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May 13, 2017

"Courting Abolition"

The title of this post is the title of this new book review authored by Deborah Denno and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Forty-five years ago capital punishment was nearly eliminated in Furman v. Georgia, where the Supreme Court held that the imposition of the death penalty in the cases before it violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.  The Furman Court’s abrogation was short-lived, however.  The 1976 decision of Gregg v. Georgia ended the 1967–1976 moratorium that had existed on executions by ruling that the death penalty was not a per se violation of the Eighth Amendment and by upholding newly passed, guided-discretion statutes.  As Professors Carol Steiker and Jordan Steiker contend in their book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, the Supreme Court’s subsequent efforts to entrench capital punishment have involved the Court’s “top-down” regulation of states’ application of the death penalty by enforcing federal constitutional law, thereby attempting to establish a middle ground between completely abolishing capital punishment and allowing it to run amok.  According to the Steikers, this “experiment” with the death penalty has failed due to the Court’s cumbersome and complex regulatory mechanisms.

Courting Death, which builds on the authors’ prior work from their 1995 article, Sober Second Thoughts, as well as their report to the American Law Institute, is a markedly compelling book that captures the complicated story of the death penalty and explores the factors that would both shape and stymie capital punishment’s future.  The book includes a detailed history of the death penalty in the United States, its deep connection with southern racial oppression and the factors that prompted national judicial regulation, as well as the shortcomings and issues created by that regulation.

This Review of Courting Death offers a different take on two of the Steikers’ major themes: (1) the tension between effecting meaningful reform and legitimatizing legal façades, and (2) the future of the American death penalty.  The Review argues several points, one being that the Model Penal Code may have had a larger pre-Furman impact than the Steikers acknowledge.  In addition, the Review expands on some key contributors to the death penalty’s decline that may have been obscured by the all-encompassing nature of the Steikers’ regulation argument — for example, the emergence of unforeseeable exogenous variables (similar to the introduction of DNA evidence into criminal trials in the 1980s), as well as pressure points that exist largely outside of the constitutional regulatory framework, such as lethal injection litigation.  Despite these influences, the Review finds the Steikers’ prediction — that, when abolition seems right, it will come by way of a “Furman II” Supreme Court decision — to readily comport with the death penalty’s trajectory over the last fifty years.

May 13, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Former LA Sheriff gets three years in federal prison after obstruction convictions connected to corruption scandal involving county jails

This Los Angeles Times article, headlined "Ex-L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca sentenced to three years in prison in jail corruption scandal," effectively reports on the final federal sentence handed down late yesterday to a high-profile former law enforcement official. Notably, as discussed below, the defendant here had a much more lenient plea deal rejected, was nearly acquitted at a trial, and ultimately got a prison term 50% longer than what prosecutors recommended.  Here are the details:

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, once a towering, respected figure in policing, was sentenced Friday to three years in federal prison for his role in a scheme to obstruct an FBI investigation of abuses in county jails, marking an end to a corruption scandal that has roiled the Sheriff’s Department for several years.

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson announced Baca’s fate in a downtown courtroom filled with loyal supporters on one side and the FBI agents and prosecutors who ensnared him on the other. Baca, 74 and suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, showed no emotion as the decision was read. Before issuing the sentence, Anderson, who has dealt unsparingly with the former sheriff throughout his legal battle and last year threw out a plea deal that would have sent Baca to prison for no more than six months, unleashed a scathing rebuke of the man who ran one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies for 15 years.

Excoriating Baca’s refusal to accept responsibility for having overseen and condoned the obstruction ploy carried out by subordinates, the judge portrayed him as a man driven by his desire to protect his own reputation and maintain control over the Sheriff’s Department. “Your actions embarrass the thousands of men and women [in the department] who put their lives on the line every day,” Anderson said to Baca. “They were a gross abuse of the trust the public placed in you.”

The prison term, Anderson added, should serve as a deterrent to other public servants. “Blind obedience to a corrupt culture has serious consequences,” he said. “No person, no matter how powerful, no matter his or her title, is above the law.”

Baca was ordered to surrender to federal prison officials by July 25. Although he is expected to ask to remain free on bail while he pursues an appeal, it is an open question whether he will be allowed to do so. Anderson denied the same request from Baca’s second in command, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who was forced to begin his five-year sentence....

In going after Baca, a team of prosecutors headed by Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox meticulously worked its way up the department’s ranks, charging lower-level figures and members of Baca’s command staff before bringing charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy and lying against the sheriff himself.

He is the ninth person to be convicted and sentenced to prison as part of what Fox convinced several juries was a cunning conspiracy to interfere with FBI agents as they worked to gather evidence for a grand jury investigation into allegations of widespread abuse by deputies working in county jails run by the sheriff’s department. A 10th conspirator, former sheriff’s Capt. William “Tom” Carey, pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors and testified against Baca. Carey is scheduled to be sentenced later this month. Several other deputies were convicted in a series of trials for beating inmates or helping to cover up the abuse....

Baca’s attorney, Nathan Hochman, nearly won Baca an acquittal at a trial late last year by hammering the government for the scarcity of hard evidence tying Baca directly to the obstruction plan. That proceeding ended in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked with all but one juror voting to acquit Baca. For the second trial, however, Fox revamped his case and Anderson issued a string of rulings that hamstrung Hochman. All along, Hochman argued that while Baca was upset by the FBI investigation, he never authorized anything illegal. Tanaka, he said, was the ringleader who carried out the obstruction without Baca’s knowledge.

In giving Baca three years in prison, Anderson struck a middle ground of sorts. Federal sentencing guidelines called for a term of 41 to 51 months. Under normal circumstances, the government would have urged Anderson to come down within that range, Fox wrote in court filings.

But Baca’s age, his diagnosis last year with Alzheimer’s and medical experts’ expectation that his mind will have deteriorated badly within a few years were legitimate mitigating factors in determining his punishment, Fox said. “The interests of justice will not be served by defendant spending many years behind bars in a severely impaired state,” the prosecutor wrote. He recommended that Baca be sentenced to two years in prison.

Hochman, meanwhile, urged Anderson in court papers and again on Friday to spare Baca any time in prison, saying he should instead be confined to his home for a period of time and perform community service. In a lengthy last-ditch bid for leniency, Hochman reviewed Baca’s nearly five decades of service in the sheriff’s department, saying he served “with distinction and honor.”

The true measure of the man, Hochman insisted, was seen in the the education programs he started as sheriff for inmates and at-risk youth. Hochman submitted to Anderson letters from a few hundred of Baca’s supporters, including former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and several local religious leaders. The inevitable toll from Alzheimer’s was another reason to spare him prison, Hochman said. “This diagnosis is a sentence of its own. It is a sentence that will leave him a mere shell of his former self and one that will rob him of the memories of his life,” he wrote in a court filing.

Anderson rejected out of hand the idea that Baca should avoid time in prison. He acknowledged Baca’s lengthy record as a public servant, but said it made his crimes more perplexing. "Mr. Baca's criminal conduct is so at odds with the public image he carefully crafted,” Anderson said. Like old B-movies, "you seem to have your own version of the good cop/bad cop routine … that allowed you to keep your hands clean but did not make you any less culpable.”

While the two-year sentence suggested by the government was not enough in Anderson’s eyes, the judge said he did take Baca’s failing health and career into account. Absent those factors, he said he would have imposed on Baca the same five-year sentence he gave Tanaka.

The sentence deepens the stain already imprinted on Baca’s legacy and the reputation he enjoyed as one of the nation’s most visible and respected reformers in law enforcement. While quirky to the point of being enigmatic, Baca was seen as a champion of progressive ideas, including the need for police to build strong ties to minority communities. He stepped down in 2014 with the department engulfed in the jail scandal.

