« December 25, 2016 - December 31, 2016 | Main | January 8, 2017 - January 14, 2017 »

January 6, 2017

Seventh Circuit panel affirms above-guideline drug sentence ... with Judge Posner suggesting USSC involvement would be better than a sentencing "hunch"

An otherwise little and unremarkable sentencing appeal became blog-worthy because of Judge Posner's provocative opinion for the court in US v. Gibbs, No. 16-1747 (7th Cir. Jan. 6, 2017) (available here). Here is some background and the blog-notable aspect of Judge Posner's opinion:

The defendant pleaded guilty to possessing cocaine with intent to distribute it, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C). Because of the quantity of the cocaine that he possessed and his history of drug and other criminal offenses, his guideline sentencing range was 151 to 188 months and his statutory maximum 240 months. The government recommended a 216‐month sentence ... and that was the sentence that the district judge imposed....

The judge explained that he was imposing a sentence significantly higher than the top of the defendant’s guideline range on the basis of the “[18 U.S.C. §] 3553(a) [sentencing] factors.”  He called the defendant “a poster child for being a career offender,” and told him “unfortunately you may be one of those people that will never be able to conform to be a law‐abiding person.”....

Neither the government, in recommending a 216‐month sentence, nor the district judge, in imposing it, attempted a sophisticated analysis of the likely consequences for the defendant, his family, and society (primarily the persons to whom he sold illegal drugs) of adding roughly two years to the sentence he would have been given had the judge stopped at the top of the guideline range.  Judging from the government’s brief and the judge’s sentencing statement, both the prosecution and the judge based the 216‐month sentence (proposed by the government, imposed by the judge) on a hunch.  As the prosecutors as well as the judge are highly experienced, their hunches are likely often to be reliable. And because federal prosecutors are free to suggest any sentence within the statutory range, and a federal district judge has broad latitude in picking the sentence to impose within that range, and because the briefs and argument of defense counsel in this case bordered on the perfunctory ... the sentence must be affirmed.

Some consideration, however, should be given to the possibility of basing a prison sentence — at least a very long one (and an 18‐year sentence is very long) — on something other than a hunch.  The work of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in formulating sentencing guidelines provides a clue to a possible alternative. The sentencing judge, instead of ranging at large, with little guidance, over the wide space between the statutory minimum sentence for the defendant’s crime or crimes and the statutory maximum, might consider asking the Sentencing Commission to evaluate the appropriateness in particular cases of all the possible sentencing points in the statutory sentencing range, including points that fall outside the guideline sentencing range.  In a case like the present one the Sentencing Commission might advise the prosecutors, defense counsel, and the judge why it had fixed the guideline range where it did and how disapproving it would be of sentences below or above that range.  The Commission might for example take a close look at the government’s suggested 216‐month sentence in this case and the arguments the government gives for it, and conclude that maybe it’s a proper sentence given the particular facts of the case even though it lies outside the guideline range.  The defense proposed a sentence of only 10 years, which would be about two and a half years below the sentencing guideline; and again, the Commission might agree in the special circumstances of this case that that was a plausible alternative to a sentence in the guideline range — or might explain why it was not.  Judges wouldn’t have to ask the Commission for its input, or follow its recommendations, but they might find it a valuable resource.

The Judge Posner's opinion nominally represents the opinion of the Seventh Circuit, the other two judges on the panel (Judges Kanne and Sykes) wrote separate concurring opinions (and Judge Sykes opinion is only concurring in the judgment). Judge Kanne does join Judge Posner's opinion, but his separate opinion captures some aspects of my reactions to what Judge Posner suggests:

I write further to add that although Judge Posner has envisioned an interesting method to arrive at an appropriate sentence in individual cases, it is my view that such a unique system would be fundamentally unworkable in practice and contrary to the statutory provisions enacted by Congress and approved by the Supreme Court.

January 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

An optimistic accounting of many areas for bipartisan federal criminal justice reform ... and good lines of inquiry for AG nominee Jeff Sessions

The week brought this extended commentary by Mark Holden at The Hill under the headline "Criminal justice reform is ripe for bipartisan achievement." I recommend the piece in full, and here are highlights of the reforms urged (with Holden's accounting of "reason it could pass" left out so readers will be encouraged to click through):

Criminal justice reform has been one of the few policy areas where Republicans and Democrats have forged bipartisan consensus.  They have come close to passing reform the past two years, and now it’s up to GOP lawmakers to pick up where they left off. Leaders as diverse as Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) agree that the current system is broken....

That’s why it’s critical that leaders in Congress take up criminal justice reform. If they focus on six key areas of reform, there’s a real possibility that legislation could pass in both the House and Senate, even with the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, a bar not easily achieved on other issues.

Here are the six areas of reform — and the reasons they have a viable path to becoming law.

First, we need to reform the grand jury process and rein in prosecutorial overreach. As Judge Kozinski has advocated, lawmakers should require open file discovery, so prosecutors hand over all evidence favorable to an accused person, and also establish truly independent prosecutorial review units to investigate abuses....

Second, we must protect every citizens’ Sixth Amendment rights.  When it comes to federal cases, Congress should ensure that all individuals — regardless of income level – have an adequate chance to retain counsel before they appear in court.  It should also explore the model that some states have moved to, which allows defendants to choose a private lawyer from a list of options, rather than being appointed a lawyer who may not offer a competent defense....

Third, the punishment must fit the crime. Congress should reform mandatory minimums that don’t make sense and increase the use of “safety valves,” which allow judges to use their discretion for non-violent offenses if the offender meets certain requirements. These reforms are particularly important for low-level and non-violent offenders (mostly involving drug crimes), who too often languish in prison for years or even decades at a time at great cost to their families and our society at large.....

Fourth, prisons should leave individuals better off than when they came in. Prison rehabilitation programs have proven to reduce the chance of re-offense and save taxpayer dollars....

Fifth, Congress should give worthy individuals a chance to rejoin society and find fulfillment in their lives.  Lawmakers could start by “banning the box” from federal employment applications so that individuals with a record can be considered for government jobs.  Congress, however, should not mandate that companies “ban the box,” but should allow them to voluntarily do so.  Congress should also clear the record of qualifying youth and non-violent federal offenders; limit solitary confinement for juveniles; and establish effective rehab, educational, and vocational programs so that every individual leaves prison a better person than when they came....

