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June 17, 2017

AG Jeff Sessions makes the case for his new tougher federal charging/sentencing policy

The US Attorney General today took the the editorial pages of the Washington Post to make the case for his new tough charging and sentencing guidance for federal prosecutors.  This opinion piece carries this headline: "Jeff Sessions: Being soft on sentencing means more violent crime. It’s time to get tough again."  And here are excerpts (with on particular line emphasized by me):

[I]n 2013, subject to limited exceptions, the Justice Department ordered federal prosecutors not to include in charging documents the amount of drugs being dealt when the actual amount was large enough to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. Prosecutors were required to leave out objective facts in order to achieve sentences lighter than required by law. This was billed as an effort to curb mass incarceration of low-level offenders, but in reality it covered offenders apprehended with large quantities of dangerous drugs.  The result was that federal drug prosecutions went down dramatically — from 2011 to 2016, federal prosecutions fell by 23 percent.  Meanwhile, the average sentence length for a convicted federal drug offender decreased 18 percent from 2009 to 2016.

Before that policy change, the violent crime rate in the United States had fallen steadily for two decades, reaching half of what it was in 1991.  Within one year after the Justice Department softened its approach to drug offenders, the trend of decreasing violent crime reversed. In 2015, the United States suffered the largest single-year increase in the overall violent crime rate since 1991.

And while defenders of the 2013 policy change point out that crime rates remain low compared with where they were 30 years ago, they neglect to recognize a disturbing trend that could reverse decades of progress: Violent crime is rising across the country. According to data from the FBI, there were more than 15,000 murders in the United States in 2015, representing a single-year increase of nearly 11 percent across the country. That was the largest increase since 1971. The increase in murders continued in 2016. Preliminary data from the first half of 2016 shows that large cities in the United States suffered an average increase in murders of nearly 22 percent compared with the same period from a year earlier.

As U.S. attorney general, I have a duty to protect all Americans and fulfill the president’s promise to make America safe again. Last month, after weeks of study and discussion with a host of criminal-justice participants, I issued a memorandum to all federal prosecutors regarding charging and sentencing policy that once again authorizes prosecutors to charge offenses as Congress intended. This two-page guidance instructs prosecutors to apply the laws on the books to the facts of the case in most cases, and allows them to exercise discretion where a strict application of the law would result in an injustice. Instead of barring prosecutors from faithfully enforcing the law, this policy empowers trusted professionals to apply the law fairly and exercise discretion when appropriate. That is the way good law enforcement has always worked.

Defenders of the status quo perpetuate the false story that federal prisons are filled with low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. The truth is less than 3 percent of federal offenders sentenced to imprisonment in 2016 were convicted of simple possession, and in most of those cases the defendants were drug dealers who accepted plea bargains in return for reduced sentences. Federal drug offenders include major drug traffickers, gang members, importers, manufacturers and international drug cartel members. To be subject to a five-year mandatory sentence, a criminal would have to be arrested with 100 grams or more of heroin with the intent to distribute it — that is 1,000 doses of heroin.

The truth is that while the federal government softened its approach to drug enforcement, drug abuse and violent crime surged. The availability of dangerous drugs is up, the price has dropped and the purity is at dangerously high levels. Overdose deaths from opioids have nearly tripled since 2002. Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids rose an astonishing 73 percent in 2015. My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a “blip,” but the start of a dangerous new trend — one that puts at risk the hard-won gains that have made our country a safer place.

Some skeptics prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize federal efforts to combat crime. But it’s not our privileged communities that suffer the most from crime and violence. Minority communities are disproportionately impacted by violent drug trafficking. Poor neighborhoods are too often ignored in these conversations. Regardless of wealth or race, every American has the right to demand a safe neighborhood.  Those of us who are responsible for promoting public safety cannot sit back while any American communities are ravaged by crime and violence.

There are those who are concerned about the fate of drug traffickers, but the law demands I protect the lives of victims that are ruined by drug trafficking and violent crime infecting their communities. Our new, time-tested policy empowers police and prosecutors to save lives.

There are lots of reasons and lots of ways to question any efforts to directly link the recent uptick in violent crime over the last few years to changes in federal prosecutorial policies.  But I have emphasized one particular line in the opinion piece in order to help enhance understanding of the thinking behind the new Sessions Memo. The Attorney General reasonably thinks he must  "do something" in response to recent increases in violent crime, and the most obvious and easy thing for him to do is to rescind Holder-era policy guidance and return to the federal prosecutorial policies of earlier era. (Of course, the prosecutorial policies of earlier era helped swell the federal prison population dramatically and, as noted here, the Department of Justice is already predicting that federal prison populations will start growing again after notable recent declines.)  

Prior recent related posts: 

June 17, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

June 16, 2017

You be the juvenile sentencing judge: what sentence for teen guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging suicide?