May 13, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

May 12, 2017

Some notable first-cut reactions to the Sessions Memo

The Hill already has two articles reporting on some notable reactions to the new Sessions Memo.  The reactions are not surprising, but they are still interesting:

Obama AG slams Sessions for shift to harsher sentencing

GOP senator: Sessions's push for tougher sentences highlights 'injustice'

Eric Holder is the AG referenced in the headline of the first article, and Senator Rand Paul is the one referenced in the headline of the second one. Senators Mike Lee and Tom Cotton also are quoted in the second article, and long time readers of this blog can likely guess the nature of their takes on the Sessions Memo.

Last but certainly not least, Bill Otis has reactions here at Crime & Consequences under the heading "Jeff Sessions Returns DOJ to Sound Charging Policy." Here are choice excerpts (emphasis in original):

This has been reported as "new" guidance, but it's not. It's the return of the "most serious readily provable" standard that governed charging policy during most of my 18-year tenure in the US Attorney's Office, a tenure that ended last century. The policy continued during the George W. Bush Administration.

It was right then and it's right now. It amounts to telling prosecutors to charge what the defendant actually did. This is so obviously correct -- aligning the allegations with the facts -- that I have a hard time seeing any serious objection to it.

It does allow exceptions -- that is, in practice, more lenient charging -- in unusual cases. That too seems obviously correct, together with the Attorney General's caveat that such cases must, indeed, be out of the heartland, and the reasons for leniency should be documented and approved by a more senior AUSA or the USA himself. This prevents inattentive, inexperienced or irresolute AUSA's from doing their own thing (or being bullrushed by an aggressive or smooth-talking defense lawyer).

On its face, this policy is not that much of a change from the one Eric Holder adopted, but there is an important change in emphasis and purpose....

It will be attacked by the Left as likely to produce longer sentences. That's probably so. However, there is a ready mechanism by which such sentences can be avoided: Mr. Nicey might consider quitting the smack business and getting a normal job like everybody else. I'm just not a partisan of the notion that it's always the public that has to change. Instead, in both practical and moral senses, we'll be better off when we insist that it's the criminal who has to change. We don't need less serious charging. We need less crime.

Criminals make choices. We should give them enhanced incentives to make better ones, for them and for us. The Attorney General's directive does just that.

Prior recent related post: 

May 12, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (28)

Misreporting of the Sessions Memo and the challenge of nuance in prosecutorial charging policies

I have already had the pleasure of speaking with a couple of thoughtful members of the media about the new charging and sentencing memorandum released today by Attorney General Jeff Sessions (basics here), and those conversations have already reinforced my sense of how challenging it is to fully and fairly assess the import and impact of the "Sessions Memo" in our modern sound-bite world. But while I can understand and sympathize with media members struggling to fully understand and contextualize the Sessions Memo, I felt compelled to blog my frustration with media efforts like this one from the New York Daily News that in their headline and lead get the basic story fundamentally wrong:  

Attorney General demands prosecutors seek max sentences for drug offenders

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is taking the war on drugs nuclear, ordering federal prosecutors across the country to pursue the longest prison sentences possible for drug offenders and others in a reversal of Obama-era policies.

This is just flat out wrong, as the very text of paragraph four of the short Sessions Memo makes plain (with my emphasis added): "prosecutors must disclose to the sentencing court all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimum sentences, and should in all cases seek a reasonable sentence under the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553."

I think it fair (though still an incomplete short-hand) to talk about the Sessions Memo demanding prosecutors to seek tougher or harsher or longer sentences, but it is dangerously wrong to assert that the Sessions memo requires pursuit of "max sentences" or "the longest prison sentences possible."  Indeed, it seems that AG Sessions very much believes that his Memo actually provides even "more play in the joints" than pre-Holder era prosecutorial guidelines.  This is evidence by the text of this speech he gave today in New York talking about his new memo, which includes these excerpts:

Charging and sentencing recommendations are bedrock responsibilities for any federal prosecutor.  And I trust our prosecutors in the field to make good judgements.  They deserve to be unhandcuffed and not micro-managed from Washington.   Rather, they must be permitted to apply the law to the facts of each investigation.  Let's be clear, we are enforcing the laws Congress passed – that is both our fundamental mission and constitutional duty.

Going forward, I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense.  It means we are going to meet our responsibility to enforce the law with judgment and fairness.  It is simply the right and moral thing to do.  But it is important to note that unlike previous charging memoranda, I have given our prosecutors discretion to avoid sentences that would result in an injustice.

Prior recent related post: 

May 12, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

AG Sessions issues new tougher charging and sentencing guidelines to federal prosecutors

As reported in this official Justice Department press release, "Attorney General Jeff Sessions today issued the attached memorandum [available here] establishing charging and sentencing policies for the Department of Justice." The press release further reports:

This policy was formulated after extensive consultation with Assistant U.S. Attorneys at both the trial and appellate level, as well as U.S. Attorneys and Main Justice Attorneys. It ensures that the Department enforces the law fairly and consistently, advances public safety and promotes respect for our legal system.

Attorney General Sessions will issue further remarks on the new policy later this morning.

This memorandum is relative short and to the point, and here is some of its key language:

Charging and sentencing recommendations are crucial responsibilities for any federal prosecutor.  The directives I am setting forth below are simple but important.  They place great confidence in our prosecutors and supervisors to apply them in a thoughtful and disciplined manner, with the goal of achieving just and consistent results in federal cases.

First, it is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense. This policy affirms our responsibility to enforce the law, is moral and just, and produces consistency.  This policy fully utilizes the tools Congress has given us.  By definition, the most serious offenses are those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.

There will be circumstances in which good judgment would lead a prosecutor to conclude that a strict application of the above charging policy is not warranted.  In that case, prosecutors should carefully consider whether an exception may be justified.  Consistent with longstanding Department of Justice policy, any decision to vary from the policy must be approved by a United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General, or a supervisor designated by the United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General, and the reasons must be documented in the file.

Second, prosecutors must disclose to the sentencing court all facts that impact the sentencing guidelines or mandatory minimum sentences, and should in all cases seek a reasonable sentence under the factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553.  In most cases, recommending a sentence within the advisory guideline range will be appropriate. Recommendations for sentencing departures or variances require supervisory approval, and the reasoning must be documented in the file.

This AP article about this new AG Sessions' memo provides this brief and effective account of what these directions change:

The directive rescinds guidance by Sessions’ Democratic predecessor, Eric Holder, who told prosecutors they could in some cases leave drug quantities out of charging documents so as not to trigger long sentences. Holder’s 2013 initiative, known as “Smart on Crime,” was aimed at encouraging shorter sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and preserving Justice Department resources for more serious and violent criminals.

Though Holder did say that prosecutors ordinarily should charge the most serious offense, he instructed them to do an “individualized assessment” of the defendant’s conduct. And he outlined exceptions for not pursuing mandatory minimum sentences, including if a defendant’s crime does not involve violence or if the person doesn’t have a leadership role in a criminal organization.

This development is a very big deal, although it is not especially surprising and the thousands of federal prosecutors who implement this policy around the nation will ultimately determine how dramatically federal charging and sentencing practices change in the months and years ahead.  (And one interesting point for the historical record: the AG Sessions charging and sentencing memo is dated May 10, but it would seem the brouhaha over the Comey firing delayed its official public release.)

