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February 6, 2016

"Was there a Ferguson Effect on crime rates in large U.S. cities?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new research paper authored by a quartet of sociologists and criminologists and available now via ResearchGate. Here is the abstract:

Purpose There has been widespread speculation that the events surrounding the shooting death of an unarmed young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri — and a string of similar incidents across the country — have led to increases in crime in the United States.  This study tested for the “Ferguson Effect” on crime rates in large U.S. cities.

Methods:  Aggregate and disaggregate monthly Part I criminal offense data were gathered 12 months before and after August 2014 from police department data requests and websites in 81 large U.S. cities.  The exogenous shock of Ferguson was examined using a discontinuous growth model to determine if there was a redirection in seasonality-adjusted crime trends in the months following the Ferguson shooting.

Results:  No evidence was found to support a systematic post-Ferguson change in overall, violent, and property crime trends; however, the disaggregated analyses revealed that robbery rates, declining before Ferguson, increased in the months after Ferguson.  Also, there was much greater variation in crime trends in the post-Ferguson era, and select cities did experience increases in homicide.  Overall, any Ferguson Effect is constrained largely to cities with historically high levels of violence, a large composition of black residents, and socioeconomic disadvantages.

Conclusions:  The national discourse surrounding the “Ferguson Effect” is long on anecdotes and short on data, leaving criminologists largely on the sidelines of a conversation concerning one of the most prominent contemporary issues in criminal justice.  Our findings are largely consistent with longstanding criminological knowledge that changes in crime trends are slow and rarely a product of random shocks.

February 6, 2016 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Instead of building 'super prisons,' let's build super schools"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary by an Alabama state rep in response to a recent proposal by the state's Governor.  Here is how the commentary begins:

During his State of the State Address Tuesday night, Gov. Bentley laid out his four-year plan, which included spending up to $800 million to build four new super prisons.  The next day, the governor announced that he wants to transfer $181 million out of the education budget and put it in the general fund budget, which also pays for prisons.

Don't get me wrong.  There are some very serious problems with our state prisons. What's happening at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women is unacceptable!  Changes need to be made, and more prison reform is absolutely needed.

But how can the governor — or any legislators, for that matter — justify spending almost a billion dollars on new accommodations for prisoners while thousands of our children are going to school in run-down facilities that have broken windows and no air conditioning?

Instead of building "super prisons" like what the governor is talking about, how about we build "super schools" instead? Why is the governor willing to invest hundreds-of-millions of dollars in our prison population's future, but wants to cut hundreds-of-millions from our children's future?

Among other points, this commentary highlights the reality that, for states with fixed and limited budgets, any and all extra taxpayer investments in cells can often require a reduction in taxpayer investment in classrooms.

February 6, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

February 5, 2016

Lots of end-of-the-week notable capital punishment stories

A busy day of teaching and other work activies has prevented me from posting about a number of interesting death penalty stories and commentaries I noticed in the media recently. Here are headlines and links to serve as a kind of end-of-week round-up:

February 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

February 4, 2016

"Obey All Laws and Be Good: Probation and the Meaning of Recidivism"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article authored by Fiona Doherty and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Probation is the most commonly imposed criminal sentence in the United States, with nearly four million adults currently under supervision.  Yet the law of probation has not been the focus of sustained research or analysis.  This Article examines the standard conditions of probation in the sixteen jurisdictions that use probation most expansively.  A detailed analysis of these conditions is important, because the extent of the state’s authority to control and punish probationers depends on the substance of the conditions imposed.

Based on the results of my analysis, I argue that the standard conditions of probation, which make a wide variety of noncriminal conduct punishable with criminal sanctions, construct a definition of recidivism that contributes to overcriminalization.  At the same time, probationary systems concentrate adjudicative and legislative power in probation officers, often to the detriment of the socially disadvantaged.  Although probation is frequently invoked as a potential solution to the problem of overincarceration, I argue that it instead should be analyzed as part of the continuum of excessive penal control.

February 4, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3)

Detailing shrinking number of states still denying federal benefits to former drug felons

The Marshall Project has this intriguing new piece on the modern reality and reform of collateral consequences headlined "Six States Where Felons Can’t Get Food Stamps: Few holdouts remain, as drug-war-era bans on benefits are lifted."  Here are the details:

For almost two decades, Alabama residents convicted of a drug-related felony were barred for life from receiving food stamps or welfare payments.  Starting this month, the ban will officially be lifted.

Alabama is not the only state that is backing away from the ban, which was established in 1996 under President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform law and blocks only drug offenders from receiving assistance, not any other felons.

Eighteen states have completely abandoned the federal prohibition on drug offenders receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or food stamps.  Twenty-six other states have partly eased those restrictions, often by providing the benefits only if the recipient complies with parole, does not commit a second offense, enrolls in treatment, etc.  At least three more states — Georgia, Nebraska, and Indiana — are now considering similar reforms. Only six states continue to fully enforce the War on Drugs-era ban. ...

