with enduring statutory sentencing problems before we get to a crisis point and other actors feel compelled to get involved due to legislative inaction.

January 26, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Why we must rethink solitary confinement"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post commentary authored by the President of the United States Barack Obama.  Here are excerpts from the piece, which concludes with a pitch for broader sentencing reforms:

Solitary confinement gained popularity in the United States in the early 1800s, and the rationale for its use has varied over time.  Today, it’s increasingly overused ... with heartbreaking results — which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem.

There are as many as 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons — including juveniles and people with mental illnesses.  As many as 25,000 inmates are serving months, even years of their sentences alone in a tiny cell, with almost no human contact.

Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences.  It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior.  Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones.  Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.

The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance.  Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society.  Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.

As president, my most important job is to keep the American people safe.  And since I took office, overall crime rates have decreased by more than 15 percent.  In our criminal justice system, the punishment should fit the crime — and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society.  How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer.  It’s an affront to our common humanity....

The Justice Department has completed its review [on the use of solitary], and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system.  These include banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells.  These steps will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement — and hopefully serve as a model for state and local corrections systems.  And I will direct all relevant federal agencies to review these principles and report back to me with a plan to address their use of solitary confinement.

Reforming solitary confinement is just one part of a broader bipartisan push for criminal justice reform.  Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep 2.2 million people incarcerated.  Many criminals belong behind bars.  But too many others, especially nonviolent drug offenders, are serving unnecessarily long sentences.  That’s why members of Congress in both parties are pushing for change, from reforming sentencing laws to expanding reentry programs to give those who have paid their debt to society the tools they need to become productive members of their communities.  And I hope they will send me legislation as soon as possible that makes our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, less expensive and more effective.

In America, we believe in redemption.  We believe, in the words of Pope Francis, that “every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”  We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives.  And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger and worthy of our highest ideals.

January 26, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

January 25, 2016

Do SCOTUS watchers really expect the Justices to take up the basic constitutionality of the death penalty soon?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new article from The Hill reporting on the Supreme Court's denial of cert in a Pennsylvania case involving a blanket Eighth Amendment attack on the death penalty.  Here is the article's discussion of the matter:

The Supreme Court announced [today] that it would not hear a case challenging the constitutionality of the death penalty.  The appeal was filed on behalf of Shonda Walters, who was sentenced to death in May 2006 for murdering her next door neighbor with a hatchet and stealing his car.

The U.S. Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for the Eastern District upheld the lower court’s death sentence, saying the court found the evidence sufficient to support her conviction for first-degree murder.  In appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, Walters asked the justices to weigh in on whether the imposition of the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  The court did not give any statement supporting or dissenting from its decision to reject the case.

Court watchers have been expecting the justices to take up the constitutionality of the death penalty in light of a dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer last year.  Experts said Breyer’s dissent provided a blueprint for a broad challenge to capital punishment....  The court appears to be waiting for the right case to weigh in.  The case that was declined on Monday is Walter v. Pennsylvania.

I know that a lot of folks eager to have the death penalty completely abolished in the United States are ever hopeful, especially in the wake of Justice Breyer's Glossip dissent, that the Supreme Court will consider anew a wholesale Eighth Amendment challenge to any and every death sentence.  But I have always considered quite significant the fact that Justice Breyer's dissent in Glossip was joined by only one other Justice; moreover, just last week every member of the Court except Justice Sotomayor voted to reinstate a number of Kansas death sentences as consistent with the Eighth Amendment (as blogged here). 

I fully understand why Justice Breyer's dissent in Glossip is now prompting many capital defense attorneys to raise and seek to preserve an Eighth Amendment broadside attack on the death sentence given to his or her client.  But, especially after the Supreme Court's most recent capital case work from Kansas and elsewhere, I am one "court watcher" who does not expect this kind of claim to be taken up by the Justices anytime soon.

January 25, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Helpful accounting by Pew Charitable Trusts of huge state-level reforms resulting from Justice Reinvestment Initiative

The good folks at Pew recently released these two helpful mini-reports that provide a summary accounting of lots of the criminal justice reform work that has been done by states in recent years through the so-called Justice Reinvestment Initiative:

The first of these linked documents has a pdf version with huge chart with lots of interesting specifics under the heading "Sentencing and Corrections Reforms in Justice Reinvestment States."  Anyone eager to get a feel for just some of the massive criminal justice reforms that have taken place in the states over the last decade ought to check out this document.  And the document has this overview discussion at the outset:

Since 2007, 31 states have reformed their sentencing and corrections policies through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a public-private partnership that includes the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Crime and Justice Institute, the Vera Institute of Justice, and other organizations.  Although reforms vary from state to state, all aim to improve public safety and control taxpayer costs by prioritizing prison space for serious and repeat offenders and investing some of the savings in alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders that are effective at reducing recidivism.