A high-profile state (bench) trial culminated this morning in a notable involuntary manslaughter conviction in the so-called in texting suicide case.  This Boston Globe article provides the basic details to set up the question in the title of this post:

Michelle Carter, who repeatedly urged her boyfriend to kill himself, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter Friday by a juvenile court judge, ending an extraordinary trial that explored a virtual relationship between teenagers that ended in a suicide.

Judge Lawrence Moniz delivered his verdict after deliberating for two days in the jury-waived trial in Bristol Juvenile Court where Carter [who was 17 at the time of the offense] was being tried as a youthful offender.  The trial riveted lawyers and the public alike as it delved into the painful interior lives of two teenagers who called themselves boyfriend and girlfriend though they had met in person only a few times....

Bristol prosecutors alleged Carter should still be held accountable for the death of Conrad Roy III even though she was not present when the 18-year-old with prior suicide attempts filled his truck with carbon monoxide on July 12, 2014.  Carter and Roy spoke for 47 minutes as he parked in the parking lot of a Kmart in Fairhaven.  When he told he was too scared and had left the truck, she ordered him to return, according to testimony at her trial. “Get back in,” she allegedly said.

Roy left a suicide note addressed to Carter that was made public during her trial.

Speaking from the bench, Moniz said that he concluded Carter was guilty of involuntary manslaughter, in part, for ordering Roy back into the truck in what she knew was a toxic environment where it would take him 15 minutes to die — and failed to notify anyone as required under Massachusetts law.  “Miss Carter had reason to know that Mr. Roy had followed her instruction and placed himself in the toxic environment of that truck,” Moniz said.  “Knowing that Mr. Roy is in the truck, knowing the condition of the truck. Knowing, or at least having the state of mind that 15 minutes must pass, Miss Carter took no actions … She called no one.  She did not issue a simple additional instruction: Get out of the truck.”

Moniz also said the case was not legally novel since 200 years ago, a state prison inmate was prosecuted for convincing a man facing the death sentence to hang himself in his cell six hours before he was to be executed.  Moniz also noted that Roy had a long and troubled psychiatric history that included multiple suicide attempts — but each time he stopped and sought out help from his family and friends.

Moniz set sentencing for Aug. 3.  She faces up to 20 years in prison if given the maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

I would be shocking if the judge here decided to impose a sentence anywhere near the applicable 20-year max. I am inclined to guess a prison sentence in the range of a year or two will be what the juvenile judge here will be considering. But I have not followed this case and the evidence closely, so I am really judge guessing here based on the nature of the crime and the offender. And I am interested to hear if others have more informed (or uninformed) views on what a fair and effective sentences in this case would look like.

June 16, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19)

Historic criminal justice reform signed into law in Louisiana, which has historically been highest incarcerating state

As reported in this local article, "bills signed into law Thursday morning by Gov. John Bel Edwards aim to change Louisiana's reputation as the most imprisoned state in the country." Here are some the sentencing details from the press article (though the folks should be sure to check out this summary of the full package of bills which covers an array of other issues including victim services and reentry concerns):

"With this ambitious package, Louisiana is projected to reduce the prison population by 10 percent and save $262 million over the next decade," according to the bills' package summary [available here]. "Seventy percent of these savings — an estimated $184 million — will be reinvested into programs and policies proven to reduce recidivism and support victims of crime."

The legislation signed into law includes:

Senate Bill 139 [which provides] alternatives to incarceration like drug rehabilitation. Expands probation eligibility to third-time nonviolent offenders, as well as first-time, lower-level violent offenders. It also gives opportunities for release. Consolidates eligibility for parole consideration for prisoners convicted of nonviolent, non-sex offenses at 25 percent of sentence served....

Senate Bill 220 [which alters sentencing rules to make sure law] focuses prison space on serious and violent offenders. It does this by removing less serious crimes to the violent crimes list and merging redundant theft and burglary offenses.

Senate Bill 221 [which addresses] repeat offenders by lowering the mandatory minimum sentence for second and third offenses.

Senate Bill 16 [which provides that] most people sentenced to life as juveniles receive an opportunity for parole consideration after serving a minimum of 25 years in prison.

June 16, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

June 15, 2017

Collateral Consequences Resource Center creates Compilation of Federal Collateral Consequences

Cfcc-logo-1As detailed via this new post at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, titled "Introducing the Compilation of Federal Collateral Consequences," the folks at CCRC have launched another terrific new resource. Here is more background about this important work via the CCRC posting:

The CCRC is pleased to announce the launch of its Compilation of Federal Collateral Consequences (CFCC), a searchable online database of the restrictions and disqualifications imposed by federal statutes and regulations because of an individual’s criminal record. Included in the CFCC are laws authorizing or requiring criminal background checks as a condition of accessing specific federal benefits or opportunities.