States have been somewhat less willing to lift the ban on drug offenders receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), otherwise known as welfare.  Thirteen states continue to fully prohibit anyone with a drug-related conviction from getting welfare benefits, and 23 others maintain a partial ban.

Unlike food stamps, which are paid for in full by the federal government, welfare is partly funded by the states.  That means it is significantly more expensive for states to expand access to welfare, which may be part of the reason this ban has been slower to fall.

February 4, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

February 3, 2016

DOJ announces appointment of new Acting Pardon Attorney

This DOJ press release reports that the "Justice Department announced today that Robert A. Zauzmer will become the new Acting Pardon Attorney effective immediately."  Here is more about this important new person in an important new DOJ position:

Zauzmer, the Chief of Appeals in the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, has been a key player in the department’s implementation of both the 2013 Smart on Crime initiative and the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s retroactive sentence reductions.

“Bob’s long-standing commitment to criminal justice reform and his knack for devising and implementing the department’s sentencing reduction policies made him a natural choice to serve as Pardon Attorney,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. “Bob also shares my unwavering dedication to the president’s clemency initiative. Given his experience and dedication, I am confident that Bob will hit the ground running.”

“As someone who has been part of the criminal justice system for more than 25 years, I have long been troubled by the imposition of disproportionately lengthy sentences, even as long as life imprisonment, that were imposed on low-level drug offenders on the basis of laws and policies that have since been changed,” said Zauzmer. “I have dedicated much of the past decade to assisting in the efforts to right some of those unfairly long sentences, and it is my profound honor to aid the president in using his clemency power to continue to restore the sense of proportionality and fairness that is at the heart of our justice system.”

As part of his efforts on behalf of the department, Zauzmer has testified multiple times before the U.S. Sentencing Commission on sentencing guideline issues, including the retroactive application of reductions in drug sentences. He also trained federal prosecutors nationwide on how to apply retroactivity in a way that provides relief to all eligible inmates in the most efficient manner possible. From 2012 to 2014, Zauzmer served as a member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee (AGAC), working closely with Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Yates at a time that they served as chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the AGAC....

In December 2013, President Obama directed the department to prioritize applications for clemency from inmates who were sentenced under outdated policies and would have received a lesser sentence under current policies and laws. Since the clemency initiative was announced in April 2014, the president has granted 187 commutations, more than the last five presidents combined.

UPDATE: This new NPR piece, headlined "New Pardon Chief In Obama Justice Department Inherits A Huge Backlog," has some interesting quotes from the new Acting Pardon Attorney:

Robert Zauzmer, 55, has worked since 1990 at the U.S. attorney's office in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Justice Department leaders said Zauzmer represented a "natural choice" for the pardon job, in part because of his experience training prosecutors all over the country in how to evaluate prisoners' requests for early release.  "There were many occasions over the years where I saw these sentences of 20, 30 years, life imprisonment imposed on low-level offenders based on mandatory sentencing laws that troubled me," Zauzmer told NPR in an interview this week.

"Prosecutors are very knowledgeable about these cases and about the laws and about the need to do justice," he added.  "They are passionate about this, and they are dedicated to doing the right thing and correcting any erroneous sentences that need to be corrected, and I am equally passionate about it."

His first task?  Making sure that thousands of prisoner petitions are reviewed and worthy candidates are forwarded to the White House for action before the end of the Obama presidency, whether the applications come from trained lawyers or from inmates themselves.  "We're going to consider every petition," he said.  Zauzmer declined to offer a deadline but said stacks of petitions are "not going to be left on my table."

"I need to make sure that every system is in place that's necessary to review every case and make sure everybody gets a fair shake," Zauzmer said.  "There's a lot to do, but we have an excellent staff there, and I'm going to give it everything I have."...

But in the interview, the new acting pardon attorney cast some doubt on the idea of a mass clemency. "So I don't think we will ever get to a point where we will say, let's just take this basket of people and do mass clemency," Zauzmer said.  "We will look at these cases individually to make sure that we're not creating an undue risk to public safety, and that requires an individual assessment."

And Zauzmer pointed out that he is quite familiar with those case-by-case looks. He said the White House had already shortened the prison terms of six inmates from his district in Pennsylvania, including the case of David Padilla, who had been serving life behind bars.  "He was a classic example of someone who committed crimes, did bad things, admits it, has served almost 20 years in prison and should not be serving a life sentence," he said. "A life sentence does not possibly match the kind of criminal conduct that he was involved in."