Finally, Congress needs to dramatically scale back the federal criminal code and ensure that all criminal laws have adequate criminal intent, also known as “mens rea.”  The criminal code is a stunning 27,000 pages and comprises an estimated 4,500-6,000 criminal laws — and that doesn’t even include the thousands of additional federal regulations that impose criminal punishments. Many penalize people who had no idea they were committing a crime — missing a basic historical requirement that once existed in the criminal law to protect people from being unfairly prosecuted....

Any one of these reforms would improve our federal justice system — and have a profound effect on our society.  Taken together, they will make communities safer, support our brave law enforcement officers, save taxpayer dollars, and empower individuals in need of a second chance.  That’s precisely why Republicans and Democrats alike will have a difficult time answering to their constituents if they resist such reforms.  Doing so would be a clear political move that overlooks the millions of Americans who would be better off as a result of this bipartisan achievement.

If President-elect Trump and the GOP Congress take up criminal justice reform, it will be a sure sign that they are willing to look beyond party lines in order to improve people’s lives.  That would be good start to putting individuals’ safety and wellbeing ahead of partisan politics.

As the title of this post suggests, I think this piece's accounting of six areas in need of reform would provide a fantastic guide for questions for Senator Jeff Sessions during his hearings to serve as Attorney General. These questions can be softball (e.g., do you believe prison rehabilitation programs can be valuable?) or tough (e.g., do you think there should be more means for federal inmates to earn sentence reduction for participating in prison rehabilitation programs). And I welcome readers to use the comment to make more suggestions for additional soft or tough questions on these or other fronts.

Critically, and as I hope to outline more fully in a post over the weekend, I feel very strongly that those Senators who support federal criminal justice reforms ought to use the Sessions' confirmation hearing to do much more that just simply attack the Senator for long-ago acts or statements claimed to be evidence of racism or insensitivity.  Instead, by crafting astute questions concerning specific area of the federal criminal justice system in need of reform, members of the Judiciary Committee could and should be able to get Sessions to express support for — or at least a lack of opposition to — many of the bipartisan reforms discussed above and widely embraced inside the Beltway in recent years.

January 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Facing the Firing Squad"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece by Andrew Jensen Kerr available via the Georgetown Law Journal website. Here is the abstract:

The recent Supreme Court decision in Glossip v. Gross affirmed the legality of midazolam for use in lethal injection.  The 5–4 majority opinion reads the Constitution to require an available form of execution.  But it does little to counter Professor Denno’s claim in “Lethal Injection Chaos Post-Baze” that pragmatic supply-side concerns should dismantle the economy for lethal injection.  Off-brand substitutes for lethal injection drugs have led to recent high-profile botches.  Both Utah and Wyoming have proposed a return to the firing squad.  Lethal injection is comparatively sanitary and bureaucratic.  But I respond that the firing squad is more coherent with death penalty administration heuristic concerns of retribution and dignity.  The visibility of the firing squad also serves an abolitionist, information-forcing function by requiring a candid look at death penalty process from the perspective of the executed.

January 6, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

January 5, 2017

Marijuana reform and clemency conversations at the state and federal level

Two new lengthy pieces combining news and commentary on the clemency and marijuana fronts further reinforces my view that marijuana reform is a form of sentencing reform.  Here are the extended headlines and links to these two interesting reads:

January 5, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Lamenting big criminal justice problems in the little state of Delaware

This new local commentary from Delaware authored by Jack Guerin, headlined "A perfect storm of failure in criminal justice," tell a pretty disconcerting story about the First State. Here is how the commentary gets started:

By every conceivable measure, Delaware’s criminal justice system is a failure. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Delaware has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country.”  The article found that our state ranked third highest among all states in robberies, and that the rate of crime in Wilmington is “one of the highest of any large city in the country.”

In November, the Delaware Criminal Justice Council issued its annual report on recidivism in Delaware, finding that “by the end of three years, about 76 percent of offenders in each cohort had been rearrested for a serious offense.”  Most recidivism events occurred in the first two years after release.

In December, the Bureau of Justice Statistics issued a report ranking Delaware’s prison system fifth highest among states in overcrowding at 154.7 percent of design capacity.  A recent report by the Liman Program at the Yale Law School ranked Delaware (tied with Tennessee) as having the third highest percentage of prisoners in solitary confinement in the nation.

With high rates of crime, incarceration, recidivism, overcrowding and solitary confinement, Delaware represents the perfect storm of failure for the “tough on crime” policies initiated more than 40 years ago. Our enormous investment in punitive incarceration is not making us safer.

January 5, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (10)

Prez Obama produces lengthy Harvard Law Review article titled "The President’s Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform"

I am intrigued and surprised (and concerned that I will soon be very aggravated) by this lengthy new Harvard Law Review article authored by Barack Obama.  In style (because the article runs 50+ pages with 300+ footnotes), the article hints that Prez Obama is interested in going back to being a law professor after he finishes his current gig.  In substance, the article's introduction provides this overview: 

Part I details the current criminal justice landscape and emphasizes the urgent need for reform.  It would be a tragic mistake to treat criminal justice reform as an agenda limited to certain communities.  All Americans have an interest in living in safe and vibrant neighborhoods, in raising their children in a country of equal treatment and second chances, and in entrusting their liberty to a justice system that remains true to our highest ideals.  We simply cannot afford to spend $80 billion annually on incarceration, to write off the seventy million Americans — that’s almost one in three adults — with some form of criminal record, to release 600,000 inmates each year without a better program to reintegrate them into society, or to ignore the humanity of 2.2 million men and women currently in U.S. jails and prisons and over 11 million men and women moving in and out of U.S. jails every year.  In addition, we cannot deny the legacy of racism that continues to drive inequality in how the justice system is experienced by so many Americans.

Part II shows how the President can drive significant reform at the federal level.  Working with Congress, my Administration helped secure bipartisan sentencing reform legislation reducing the crack-topowder-cocaine disparity.  As an executive branch, we’ve been able to make important changes to federal charging policies and practices, the administration of federal prisons, and federal policies relating to reentry.  And through the presidential pardon power, I have commuted the sentences of more than 1000 prisoners.  Even though there are important structural and prudential constraints on how the President can directly influence criminal enforcement, these changes illustrate that presidential administrations can and do shape the direction of the federal criminal justice system in lasting and profound ways.

Part III details the approaches that Presidents can take to promote change at the state and local level, recognizing that the state and local justice systems tend to have a far broader and more pervasive impact on the lives of most Americans than does the federal justice system.  While the President and the executive branch play a less direct role in these systems, there are still opportunities — as my Administration’s work demonstrates — to advance reform through a combination of federal-local partnerships, the promulgation of best practices, enforcement, federal grant programs, and assembling reform-minded jurisdictions struggling with similar challenges.