Justice reinvestment policies generally fall into four categories: sentencing laws that instruct courts about how to sanction convicted defendants; release laws that determine the conditions for offenders’ departure from prison; supervision laws that guide how those on probation or parole are monitored; and oversight laws that track the progress of these changes.

In the years since the wave of reforms began, the total state imprisonment rate has ticked downward while crime rates have continued their long-term decline.  At the same time, states that have enacted justice reinvestment laws expect to save billions of dollars as a result of their reforms. 

The second document linked above drills down a little deeper into sentencing-specific reforms, and a quick review of the state-by-state changes suggests that even more "red" states have been involved in making sentencing reforms through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative than "blue" states.

January 25, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Does SCOTUS ruling in Montgomery actually minimize likelihood of full constitutional ban on juve LWOP sentences?

The question in the title of this post is my first "now what" thought concerning the Supreme Court's ruling today in Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14–280 (S. Ct. Jan. 25, 2016) (available here), and the future of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  It was prompted in part by the first post-Montgomery e-mail I received:  it stressed that juvenile justice advocates have "urged the Court to rule that JLWOP is unconstitutional in all cases [and now] two cases with petitions for certiorari currently pending, Houston v. Utah and Jacobs v. Louisiana, ask the Court to invalidate JLWOP in all cases."

For a host of reasons, I am pleased that a majority of Justices in Montgomery concluded that the Eight Amendment rule announced in Miller precluding the mandatory imposition of life without parole to juvenile murderers is to be applied retroactively to all cases.  But the fact that the Justices reached this result by calling Miller substantive, and especially the fact that Chief Justice Roberts joined the Court's opinion in Montgomery, leads me to think we might not see the Justices show interest in even considering a categorical ban on all juve LWOP sentences for some time.

Of course, I am just reading broad Eighth Amendment tea leaves here (and doing so even before I have had a chance to read Montgomery closely).  Of course, the five Justices who made up the Graham and Miller majorities could on their own, without the Chief Justice along for the ride, decide to extend their Eighth Amendment jurisprudence to create a categorical bar on all juve LWOP sentences.  But this five-some of Justices had their chance to reach such a result in the original Miller case and amici urged the Court to use Montgomery as another chance to do the same.  The fact that the Supreme Court has now twice resisted extending Graham to all juvenile crimes, and especially now that the Justices have ensured (with the help of the Chief Justice) that no juve offenders will ever be subject to LWOP without a sentencing judge deciding such a sentence was truly justified, leads me to predict that it may now be quite a while before the Justices consider seriously a categorical ban on all juve LWOP sentences as a constitutional mandate.

Prior related post on Montgomery:

January 25, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

SCOTUS declares Miller juve LWOP rule retroactive in Montgomery v. Louisiana

Via a 6-3 ruling authored by Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court this morning decided via Montgomery v. Louisiana, No. 14–280 (S. Ct. Jan. 25, 2016) (avaialable here), that "Miller announced a substantive rule that is retroactive in cases on collateral review."  This is huge news for lots of reasons, and I will likely have a series of posts on this ruling and its reasoning in the hours and days and weeks ahead.

Intriguingly, the majority opinion for the Court spent relatively more energy justifying jurisdiction in the case than the declaration that Miller is a substantive rule under Teague's framework for retroactive applicaton of new constitutional rules.  In any event, here are a few key passages from the tail end of the Court's Montgomery opinion explaining its ruling:

The Court now holds that Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law.  The conclusion that Miller states a substantive rule comports with the principles that informed Teague.  Teague sought to balance the important goals of finality and comity with the liberty interests of those imprisoned pursuant to rules later deemed unconstitutional. Miller’s conclusion that the sentence of life without parole is disproportionate for the vast majority of juvenile offenders raises a grave risk that many are being held in violation of the Constitution.

Giving Miller retroactive effect, moreover, does not require States to relitigate sentences, let alone convic­tions, in every case where a juvenile offender received mandatory life without parole.  A State may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.  See, e.g., Wyo. Stat. Ann. §6–10–301(c) (2013) (juvenile homicide offenders eligible for parole after 25 years).  Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity — and who have since matured — will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Extending parole eligibility to juvenile offenders does not impose an onerous burden on the States, nor does it disturb the finality of state convictions.  Those prisoners who have shown an inability to reform will continue to serve life sentences.  The opportunity for release will be afforded to those who demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition — that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.