This newly developed tool allows individuals to identify federal collateral consequences based on the people, activities or rights affected; to access complete and current statutory and regulatory text detailing the operation of each consequence; and, to explore the relationship between consequences and their implementing regulations, and among different consequences.  This is a product that has been many months in the making, and we hope it will serve as an important resource for practitioners, researchers, and policymakers, as well as individuals with criminal records. 

The CFCC data is derived from the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction (NICCC), a database originally compiled by the American Bar Association under a grant from the National Institute of Justice pursuant to the Court Security Act of 2007.  The NICCC itself is currently hosted by the Council of State Governments on the website of the National Reentry Resource Center.

In developing the CFCC we streamlined and restructured the NICCC data, reorganizing it into keyword categories for easier user access, and combining overlapping and duplicative entries. We omitted potentially misleading interpretations and lengthy textual excerpts in favor of links to the full current version of the law or rule.  At the same time, we updated the NICCC data to reflect laws enacted and rules adopted in the past two years.

The most important new feature of the CFCC is the addition of a comprehensive set of searchable “Keywords” that allow users to zero in on consequences of interest with a high degree of precision and accuracy.

The result is a tool for practitioners and researchers that we believe will be more useful, easier to operate and understand, and more current and reliable.

The CFCC represents just the beginning of what we envision as a much larger project.  We are currently developing state-specific compilations using the same platform and will be rolling those out as they are completed.  Our Wisconsin compilation is already available through the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s website.  A similar database developed for the Vermont Attorney General is scheduled to launch this summer. 

June 15, 2017 in Collateral consequences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Support Grows for Civil Commitment of Opioid Users"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Stateline article.  Here is how it gets started:

Amid an opioid addiction epidemic that is killing more than 90 Americans every day, there is a growing movement to make it easier for relatives and health care providers to quickly secure court orders to forcibly confine and treat people who are addicted to drugs.  Most states have civil commitment laws primarily designed to protect people with mental illness from themselves and others.  Many of the laws include drug addiction and alcoholism as a justification for temporary confinement, or at least don’t preclude it.

But in practice, most commitment laws have been ineffective when it comes to people who use heroin and other opioids, in part because some judges have been leery of taking away a person’s civil liberties for what society has long perceived as a moral failing.  Unlike people with severe mental illness, people who are addicted to drugs typically retain the mental capacity to take care of their basic needs, even though the chronic disease alters the brain, making the person eventually value drug use above all else.

New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington are considering new civil commitment laws specifically designed for opioid use.  Kentucky has gone back to the drawing board after failing to enact a commitment law for opioid addiction last year.

And in Massachusetts, the one state where civil commitment has been used extensively for opioid addiction, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker wants to make it even more common....

Historically, confining people against their will has been fraught with moral and legal ambiguities and haunted by reports of abuse.  But the parents of young adults who use opioids are pushing state lawmakers and governors to make intervention easier, even as physicians and state health officials search for ways to break the cycle of repeated overdoses.

Addiction professionals generally agree that civil commitment can save lives. But they argue that without effective treatment, confining people with an addiction may do more harm than good.  “People who use substances and have addictions still have civil rights,” said Dr. Alex Walley, director of an addiction medicine fellowship at Boston Medical Center.  “The real question is whether effective treatment is available, which in the case of opioids, is going to be medication. And it’s not OK to limit it to just one medicine,” Walley said.  Another concern is whether the state can ensure that continued treatment will be available once the person is released, he said.

June 15, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

DC Circuit strikes down FCC rules placing caps on payphone rates in prisons

Earlier this week, as reported in the AP article, a DC Circuit panel "struck down regulations intended to cap the price of some calls to prison inmates."  The full ruling in Global Tel*Link v. FCC, No. 15-1461 (DC Cir. June 13, 2017) (available here), has a lengthy introduction that includes these excerpts:

Due to a variety of market failures in the prison and jail payphone industry, ... inmates in correctional facilities, or those to whom they placed calls, incurred prohibitive per-minute charges and ancillary fees for payphone calls. In the face of this problem, the Commission decided to change its approach to the regulation of ICS providers. In 2015, in the Order under review, the Commission set permanent rate caps and ancillary fee caps for interstate ICS calls and, for the first time, imposed those caps on intrastate ICS calls. The Commission also proposed to expand the reach of its ICS regulations by banning or limiting fees for billing and collection services — so-called “ancillary fees” — and by regulating video services and other advanced services in addition to traditional calling services.

Five inmate payphone providers, joined by state and local authorities, now challenge the Order’s design to expand the FCC’s regulatory authority.  In particular, the Petitioners challenge the Order’s proposed caps on intrastate rates, the exclusion of “site commissions” as costs in the agency’s ratemaking methodology, the use of industry-averaged cost data in the FCC’s calculation of rate caps, the imposition of ancillary fee caps, and reporting requirements. And one ICS provider separately challenges the Commission’s failure to preempt inconsistent state rates and raises a due process challenge....