February 3, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"American Exceptionalism in Probation Supervision"

American-Exceptionalism-in-Probation-Final-1024x663The title of this post is the title of this notable new data brief published by Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. The core product is this interesting graphic (which is really hard to see here, but is very worth checking out).  Here is some of the Robina Institute's text that explains some of the graphic's data details:

It is well known that the U.S. leads the world in incarceration rates. This Data Brief shows that, compared with Europe, America is similarly “exceptional” for its high rates of probation supervision.  The average probation supervision rate for all fifty states is more than five times the average rate for all European countries included in the most recent Council of Europe data.  Several U.S. States with the highest rates of probation supervision (e.g., Ohio, Rhode Island, Idaho, and Indiana) have rates that are eight-to-nine times the average European rate.  Such stark differences exist despite the fact that many countries in Europe have overall crime rates that are quite similar to the U.S.

This Data Brief demonstrates for the first time that America suffers from “mass probation” in addition to “mass incarceration.”  Although probation has often been thought of as an “alternative” to prison or jail sentences, the U.S. has achieved exceptional levels of punitiveness in both incarceration and community supervision.  Over the past several decades, the number of people under probation supervision in the U.S. has increased greatly.  Nearly 4 million adults were under probation supervision across America at year-end 2013.  In all reporting European countries, with roughly twice the population of the U.S., only 1.5 million adults were under probation supervision.

These findings lead to many important questions of law and policy.  Most states should closely reexamine the numbers of people who are placed on probation each year, and the lengths of terms they are required to serve.  Options for “early termination” of the lowest-risk and most successful probationers should be explored.  Some experts in the field allege that probationary sentences do little to control crime, and frequently do more harm than good.  Community supervision can make offenders’ “reentry” into the law-abiding community more difficult than it needs to be, such as when meetings with probation officers interfere with work responsibilities, or supervision and program fees block probationers’ ability to support themselves and their families.

Concerns of this kind should be carefully evaluated by lawmakers in every state.  If some uses of probation are counterproductive to the reentry process, or outright “criminogenic,” it should be a high priority everywhere to discontinue them.  The financial expense and opportunity costs of “mass probation” should also be assessed nationwide.  High probation supervision rates cost American taxpayers a great deal of money, and not just in the funding of probation agencies.  National data suggest that a large share of all prison admissions come from probation revocations — a substantial number of which are for “technical” violations of sentence conditions rather than new criminal conduct.  Far from being an “alternative” to incarceration, probation has been a “feeder” institution or a “conduit” to our prisons and jails.  In this respect, misguided probation policy has almost certainly been a major contributor to America’s excesses in prison policy.  The problems of mass incarceration and mass probation are intimately linked, and they must be tackled together.

February 3, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Return of GOP jedis trying to keep sentencing reform efforts going in Congress

Last week via this post titled "GOP empire striking back against federal sentencing reform efforts in Congress," I noted this Politico article highlighting that a "cadre of conservative Republicans" were starting to line up against congressional statutory sentencing reform efforts.  The title of this post continues the galactic metaphor as a way to view these notable new press accounts of significant GOP voices trying to keep federal sentencing reform efforts moving forward:

From the New York Times here, "Senator John Cornyn Aims to Sway Fellow Republicans on Criminal Justice"

From Politico here, "Republicans press for criminal justice overhaul"

From BuzzFeed News here, "Koch Continues To Push Criminal Justice Bill As Momentum Fades On Hill"

Because lots of folks on both the left and right sometimes seem to think that the Koch brothers can use their massive wealth to "buy" legal reform, I will here highlight the first part of the BuzzFeed piece:

The momentum for criminal justice legislation is slowing down on Capitol Hill, but hundreds of miles away, Charles Koch — one of its biggest supporters — continued to aggressively make the case for it to pass this year, even as the billionaire becomes the face of one of the sticking points.  “The issue we’ve been working hard on is criminal justice reform, so if somebody makes one mistake, non-violent, it starts with this question: Do you have right to run your own life as long as you don’t violate the rights of others and you’re not bothering anybody?”  Koch said to donors on Sunday at the winter meeting of the political network affiliated with the industrialist brothers, which drew about 500 attendees.

Koch’s comments on the issue were part of an hour-long presentation on what he calls “Framework for Free Society,” which the billionaire believes will put the country back on the right track.  He views changes to the criminal justice system as a crucial component of the framework.  “You smoke a joint or violate some regulation … get arrested, put in prison and then come out, can’t get a job, so this destroys opportunities and makes the community less safe because you go in — and weren’t really criminals — and you are trying to get a job, so you steal if you can’t,” he said.

In addition to Koch himself advocating for looser sentencing laws, attendees also received a closed-door briefing on the issue Sunday morning, according to a schedule provided to donors.  BuzzFeed News was one of six news organizations to accept an invitation to cover parts of the network’s meeting after agreeing to certain ground rules. The largest-ever gathering of the Koch brothers’ political network this past weekend came as the path forward for criminal justice legislation — a high priority for the network’s donors — becomes increasingly uncertain in a presidential election year.