January 25, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

GOP empire striking back against federal sentencing reform efforts in Congress

TomCottonThis new Politico article, headlined "Cotton leads effort to sink sentencing overhaul: A cadre of conservative Republicans is lining up against the bipartisan measure, imperiling its future," reinforces my long-standing concern that the prospects of significant statutory sentencing reform emerging from Congress gets dimmer every week that passes without movement forward on the bills that have made it through the judiciary committees.  Here is the first part of the article:

Sen. Tom Cotton, the hawkish upstart who's already made waves railing against the Iran nuclear deal and government surveillance programs, is now leading a new rebellion against a bipartisan effort to overhaul the criminal justice system — hoping to torpedo one of the only pieces of major legislation that could pass in President Barack Obama’s final year.

GOP tensions over a bill that would effectively loosen some mandatory minimum sentences spilled over during a party lunch last week, when Cotton (R-Ark.), the outspoken Senate freshman, lobbied his colleagues heavily against the legislation, according to people familiar with the closed-door conversation. The measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall with bipartisan support.

“It would be very dangerous and unwise to proceed with the Senate Judiciary bill, which would lead to the release of thousands of violent felons,” Cotton said later in an interview with POLITICO. “I think it’s no surprise that Republicans are divided on this question … [but] I don’t think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do.”

Cotton isn’t alone. Other Senate Republicans, including Sens. Jim Risch of Idaho and David Perdue of Georgia, also registered their strong opposition during the lunch, even as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) vigorously defended the bill, which he helped negotiate. Risch stressed this message, according to one Republican source: Shouldn’t the GOP be a party of law and order?

Risch declined to elaborate on his concerns over the bill, saying he was displeased that his private remarks made during a party lunch were made public. But the deepening Republican split over reforming key elements of the criminal justice system — an effort years in the making that has been powered by an influential right-left coalition — may imperil whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ultimately will take up the measure later in this election year.

Conservatives opposing the legislation are coalescing around Cotton’s view — despite strong pushback from bill supporters — that the measure could lead to the early release of people convicted and imprisoned for violent crimes. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), once a supporter of easing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders, has also made this argument. And there’s stiff resistance in pockets of the Republican Party to do anything that may erode its tough-on-crime reputation.

Backers of the bill say their changes to sentencing laws merely allow qualifying inmates to have their cases revisited by the same judge and prosecutor who landed them in prison. The judge would then have the discretion to hand down a reduced sentence. “It’s not true,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) of opponents’ insistence that violent criminals could be freed under the sentencing reforms. “I’d say, please read the bill and listen to people like [former Attorney General] Michael Mukasey who makes the point, which is a critical point, that there’s no get-out-of-jail-free card.”

But that perception, hardening among conservatives, is a serious obstacle for supporters of the bill like Cornyn, who as the Senate’s second-ranking Republican is the most influential GOP backer of the criminal-justice measure. And last week, McConnell — who is often hesitant to press ahead on issues that divide his 54-member conference — indicated a breather of sorts on the bill, saying GOP senators would take some time to get educated on the measure.

Those comments discouraged some supporters, since any major pause could spell doom for the bill this year. In a couple of months, the GOP-led Congress will turn its attention to its top legislative priority — budget and appropriations bills — while individual lawmakers shift into full campaign mode. “Members of the Judiciary Committee have been deeply involved on that issue, the rest of us have not,” McConnell told reporters of criminal justice reform. “So we’re going to be working through the process of bringing everybody in the Republican Conference up to speed on this very important issue, and we’re going to do that before any decision is made about floor time.”

The criminal justice overhaul isn’t limited to sentencing reforms. The measure also includes reforms to the prison system championed by Cornyn and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) — changes that Cotton said he supports. And overhaul efforts also are complicated by the issue of so-called mens rea reform, with House Republicans and some GOP senators — including Orrin Hatch of Utah, the most senior Senate Republican — demanding changes to rules governing criminal intent.

But the sentencing changes are triggering the biggest — and most vivid — rift among Republicans. Cotton and other Republicans pointed to a triple murder earlier this month in Columbus, Ohio, where a man is accused of killing an ex-girlfriend and two of her children. The suspect, Wendell Callahan, had his prison sentence on drug charges reduced twice for a total of more than four years, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

January 25, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

January 24, 2016

Lots of notable new year marijuana reform developments via Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

It has been some time since I highlighted here developments in the marijuana reform space, and these recent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform highlight just some of the reasons why 2016 is already full of marijuana reform stories worth keeping an eye on:

January 24, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Making a pitch for judicial second looks while asking "Did I Sentence a Murderer or a Cooperative Witness?"