Prior recent related post: 

May 12, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

May 11, 2017

Interesting report on plea realities impacting severity of sentences for sex trafficking offenses in Massachusetts

I just saw this recent Boston Herald article, headlined "Special Report: Sex traffickers evading tough prison sentences," which highlights the ways and reasons why a new Massachusetts law designed to toughen sentencing outcomes for certain sex offenders may not get consistently applied due to plea practices and related case-processing dynamics.  Here are excerpts:

Accused pimps and sex traffickers who could face decades behind bars under state law are often being allowed to plead down to less time and reduced charges, with more than half of convictions netting minimum sentences or less, according to a Herald review.

The softer sentencing patterns identified by a Herald survey of cases prosecuted by the attorney general and the state’s 11 district attorneys come five years after lawmakers passed a much-ballyhooed sex-trafficking law billed as a get-tough measure on criminals driving the sex trade.  But prosecutors and victim advocates say the sentences highlight the long-standing challenge in bringing complex cases reliant on vulnerable and sometimes reluctant victims.

The law called for sentences of five to 20 years for those convicted of trafficking, and up to life for those who prostitute minors.  But a Herald review of 32 trafficking cases statewide found 21 defendants in a position to serve the minimum five-year sentence or less, with three getting outright probation.  At least 18 times defendants took pleas to reduced charges — avoiding a human-trafficking conviction entirely. The average sentence of all reviewed cases fell between four and five-and-a-half years.  That’s a rate state Sen. Mark Montigny, the bill’s chief sponsor, slammed as “abysmal” — and exactly what he was trying to avoid when he drafted the law.

“Never once in my career have I put a mandatory minimum in a bill, but in trafficking of children, I put one in because I didn’t want to see plea-bargaining down,” said Montigny, who decried what he called a “societal ignorance” around the seriousness of the sex trade. “It’s unbelievable. … Not much has changed. And I’m so disappointed in that.”...

Prosecutors have been able to secure some long sentences under the new law.  Tyshaun McGhee and Sidney McGee, the first defendants convicted under the statute, got sentences of 10-to-15 and 10-to-12 years, respectively, after a Suffolk County jury found them guilty.  Ryan Duntin, who plead guilty in 2015, got a 10-year sentence.

But prosecutors defended their handling of the pleaded, low-sentence cases, noting they face a web of challenges. Frightened witnesses are often battling intense trauma or substance abuse, and sometimes are reluctant to go to trial, which makes scoring a jury conviction difficult.  Other times authorities have initially brought trafficking charges against girlfriends of the pimps, known as “bottoms,” who help recruit and intimidate victims.  But they sometimes are also seen as exploited victims themselves, leading prosecutors to later bring reduced charges.

Other circumstances have played a role. In Suffolk County, one accused trafficker pleaded to receive a four- to five-year sentence after one of his alleged victims died of an overdose before trial, dealing a blow to the case. In Bristol County, prosecutors said they were forced to dismiss one case because the victim wouldn’t cooperate.

Prosecutors are also wary of forcing victims, especially minors, to take the stand and risk re-traumatizing them, said Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley. “When you’ve got victims terrified about what might come up when they take the stand ... and they’re on board with a guilty plea and we can get a 10-year or an eight-year sentence, that’s a successful prosecution,” Wark said....

Stephanie Clark, executive director of Amirah, an advocacy group that works with and houses trafficking victims, said she wasn’t surprised traffickers are getting softer sentences, given that cases hinge on victims who may back out.

May 11, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"A Contextual Approach to Harmless Error Review"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Justin Murray and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Harmless error review is profoundly important, but arguably broken, in the form that courts currently employ it in criminal cases. One significant reason for this brokenness lies in the dissonance between the reductionism of modern harmless error methodology and the diverse normative ambitions of criminal procedure. Nearly all harmless error rules used by courts today focus exclusively on whether the procedural error under review affected the result of a judicial proceeding. I refer to these rules as “result-based harmless error review.” The singular preoccupation of result-based harmless error review with the outputs of criminal processes stands in marked contrast with criminal procedure’s broader ethical vision, which also encompasses non-result-related interests such as providing defendants with space for autonomous decisionmaking, enforcing compliance with nondiscrimination norms, and making transparent the inner workings of criminal justice.

The vast scholarship relating to result-based harmless error review, though deeply critical of its current role in the administration of justice, has not put forward an alternative method of harmless error review that courts might realistically consider using. Commentators in this area have devoted much of their energy toward persuading courts to exempt large swaths of criminal procedure from harmless error review entirely and thus to require automatic reversal for errors involving exempted rules. Instead, courts have done just the opposite by subjecting an ever-expanding list of errors to harmless error review, and there is no reason to think this trend will abate in the foreseeable future.

I attempt in this Article to chart a different course. My proposal, called “contextual harmless error review,” has two essential features. First, it would assess harm in relation to the constellation of interests served by the particular procedural rule that was infringed and would not, as under existing law, automatically confine the harmless error inquiry to estimating the error’s effect on the outcome. Second, contextual harmless error review would examine whether the error harmed the interests identified in the first step of the analysis to a degree substantial enough to justify reversal.

May 11, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Notable comments from AG Sessions about the opioid crisis and combatting drug problems

This press release from the Department of Justice provides the text of remarks delivered today by Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the "DEA360 Heroin and Opioid Response Summit" in Charleston, WV. I recommend the speech in full, even though some comments are familiar, and here are a few excerpts that caught my attention:

People in Washington, D.C., use the word "crisis" to describe all kinds of problems.  But this epidemic of opioid and prescription drug abuse is a true crisis.  It is ravaging our communities, bringing crime and violence to our streets, and destroying the lives of too many Americans....

Let’s start by looking at the scope of the problem.  In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans died from a drug overdose.  That means our country is losing the equivalent of a major league baseball stadium full of people every year to overdoses.  That is simply unacceptable. 

Nearly two-thirds of those deaths were from opioids — that includes heroin as well as prescription drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine.   Every day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose.  And each year, more Americans are dying from drug overdoses than from car crashes.  

What’s terrifying is that these numbers may well understate the current problem, due to the recent rise of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is vastly more potent than heroin.  Drug traffickers are now mixing fentanyl with other drugs, resulting in a truly deadly concoction. In just one year, largely as a result of fentanyl, overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids rose an astonishing 73 percent.  Let me repeat that, 73 percent more overdose deaths.

But this plague not only brings death, but a whole parade of horribles. The number of American babies born with a drug withdrawal symptom has quadrupled over the past 15 years.  Here in West Virginia, the situation is so bad that in some hospitals, one out of every 10 babies is born dependent on opioids....

This wave of opioid and heroin abuse also represents a crisis for law enforcement.   We know drugs and crime go hand-in-hand.   Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business.  If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court.  You collect it by the barrel of a gun.

The opioid and heroin epidemic is a contributor to the recent surge of violent crime in America.   Transnational drug cartels are working with street gangs to traffic heroin that is both cheaper and stronger than ever.  As the market for this heroin expands, these gangs fight for territory and new customers — and innocent people get caught in the crossfire.     

Drug abusers miss work, and when they do work, they don’t work well.  According to one estimate, American employers are losing $10 billion dollars a year from absenteeism and lost productivity due to opioid abuse.

Any way you look at it, this drug abuse epidemic is a multi-faced and massive crisis.  It demands an all-hands-on-deck response — from government, law enforcement, health care providers, teachers, community leaders and parents.  All of us must do our part to fight the scourge of drugs.   

As I mentioned before, we have three essential tools in this fight:  enforcement, treatment and prevention.  At the Department of Justice, our principal concern is law enforcement.  Strong enforcement is crucial to effective drug abuse prevention and treatment.