  • We hold that the Order’s proposed caps on intrastate rates exceed the FCC’s statutory authority under the 1996 Act. We therefore vacate this provision.

  • We further hold that the use of industry-averaged cost data as proposed in the Order is arbitrary and capricious because it lacks justification in the record and is not supported by reasoned decisionmaking. We therefore vacate this provision.

  • We additionally hold that the Order’s imposition of video visitation reporting requirements is beyond the statutory authority of the Commission. We therefore vacate this provision.

  • We find that the Order’s proposed wholesale exclusion of site commission payments from the FCC’s cost calculus is devoid of reasoned decisionmaking and thus arbitrary and capricious.  This provision cannot stand as presently proposed in the Order under review; we therefore vacate this provision and remand for further proceedings on the matter.

  • We deny the petitions for review of the Order’s site commission reporting requirements.

  • We remand the challenge to the Order’s imposition of ancillary fee caps to allow the Commission to determine whether it can segregate proposed caps on interstate calls (which are permissible) and the proposed caps on intrastate calls (which are impermissible).

  • Finally, we dismiss the preemption and due process claims as moot.

June 15, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

June 14, 2017

A Call for Papers: "Is It Time for Truth & Reconciliation in Post-Ferguson America?"

I am always happy, indeed eager, for this blog to be a forum for making calls for papers and/or for promoting events of interest to criminal justice academics and advocates.  To that end, I am happy to be able to post this item as requested recently via email:

Call for Papers: "Is It Time for Truth & Reconciliation in Post-Ferguson America?"

Sponsored by Michigan State University College of Law

Ever since Europeans first settled the continent over four hundred years ago, racial injustice has existed in North America. Human bondage was formally recognized in the United States for nearly a century following the Nation's birth in 1776.  While the Thirteenth Amendment officially abolished slavery in 1865 and the Fourteenth Amendment mandated equal protection in 1868, nearly another century passed before "separate but equal" was repudiated and some progress was made.  Today we still see persistent racial inequities throughout American society.   The criminal justice/prison complex disproportionately targets, captures and incarcerates persons of color; and police shootings of unarmed black victims — such as of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in Aug. 2014 — are grimly commonplace. It is difficult to deny, in light of this history, that America has a major problem of race.

What can be done?  Truth and Reconciliation is a process that has been used effectively in other nations and cultures (e.g., South Africa; native nations) following times of deep racial discord/violence.  The idea is that true healing can begin only when past atrocities and injustices are first acknowledged and addressed.

The Symposium Committee, in conjunction with the University's administration, seeks to convene leading activists, scholars, policymakers, and thought-makers for 1-2 days of discussions and conversations on the topic of the Nation's responsibility to account for the history of racial injustice in America.  Selected submissions will be presented at the Law Review Symposium in March 2018, and published in a special symposium issue of Michigan State Law Review.

To be considered, please send an abstract (300 – 500 words) outlining your proposed paper to Professor Catherine Grosso at grosso @ law.msu.edu and Marie Gordon at mgordon @ law.msu.edu by August 15, 2017.  Don’t hesitate to contact us if more information would be helpful.

Faculty Co-Sponsors: Tiffani Darden; Matthew Fletcher (Director of Indigenous Law & Policy Center); Kate Fort (Director of Indian Law Clinic); Brian Gilmore (Director of the Housing Clinic); Catherine Grosso; Michael Lawrence (Foster Swift Professor of Constitutional Law); Barbara O'Brien (Editor, National Registry of Exonerations); Wenona Singel (Assoc. Director of the Indigenous Law & Policy Center)

June 14, 2017 in Recap posts, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Fair Punishment Project starts "In Justice Today" to look closely at work of prosecutors

Via email I was alerted to the creation of "In Justice Today," a new publication of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School.  This introductory post explains the vision and goals of this notable new resource:

Ask yourself who are the most powerful people in the community in which you live and many might think of the mayor, the city council president, the owner of the local sports team, maybe the superintendent of schools.

But in many ways all of those people are trumped by the local elected prosecutor. The mayor and superintendent cannot send cops into your home and march you downtown in handcuffs, the prosecutor can do that.  They have the power to put people in jail, to choose not to bring charges, to seek the maximum sentence for one person while letting someone else off with a warning while determining which type of crimes will be prioritized while others will be ignored.

That’s an awesome and terrifying power, and how prosecutors wield that power can impact numerous lives and determine what type of community we all live in.  But in most communities, the prosecutor is an unknown figure.  Until recently most prosecutors enjoyed something close to a lifetime appointment. Rarely getting much attention or scrutiny....

Our goal is simple, we want to hold actors in the criminal justice system accountable for their actions.  Whether it’s a prosecutor putting a rape victim in jail when she doesn’t want to testify, a judge sentencing a young kid to 63 years in jail for driving with a suspended license, a DA charging a 12-year-old with a crime and putting them in the adult prison system, or continuing the prop up a death penalty system that becomes more ridiculous and cruel every day this blog will be looking for injustice and pointing the finger at the person who is most responsible.