Part IV highlights some of the work that remains, focusing on reforms that are supported by broad consensus and could be completed in the near term.  These include passing bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation in Congress, adopting commonsense measures to keep firearms out of the hands of those who are a threat to others or themselves, finding better ways to address the tragic opioid epidemic in this country, implementing critical reforms to forensic science, improving criminal justice data, and using technology to enhance trust in and the effectiveness of law enforcement.

I fear I will be aggravated by this article because it will confirm that Prez Obama (or his staff who helped author this article) truly understands the need to major criminal justice reforms and yet so relatively little got achieved on this front during Prez Obama's eight yesr in office. Also, I know I am already going to be troubled by what is not said in this article because a quick word search reveals that the word "marijuana" is not mentioned once even though state-level marijuana reform is by far the biggest criminal justice reform story of the Obama era (which, to the Obama Administration's credit, was in part fueled by his Justice Department's express hands off policy).

January 5, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

January 4, 2017

Louisiana public defenders lacking resources needed to adequately prepare for Miller resentencings in old juve LWOP cases

This interesting local article highlights the economic challenges posed for some local courts and lawyers when now having to implement retroactively the Supreme Court's Miller ruling precluding mandatory LWOP sentences for juvenile murderers.  The article is headlined "'Unfunded mandate' of individualized sentencing hearings for some juveniles causing headaches for public defenders," and here are excerpts:

A 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled out laws mandating life without parole for juveniles as unconstitutional, and a subsequent decision last year made that ruling retroactive. Now, those juveniles are required to get what’s called “individualized sentencing hearings” before such a harsh sentence can be handed down, said Carol Kolinchak, a compliance officer for the Louisiana Public Defender Board.

And those hearings take resources. “You have to investigate and develop evidence (about) the youth and the circumstances surrounding the crime,” Kolinchak told [Judge Arthur] Hunter, adding that it is the defense’s “ethical obligation” to make sure each juvenile offender gets a proper investigation into their backgrounds prior to their hearing.

But, she added, the mandate isn’t cheap, and it’s also unfunded. At a cost of $60,000 to $75,000 a client, both [Orleans Parish Chief Public Defender Derwyn] Bunton and State Public Defender Jay Dixon said they were at a loss for how to properly prepare for each client’s sentencing hearing.

According to Kolinchak, there are nearly 300 juveniles eligible for such individualized hearings throughout the state. “The question in Louisiana is the same as it is nationally, which is that it has really been an unfunded mandate,” she said. “It places burdens on defense counsel with no discussion of funding.”

The issue came up in Hunter’s courtroom Tuesday in the case of Joseph Morgan, a defendant convicted in 2015 of second-degree murder in the death of Gervais "Gee" Nicholas, a teenager gunned down in 2008 outside the Chat Club at Tulane Avenue and South Lopez Street. Morgan was 16 at the time of the shooting, but prosecutors are nevertheless seeking life without parole.

Defense attorney Tom Shlosman, who is representing Morgan pro bono, told the judge he doesn't have the resources for the elaborate proceedings now required in Morgan's case. The other officials who testified before Hunter were brought in to help bolster the broader case that more money needs to be set aside statewide to handle these types of defendants....

In New Orleans, the question is how to proceed with about 72 cases that now qualify for a so-called “Miller hearing,” Kolinchak said. On Tuesday, both Bunton and Dixon said they didn’t anticipate being able to pay for those hearings, at least for indigent clients, anytime soon, because there’s no money available to properly investigate possible mitigating circumstances for those clients.

Dixon said the state public defender’s budget has been “stagnant” at about $33 million for the past several years. Moreover, he said, the threat of a 5 percent cut to his budget looms ahead, a move he said would be “devastating” for both death penalty cases and juvenile cases like Morgan’s. That’s because Dixon's office is required to distribute about 65 percent of its budget to district defenders' offices throughout the parishes, and so the cuts would have to come from the more complex pool of cases that his office contracts out to other law firms.

Bunton said he has to stretch an $8 million budget to cover nearly 22,000 cases a year — a situation that he said leaves him no room for taking on new work like individualized sentencing hearings for indigent juveniles....

“We don’t have an answer. This is the kind of thing that funding or lack of funding creates,” Dixon said. “You’re talking about basically a juggling act with a lack of funds. And we’re both in that trick box. We do not have an answer for that.”

January 4, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Florida Supreme Court adds to the mess that is the current Florida death penalty limbo

These three headlines spotlight the remarkable (and still unclear) story surrounding an important death penalty ruling by the Florida Supreme Court which was released and then withdrawn today:

"Typo upends Florida Supreme Court’s death penalty ruling"

"Florida's High Court Takes Puzzling Turn on Death Penalty"

"Florida Supreme Court: Prosecutors can't seek death penalty - or can they?"

Here are the basics from the first of these linked reports:

Just hours after declaring prosecutors could not seek death sentences under existing state law, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday rescinded the order, an uncommon move that casts fresh uncertainty on the state’s death penalty.

The reason: A typo.

In a 5-2 ruling Wednesday morning, the court rejected Attorney General Pam Bondi’s request to let prosecutors seek the death penalty as long as juries voted unanimously. The court threw out the state’s revamped death sentencing law in October because it required only a 10-2 super majority of the jury to put someone to death.

Then at 1 p.m., the Supreme Court rescinded the order, saying it was “prematurely issued,” and deleted it from the court’s website. The Wednesday morning ruling was vacated because of a “clerical error,” said Craig Waters, a spokesman for the court.

Makes me think of the famous words of one of my favorite philosophers.

January 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Why Dylann Roof Has a Right to the Death Penalty" ... OR "Why Dylann Roof Representing Himself Is A Constitutional Tragedy"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective and timely new NBC News commentary authored by Andrew Cohen.  Here are excerpts:

Dylann Roof has a constitutional right not to try to spare his own life....

In the end, despite the drama of a closed hearing in the middle of a capital trial, it likely wasn't a close call as a matter of law to allow Roof to continue to represent himself.  The standard for "competency" in these circumstances is low, on purpose, to give defendants the chance to control their own fates.  Roof has consistently shown he understands the nature of the proceedings against him.  The truth is that Roof's decision not to present mitigating evidence seems entirely consistent with his racist beliefs and with his evident antipathy toward psychiatry and psychology.  He wrote in the past that he is "morally opposed to psychology," calling it a "Jewish invention."