Many people say, "We can’t arrest our way out of this problem."  But no one denies we need good prevention and treatment programs.  What we must recognize is that strong law enforcement efforts are also essential.   Criminal enforcement is crucial to stopping the violent transnational cartels that smuggle drugs across our borders, and the thugs and gangs who bring this poison into our communities....

The DEA has developed what they call their 360 Strategy, and deployed it to six pilot cities, including here in Charleston.  One part of the 360 Strategy is coordinated law enforcement actions against drug cartels and traffickers.   DEA’s field divisions work closely with task force partners in federal, state, and local law enforcement to identify, target and prosecute the biggest drug traffickers.  

We are also targeting links between the cartels and drug trafficking networks across our country, including violent street gangs. Another part of DEA’s 360 Strategy is diversion control.  A lot of drug abuse happens because legitimate controlled substances are diverted from their lawful purposes.... 

We are also targeting and prosecuting dishonest medical providers who violate their oaths by running "pill mills" or otherwise diverting prescription drugs from legitimate uses.  The DEA’s Tactical Diversion Squads, including one here in Charleston, do outstanding work on this front....

The goal of all our enforcement efforts is to take back our neighborhoods from drug traffickers and criminals, and give these communities breathing room.   That allows us to deploy the other tools we have to fight drug abuse:  treatment and prevention....

The best thing we can do is to keep people from ever abusing drugs in the first place.  Our nation must once again send a clear message:  illegal drug use is dangerous and deadly.  We know for a fact it destroys lives — just look around you.

Education does work.  We won’t end this epidemic in a week, or a month, or a year.  This will be a huge undertaking, both here in West Virginia and across our great country.  We must use all the tools we have: criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention programs.  

May 11, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Eleventh Circuit rejects effort to attack Alabama's lethal injection by suggesting hanging or firing squad as alternative execution methods

As reported in this local article, "condemned inmate Anthony Boyd asked the state of Alabama to carry out his execution by either hanging him or putting him in front of a firing squad. But the federal appeals court in Atlanta on Tuesday rejected Boyd’s request and cleared the way for his execution by lethal injection."  The Eleventh Circuit's lengthy ruling in Boyd v. Warden, No. 15-14971 (11th Cir. May 9, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:

It is by now clear in capital cases that a plaintiff seeking to challenge a state’s method of execution under the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution must plausibly plead, and ultimately prove, that there is an alternative method of execution that is feasible, readily implemented, and in fact significantly reduces the substantial risk of pain posed by the state’s planned method of execution.  Appellant Anthony Boyd, an Alabama death row inmate, appeals the district court’s dismissal of his federal civil rights lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s lethal injection protocol.  Boyd filed this lawsuit pursuant to Section 1983, alleging, among other things, that Alabama’s new lethal injection protocol, which substituted midazolam hydrochloride for pentobarbital as the first of three drugs, violates his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.  Notably, however, he did not allege that execution by a lethal injection protocol generally is unconstitutional.  Currently, Alabama law provides inmates sentenced to death with a choice between two methods of execution: lethal injection or electrocution. Instead of identifying an alternative method of lethal injection that would be feasible, readily implemented, and substantially less risky than the midazolam protocol or opting for death by electrocution, however, Boyd alleged that Alabama should execute him by hanging or firing squad.

The district court determined that Boyd had failed to state a claim under the Eighth Amendment because Boyd’s proposed alternative methods of execution -- firing squad and hanging -- are not authorized methods of execution under Alabama law and, therefore, are neither feasible nor readily implementable by that state.  It further held that Boyd’s remaining claims challenging Alabama’s execution protocol, the execution facilities, and the state’s decision to keep certain information about the protocol secret were time-barred by the statute of limitations.  Finally, the district court ruled that amending these claims would be futile and dismissed Boyd’s complaint.

We agree with the district court that Boyd has not come close to pleading sufficient facts to render it plausible that hanging and firing squad are feasible, readily implemented methods of execution for Alabama that would significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.  The Alabama legislature is free to choose any method of execution that it deems appropriate, subject only to the constraints of the United States Constitution.  But Boyd has not alleged that either lethal injection in all forms or death by electrocution poses an unconstitutional risk of pain.  Having authorized two unchallenged methods of execution, Alabama is under no constitutional obligation to experiment with execution by hanging or firing squad.  We also agree that Boyd’s remaining claims were filed well beyond the two-year statute of limitations governing § 1983 claims in Alabama.  Accordingly, we affirm.

May 11, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 10, 2017

"Behind the Bench: The Past, Present, and Future of Federal Sentencing"

The title of this post is the name of this exciting afternoon event taking place next week in Washington DC.  The event emerges from a thoughtful and provocative federal sentencing reform proposal put forward by current Acting US Sentencing Commission Chair Judge WIlliam Pryor (in part because that he graciously allowed this proposal to published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter).  Through my work with FSR, I played a small  role in getting this event off the ground, and here is the event's description from this webpage where one can register to attend:

Thirty years ago, the U.S. Sentencing Commission established the first-ever set of federal sentencing guidelines. Those initial Guidelines received a chilly reception as more than 200 federal judges found them unconstitutional.  Although the Supreme Court’s United States v. Booker decision in 2005 upheld the basic structure of the Guidelines, it recast them as “effectively advisory” to allow judges to continue applying the Guidelines consistent with new Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.

The Booker ruling stated Congress was free to devise a different system moving forward.  More than a dozen years and nearly a million federal sentences later, Congress has yet to act despite diverse criticisms of the Supreme Court’s advisory sentencing scheme.  This spotlights an enduring question: What is the proper relationship between the legislative and judicial branches in determining sentencing policy?

On May 17, please join the Charles Koch Institute, the Federal Sentencing Reporter, and the Law & Economics Center at George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School as we explore this question and discuss how we can learn from the past to improve present and future federal sentencing policy.

KEYNOTE SPEAKER: Judge William H. Pryor

MODERATED DISCUSSION: Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa and Judge Patti B. Saris

MODERATOR: Vikrant P. Reddy

Date: May 17

Time: 12:00 pm - 2:45 pm

I have been told that space is limited so folks interested in attending what ought to be a very interesting afternoon of federal sentencing discussion ought to be sure to register via this webpage ASAP.

May 10, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

In the year 2000... inmates in western prisons will be getting computer tablets (and will be charged for the privilege)

For whatever strange reason, I just noticed two articles about prisoners in two states being given access to computer tablets and that led me to think of referencing in my post title an old-school Conan skit.  Silly pop-culture reference notwithstanding, here are links to the articles and a few details:

"Colorado prison inmates getting computer tablets"

Every inmate in a Colorado prison will have a computer tablet by the end of 2017. That's 18,000 tablets that inmates will be able to keep in their cell.... the tablets don't come with internet access, so no Netflix or Google.

But the tablets allow inmates to make phone calls, send emails, write grievances, communicate with jail staff, order hygiene products and view their prison bank accounts. Eventually, inmates will be able to download music and games.

Prisons also are being outfitted with monitors so inmates can have video visits with family members and friends....

Virginia-based vendor Global Tell Link is spending $800,000 to outfit Colorado prisons with video monitors and tablets. The company makes its money by charging inmates and their families for phone calls, emails, video chats, music and game downloads.

Phone calls are 12 cents per minute, emails are 25 cents each, 10-minute video calls are $4 and 25-minute video calls are $10.  All phone calls and emails are monitored by prison staff.

"Tablets coming for SD inmates"

They won’t have access to Facebook or Twitter, but every inmate in South Dakota’s prison system will soon have their own tablet computer. The touchscreen devices, connected to a closed network, will be offered for free to the Department of Corrections by telephone provider Global Tel Link.