June 14, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

New Sentencing Project policy brief on "Federal Prisons at a Crossroads"

The Sentencing Project has this notable new six-page policy brief titled "Federal Prisons at a Crossroads."  Here is how the data-rich little publication gets started:

The number of people incarcerated in federal prisons has declined substantially in recent years.  In fact, while most states enacted reforms to reduce their prison populations over the past decade, the federal prison system has downsized at twice the nationwide rate.  But recently enacted policy changes at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and certain Congressional proposals appear poised to reverse this progress.

Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), and the DOJ reduced the federal prison population by reforming sentencing laws, revising sentencing guidelines, and modifying charging directives, respectively.  But the DOJ’s budget proposal for 2018 forecasts a 2% increase in the federal prison population.

The policy changes contributing to this reversal include:

• Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directive instructing federal prosecutors to increase their reliance on mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug convictions.

• The Attorney General’s instruction to federal prosecutors to increasingly pursue criminal convictions for immigration law violations and his memorandum paving the way for greater use of private prisons.

• Congressional proposals to create new mandatory minimum sentences or increase existing ones for a range of drug, immigration, and violent crimes.

These policy shifts run counter to research and practice on effective crime policy.  This brief explains why increasing the use and length of prison terms for people with drug convictions in particular — who account for half of the federal prison population — will produce little public safety benefit while carrying heavy fiscal, social, and human costs. Experience with criminal justice policy changes at the federal and state levels shows it is possible to substantially cut reliance on prisons without any adverse effects on public safety.

June 14, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Might judicial estoppel continue to preclude Ohio from moving forward with a three-drug lethal injection protocol?

As previously noted here, today is the day for the Sixth Circuit oral argument in its rehearing en banc of the State of Ohio's appeal of a lower court stay blocking Ohio from using its latest three-drug protocol to execute condemned murderers.  One basis for stay, as reported here, was the plan for Ohio to use midazolam as the first drug in its three-drug execution protocol.  But some recent uneventful executions by other states using midazolam may serve to make this foundation for the stay weaker than it was earlier this year.  So another issue sure to come up in this argument is the capital defendants' claim, also adopted in the initial stay order, that Ohio is judicially estopped from using a three-drug execution protocol after having years ago forsworn such a plan in favor of one-drug execution plans.

In this recent post at the ACS blog, titled "Ohio’s Lethal Flip Flop: Court Should Hold State To Consistent Legal Position on How To Execute," Virginia Sloan makes the case for the judicial estoppel arguments to block Ohio's execution plans.  Here are excerpts:

Outside of the legal profession, judicial estoppel, or the doctrine that prevents a party to a lawsuit from taking inconsistent positions about the same issue at different phases of the legal proceeding, is not particularly well-known. However, it speaks to the core value of integrity in the judicial system, preventing misuse of the courts and promoting equity among litigants. Non-attorneys unfamiliar with the legal doctrine of judicial estoppel need look no further than pending lethal injection litigation in Ohio to understand its crucial importance in our system.

In a remarkable series of losses and appeals, Ohio state officials are currently attempting to convince yet another federal court to allow them to use a lethal injection protocol which is in direct violation of representations state officials made eight years ago in order to prevail at an earlier phase of the ongoing litigation....

After [a] failed execution, and facing an imminent trial in July 2010 on the prisoners’ challenges to Ohio’s three-drug lethal injection method, Ohio announced in November 2009 that it would never again use the paralytic drug pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride in executions. State officials represented they would use a one-drug, barbiturate-only method instead. The same day Ohio announced this change, it filed a motion for summary judgment in the pending litigation, asking the federal court to dismiss all challenges to the three-drug protocol because, as the State argued, the change in execution drugs meant the claims about the two painful drugs were “moot.” The State’s filing unequivocally declared “there is no possibility here that the allegedly unconstitutional conduct will reoccur.” The federal courts accepted Ohio’s argument, and its representations, with the Sixth Circuit explicitly holding that “any challenge to Ohio’s three-drug execution protocol is now moot.” With the prisoners’ constitutional claims thus mooted in this way, the State proceeded to carry out 20 executions over the next eight years, including that of Mr. Biros in December 2009.

Fast forward to October 2016: Ohio reneged on its promises. State officials announced that their “new,” three-drug protocol will again include a paralytic and potassium chloride. Unsurprisingly, the courts did not look favorably upon Ohio’s flip-flopping. In his order, following a five-day evidentiary hearing in 2017, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael R. Merz wrote that “the position the State of Ohio now takes — that it will execute [prisoners] using a paralytic agent and potassium chloride — is completely inconsistent with the position it took on appeal in Cooey (Biros) and on remand from that decision before Judge Frost. Ohio prevailed on its contrary position and is now judicially estopped from re-adopting a paralytic agent and potassium chloride as part of the Execution Protocol.”  On April 5, 2017, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed, upholding the preliminary injunction.