February 3, 2016 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Do sex offenders deserve a scarlet letter on their passport?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this Los Angeles Times editorial.  Here is how it starts:

After rousing themselves from the 30-plus-year bad trip that was the war on drugs — or rather, the war on drug users — many Americans in and out of elected office looked around for someone else to persecute.  Someone, somewhere, must be so depraved and hateful that liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans could join in common cause to vilify them.

They appear to have found their target: sex offenders.  The current case in point is a congressional proposal to alert the nations of the world that particular U.S. citizens who have committed sex offenses against minors are planning to visit.  Passports would be specially marked so that other countries could turn travelers away at the border because of old crimes for which they have already served their time in the U.S.

This vindictive bill has been wisely rejected numerous times in the past, but now it's heading to President Obama's desk.  He should veto it.

Sex offenses against minors are particularly horrendous crimes.  But when offenders have completed their sentences and periods of supervision, there is no more reason to continue hounding and harassing them than convicted murderers or drug traffickers, who don't bear scarlet letters on their passports.

But wait, some supporters argue, people who commit sex crimes against children are a special case.  As soon as they've done it once, they'll want more, posing imminent danger to any underage person anywhere.  Their front doors should be marked to warn trick-or-treaters.  They should be banned from park benches.

This blatantly false argument thrives on ignorance.  There are indeed mentally disordered sex offenders whose conditions make them extremely high risks to commit more crimes of the same variety.  Some may target minors.  But that is far different from saying that anyone convicted of a sex offense against a minor falls into that very narrow category.  Corrections officials in California report that most sexual crimes committed by adults against minors occur among family members, and that the rate of recidivism is fairly low.

Prior related post:

February 3, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (29)

February 2, 2016

Post-Hurst hydra develops new heads in Delaware as all capital cases get halted

In this post last month not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst v. Florida declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what will likely be multi-headed, snake-like litigation that will develop in various ways in various courts as judges try to make sense of just what Hurst must mean for past, present and future capital cases.  Now, as reported in this local article, headlined "All Delaware executions, capital murder trials halted," a new head for this litigation hydra emerged yesterday.  Here are the basic details:  

All pending capital murder trials and executions have been halted until the Delaware Supreme Court determines the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law.  The temporary stay, issued by President Judge Jan R. Jurden on Monday, is expected to impact at least four death penalty cases that were scheduled to go to trial in the next 120 days. Likewise, a spokesperson for the Department of Correction said Monday that all executions are also on hold, even though none were scheduled for the coming months.

"I think it is a smart decision," said Delaware's Chief Defender Brendan O'Neill. "It makes sense to stay the cases until we get the Supreme Court's ruling on whether our death penalty statute is constitutional."  The stay will give the Delaware Supreme Court time to consider five questions that have arisen in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling for Florida.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida's death penalty system, saying it gives too much power to judges, instead of juries. In that case, a man was convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Popeye's restaurant in Pensacola and was sentenced to death by a judge.  Delaware, Alabama and Florida are the only states that allow judges to override a jury's recommendation of life and, instead, impose a sentence of death. Judges in Delaware have not been using that power.

The top U.S. court's recent ruling left prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges in Delaware with many questions about how to proceed in the state's approximately two dozen death penalty cases and with the 14 men on death row. In light of this, Superior Court Judge Paul Wallace solicited questions from Attorney General Matt Denn's office and O'Neill's office that they would like the Delaware Supreme Court to consider.  The highest state court agreed last week to address the questions and set a timeline of mid-April for all briefs to be submitted.

The court is using as a test case that of Benjamin Rauf, the Temple University law graduate charged with gunning down classmate Shazi Uppal, 27, in the parking lot of a Hockessin nursing home last summer.  Police have said the shooting occurred during a drug deal gone awry....

Jurden wrote in the administrative directive Monday that the certified questions are directly relevant to the pending capital murder trials. "Specifically, the determination will control the procedure to be applied in all such cases," she wrote.  "A temporary stay of the pending trials, penalty hearings, and any applications asking this court to declare Delaware's capital sentencing scheme unconstitutional is warranted to ensure the application of the law consistent with the Supreme Court's determination of the certified questions."  Jurden went on to say that temporary stays have previously been entered, such as in 2003 and 1992, when questions about the validity of the procedures were being considered by the Delaware Supreme Court.

The ensuing court battle is not the only challenge to the state's death penalty law. A bill to abolish the death penalty failed 23-16 in the House of Representatives on Thursday, but some lawmakers are vowing to give it a second chance this spring.

The administrative directive referenced in this article is available at this link.