The tablets mean longer phone calls with family and friends, and text messages – without photos or attachments – and will allow inmates to pay for access to games, music and e-books through monthly subscriptions. Phone calls and text messages will be charged per minute or per message....

South Dakota will join states like Colorado, Georgia and Indiana in its embrace of tablets for inmates, which are becoming more common through inmate telecom providers.

The Minnehaha County Jail recently added a limited number of tablets from CBM Managed Services of Sioux Falls, which inmates can check out at a $5 daily rate or borrow for 15 minutes every three hours. “This is the route a lot of these commissary vendors and video vendors are going,” said Minnehaha County Jail Warden Jeff Gromer....

The tablets offer distraction, communication and education for inmates, but they offer security benefits for staff, according to Warden Darin Young at the state penitentiary. Tablet phone calls and messages are recorded and stored for potential monitoring, and tablets can be shut off or confiscated for disciplinary reasons. Inmates who lose tablets would have to use public kiosks for calls.

The clear devices carry other security advantages, as well, Young said. Paper books can hide contraband passed from inmate to inmate, for example. "You can’t pass contraband through an e-book,” Young said.

May 10, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Understanding Recent Spikes and Longer Trends in American Murders"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper authored Jeffrey Fagan and Daniel Richman and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Since 2015, homicide rates have increased in several U.S. cities, while remaining stable in many others. Examining both recent and long-term trends in homicides and other violent crime across major cities, we find no reason to believe that these increases presage a new homicide epidemic, or that we will return to the era of elevated homicide rates that persisted in many U.S. cities over three decades through the mid-1990s. The homicide spikes may be momentary upticks in the two-decade long-term decline, and may also signal a new era of unpredictable and random surges or declines during an otherwise stable period.

We note that the spikes are generally occurring in smaller cities, with the important exception of Chicago. We then look at the neighborhood conditions in high crime areas in three large cities and show how the intersection of aggressive policing tactics and social contexts likely contribute to small areas of elevated homicide rates in otherwise safe cities. In each place, harsh police tactics, social isolation and disadvantage, and unsolved murders contribute to the withdrawal of citizens and police from the co-production of security. This Essay argues for a shift in policing tactics from order maintenance and proactive police contacts—with their potential to produce injustices and indignities—to a focus on homicide investigations, with the promise both of bringing offenders to justice, creating safe spaces for everyday social interactions, and restoring trust in the police.

May 10, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (5)

US Sentencing Commission releases first issue in new series "Case Law Quarterly"

Via email, I learned that the US Sentencing Commission has released this first installment of a new publication series going by the name "Case Law Quarterly." Here is how this first publication (which runs six detailed pages) describes itself:

CASE LAW QUARTERLY provides brief summaries of select appellate court decisions issued each quarter of the year that involve the guidelines and other aspects of federal sentencing.  The list of cases and the summaries are not intended to be comprehensive. Instead, this document summarizes only a few of the relevant cases, focusing on selected sentencing topics that may be of current interest.  The Commission’s legal staff publishes this document to assist in understanding and applying the sentencing guidelines.  The information in this document does not necessarily represent the official position of the Commission, and it should not be considered definitive or comprehensive.

May 10, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Highlighting that conservative voters say they support criminal justice reform efforts

Vikrant Reddy authored this National Review commentary discussing the results of a recent interesting poll (which I highlighted here) under the headlined "The Conservative Base Wants Criminal-Justice Reform."  Here are excerpts:

Last week, the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) polled several hundred conservative voters to assess whether they recognize criminal justice as an important issue currently facing the nation. While specific reasons for their interest are debatable, 81 percent of Trump voters polled described the issue as either “very important” or “somewhat important” — a definite consensus.

Ordinarily, polls that confirm the status quo are not interesting.  This poll, however, caught the attention of those who have been asking whether conservative attitudes towards criminal-justice policy may have changed since the November 2016 election.  It’s a fair question.

The new presidential administration has given mixed messages, sometimes using strong rhetoric about increasing criminal penalties, but other times speaking with thoughtfulness about expanding treatment for opioid addiction.  Some prominent administration figures, such as Vice President Mike Pence, have a history as reformers.  Others, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have a history as skeptics.  The views of the president himself are unpredictable.

Furthermore, when asked if judges should have more freedom to assign punishments other than prison (such as civil or community service), 63 percent of Trump voters “strongly agreed” or “agreed.”  When asked about the practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows law-enforcement agencies to seize an individual’s property without requiring that the individual be charged or convicted of a crime, 59 percent of Trump voters found common ground with their liberal counterparts, responding that that they “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed” with such policing practices....

People surprised by the results of the poll ought to focus on one important figure: Fifty-four percent of Trump voters said they knew someone who is or has been incarcerated. That may surprise progressives who accuse conservatives of being out of touch and aloof from criminal-justice realities, but it shouldn’t surprise anybody who works in the criminal-justice arena and regularly talks to conservatives about their views....

Increasingly, then, the Americans who experience criminal justice as a personal issue are rural conservatives. Consider the example of Oklahoma.  On the night that Trump won the presidency, voters also approved changes to the state criminal code that reclassified certain drug felonies as misdemeanors, effectively expressing the view that too many drug offenses in Oklahoma were being treated with needlessly long bouts of incarceration. Oklahomans appear to prefer better probation and parole that monitors drug offenders and provides them with treatment.  This referendum vote took place in a state in which every single county voted for Trump.  A higher percentage of people (65.3 percent) voted for Trump in Oklahoma, than in any state, except Wyoming and West Virginia. It’s hard to be “Trumpier” than Oklahoma.

Leadership matters in public policy, and for that reason, it would be good to see clear support for criminal-justice reform from the White House.  Conservative legislators and governors, however, do not need to wait for cues from the administration.  The conservative base is already providing them. They have wanted criminal justice reform for a decade, and their minds did not change because of one election.

Recent prior related post:

May 10, 2017 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Life Without Redemption: When 1 in 7 U.S. inmates is serving a life term, it's time to rethink our failed crime policies"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Ashley Nellis and Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project which serves as a kind of follow-up to its recent report on life sentencing (discussed here). Here are excerpts:

A new report from our organization, The Sentencing Project, finds that an astounding 206,000 people — 1 in 7 people in prison — is serving a life term, including with or without the possibility of parole, and so-called "virtual" life sentences, where the offender faces 50 years or more. Overall, the per capita rate at which the U.S. uses life imprisonment nearly equals the entire prison population of several industrialized nations.

The number of "lifers" in prison — nearly 5 times the figure in 1984 — is an outgrowth of the movement to "get tough" that characterized sentencing policies in the 1980s and 1990s.  Along with the spread of mandatory sentencing, "three strikes" and other harsh policies, states and the federal government have increasingly sentenced individuals to life in prison.

These figures come at a moment when calls to end mass incarceration abound throughout the nation.  Despite the new punitive policy shift at the federal level led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, many lawmakers, practitioners and civil rights organizations are advocating for a sizable reduction in what is now seen as a bloated and ineffective prison complex.  Yet the increasing use of life imprisonment suggests that substantial reductions in incarceration will be limited unless policymakers address the punishments at the deep end of the system for crimes that include violence, along with the more politically salable offenses involving drugs.

Most people serving life have been convicted of serious crimes, but among the population are over 17,000 persons convicted of nonviolent offenses and another 12,000 who were under 18 at the time of their crime. In three states, California, Utah and Louisiana, 1 in 3 prisoners is serving a life or virtual life sentence....