The question in the second half of the title of this post is the headline of this New York Times commentary authored by Stefan Underhill, a federal district judge in Connecticut.  But the headline does not reflect what thus commentary is really about: it makes a pitch for creating a significant new judicial second-look mechanism in federal sentencing.  I recommend this commentary in full, and here are excerpts:

In 2006, I sentenced a man to 18 years in prison. I have been wrestling with that decision ever since. As a federal district judge, I’ve sentenced hundreds of people, but I’ve rarely agonized as much as I did over this man’s fate.

He was the enforcer for a brutal gang of drug dealers in Bridgeport, Conn., known as the Terminators, and had sold heroin, assaulted rival dealers and murdered a potential witness.  But after a falling-­out with the head of the gang, he turned over a stash house to the police and fled the state.  When captured in 2001, he immediately confessed to the murder and later testified as a star witness for the prosecution.

Thus arose my problem: He had committed horrible crimes, but he also seemed to be making an unusually sincere effort to atone for them.  So which man was I sentencing?  The murderer or the remorseful cooperator?

The prosecutor rewarded his cooperation by filing a so­called 5K motion, which allowed me to ignore the mandatory life sentence he otherwise would have faced.  Still, after weighing the seriousness of his crimes, I sentenced him to 18 years, which was more time than even the prosecutor wanted....

In the years that followed, I often wondered whether his remorse was strong enough to overcome his past.  In 2012, I had the chance to find out.  While attending a conference on sentencing issues, I learned that he was serving time in a prison nearby.  I wanted to know whether he had become a better citizen or a better criminal.  So I asked a prison staffer if I could meet with him in private.

That the warden felt no need to post a guard was my first clue that he had changed for the better.  He was working in his first real job at the prison industries factory and had been promoted to supervisor.  He showed me recommendations from prison employees for good jobs on the outside.  He brought a folder full of certificates he had earned for attending classes.  He talked lovingly about his girlfriend and daughter, with whom he planned to live as a family after his release.

The meeting made me proud of his accomplishments, but sad that I had not been more confident in him.  He still had several years left on his sentence, but it was clear that he had served enough time.  After I returned to my office, I contacted the prosecutor and his lawyer and encouraged them to find a way to get him released early.  But they told me there was no straightforward way to shorten a federal inmate’s sentence, even if prison officials acknowledge that more jail time is a waste of time and money.  So he had to stay in prison, at an annual cost of $30,000 to taxpayers.

The tragedy of mass incarceration has recently focused much attention on the need to reform three-­strikes laws, mandatory minimums and the federal sentencing guidelines, which often direct judges to impose excessive sentences. We also need a mechanism for judges to re­evaluate the sentences they’ve imposed.  It’s true that federal prisoners can earn up to 15 percent off the length of their sentences if they stay out of trouble.  But this doesn’t incentivize prisoners to take advantage of work or study opportunities.

Instead, Congress should enact legislation that would allow every sentenced defendant one opportunity to petition his sentencing court for a reduction based on extraordinarily good conduct and rehabilitation in prison.

This “second-­look review” should be available only to prisoners who are supported by their wardens.  To minimize the increased workload on busy federal judges, each prisoner should be allowed only a single opportunity to seek early release and do so only after serving at least half of the sentence imposed (or two­-thirds of a mandatory minimum sentence).

Factors in support of an early release should include more than just clean disciplinary records in prison.  Job readiness, success with drug treatment, completion of vocational and educational training and extraordinary family or health circumstances should count as well....

I don’t advocate for a return to the flawed federal parole system that was essentially abolished in the 1980s.  In that system, a judge who believed that a defendant should spend three years locked up would impose a nine­year sentence because parole was likely to be granted after he served one­-third of it.  But if that defendant’s parole was delayed or denied, the judge’s original intent was impeded.  In contrast, my proposal would give the sentencing judge control. This makes sense because judges know whether a particular defendant got a break at sentencing or not and can best gauge the extent of positive change in a person....

A “second look” to adjust sentences would give inmates an incentive to prepare themselves for productive lives on the outside, and allow judges like me to correct sentences that turn out, in hindsight, to be unnecessarily long. This would improve the fairness of our criminal justice system and increase the public’s confidence in our courts.

UPDATE: Intriguingly, since I posted this piece, the New York Times changed its on-line headline to "Did the Man I Sentenced to 18 Years Deserve It?". And, echoing my own gut instincts, it seems that more than a few commentors think that someone who murdered a potential witness deserves at least 18 years in prison. In light of that view, I think the most notable aspect of this sentencing story is fact that the initial 18-year prison sentence "was more time than even the prosecutor wanted."

January 24, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)