Prior related posts:

February 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"The Irrationality of Natural Life Sentences"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times Opinionator column authored by Jennifer Lackey.  Here are excerpts:

[Personal] transformations can be seen most clearly by considering the two ends of the spectrum of life.  On the early side, it is often noted that the prefrontal cortex of the brains of adolescents is still developing, and so they are more likely than adults to act on impulse, engage in dangerous or risky behavior, and misread social cues and emotions.  This raises a host of questions about the level of responsibility that juveniles bear for their crimes and the appropriate punishments that should be handed out to them.  If the underdeveloped brains of adolescents at least partly explain their criminal behavior, then holding them fully responsible for their actions, and punishing them as adults, seems wildly off the mark.

On the later side of the spectrum, only 1 percent of serious crime is committed by people over the age of 60. According to Jonathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University: “Everyone agrees on what is the most reliable predictor of recidivism: age.  As people get older, they statistically become less dangerous.” Turley refers to this period as “criminal menopause,” a phenomenon that raises serious questions about the rationale for incarcerating the elderly.  Still, researchers project that the elderly prison population in the United States will be over 400,000 in 2030, compared with 8,853 in 1981.

At the early end of the spectrum of life, then, there is the possibility that prisoners might change; at the later end, there is the reality that they have changed.  Both facts bump up against natural life sentences.  A sentence of “natural life” means that there are no parole hearings, no credit for time served, no possibility of release.  Short of a successful appeal or an executive pardon, such a sentence means that the convicted will, in no uncertain terms, die behind bars.

Many types of arguments have been leveled against natural life sentences.  Economic ones focus on the ballooning costs of mass incarceration and the toll this takes on government budgets, especially as the age and medical expenses of prisoners rapidly increase.  Legal ones ask whether such sentences are cruel and unusual and therefore violate the Eighth Amendment, particularly for juveniles.  Social arguments ask whether natural life sentences discourage reform by providing no incentive for rehabilitation.  Moral concerns are grounded in the dignity and rights of prisoners, while psychological objections call attention to the myriad causes of deviant behavior and their responsiveness to appropriate treatment.

But one argument that is surprisingly absent from these conversations is an epistemic one that has to do with us.  For natural life sentences say to all involved that there is no possible piece of information that could be learned between sentencing and death that could bear in any way on the punishment the convicted is said to deserve, short of what might ground an appeal.  Nothing.  So no matter how much a juvenile is transformed behind bars, and no matter how unrecognizable an elderly prisoner is from his earlier self, this is utterly irrelevant to whether they should be incarcerated.  Our absence of knowledge about the future, our ignorance of what is to come, our lack of a crystal ball, is in no way a barrier to determining now what someone’s life ought to be like decades from now.

Moreover, prisoners aren’t the only ones who can change: victims and their families can come to see the convicted as being worthy of forgiveness and a second chance, and public attitudes can evolve, moving away from a zealous “war on crime” approach to one that sees much criminal activity as the result of broader social problems that call for reform.  Even if we set aside the other arguments against natural life sentences — economic, legal, moral and so on — the question I want to ask here is this: how is it rational to screen off the relevance of this information?  How, that is, is it rational to say today that there can be no possible evidence in the future that could bear on the punishment that a decades­-from-­now prisoner deserves?...

Notice that nothing in the epistemic argument here suggests that no prisoners should, in fact, spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars.  Instead, the point is that rationality requires that we leave the epistemic door open to acquiring new information.  Put bluntly, the argument says that it is irrational for the possibility of parole to be taken off the table at the outset of any sentence.

If Hume is right that “a wise man proportions his belief to the evidence,” then our beliefs about the punishment a person deserves at any given time need to be sensitive to the evidence available at that time.  But if we screen off huge amounts of potentially relevant information decades before the beliefs about what a prisoner deserves are even formed, then it is impossible for them to be proportioned to the evidence.

February 2, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Second Circuit panel laments the "Statement of Reasons" form used by sentencing judges

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the interesting sentencing opinion handed down by the Second Circuit yesterday in US v. Pruitt, No. 14‐1921 (2d Cir. Feb. 1, 2016) (available here).  Authored by District Judge John Gleeson sitting by designation, here is how the Pruitt opinion gets started:

Kaylon Pruitt appeals from the May 29, 2014 judgment of conviction entered against him in the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York (Suddaby, J.).  Pruitt was sentenced principally to a 46‐month term of imprisonment on his plea of guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  He contends that the district court committed procedural error during his sentencing by failing to explain the reasons for the sentence, as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3553(c).

We affirm but write to suggest to the United States Sentencing Commission and the Judicial Conference of the United States that the Statement of Reasons form included within the statutorily‐required form for the entry of criminal judgments ‐‐ Form AO 245B ‐‐ be amended to bring it into conformity with § 3553(c) and Supreme Court precedent.  Specifically, a check‐a‐box section of the form, which was checked by the district court in this case, invites sentencing judges to impose a sentence within the applicable Guidelines range simply because the judge finds no reason to depart.   Because that both undermines the statutory obligation to state the reasons for every sentence and unlawfully presumes the reasonableness of the advisory Guidelines range, the form should be amended.