As is true of the justice system generally, racial and ethnic disparities are also profound among the lifer population. Today, two-thirds of those serving life are people of color.  While these individuals have generally been convicted of serious crimes, they are frequently sentenced to life imprisonment due to a prior criminal record through mechanisms such as habitual offender laws, more likely to be imposed on minorities.  Life in prison after a "third strike" might seem reasonable, but it fails to incorporate an understanding of the role of concentrated poverty, aggressive law enforcement and implicit bias that contribute to these criminal histories.

Prior recent related post:

May 10, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (35)

May 9, 2017

Prez Trump fires FBI director Comey based on "clear recommendation" of Deputy AG Rosenstein and AG Sessions ... and ... therefore

Because I have never worked inside the Beltway or for any part of the Justice Department, I feel that I lack any kind of special expertise to have any special perspectives on the surprising decision by Prez Trump to terminate and remove from office FBI Director Jim Comey "based on the clear recommendations of both Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions." But I do think it useful for everyone to read these materials coming from the White House in order to understand how the decision is being justified.

Bill Otis has long worked inside the Beltways and in various parts of the Justice Department, and he has praised Comey and Sessions and Rosenstein in the past, and he now has at Crime & Consequences this initial take on the Comey firing.  I would love to hear additional perspectives from folks with or without expertise on this matters.

May 9, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21)

New buzz about AG Sessions considering new tougher charging guidance for federal prosecutors

I had the great honor and privilege tp speak earlier today to a terrific group of judges, along with a terrific lawyer from the US Sentencing Commissions, about federal sentencing trends and developments.  We started the discussion with a particular focus on drug cases, and I mentioned that I was expecting to see new, probably tougher, charging guidelines emerging from the Department of Justice under its new leadership.  This new Washington Post article, headlined "Sessions weighs return to harsher punishments for low-level drug crimes," suggests my informed speculation here may quite soon be reality. Here are excerpts from the piece:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviewing policy changes set in place by the Obama administration that eliminated harsh punishments for low-level drug crimes and could direct federal prosecutors to again charge drug offenders with crimes carrying the most severe penalties, according to U.S. officials.

The change, if adopted, would overturn a memo by then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that instructed prosecutors to avoid charging low-level defendants with drug offenses that would trigger severe mandatory minimum sentences. Only defendants who met certain criteria, such as not belonging to a large-scale drug trafficking organization, a gang or a cartel, qualified for the lesser charges under Holder’s instructions.

If new charging instructions are implemented, it would mark the first significant move by the Trump administration to bring back the drug war’s toughest practices — methods that had fallen out of favor in recent years as critics pointed to damaging effects of mass incarceration.

“As the Attorney General has consistently said, we are reviewing all Department of Justice policies to focus on keeping Americans safe and will be issuing further guidance and support to our prosecutors executing this priority — including an updated memorandum on charging for all criminal cases,” Ian Prior, a department spokesman, in a statement to The Washington Post.

Sessions has recently peppered his speeches to law enforcement groups throughout the country with tough-on-crime rhetoric and urged Justice Department lawyers to prosecute more drug and gun cases.

The attorney general is considering having his prosecutors bring the most severe charges against drug traffickers, whether they are low-level defendants or not, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Sessions also may allow prosecutors to use more “enhancements” to make sentences even longer. Under what’s referred to as “Section 851” of the Controlled Substances Act, defendants charged with a federal drug, firearm or immigration crime may face enhancements if they have previously been convicted of a felony drug offense.

Holder told his prosecutors four years ago that they should stop using enhancements except in certain cases — such as when the defendant was involved in the use or threat of violence — in an effort, he said, to make punishments more fairly fit the crime.

Holder’s changes came in August 2013 during a growing push among lawmakers and civil rights groups to roll back the strict charging and sentencing policies created in the 1980s and 1990s at the height of the war on drugs. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was one of the sponsors of bipartisan criminal-justice legislation that would have reduced some of the mandatory minimum sentences for gun and drug crimes — a bill that Sessions opposed and helped derail....

The Holder memo was also supported by many of the U.S. attorneys in the Obama administration. But some prosecutors across the country fought Holder’s broad effort to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenders, saying it damaged their ability to build cases from the ground up against major drug organizations.

As I noted in this post a few months ago, the new Attorney General has already issued directives that lead me to suspect that we would be seeing a formal new "Sessions Memo" that seeks to remove some of the "play in the joints" that former AG Eric Holder introduced through prior charging memorandum issued back in 2010 and 2013. Indeed, I have been a bit surprised we have not yet seen new directives from AG Sessions yet in this arena, and this new Post article leads me to suspect a Sessions Memo could be coming out any day now.

UPDATE:  This New York Times article, headlined "Sessions to Toughen Rules on Prosecuting Drug Crimes," suggests that new charging guidance from AG Sessions could be released any day now.  Here is a key paragraph from the article that provides additional context for this important coming federal criminal justice development:

Current and former government officials have said for weeks that Mr. Sessions’s new policy could come at any time. They said Tuesday that they expected to see it finalized shortly, and Mr. Sessions himself has foreshadowed the announcement this year, calling for a return to tougher federal charging policies in speeches and issuing memos telling prosecutors to anticipate policy shifts.

May 9, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Dance Mom star Abby Lee Miller gets "a year and a day" for bankruptcy fraud

Today's celebrity federal sentencing news involves former "Dance Moms" reality TV star Abby Lee Miller, whose case is covered in hard-hitting fashion here via E! Online

Two years after her indictment, Abby Lee Miller has officially learned her legal fate.  The reality star, who rose to fame on the Lifetime series Dance Moms, was sentenced to one year and one day in prison followed by two years of supervised release on Tuesday, according to several reporters in the court room.  She was also reportedly fined $40,000 and ordered to pay a $120,000 judgment. She has 45 days to report to prison.

"It's a very serious situation when someone who files for bankruptcy isn't truthful with the court," Judge Joy Flowers Conti told the reality star in court.

The 50-year-old dance instructor was initially indicted in 2015 on 20 charges of bankruptcy fraud, concealment of bankruptcy assets and false bankruptcy declarations after the FBI, IRS and postal inspectors conducted an investigation.  She allegedly hid more than $755,000 in other bank accounts, income reportedly stemming from appearances on the show in 2012 and 2013....

In June 2016, Lee Miller pleaded guilty to concealing bankruptcy assets, as confirmed to E! News. Miller also pleaded guilty to one count of not reporting an international monetary transaction. In March, she also announced she was walking away from the longtime TV series.

While appearing in court Tuesday, she told the judge she was ashamed to be meeting this way and that she wished the judge could have taken her class. Lee Miller ultimately got teary eyed as she expressed regret for her actions. "I am very sorry for what I've done," she said, according to reporters. "My name has been dragged through the mud."

Prior related post:

May 9, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 8, 2017

New Jersey Supreme Court upholds polygraph exams for sex offenders under supervision

The New Jersey Supreme Court today issued a notable opinion rejecting challenges to the use of lie detector tests for sex offenders subject to parole or other community supervision. The opinion in J.B. v. New Jersey State Parole Board, No. 077235 (NJ May 8, 20107) (available here) gets started this way:

Petitioners L.A., R.L., and W.M. (parolees) challenge the constitutionality of the practices of the New Jersey State Parole Board (Parole Board) in administering polygraph examinations to sex offenders serving either parole supervision for life (PSL) or community supervision for life (CSL) sentences pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:43-6.4.