Roof also appears to share the mentality of other notable murderers who for one reason or another eschewed a defense their lawyers would have chosen for them. For example, Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, rejected his attorneys' plans for an insanity defense on his behalf before accepting a plea deal that spared him the death penalty.  Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh gave up the rest of his appeals following his capital conviction and opted for an expedited execution, which took place at the federal death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, on June 11, 2001. The Beltway Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, also sparred with his own lawyers in Virginia before he was convicted and sentenced to death.

For all the hand-wringing over the constitutionality (and morality) of self-representation in a capital case, for all the arguments that every capital defendant should always present every non-frivolous defense at trial, the truth is that Roof has a constitutional right not to present a defense, to choose to increase the likelihood he'll get the death penalty instead of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

It is not necessarily a sign of mental illness, or mental instability, or mental incompetence, to take responsibility for one's murderous actions rather than blame them, in some fashion, on some sort of mental disease or defect. Some killers, like McVeigh, saw it as one final act of control over their lives. This may be why Roof on Wednesday in his first direct interaction with jurors chose not to beg for his life but rather to tell the panel: "There is nothing wrong with me psychologically."

Nor is it necessarily a sign of mental incompetency to chose to want to die sooner, rather than later, after spending years in solitary confinement in a federal prison — which is where Roof will be headed no matter what his jury decides. If he doesn't want to save himself, in other words, or if he doesn't want the world ever to perceive him as having been mentally ill when he killed those innocent people inside that church, there is nothing his lawyers can do to save him so long as he's judged competent.

Finally, a point that's been under-reported these past few days: Just because Roof won't put on any mitigating evidence doesn't guarantee he'll get the death penalty. All it would take for the jury to preclude a capital sentence for Roof is for one juror to decide that consigning the 22-year-old defendant to 50 or 60 or 70 years in ADX-Florence, the federal prison in Colorado that Roof soon will call home, is a punishment worse than a death penalty. That, too, is not an unreasonable position to take.

UPDATE: Not more than an hour after I posted the Andrew Cohen commentary above, I learned of this new Huffington Post commentary by lawprof Scott Sundby which has the headline I have added to the title of this post.  Here are this piece's final two paragraphs:

The Supreme Court has justified the current death penalty regime on the premise that the jury will act as the conscience of the community. Jurors can only carry out this sacred function, however, if they hear all of the evidence, both for and against imposing a death sentence. Jurors often feel betrayed in cases when they later learn that a defense lawyer’s ineffectiveness meant they did not hear compelling evidence about a defendant’s mental illness or abusive childhood. And well they should. The justice system asked them to make a profoundly difficult moral and spiritual decision and then failed to give them the information that they needed to carry out their mandate.

In Roof’s case, the court may believe that its ruling furthers certain values, but it has missed a far more important constitutional principle: a death sentence should never be imposed unless we have complete confidence that the jury’s decision is a reliable and knowing one based on all of the facts. With Dylann Roof representing himself, that outcome is simply impossible. We owe it to the jurors and to ourselves as the society for whom the jurors speak that they hear all about Roof’s life before we ask them whether he should be sentenced to death.

January 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

GOP Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley says federal sentencing reform a priority after Trump nominations completed

This lengthy new Politico article, headlined in full "Senators plan to revive sentencing reform push: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley says he's not done yet pressing a cause with broad bipartisan support," brings some welcome new year good news for advocates of federal sentencing reform.  Here are the details, with a couple of lines emphasized for subsequent commentary:

Criminal justice reform — the great bipartisan hope of 2016 that ended in disappointment — may not be dead just yet. Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) plans to take up a bill to revamp U.S. sentencing laws and reform prisons soon after his panel clears the high-profile nominations from Donald Trump. A similar measure passed his committee overwhelmingly last year before stalling out in the face of opposition from law-and-order conservatives.

But Grassley told POLITICO he will soon try again. "The committee will begin the year working through the attorney general and Supreme Court nominees, but criminal justice reform will be one of the legislative bills I plan to bring up early on,” he said in a statement. “It cleared the committee with a broad bipartisan majority in the last Congress, and I don't expect that to change.”

The chief authors of the criminal justice overhaul, led by Grassley and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), will continue to try to drum up more support among senators, while “educating” the Trump administration about their bill’s merits, Grassley said.  The legislation isn’t expected to be substantially different than last year’s version.

Criminal justice reform could’ve been one of the bright, bipartisan spots in an otherwise contentious election year. But despite support from President Barack Obama, powerful congressional Republicans, and a sprawling network of groups from the left and right, the legislation never made it to the floor.  That was partly due to the determined efforts of law-and-order conservatives to steamroll it — and there's little to suggest that if the legislation heads to the Senate floor, that dynamic would change.

Nevertheless, Durbin approached Grassley after the election and pressed the chairman about whether the duo should make another run at it this year, Durbin recalled in a recent phone interview. Grassley was in. And once the chairman tees up the bill this year in his committee, its supporters expect a bipartisan vote similar to the 15-5 tally it received in October 2015.

Durbin and Grassley’s aides have been discussing a strategy to advance the bill in 2017. Aiding their cause is the fact that three opponents — GOP Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and David Perdue of Georgia — are leaving the committee this year, stirring hope that the vote count in favor of the measure could be higher. Vitter no longer serves in the Senate, Sessions is expected to be confirmed as attorney general and Perdue is shifting committees. Replacing them on the influential panel are Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Crapo of Idaho and John Kennedy of Louisiana. “I think the committee will be just as strong. It may be stronger,” Durbin said. “When you have people like Grassley and Durbin and [Senate Majority Whip John] Cornyn and [Sen. Patrick] Leahy for goodness sakes … it ought to be enough for us.”...

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is rarely eager to take up policy fights that divide his conference — and Democrats point a finger at him as a prime reason why criminal justice reform stalled last year. “The problem we ran into is Sen. McConnell, who didn’t want to call the bill to the floor. He was concerned about the impact on the election and also that the House wasn’t going to take it up,” Durbin said. The question remains going forward, he added, "whether McConnell will give us a chance.” McConnell aide Don Stewart responded that the majority leader spoke several times about the issue in 2016 and “doesn’t need Sen. Durbin to be his spokesman.”

The president-elect ran on a law-and-order platform, but Trump doesn't appear to have weighed in on the Senate measure during his campaign. Another wildcard factor is Sessions, Trump’s pick to become the attorney general.  As a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was a fervent opponent of the sentencing overhaul and one of the five votes against it.

But Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another supporter of the criminal justice reform effort, speculated that once Sessions becomes the attorney general, his chief objective will be on enforcing what Congress sends him — even if he disagrees with it — rather than slipping into the role of legislator and try to change the laws. “He’s going to be focused on being the nation’s top law enforcement official,” Tillis said. “I don’t necessarily see him weighing in heavily on public policy choices that President Trump makes.”

Durbin said he intends to press Sessions on his views of criminal justice reform and how he’ll handle the issue at the Justice Department when the two meet privately to discuss about his bid to become attorney general on Wednesday.  Though Sessions had wanted to meet earlier, Durbin said Senate Democrats decided as a caucus to not meet with any Cabinet selections until the new year. “I want to know after all of the speeches he gave on the floor against criminal justice reform, what we can expect of him as attorney general,” Durbin said. “I don’t know what he’ll say.”

Still, others speculate that after Washington endures partisan wars over repealing Obamacare and confirming polarizing presidential nominees, Trump will be looking for a bipartisan win. Criminal justice reform could deliver one. “I know we have enough votes to send this to the president’s desk,” Tillis said. Stressing his desire to avoid legislative gridlock, Tillis added: “The election was not a Republican mandate. The election was a results mandate.”

This story is both encouraging and not all that surprising given the events of the last few years surrounding the proposal, debates and modifications of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. The two lines I have emphasized reflect two coming developments that I think are crucial to this developing 2017 federal sentencing reform story:

1. I think it would be a policy mistake, despite the 2015 Judiciary Committee success of the SRCA, for that bill to serve the essential template for new Senate reform legislation. In my view, there are a host of ways a new and improved federal sentencing reform bill could and should be much more streamlined AND I think a new bill could and should garner even more bipartisan support if it also were to include some modest (or even aggressive) mens rea reforms.

2. I think Senators Sessions and Durbin are really critical players here, especially over the next few weeks, as Sessions develops and articulates his priorities as Attorney General and as Durbin seeks to explain why the horrific uptick in violent crime in his own Chicago (Which Prez-Elect Trump has been tweeting about) should not be a reason to tap the brakes on any further federal sentencing reforms.

January 4, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Texas sues feds over confiscated execution drugs"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Dallas Morning News article reporting on some notably different kind of execution drug litigation. Here are the details:

For nearly a year and a half, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has detained a shipment of about 1,000 vials of execution drugs headed for Texas' death chamber. On Tuesday, Texas officials demanded an end to the delays, filing a lawsuit that seeks to force the feds to turn over the drugs. "My office will not allow the FDA to sit on its hands and thereby impair Texas' responsibility to carry out its law enforcement duties," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement.

Texas and other states that still execute inmates have been hard-pressed to find lethal injection drugs in recent years. American companies have stopped making the drugs, and European makers have stopped selling them to the U.S. Amid the drug shortage in 2012, Texas switched from the three-drug cocktail it used since 1982 to a single overdosing injection of pentobarbital, a barbiturate, but that drug, too, is in short supply.

In July 2015, the FDA intercepted about 1,000 vials of sodium thiopental, also a barbiturate, that Texas was attempting to import from a foreign seller at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. FDA officials said that the drugs lacked the required warnings and directions for use and that they needed federal approval. The state responded to the FDA, explaining that the drugs were legal for importation for law enforcement use. In April 2016, the FDA issued a tentative decision denying admission of the drugs. But since then, the agency hasn't issued a final decision and has kept the drugs.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday, Paxton argued the delays are unwarranted and should come to an end. "Because FDA's delay is unreasonable, TDCJ requests the Court to declare that the delay is unlawful and compel FDA to render a final admissibility decision," the lawsuit states.

As execution drugs have become harder to obtain, the state has turned to compounding pharmacies to make them, has sought drugs from foreign providers and has sought to restrict public access to information about where and how it gets drugs used in lethal injections....

"The Texas Department of Criminal Justice lawfully ordered and obtained the necessary license to import drugs used in the lethal injection process, yet the Food and Drug Administration stopped the shipment and continues to hold it without justification. This has left the agency with no other recourse than to challenge the unjustified seizure in court," Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said in a statement.

Clark said the TDCJ has enough drugs on hand to complete the nine executions scheduled for the first six months of this year. "We cannot speculate on the future availability [of] drugs, so the agency continues to explore all options including the continued use of pentobarbital or alternate drugs to use in the lethal injection process," Clark said.

January 4, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

January 3, 2017

Eleventh Circuit Judge, and SCOTUS short-lister, William Pryor named Acting Chair of the (now hobbled) US Sentencing Commission

Because of the rumored short-list of the short-list of possible SCOTUS nominees, this press release coming today from the US Sentencing Commission might get a bit more than usual amoung of attention. Here is the full text of the release, the last paragraph of which is really the most important:

The United States Sentencing Commission announced that Circuit Judge William H. Pryor, Jr. will serve as Acting Chair of the Commission, as the term of the former Chair, Chief Judge Patti B. Saris expired at the end of the 114th congressional session.

In his first statement as Acting Chair, Judge Pryor of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals said, “I am honored to act as Acting Chair of the Commission and commend the exemplary leadership of Chief Judge Saris during her term. I look forward to our continued work to further the Commission’s critical mission of developing federal sentencing policies that further the goals of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.”

The terms of Judge Charles R. Breyer (former Vice Chair) and Commissioner Dabney L. Friedrich also expired.  By statute, commissioners are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and serve six-year terms. At least three of the commissioners must be federal judges and no more than four may belong to the same political party. Remaining commissioners include Commissioner Rachel E. Barkow, Commissioner J. Patricia Wilson Smoot (ex-officio, U.S. Parole Commission), and Commissioner Michelle Morales (ex-officio, U.S. Department of Justice).  The Commission must have at least four voting Commissioners for a quorum.

Because ex-officio members of the USSC do not have voting rights, the current Commission is now officially two members short of a quorum and five members short in total.  For those eager to see continued federal sentencing reforms and improvement, this is a very big deal and a very big problem.

I am hopeful (but not especially optimistic) that the incoming Trump Administration might make staffing the USSC with new Commissioners a "first 100 days" priority.  I am not sure whether having Judge Pryor as Acting Chair and/or having him be a possible SCOTUS pick makes staffing the USSC more or less likely.  I suppose time will tell.