In a final notable footnote, the Pruitt opinion takes a notable shot at the US Sentencing Commission:

The form as a whole seems designed to encourage judges to sentence within the range.  A path of least resistance is clearly marked, and it is consistent with the Commission’s overall approach to sentencing in the post‐Booker era.  In United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), the Supreme Court held that the mandatory guidelines system was incompatible with the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, and it accordingly severed the provision of the Act that made the Guidelines mandatory.  The Sentencing Commission has since repeatedly asked Congress to enact legislation requiring sentencing courts to give greater weight to the Guidelines range than Booker and its progeny permit.  The specific proposals include laws that would require sentencing judges give “substantial weight” to the advisory Guidelines range and require appellate courts to accord a presumption of reasonableness to within‐range sentences.  Thus, the objectionable part of Statement of Reasons form may reflect the law as the Commission wants it to be.

February 2, 2016 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Do latest ugly gun crime numbers in Chicago disprove the "more guns, less crime" hypothesis?

The question in the title of this post is what first jumped to my mind as I reviewed this USA Today report on the ugly crime spike in the Windy City recorded in January.  Here are the basics:

The nation's third largest city recorded 51 homicides in January, the highest toll for the month since at least 2000. Gang conflicts and retaliatory violence drove the "unacceptable" increase in homicides, the police department said in a statement. But the rise in violence also notably comes as the Chicago Police Department faces increased scrutiny following the court-ordered release of a police video showing a white police officer fatally shooting a black teenager 16 times, and as the department implements changes in how it monitors street stops by officers.

Chicago routinely records more homicides annually than any other American city, but the grim January violence toll marks a shocking spike in violence in a city that recorded 29 murders for the month of January last year and 20 murders for the month in 2014. In addition to the jump in killings, police department said that it recorded 241 shooting incidents for the month, more than double the 119 incidents recorded last January.

The rise in violence comes after the Chicago Police Department reported 468 murders in 2015, a 12.5% increase from the year before. There were also 2,900 shootings, 13% more than the year prior, according to police department records.

In recent weeks, the police department pushed back against the notion that the rise in homicides could be due to cops becoming less aggressive due to the negative attention the department has received in the aftermath of the release of the police video showing the shooting of Laquan McDonald. The city saw several weeks of largely peaceful protests after the release of the video. The U.S. Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation of the city.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who faced fierce backlash in the city's African-American community over his handling of the McDonald case, fired his police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, after the video's release. Interim Superintendent John Escalante expressed frustration earlier this month as the homicide toll climbed, but said it was due mainly to gang activity. He also said he was concerned about social media fueling gang disputes, with fatal incidents starting as a war of words on the Internet....

St. Louis saw a dramatic increase in the number homicides following the August 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, which spurred months of angry protests. And Baltimore saw a spike in homicides following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in April, an incident that sparked unrest in the Charm City. In both Baltimore and St. Louis, the rise in violent crime began to increase prior to the high-profile incidents and accelerated afterward.

The department says it has seen a decrease in investigative stops by cops on the streets after new rules went into effect Jan. 1 requiring the police department to bolster the monitoring of stops and protective pat downs known as "stop-and-frisk." The police department entered an agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union to record contact cards for all street stops after the organization criticized the the city's police for disproportionately targeting minorities for questioning and searches. In the past, police officers were required only to fill out cards for stops that didn't result in an arrest. The new contact cards also require police officers to offer greater detail about the stops than they have in the past.

This Chicago Sun-Times article, headlined "Street cops say 'ACLU effect' drives spike in gun violence," provides one account of what might be an importance cause of these latest ugly crime developments.  But the title of this post is intended to flag the possibility that an increase in gun violence might also be attributed in part to an increase of gun availability, both legal and illegal, that seems to necessarily flow from the Supreme Court's recent Second Amendment work and continued controversies over gun control.  For a host of reasons, I have long wished that there was a sound basis to believe (or at least hope) that increased gun availability could actually reduce crime.  This Chicago news would seem to undermine such a hypothesis.

February 2, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (2)

"International Megan's Law" heading now to Prez Obama's desk

As reported in this dispatch from The Hill, the US House of Representatives "easily cleared legislation on Monday to expand efforts within the Department of Homeland Security to track registered child sex offenders’ travel plans as a means of combatting human trafficking."  Here is more about a bill often called an international Megans Law:

The measure, passed by voice vote, would codify the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) “Operation Angel Watch” program that determines whether countries should be notified of sex offenders’ travel.  Under the legislation, sex offenders would be required to report to law enforcement when they plan to travel internationally.  Sex offenders who fail to comply would face up to ten years in prison.

In addition, the State Department will be obligated to create a unique identifier for child sex offenders’ passports.  Lawmakers said the provisions would help prevent sex offenders from trying to break the law undetected.  “Child predators thrive on secrecy,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), the bill’s author.