The parolees are all convicted sex offenders who have been released into the community subject to monitoring by the Parole Board.  For substantially similar reasons, they object to the administration of periodic polygraph examinations, which are required under the terms of their parole.  The parolees raise constitutional claims based on the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and constitutional privacy interests.  They also contend that the Parole Board’s regulations are arbitrary and capricious.

The Appellate Division upheld the Parole Board’s use of polygraph examinations but directed the Parole Board to adopt revised regulations to explain more clearly that the machine-generated test results cannot be used as evidence to support independent criminal charges or to impose additional sanctions.

For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm but modify the Appellate Division’s opinion.  We uphold the Parole Board’s use of polygraph testing with the same limitations as the Appellate Division, but add that the Parole Board’s regulations must be further supplemented to buttress the parolees’ Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

May 8, 2017 in Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (22)

A lethal Ohio procedural question: are there any formal rules on when new circuit judges are to be involved in pending en banc matters?

The question in the title of this post came to mind this morning in the wake of the news that, as discussed here, two of President Trump's latest judicial nominees are slated to fill open slots on the Sixth Circuit: Justice Joan L. Larsen and John K. Bush.   As noted here a few months ago, Prez Trump's very first circuit court nomination was also to the Sixth Circuit via the naming of Judge Amul Thapar.  Assuming relatively swift and successful confirmations, the Sixth Circuit could have three new judges within the next few months.

Meanwhile, as regular readers may recall from this post, also scheduled to take place in the next few months in the Sixth Circuit is the rehearing en banc the State of Ohio's appeal of a lower court stay issued earlier this year which blocked Ohio from using its latest three-drug protocol to execute condemned murderers.  The Sixth Circuit has scheduled oral argument on these matters for June 14, and the full court will probably try to issue a ruling in the matter not too long thereafter given that Ohio has a long-postponed execution now scheduled for July 26.

I am inclined to guess that Judge Thapar — who has already coasted through his confirmation hearing — will be a member of the Sixth Circuit by the time of the en banc oral argument in June.  Given that Justice Gorsuch at SCOTUS has apparently been fully participating in cases in which oral argument took place after the time he joined the Court, I would further guess that everyone will think Judge Thapar can and should fully participate in the Sixth Circuit's en banc consideration of Ohio's lethal injection protocol if he is there in time for oral argument.

But what should happen if Justice Larsen and/or Mr. Bush are both confirmed in, say, late June.  Could they and should they be involved in the consideration of these lethal Ohio matters?   Adding to the potential intrigue and head-counting is the fact that I believe Judge David McKeague is technically now still an active judge, but will be only until his successor if confirmed. Arguably, Judge KcKeague should not be part of the en banc decision-making once and whenever Justice Larsen gets confirmed to the Sixth Circuit.

Perhaps the Sixth Circuit has some clear rules on these kinds of en banc transition issues, and I would welcome any and all input from knowing en banc mavens.  In addition, it is quite possible that there are sufficient votes currently on the Sixth Circuit one way or the other to make these transition issues relatively inconsequential to the outcome in this important en banc case.  Still, when it comes to review of lethal injection protocols or just about anything else dealing with the death penalty, it does not seem that anything ever really becomes inconsequential.  

(In addition, and surely not to be overlooked as the buzz over another SCOTUS retirement grows, if and when Judge Thapar and Justice Larsen join the Sixth Circuit, this court will have three of the remaining 20 persons from Prez Trump's SCOTUS short lists.  This fact alone makes anything the Sixth Circuit does in the coming months even that much more interesting.)

Prior recent related posts:

May 8, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

US Sentencing Commission releases report providing overview of FY 2016 federal sentencing cases

Fig1_fy16overviewThe US Sentencing Commission just released this helpful and relatively brief data report titled simply "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases Fiscal Year 2016."  Among other useful realities, this report provides a certain kind of data marker for the end of the "Obama era" for federal caseload and sentencing patterns.  (The chart reprinted here from the report shows how the number of persons federal sentenced significantly increased during Obama's first term and significantly decreased during Obama's second term.) Here is the overview of the USSC report and key findings via this USSC webpage:

The United States Sentencing Commission received information on 67,874 federal criminal cases in which the offender was sentenced in fiscal year 2016. Among these cases, 67,742 involved an individual offender and 132 involved a corporation or other “organizational” offender. The Commission also received information on 11,991 cases in which the court resentenced the offender or modified the sentence that had been previously imposed. This publication provides an overview of those cases.

Key Findings

A review of cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2016 reveal the following:

  • The 67,742 individual original cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2016 represent a decrease of 21.4% since fiscal year 2011, the year in which the largest number of offenders were sentenced. Drug cases continued to be the most common type of federal case, accounting for 31.6% of all cases.

  • Methamphetamine offenses continued to be the most common drug cases, representing 30.8% of all drug crimes.  The proportion of methamphetamine cases has increased substantially since fiscal year 1994, when those cases accounted for only 6.4% of all drug cases.

  • Just under half (44.5%) of all drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty; however, this proportion was the lowest it has been since fiscal year 1993.

  • Immigration cases were the second most common, accounting for 29.6% of the total federal caseload.  In fiscal year 2011, immigration cases were the most common federal crime — however, since that year the number of these cases has steadily declined.

  • Crimes involving firearms were the third most common offense, accounting for 10.8% of the total number of federal criminal convictions in fiscal year 2016.  The average sentence imposed in firearms cases was 75 months.

  • There were 6,517 fraud cases in fiscal year 2016, accounting for 9.6% of the total federal caseload; however, this number represents a 12.2% reduction from the year before.

May 8, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

A few (too-quick) sentencing notes on Prez Trump's new slate of judicial nominees ... and seeking more

This Politico article and this New York Times article both report that President Donald Trump will today be making a bunch of nominations to the lower federal courts.  Here are the basics via the Times, with links from the original:

One is Justice Joan L. Larsen, a former law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and law professor at the University of Michigan, who now serves on the Michigan Supreme Court. She will be nominated to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati.  [Another] is Justice David R. Stras, a former law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas and law professor at the University of Minnesota, who now serves on the Minnesota Supreme Court. He will be nominated to the Eighth Circuit, in St. Louis....

Monday’s slate of nominees will be followed by additional ones at regular intervals, the White House official said.

The announcement on Monday will include three other nominees for federal appeals courts: Amy Coney Barrett, a law professor at Notre Dame and former law clerk to Justice Scalia, to the Seventh Circuit in Chicago; John K. Bush, a lawyer in Louisville, Ky., to the Sixth Circuit; and Kevin C. Newsom, a lawyer in Birmingham, Ala., who served as the state’s solicitor general and as a law clerk to Justice David H. Souter, to the 11th Circuit in Atlanta....

Mr. Trump also intends to nominate four judges to federal district courts: Dabney L. Friedrich, until recently a member of the United States Sentencing Commission, to the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia; Magistrate Judge Terry F. Moorer of the Federal District Court in Montgomery, Ala., to be a district judge there; David C. Nye, a state judge in Idaho, to the Federal District Court there; and Scott L. Palk, an official at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, to the Federal District Court in Oklahoma City.  The president will also name Damien M. Schiff, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which supports private property rights, to the United States Court of Federal Claims.

For hard-core  sentencing fans, at least one name on this list should immediately jump off the page: Dabney Friedrich.  She served with distinction as a US Sentencing Commissioner from 2006 to 2016, and if confirmed to the DC District Court, she will join its current Chief Judge Beryl Howell and also Judge Ketanji Brown-Jackson as former Commissioners turned DC District sentencing judges.