January 3, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Eighth Circuit panel reverses district court findings of substantive due process problems with Minnesota's sex offender commitment program

As reported in this local article, a "federal appeals court in St. Louis has reversed a lower-court ruling that Minnesota's sex-offender treatment program is unconstitutional — a major victory for the Minnesota Department of Human Services and a decision that could delay long-awaited reforms to the state's system of indefinite detention for sex offenders."  Here is more about the ruling and its context:

In a decision Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a class of sex offenders who sued the state failed to prove that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) violated their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. "We conclude that the class plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that any of the identified actions of the state defendants or arguable shortcomings in the MSOP were egregious, malicious, or sadistic as is necessary to meet the conscience-shocking standard," the court ruled.

In response, the lead attorney for a class of offenders who sued the state said he is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which must be filed within 90 days. "Justice was not done today," said Dan Gustafson, the attorney for the plaintiffs. "We're still considering what we are going to do but, as Governor Dayton said the other day, we are not going quietly into the night."

Minnesota confines more offenders per capita, and has the lowest release rate, among the 20 states that use civil commitment to confine sex offenders in treatment programs. Only 14 offenders have been conditionally discharged from the program in its more than 20-year history. Of those, seven are currently living in the community. Just one offender has been unconditionally discharged, and that did not occur until August.

In June 2015, federal Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul, ruling in a lawsuit brought by a group of sex offenders, declared the program unconstitutional for confining offenders indefinitely, after they have already completed their prison terms, without a clear path toward release. The judge ordered state officials to conduct independent evaluations of the roughly 720 offenders confined at secure treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter to determine if they still pose a public safety risk. He also ordered the state to develop less restrictive options for housing offenders in the community.

The unanimous Eighth Circuit panel ruling in this case is available at this link, and it gets started this way:

Class plaintiffs, civilly committed sex offenders, bring a facial and as applied challenge under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming their substantive due process rights have been violated by Minnesota’s Civil Commitment and Treatment Act and by the actions and practices of the managers of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).  The Minnesota state defendants in this action are managers of MSOP — Emily Johnson Piper, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services; Kevin Moser, MSOP Facilities Director at Moose Lake; Peter Puffer, MSOP Clinical Director; Nancy Johnston, MSOP Executive Director; Jannine Herbert, MSOP Executive Clinical Director; and Ann Zimmerman, MSOP Security Director (collectively “state defendants”).  After several months of litigation, including a six-week bench trial, the district court found for plaintiffs and entered an expansive injunctive order.  The district court applied incorrect standards of scrutiny when considering plaintiffs’ claims, thus we reverse the finding of substantive due process violations and vacate the injunctive relief order.  We remand to the district court for further proceedings to address the remaining claims.

January 3, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Latest SCOTUS short-list speculations and suggested nomination timeline

SCOTUS junkies will want to be sure to check out this latest lengthy Politico article headlined "Inside Trump's strategy to remodel the Supreme Court: The president-elect is narrowing his short list while his advisers look beyond the current opening." Here are snippets that struck me as especially new or noteworthy:

Donald Trump has narrowed his short list for his first Supreme Court pick down to roughly a half-dozen finalists but the president-elect and his top advisers are already thinking about a second selection, as they seek to quickly remodel the high court with a reliably conservative bent.  Trump’s team wants to make filling the seat held by the late Justice Antonin Scalia one of the earliest acts of his presidency, according to multiple transition officials, in hopes of scoring an energizing and unifying victory for the conservative movement.

And as Trump weighs perhaps the most enduring personnel decision he’ll make as president-elect — filing one of only nine lifetime seats on the high court — he has sought input from an array of friends, former rivals, and legal and TV personalities. “He clearly understands he may have a chance to define the court for a generation or more and he is taking it very seriously,” said former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump confidante.

While Scalia’s seat is the only current opening, Trump’s advisers are plotting how to fill that vacancy in tandem with the next one — a slot if vacated by a liberal justice like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 83, or swing-vote Justice Anthony Kennedy, 80, could far more dramatically move the court’s political center of gravity to the right. The thinking inside the transition, according to multiple people involved in the internal deliberations, is that Scalia’s replacement offers Trump and the conservative movement the best chance for an unabashedly rock-ribbed replacement because it would not fundamentally shift the court’s balance of power....

But in the current search process, Trump’s team is also hoping to identify a conservative candidate — possibly a woman — who could be more politically palatable, or at least harder for Senate Democrats to oppose, if Kennedy or Ginsburg leave the court.... Two of the most-discussed names are Diane Sykes of the Chicago-based 7th Circuit federal appeals court and William Pryor of the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, in part because Trump himself name-dropped them at a primary debate last February....

Trump, besides promising to appoint justices in the mold of Scalia, is looking for some distinctly Trumpian qualities.  He has repeatedly told his advisers, for instance, “I want someone who is not weak.”  That is especially appealing to legal conservative hardliners who are still scarred by former Justices David Souter and Sandra Day O’Connor, two Republican appointees who often sided with the court’s liberal bloc, and to a lesser extent Chief Justice John Roberts, an appointee of President George W. Bush, who upheld the constitutionality of President Obama’s health care law....

Those close to Trump’s search process say that the list now under more serious consideration is closer to a half-dozen, including Pryor and Sykes, as well as 3rd Circuit Judge Thomas Hardiman, 6th Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge, 8th Circuit Judges Steve Colloton and Raymond Gruender, 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen.

Trump released two lists of potential justices during the campaign, but most of the candidates under serious consideration are on the initial list of 11.  The only two women in the current top tier, Larsen, who is only 48, and Sykes, 59, are among those who could be “held back” for a second opening. “Going with a woman or a minority does get you some brownie points, so in terms of picking the hardest to confirm now, that would argue for a man,” Levey said. “Also the symbolic value, if Ginsburg does leave the court, of replacing her with a woman WOULD be important.”

Trump’s advisers want his Supreme Court pick to be one of his earliest acts as president, though the plan has been not to announce a choice until after Sen. Jeff Sessions is confirmed as attorney general.  Both Sessions and any high court pick must pass through the same Senate Judiciary Committee.

The two men spearheading Trump’s search are Don McGahn, Trump’s incoming White House counsel, and Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society’s executive vice president. Incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and top Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway are also involved, as are Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Sessions.

Leo said on “Fox News Sunday” that Trump’s team wants the Scalia vacancy filled in time for the new justice to be seated for the final sitting of this term in late April. That could allow the new justice to weigh in on important pending cases, including the detention of immigrants and transgender rights. “Ideally, you would have someone who could be seated on the court at least by then to hear those final round of cases, perhaps even have some of the 4-4 decisions, if there are any, reheard by the court,” Leo said. He noted that Ginsburg — “one of the most liberal justices”— was confirmed in just 50 days at the start of President Clinton’s first term....