The State petitioned for the full court to hear the case, and in coming weeks, Ohio will try for the third time to explain why it is acceptable to render litigation moot by making one representation, and then later in that same litigation to propagate actions in contravention of that representation.

Judicial estoppel prevents parties from manipulating legal proceedings, requiring parties to maintain consistency within the course of litigation. The changing of positions based on convenience or “exigencies of the moment” is not authorized by law, and is particularly reprehensible when the issue at hand is one of life or death. Ohio apparently needs a third ruling to remind officials that what they promised the federal courts in 2009 still binds them in 2017. The law demands that the State devise an execution protocol consistent with its word.

Even without hearing the outcome of today's oral argument, I am predicting that this judicial estoppel claim does not end up carrying the day with the full en banc Sixth Circuit.  Ohio officials are claiming that they have returned to a three-drug execution protocol because of a state legal obligation to carry out lawful death sentences AND a constitutional obligation to carry out executions in the least painful way possible. If Ohio officials reasonably and accurately assert they had to return to a three-drug protocol to comply with these obligations, I doubt the full Sixth Circuit will conclude a prior litigation position must now thwart these efforts.  

June 14, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

June 13, 2017

"Out of Sight: The Growth of Jails in Rural America"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Vera Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Here is part of its introduction:

As concern in the United States has grown over the number of people behind bars, policymakers and the public are turning their attention to addressing the decades-long growth in the number of people held in the country’s more than 3,000 locally run jails — county or municipal detention facilities that primarily house people who have been charged but not yet convicted of a crime (known as the “pretrial” population), and those sentenced to a short term of incarceration, usually under a year.  With local jail populations swelling from 157,000 on any given day in 1970 to over 700,000 people in 2015, there are now an astronomical number of jail admissions annually — nearly 11 million — prompting many to question whether local jails have grown too large, and at too high a cost for the communities they serve.  This has in turn focused efforts among policymakers and the public to better understand and reform the size, scope, and distribution of local incarceration.

In contribution to this effort, the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) developed the Incarceration Trends data tool in 2015 to better understand how jails have grown in every U.S. county.  (See “The Incarceration Trends data tool sources and units of analysis” on page 8.)  In an initial analysis, Vera researchers found that small counties, defined as counties with fewer than 250,000 people, have driven overall jail growth since 1970, despite the conventional perception that this has been exclusively a phenomenon of large cities.  In fact, jails have actually grown the least in large counties (the approximately 40 counties with more than one million residents).  To further understand the contours of jail growth, Vera researchers turned once again to its data tool to study the newly released 2013 Census of Jails from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and conducted an updated historical analysis of jail population trends to examine two specific drivers of local incarceration: 1) changes in the number of people held in pretrial detention; and 2) changes in the number of people who are held for another authority. Vera researchers also looked at the degree to which these trends are different along the urban-rural axis, as well as between U.S. regions — the Northeast, Midwest, South, and West.

As this report will enumerate, it is not simply small counties that have increasingly been the locus of rising local incarceration rates, but rural areas — nonmetropolitan areas defined by low population and distance from major population centers.  This is despite rural counties’ substantially lower crime rates in comparison to urban areas.  There appear to be two underlying trends.  First, as overall rates of pretrial detention have risen nationally, the highest rates now feature most prominently in rural counties across all regions of the country — increasing 436 percent between 1970 and 2013.  Second, an escalating number of rural jails — mainly in the South and West — are renting out jail beds to hold people for federal, state, and other local governments.  In some cases, jails are even building new capacity unrelated to crime levels in their own jurisdictions to meet jail-bed demands of other agencies.  Although the reasons for these two trends are likely numerous, this report explores one possible root: few resources in rural areas. Given that the distribution of scarce state and county resources is likely uneven — favoring those areas with more people — access to critical criminal justice and community services may be spread thin the further away a place is from the various population clusters in a state or county.  This means there may be fewer judges to quickly hear cases, less robust pretrial services, and fewer diversion programs available to decrease jail use.

June 13, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Notable prisoner makes notable case for prison education and programming ... only for some

I have been following the work an writings of Jeremiah Bourgeois, a juvenile offender sentenced to LWOP (but now eligible for parole) in Washington State, since he authored this thoughtful and personal essay for the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law a few years ago. His latest column for The Crime Report, headlined "Educate a Prisoner, Save a Life," begins by stressing that the reason for [his personal] change is not hard to find: the higher education courses [he has] been taking during my incarceration." As he goes on to put it: "It is amazing what an education can do. It can transform the violent and ignorant into the peaceful and intelligent."