Digging a little deeper for additional sentencing intrigue among persons on the Trump nomination list, this post at Above the Law from last week noted that Professor Barrett co-wrote an interesting article back in 1998, titled Catholic Judges in Capital Cases, which explores whether and how Catholic judges can and should be involved in enforcing the death penalty as members of the judiciary.  It will very interesting if this article gets any significant attention from folks on both the left and the right as her confirmation hearings approach.

Digging even deeper, checking out the firm bio of John Bush reveals not only that his practice areas include "White Collar Criminal Defense" but also that one of his listed "Representative Cases & Achievements" includes being "one of the attorneys who represented former Los Angeles Police Sergeant Stacey Koon in his successful sentencing appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in the Rodney King case." 

There are many other interesting aspects to this list of nominees.  I am struck, for example, that three of the five circuit court nominees have significant histories as law professors.  But, of course, my sentencing focus makes me especially interested to think about how these and other Trump judicial nominees might shape sentencing jurisprudence.  And, as my post title indicates, I welcome and encourage reader input (via comments or email) with any additional information or thoughtful speculation about the criminal justice perspectives that some or all of these nominees will bring to their new positions.

UPDATE: A bit more looking around reveals that three of the four nominees to be federal district judges are former federal prosecutors. (The one exception appears to be Judge Nye, and he notably was previously nominated by Prez Obama for the same job that Prez Trump is now to nominate him for.) President Trump seems likely, at least based on this list of nominees, to continue a long-standing tradition of elevating a significant number of former prosecutors to the federal bench.

May 8, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

May 7, 2017

Reflecting on decreasing death sentences and increasing life sentences

The Washington Post has this "trendy" article headlined "The steady decline of America’s death rows," which reviews some of the latest notable numbers about death sentences and executions and also throws in a paragraph about life sentences based on this week's new Sentencing Project report on the topic (discussed here).  Here are excerpts:

Capital punishment in the United States is slowly and steadily declining, a fact most visible in the plummeting number of death penalties carried out each year.  In 1999, the country executed 98 inmates, a modern record for a single year.  In 2016, there were 20 executions nationwide, the lowest annual total in a quarter-century.

Death sentences also sharply declined. Fewer states that have the death penalty as a sentencing option are carrying out executions, a trend that has continued despite two U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the past decade upholding lethal injection practices. States that would otherwise carry out executions have found themselves stymied by court orders, other legal uncertainty, logistical issues or an ongoing shortage of deadly drugs. Fewer states have it on the books than did a decade ago, and some that do retain the practice have declared moratoriums or otherwise stopped executions without formally declaring an outright ban....

Another way to see the changing nature of the American death penalty: The gradual decline of death row populations. At the death penalty’s modern peak around the turn of the century, death rows housed more than 3,500 inmates. That number is falling, and it has been falling for some time. New Justice Department data show that death-row populations shrank in 2015, marking the 15th consecutive year with a decline.

There were 2,881 inmates on state and federal death rows in 2015, the last year for which the Justice Department has nationwide data available. That was down 61 from the year before.  States carried out 28 death penalties in 2015, but nearly three times as many inmates — 82 — were removed from death rows “by means other than execution,” the Justice Department’s report states. (Another 49 inmates arrived on death row in 2015.)

In some cases, inmates left death row after being cleared of the crimes for which they were sentenced. Five people sentenced to death were exonerated in 2015, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law. Other inmates died of other causes before their executions could occur. In Alabama, three inmates died of natural causes in 2015 and a fourth hanged himself that year inside a prison infirmary, according to corrections officials and local media reports. North Carolina officials say one death-row inmate died of natural causes that year, another was resentenced to life without parole and a third had his death sentence vacated and a new trial ordered. Death sentences were thrown out in some cases. Four death-row inmates in Maryland had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole in 2015, a decision made by then-Gov. Martin O’Malley after that state formally abolished the death penalty....

Another shift also has occurred: The number of people sentenced to life in prison has ballooned, reaching an all-time high last year, according to a report released this week from the Sentencing Project. The report states that more than 161,000 people were serving life sentences last year, with another 44,000 people serving what are called “virtual life sentences,” defined as long-term imprisonment effectively extending through the end of a person’s life. Similar to overall prison populations, people of color are disproportionately represented; black people account for nearly half of the life or virtual-life sentences tallied in the report.

Long-time readers likely know that these numbers provide one of the primary reasons why I have long worried that some criminal justice reforms advocates worry far too much about capital punishment and worry far too little about extreme prison sentences.  The fact that there are seven times as many persons serving life sentence as are on death row leads me to believe that nearly any and every concern raised about death sentencing may well be a problem of far greater magnitude with respect to lifers.

Most critically for those concerned about proportionate sentencing, every one of the almost 3000 persons on death row is an adult who was convicted of some form of aggravated murder and had a chance to argue to a jury for a lesser sentence.  But, according to the Sentencing Project data, nearly "12,000 people have been sentenced to life or virtual life for crimes committed as juveniles" and over "17,000 individuals with [some kind of life sentence] have been convicted of nonviolent crimes" and a significant percentage of lifers were subject to a mandatory sentencing scheme that required imposition of a severe prison sentence without any input by a jury or a judge.  

Though I fully understand why the death penalty has so much salience for both advocates and the general public, I still wish some portion of the extraordinary attention and energy always given to capital punishment might be redirected toward lifer laws, policies and practices.  

May 7, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Notable new Atlantic series "on efforts across the United States to move beyond the age of mass incarceration"

JusticeBUG_1As announced via this article a few day ago, headlined "Imagining the Presence of Justice," there is a notable new project from The Atlantic which aspires "to cover the evolution of criminal justice in America with a heightened focus on the different systems and approaches developing all over the nation." Here is more on how The Atlantic sets ups its plans followed by links to three early notable pieces in the series:

Over the past several decades, America has seen a startling divergence between crime and punishment.  While crime rates dropped steadily from the dramatic peaks of the 1990s, the nation’s incarceration rates continued just as steadily to grow.  And so, despite containing only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States came to hold a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

We’ve covered this divergence extensively in the print and digital pages of The Atlantic, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s landmark story on the rise of the carceral state and the devastation it wreaked on black families to Inimai Chettiar’s exploration of the many causes of the decline in crime.  Among the findings that emerge most clearly from this robust, sad literature is that the factors driving both aspects of the divergence — the fall in crime, the increasing spread of punishment — are highly complex.  Despite dawning awareness of the deep social and economic costs of mass incarceration, no one-size-fits-all solution exists to change this picture.  Rolling back mass incarceration while protecting public safety will require a legion of efforts in thousands of prosecutors’ offices, police departments, parole boards, and legislative chambers.  "What we have is not a system at all,” as Fordham University’s John Pfaff told The Atlantic's Matt Ford, "but a patchwork of competing bureaucracies with different constituencies, different incentives, who oftentimes might have similar political ideologies, but very different goals and very different pressures on them.”...

In collaboration with reporters across the country, we’ll highlight local initiatives that merit national attention, and talk with experts about where and how lessons from states and municipalities can be applied more broadly.  We’ll look at where the carceral state has spread beyond merely responding to crime, examine the time people spend behind bars without having been convicted, and explore how cities can depend on police to collect fines and fees from their poorest residents to make up for too little tax revenue.

The title of the project comes from Martin Luther King Jr., who included the phrase in his famous letter from Birmingham jail.  That context is worth understanding for the challenge the letter poses to us today, as America struggles to reconcile the need for public safety with the moral imperative of justice....  From his cell, King wrote the famous letter that would cleave the nation’s understanding of “law and order” right in half, arguing that the observance of an unjust law violates the moral order.  "An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law,” he wrote.  He castigated "the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice."

Three (somewhat sentencing-related) piece from the series:

May 7, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)