As he often does ahead of big decisions, Trump has sought opinions from far and wide, including Fox News legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano, former rivals Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum and at least one person on his longer list: Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who is not considered to be in serious contention for a high court seat. While Trump promised his public list of 21 was “definitive” when it was announced, he could still expand it for a second pick. “After the first nominee he may add some new possibilities,” Gingrich said, a view confirmed by another transition official.

A few prior related Trumpian SCOTUS posts:

January 3, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Death penalty in Pennsylvania so dysfunctional that it cannot complete long-overdue report on its dysfunction

Unless and until the newly enacted reform ballot initiative magically fixes a whole bunch of problems, California will still be able to lay claim to having the most dysfunctional death penalty system in the United States.  But this new local article, headlined "Three years late, seminal death penalty report still unfinished," highlights why Pennsylvania come in a pretty close second. Here are excerpts: 

Already three years behind schedule, a committee studying flaws in Pennsylvania's death penalty is still a long way away from issuing its much-anticipated report.  The stakes for the Senate's Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment are high, ever since Gov. Tom Wolf vowed nearly two years ago to block executions until its recommendations are issued and acted upon.

But elevated from obscurity by Wolf's moratorium, the all-volunteer committee has no individual budget and no dedicated staff members, and has consistently seen its time line pushed further and further into the future, much to the unhappiness of death-penalty backers.  The new year will see "meaningful, significant progress" in the panel's work, said Steve Hoenstine, a spokesman for state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, a point man in the effort.  But Hoenstine wouldn't commit to the report being completed this year, given the scope of the questions being tackled.  "The goal isn't to produce something as quickly as possible that may or may not be correct," said Hoenstine, whose boss is a staunch opponent of capital punishment. "Studying bias in Pennsylvania's death penalty, it is just an enormous undertaking."

Wolf, a Democrat, announced his moratorium in February 2015, when he called the death penalty "error prone, expensive and anything but infallible." He has since issued reprieves to five inmates facing the death chamber, including Lehigh Valley mass murderer Michael Eric Ballard, who stabbed to death four people in a Northampton home in 2010 while on parole for a prior killing. Even without issuing findings, the advisory committee has proven controversial to death-penalty supporters, who charge the makeup of its 27 members is weighted against capital punishment.

Given the moratorium, it is no surprise that the report continues to be delayed, said Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli, a Democrat who is a vocal death penalty backer. With executions halted, there's no incentive for the committee to finish its work, he said. "I don't think it is ever going to come," Morganelli said. "Why would they release it?"

The committee, approved by the Senate in 2011, is looking into 17 aspects of capital punishment, including its cost, its impact on public safety, its potential for racial or economic bias, and whether there are sufficient safeguards against the innocent being executed.  The report originally was due in December 2013. The panel includes judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, clergy members, college professors, a relative of a murder victim, victims advocates, officials from the American Civil Liberties Union and two other nonprofits, and police and corrections representatives.

Hoenstine said delays have nothing to do with the moratorium.  He noted the committee was established while Wolf's predecessor, Tom Corbett, a Republican former prosecutor, was governor.  "This is something that happened long before Gov. Wolf took office and, therefore, long before this moratorium took place," Hoenstine said. "It is a bipartisan search for the truth. It is nothing but that."

Like much of the nation, the state has contentiously debated capital punishment, under which scores of Pennsylvania inmates have seen their sentences reversed. None have been executed here against their will since John F. Kennedy was president.

The committee's work is spearheaded by the Joint State Government Commission, a research wing of the Legislature, with assistance from a state commission on fairness in the courts and by researchers from Penn State University.  Glenn Pasewicz, executive director of the Joint State Government Commission, has said research has proven laborious, given the need for data collectors to go from county courthouse to county courthouse gathering statistics about homicide cases, when the death penalty is sought and when it is imposed.  According to Hoenstine, that work is ongoing. "We want it to be data driven and based on clean data, reliable data," Hoenstine said. "That's a time-consuming process."...

Pennsylvania has 175 prisoners on death row, but it rarely performs an execution, going back well before Wolf's moratorium. Just three men have been put to death in the modern era of capital punishment, and all were volunteers who abandoned legal challenges to their sentences. The last was Philadelphia "house of horrors" murderer Gary Heidnik, who was lethally injected in 1999.

January 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 2, 2017

Great report on Texas justice reviewing why Lone Star State is a "leader in criminal justice reform"

Images (4)Via this local press article, headlined "Report: Don't cut funding for inmate rehabilitation," I came across this terrific new report from the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Corrections.  These excerpts from the press piece provides a partial summary of the report:

When lawmakers return to Austin in 10 days to begin grappling with what appears will be a bare-bones state budget, a legislative panel that oversees the Texas prison system is urging them to resist cutting funding for programs that help former inmates and probationers adjust to free-world life.

“As (the prison system) cannot cut back on the security and public safety components of their mission, it is likely that many of the programs that are making a real difference will face the axe,” says a report released over the holidays by the Texas House Corrections Committee.

“The state that leads the nation in executions also leads the nation in providing alternatives to incarceration,” the report adds. “An American state that used to be infamous for its ‘lock 'em up and throw away the key’ approach to crime is now providing an unlikely inspiration to other states and countries.”

The 68-page report that the panel will likely use as a blueprint for legislative initiatives once 2017 session begins Jan. 10 makes several recommendations, include lowering the fees that probationers must pay, opting out of a federal program that requires the suspension of a driver’s license for anyone convicted of possessing even a small amount of marijuana and sealing the criminal records for qualifying former inmates who remain out of trouble for a specified period of time.

The report comes some 20 years after Texas leaders frustrated by rising crime rates completed a massive prison building program that tripled the system’s capacity. It even uses a phrase once thought to be politically toxic is describing the state’s approach for helping lawbreakers return to society. “Texas is a leader by being ‘softer on crime,’ although we prefer the word ‘smarter,’” it says. “It's something to think about as we head into the next legislative session.”....

The committee report says probation revocations, while still relatively high, have been steadily dropping for about a decade as lawmakers began devoting more resources to programs aimed at reducing inmates’ and probationers’ substance addictions and arming them with job skills. During that period, the report says, Texas’ crime rate has dropped about 20 percent while recidivism rates declined from 28 percent to 21 percent.

During a hearing in February, Corrections Committee Chairman Jim Murphy said it’s important that inmates and probationers believe that the state is committed to programs aimed at minimizing the chance that they’ll be back behind bars. “I am thinking about the dynamic of someone being in the system, wanting to improve themselves, and being told ‘you're not a priority,’” said Murphy, a Houston Republican. “If we're trying to get someone not to recidivate, that's exactly opposite of what I think the intended result would be.”