But, intriguingly, while using his own story to make the case for "making higher education available in correctional facilities," his column also suggests that reform advocates and public officials need to urge "correctional systems [to] finally abandon[] efforts to change those who — quite simply — are content to continue the behavior which led them to prison in the first place." Here is part of his explanation for what he suggests should be a kind of modern prison programming triage:

I have never been able to wrap my mind around why correctional officials believe they can force change on those who are committed to wrongdoing. Nevertheless, they keep trying. One of the purposes of punishment in Washington State is to “offer the offender an opportunity to improve himself or herself.”  In practice, the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has transformed this legislative decree into a Don Corleone-esque offer that prisoners cannot easily refuse.

DOC uses a carrot and stick approach. Prisoners can earn a small reduction in their sentence for every month that they follow the dictates of the Facility Risk Management Team (FRMT), which is a group comprised of the prisoner’s counselor and other unit staff, and outlines the programs the prisoner must complete in order to receive this “earned time.” This is the carrot.  The stick involves disciplinary sanctions for refusing to abide by the expectations established by the FRMT. Enough of these, and the prisoner will be transferred to ever more secure facilities until, in the end, he is confined in long-term administrative segregation.

All of this is done in an effort to mitigate the risk that prisoners will commit crimes upon being freed.  The belief is that requiring prisoners to work or go to school or undergo treatment interventions will reduce their likelihood of re-offending. On its face, such policies are rational.  Nobody wants prisoners to rejoin society in the same sorry state they were in when removed from it.

But the fact remains that resources are often devoted toward recalcitrant prisoners whose words and deeds manifest their commitment to the criminal subculture.  Having watched the same people cycle through prison over and over again, it’s clear to me that this subset of individuals are a bad investment — with diminishing returns.  Moreover, history has demonstrated that even the rack-and-screw is no match against the conviction of true believers, and many prisoners are just stubbornly unwilling to repent for a life of crime.

You can spot them throughout the penitentiary, begrudging the policies that compel them to work or go to school or to participate in treatment programs meant to change them. He is the slacker in the dish tank talking about how much “paper” he used to make on the streets.  He is the 20-something in the Adult Basic Education classroom spending the school-day freestyle rapping and sleeping.  He is the man in chemical dependency treatment tweaking on methamphetamines....

The time has come for rehabilitative efforts to be devoted toward prisoners who have the most likelihood of being rehabilitated.  Once upon a time, correctional systems had the luxury of trying to change such men. But those days are over. There is no money left to continue such social experiments.

Arrogance and paternalism is a combination that is antithetical to fiscal responsibility and sound correctional policies.  The time has come for rehabilitative efforts to be devoted toward prisoners who have the most likelihood of being rehabilitated, rather than those who are most likely to re-offend.  Moreover, such programs should be made available to those who seek it rather than mandating prisoners to participate in them.

Take the University Beyond Bars (UBB) for example.  Every participant in the UBB is there because they want to be, for this higher education program at MCC is entirely voluntary. Even when college credit cannot be offered due to lack of funding, prisoners readily sign up simply for self-enrichment.  As a member of the Prisoner Advisory Committee for the UBB, I saw such men come to recognize their capacity to complete college studies; and, more importantly, conceive of living lives removed from criminality.

These are the prisoners worth saving.  It may seem cruel, but in an emergency, triage is about not wasting one’s time and efforts on the hopeless.  Correctional systems should adopt the same sense of mission and purpose.

The uniquely informed perspective behind this commentary makes me eager to endorse its notable message, and yet I wonder and worry about the ability of correction officials and other to fairly and effectively figure out which prisoners are "worth saving" and which are "hopeless."  Like so many sound and sensible suggestions in the arena of sentencing and corrections, the devil would seem to be in the details here if and when corrections officials only made prison education and programming available to those who appeared worthy of these resources.

June 13, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Whom Should We Punish, and How? Rational Incentives and Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Keith Hylton recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This essay sets out a comprehensive account of rational punishment theory and examines its implications for criminal law reform.  Specifically, what offenses should be subjected to criminal punishment, and how should we punish?  Should we use prison sentences or fines, and where should we use them?  Should some conduct be left to a form of market punishment through private lawsuits?  Should fines be used to fund the criminal justice system?

The answers I offer address some of the most important public policy issues of the moment, such as mass incarceration and the use of fines to finance law enforcement.  The framework of this paper is firmly grounded in rational deterrence policy, and yet points toward reforms that would soften or reduce the scope of criminal punishment. 