The House previously passed a version of the bill last January, and the Senate later approved it with amendments by unanimous consent in December.  Congress last year approved legislation to create a fund for victims of sex trafficking and give prioritize states for federal grants if they establish “safe harbor” laws for child victims of trafficking.

Last month here at The Volokh Conspirary, David Post expressed concerns about this legislation. The title of the post reveals the basic nature of his concerns: "The yellow star, the scarlet letter, and ‘International Megan’s Law’."  The Marshall Project has this new piece echoing similar themes under the headline "Congress Acts to Mark Passports of Sex Offenders: Target of legislation is sex-traffickers; critics call it a ‘scarlet letter’."

February 2, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sentencing around the world, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

February 1, 2016

"Accommodating Justice: Victim Impact Statements in the Sentencing Process"

The title of this post is the title of a forthcoming book by Tracey Booth, the introduction to which can be downloaded here via SSRN.  Here is the SSRN abstract:

Prominent criminologist, David Garland, has argued that VISs have led us into “unfamiliar territory where the ideological grounds are far from clear and the old assumptions an unreliable guide”.

A victim impact statement (VIS) is a highly nuanced and individual narrative that can operate as both an informational device in the sentencing process and an expressive mechanism for crime victims.  From the law perspective, VISs provide the court with details of harm caused by the offence and the consequences of the offending in order to further purposes of sentencing.  As an expressive mechanism, VISs offer victims the opportunity and space to express their feelings, tell their personal story of the aftermath of crime, and be heard by the court, the offender, and the wider community.

Though a well-established feature of contemporary sentencing hearings (at least in superior courts) VISs remain controversial in common law jurisdictions.  The ‘non-legal’ nature of VISs has generated uncertainty in relation to the functioning of the sentencing hearing and concerns have been raised that VISs are: inconsistent with established legal values, detrimental to the offender’s entitlement to a fair hearing, detrimental to victims’ wellbeing, and harmful to the integrity of the legal proceedings.

Accommodating Justice: victim impact statements in the sentencing process explores complex territory where VISs, the law and legal institutions intersect with a focus on the requirements of fairness, most particularly in the courtroom.  And it does so from multiple perspectives: courts, offenders and victims.  The book draws from a range of theoretical and doctrinal sources as well as empirical studies from Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.  An ethnographic study of the performance of VISs in homicide sentencing hearings in the NSW Supreme Court woven through most chapters provides an innovative and evidence-based approach to the issues.

February 1, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Seventh Circuit panel upholds Wisconsin's lifetime GPS monitoring for certain sex offenders against various constitutional complaints

As reported in this local Wisconsin article, headlined "Court upholds GPS tracking of sex offender convicted before law passed," a Seventh Circuit panel late last week reversed a district judge's determination that a Wisconsin law requiring lifetime GPS tracking of certain sex offenders was constitutionally problematic. Here are the basics from the start of the news report:

Making a Wisconsin sex offender wear a GPS anklet for life, when he was convicted before that was the law, does not violate the constitutional prohibition against retroactive punishment, a federal appeals court has ruled.  A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday reversed a Green Bay federal judge who found the lifetime tracking improper for 72-year-old Michael Belleau.  The case had been argued before the court earlier this month.

In 2012, two years after Department of Corrections officials affixed an ankle bracelet on him after his discharge from civil commitment, Belleau sued, claiming the practice amounted to an ex post facto law, banned by the Constitution, as well as unreasonable search and seizure without a warrant.

In September, Chief U.S. District Judge William Griesbach agreed, saying Belleau had served his sentences and couldn't be punished further just because the state now thinks the original sentence was too lenient.  "Nor may the state force Belleau to wear a GPS tracking device around his ankle so that it can record his movement minute-by-minute for the rest of his life because it believes he might commit another crime in the future," Griesbach wrote. "The state's authority over the individual is not unlimited."

But Judge Richard Posner agreed with the state's position that the GPS monitoring is merely regulatory, not punitive, and doesn't limit where Belleau can go, like someone on probation.  Posner also agreed that it's not an illegal retroactive law because the monitoring was triggered by Belleau's discharge from civil commitment in 2010, after the GPS law took effect in 2006, not his earlier criminal convictions.  "So if civil commitment is not punishment, as the Supreme Court has ruled, then a fortiori neither is having to wear an anklet monitor."

The full ruling in Belleau v. Wall, No. 15-3225 (7th Cir. Jan. 29, 2016), which rejects both a Fourth Amendment claim and an ex post facto claim lodged by the sex offender to the lifetime GPS requirement, is available at this link.