According to the report, which Murphy signed in early December before its release last week, the fees associated with being on probation can be insurmountable for offenders struggling to find employment. Probationers are charged upward of $60 a month to help cover the cost of supervision. Many are required to take and pay for classes aimed at fighting addiction or controlling anger and violence. Probationers who lose driving privileges can be required to take a class to have the license reinstated and pay up to $325 before being allowed to drive, even if it’s just to and from work.

The list goes on. “There are fees for records management, for juries, for judicial support, for court security, and for indigent defense,” the committee’s report says. “Pages and pages of fees. It boggles the mind to read it. Think of what it must be like to live it.” Often, the report continues, judges who impose the costs have little information regarding an offender’s ability to pay them. “In an era when you can find out your credit score for free on the internet, would it be that difficult to determine if a person is indigent prior to appearing before a judge?” the report asks.

The committee’s report points out that in April 2016, Pennsylvania enacted legislation, allowing criminal records of qualified nonviolent offenders to be sealed for offenders who remain free of legal trouble for 10 years. The records of those charged but not convicted of a crime can be sealed after 60 days.

As this partial summary should highlight, any and everyone interested in state or national criminal justice reform ought to have this across this important new Texas government report high on their New Year's reading list.

January 2, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Understanding why Dylann Roof will not present penalty phase evidence at his capital trial

Last week in this post I noted the news that Dylann Roof, at a hearing before the penalty phase of his capital trial, told the district judge that "he doesn't plan to call any witnesses or present evidence to ask a jury to spare his life." This new New York Times article, headlined, "Dylann Roof Himself Rejects Best Defense Against Execution," provides some explanatory backstory.  Here is how the lengthy piece begins:

Twenty-two pages into the hand-scribbled journal found in Dylann S. Roof’s car — after the assertions of black inferiority, the lamentations over white powerlessness, the longing for a race war — comes an incongruous declaration.

“I want state that I am morally opposed to psychology,” wrote the young white supremacist who would murder nine black worshipers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015. “It is a Jewish invention, and does nothing but invent diseases and tell people they have problems when they dont.”

Mr. Roof, who plans to represent himself when the penalty phase of his federal capital trial begins on Tuesday, apparently is devoted enough to that proposition (or delusion, as some maintain) to stake his life on it. Although a defense based on his psychological capacity might be his best opportunity to avoid execution, he seems steadfastly committed to preventing any public examination of his mental state or background.

“I will not be calling mental health experts or presenting mental health evidence,” he wrote to Judge Richard M. Gergel of Federal District Court on Dec. 16, a day after a jury took only two hours to find him guilty of 33 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death, obstruction of religion and firearms violations. At a hearing on Wednesday, Mr. Roof told the judge that he planned to make an opening statement but not call witnesses or present evidence on his behalf.

The testimony presented by prosecutors during the guilt phase of Mr. Roof’s trial detailed with gruesome precision how he had plotted and executed the massacre during a Wednesday night Bible study in the church’s fellowship hall. It was less satisfying in revealing why he had done it. With his choice to sideline his legal team and represent himself, the second phase — when the same jury of nine whites and three blacks will decide whether to sentence him to death or to life in prison — may prove little different.

Death penalty experts said it was exceedingly rare for capital defendants to represent themselves after allowing lawyers to handle the initial part of a case. Mr. Roof, who also faces a death penalty trial in state court, has not publicly explained his reasoning. But legal filings strongly suggest a split with his court-appointed defenders about whether to argue that his rampage resulted from mental illness.

January 2, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

January 1, 2017

Any astute thoughts about the sentencing year that was or the year that will be?

A variety of other (mostly non-work) engagements have prevented me from having the time to do any elaborate year-in-review or year-to-come posts about sentencing topics.  That said, as I take my 2016 calendars down and replace them with the 2017 versions, two matters come to mind that implicate both the year that was and the year to come:

1. SCOTUS transition: though representing only one vote, Justice Scalia's voice and impact on sentencing and criminal justice jurisprudence was far larger than his voting record.  The impact and import of his legacy and his absence, along with the coming character of his SCOTUS replacement, cannot be readily overstated.

2. Marijuana reform (but few other big sentencing reforms): with four more states voting for full recreational reform and nearly a dozen others enacting or enhancing medical regimes, in 2016 marijuana reform continued at a remarkable clip while broader drug war and other sentencing reform stalled (at least at the federal level). What the new GOP executive leaders in DC will now do on these fronts is among the most interesting and dynamic and uncertain story to watch in 2017.

As always, I welcome reader throughout on these topics and any others about the year that ended yesterday or the new one getting started today.

January 1, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Chief Justice extols the work of federal district judges in traditional year-end report

The Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts decided to use his 2016 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, which is available at this link, to praise the work of federal district judges. The report starts with a lovely little history lesson, and it includes these passages that should especially engage criminal justice fans:

The character of a district judge is most starkly evident in a criminal trial.  Most criminal charges are resolved through the plea bargaining process, but those cases that go to trial place especially high demands on the court.  The judge must move the process forward in accordance with the Speedy Trial Act, consistent with the defendant’s right to constitutionally adequate representation.  He must promptly decide motions and make evidentiary rulings as the trial proceeds, typically without the luxury of calm consideration and research in the quiet of chambers.  The judge must carefully guide the jury on the elements of the offense and the prosecution’s burden of proof.  If the trial results in conviction, the judge faces the somber task of sentencing.

Most district judges agree that sentencing is their most difficult duty.  The judge must confront the offender, face-to-face, and take just account of human failing.  The judge must consider the perspectives of the prosecutor, the defendant, and the victim, and impose a penalty that, by design and necessity, will alter the direction of the defendant’s life.  In determining appropriate punishment, his discretion is confined by legislative determinations, and guided by carefully considered sentencing guidelines and a presentence report.  At the end of the day, the sentence nonetheless critically reflects the judge’s wisdom, experience, and educated grasp of what he observed firsthand in the courtroom. In delivering the sentence, the judge speaks as the voice of the community.

In part because I know and respect so many federal district judges, I am so very pleased to see the Chief Justice deliver this kind of justified professional love letter. In addition, because I have long been a strong and dogged advocate for SCOTUS Justices having experience as a trial judge, I cannot help but "read between the lines" here and see a kind of chiefly endorsement for the next SCOTUS justice having district court experience.

January 1, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)