February 1, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (8)

Notable new parallel studies on comparable execution patterns in two notable states

Frank Baumgartner has recently released these two (short and reader-friendly) reports providing a "review of simple statistics" concerning who has been executed in two states in the modern death penalty era:

There were no data that especially surprised me during my (too quick) review of these reports, though I always find analysis of county-level death penalty patterns especially intriguing.  For example, these documents report that "six out of Florida’s 67 counties are responsible for more than half of the state’s 89 executions" and that "four out of Ohio’s 88 counties (Lucas, Summit, Cuyahoga, and Hamilton) — or just 5% — are responsible for more than half of the state’s 53 executions."  These kinds of data serve to highlight, yet again, just how significant county-level actors — particularly district attorneys and trial judges — truly are in the actual administration of the death penalty in the United States.

February 1, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

January 31, 2016

Highlighting the highlights of the Colson Task Force report on improving federal justce system

As reported in this recent post, last week the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections issued numerous recommendations to reform the federal criminal justice system in a big report titled Transforming Prisons, Restoring Lives.  The helpful folks at Vice subsequently published this helpful overview of the report in an article headlined "A Bipartisan Congressional Panel Just Agreed on Ways to Send Fewer Americans to Prison."  Here are excerpts: 

Chief among the recommendations of the nine person, bipartisan Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections is sending fewer low-level drug offenders to federal prison, and sentencing offenders to far fewer years behind bars, which would reverse two of the changes that have driven the federal prison population to grow by 700 percent since 1980.

But the task force also dug into the minutiae of how the prison system is operated, including how it evaluates the success of its programs, the recidivism rate, and how it uses its resources.  In their final report, members suggest that the prisons should actually devote more resources to addiction treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, classes, and faith programs, and incentivize participation by offering offenders reducing time from their sentences and a "second look" at their cases by a federal judge after they've served certain number of years.

"If their behavior is good in the program, they've taken part in programs, they can have their sentence looked at again. It's an incentive to have people behave well and participate in programs that are evidence-based to improve behavior," said Laurie Robinson, a criminal justice professor and former Assistant Attorney General who served on the task force....

Robinson described her experience working with the task force as "terrific."  Despite 30 years working in the criminal justice system, she said she learned both from the diverse viewpoints of her colleagues and the federal prisoners she met on site visits.  "Some were in their late 60s or 70s, and at least one of those individuals was in very bad health and said he had applied several times for compassionate release," she said.  "And it just made you think: Why are we spending so much in the way of taxpayer dollars to keep people behind bars?"...

Robinson and her colleagues were meeting with senior staff at the White House ... to brief them on the report and point out which actions could be taken without a Congressional vote or legislation.  "There are things in there that the director of the BOP could do tomorrow, she said, noting that there are also steps the DOJ and president could take that focus on management, resource allocation, and best practices.  Others of them I think might not happen necessarily quickly but maybe are things that will get into the public conversation that will have to happen at a later time," she said....

Going forward, the report says, sentences should be individualized, policy should emphasize public safety, data should guide policies, and the costs should be more carefully considered.  Most importantly, the report says, the lawmakers who receive the recommendations "must capitalize on this rare moment in time" of political will and public awareness to make effective change.

Prior related post:

January 31, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable analysis of many capital defendants in Florida condemned to death by split juries

The Tampa Bay Times has this new detailed analysis of the history and impact of the Sunshine State's willingness to send persons to death row based on split jury recommendations.  The article is headlined "Only in Florida: How the nation’s lowest bar for the death penalty has shaped death row," and here is how it gets started:

Florida has more than 170 people on death row today who may not have been condemned to die in any other state — the result of its one-of-a-kind law that allows a jury to recommend capital punishment by a simple majority vote, a Tampa Bay Times analysis has found.

Unburdened by the need to reach a unanimous decision, Florida juries typically don’t.  Two-thirds of the people Florida has executed since 1995 were condemned to die on the recommendation of fewer than 12 jurors, the Times analysis found.

No other state allows juries to recommend death by a 7-5 vote.  Of the 32 states that have the death penalty, 29 require a unanimous vote of 12.  Alabama requires 10.  Delaware calls for jurors to unanimously agree on whether the defendant is eligible for the death penalty, but their sentencing recommendation can be split.

This month, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty statute, forcing the Legislature to rewrite it. Although the court did not explicitly address the issue of non-unanimous jury votes, legal experts say this part of Florida’s law is in constitutional jeopardy.

The Times reviewed more than 450 death penalty cases dating back decades to determine how juries voted in the penalty phase of capital trials.  The juries’ sentencing recommendations are merely advisory, another unusual feature, but no Florida judge has ignored a jury’s guidance in nearly two decades.

The Times found that prisoners who were sentenced to death based on non-unanimous jury recommendations were far more likely to have their cases overturned on direct appeal, or to be ultimately acquitted.

Florida leads the nation in death row exonerations.  Of the 20 people who have been exonerated and for whom sentencing information is available, 15 were sent to death row by a divided jury.  Three others were cases in which judges imposed the death penalty over a jury’s recommendation of life in prison.

January 31, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)