June 13, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Highlighting how criminal justice reformers are "going local" at the start of the Trump era

Chris Geidner has this notable lengthy new BuzzFeed News article about the work of criminal justice reform advocates under this extended headline: "Trump Loves Old School, Tough-On-Crime Policies. So Criminal Justice Liberals Are Going Local. What do you do when your progressive vision loses its spotlight from the White House?". Here is a snippet of an article the merits a read in full:

Glenn Martin, [who] is the president of JustLeadership USA, ... spent six years in prison more than two decades ago and is now helping to lead the fight to close New York City’s Rikers Island.  Closing the jail became a focus in the wake of multiple groundbreaking news stories examining its conditions — and why people are there in the first place — and a concerted, ongoing grassroots opposition. The effort to shutter the jail recently picked up backing from NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Martin, who served on the year-long commission whose report recommended closing the jail, was blunt about the reasons for his local focus — which was the case even before this past November’s election.  “I never had a lot of hope that Congress was the answer to this,” he said in an interview after a student-focused event about closing Rikers that took place at the New School in Manhattan.  “In fact, it was a bipartisan coalition that got us here; forgive me if I’m not inspired by a comeback coalition trying to get us out of this mess.”

While Martin is a federal skeptic, ending the mess — America has more people in jails and prisons, both in number and percentage, than any other country on the planet — was a mission that just last year seemed to be going strongly in these and other advocates’ direction on the national stage.

In the last months of his presidency, Obama commuted a steady stream of sentences — mainly focused on those serving long prison sentences for nonviolent drug-related offenses. A bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill was pressing for significant criminal sentencing reforms — and though Republican leadership was not moving the legislation, a younger generation of lawmakers had expressed openness or even enthusiasm for it.  Attorney General Loretta Lynch oversaw significant investigations into numerous police departments and had begun a process of ending the federal government’s reliance on private prisons — a long-sought aim of liberals.  And these promised to be merely the opening salvos in a paradigm-shifting mission: Ending mass incarceration and increasing police accountability had become popular causes for the highest level of public officials, celebrities, and intellectuals in Washington.

That momentum came to a halt in January.  Advocates are facing a very different situation now.  Trump wasn’t just disinterested in their cause — he actively campaigned against it, promising a crackdown on crime and echoing the kind of sentiments popular in the 1980s and early ’90s when crime rates were significantly higher.  (For Trump, “urban centers” — despite his having lived in one for years — remain a bad stereotype of a 1982 inner city.)  The naming of Sessions as attorney general was a doubling down of that vision: Sessions likely was the senator whose criminal justice views most closely aligned with Trump’s views.

While some remain hopeful about continuing to build federal momentum for sentencing law changes, the reality is that most federal efforts will be aimed at stopping or minimizing Trump and Sessions’ proposals — not advancing their own goals....

There are, in fact, a handful of areas where advocates see real possibilities: pressing local, even grassroots, efforts to make community change (including through local elections); backing state legislative changes where they’re possible; filing litigation where advocates think it’s needed; and partnering with business and philanthropists to fund programs that otherwise might not happen....

Passing laws and making changes locally is key to keeping the criminal justice movement’s momentum alive on a national scale.  For decades, politicians in both parties largely ran on harsher sentences and aggressive drug policy; persuading politicians that it can be done differently has become an essential piece of the local dynamic.

June 13, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

June 12, 2017

Swift and sensible sentencing justice for high-profile violent crime in Montana

As reported in this local article, headlined "Greg Gianforte gets anger management, community service after admitting he assaulted reporter," a high-profile crime and criminal got a non-prison sentence for a violent crime today.  Here are some of the particulars:

Republican congressman-elect Greg Gianforte will not spend any time in jail after he admitted a charge of misdemeanor assault Monday for “body slamming” a reporter on the eve of his election. “I just want to say I’m sorry,” Gianforte told Ben Jacobs, the reporter for the Guardian that he assaulted in Bozeman at a campaign event about 24 hours before polls closed on May 24.

Gallatin County Justice Court Judge Rick West ordered Gianforte to complete 20 hours of anger management counseling and 40 hours of community service. He was given a deferred six-month jail sentence.  If he does not violate the conditions of his sentence, the charge could be dismissed.

West initially tried to give Gianforte a sentence of four days in jail, converted to two days in a work program.  Work programs, which cut the time of a sentence in half, are not an option in assault cases, however. West said he felt anger management was necessary since Gianforte, who will go to Washington, D.C., under heavy scrutiny, could not handle questions from a single reporter.

Motioning around the courtroom, he said “It’s not a lot of cameras compared to what you’re going to see at the White House.”

"It is not my intent you spend four days in jail," West said to a small courtroom packed with journalists and some other members of the public. "I do not think that would serve the community or the taxpayers." West referenced Gianforte's charitable giving in the Bozeman community and around the state when deliberating the sentence, but also said Gianforte's unprovoked attack overshadowed that....

Jacobs, wearing a suit and new pair of glasses that replaced the ones broken in the attack, read to the court from a prepared statement. He spoke quietly enough the judge had to ask him to speak up. Jacobs described the day of the attack, saying he had entered a room to ask Gianforte a question.  "I was just doing my job," Jacobs said. "Mr. Gianforte's response was to slam me to the floor and start punching me." After the attack, Jacobs said Gianforte then sent an "inflammatory public statement in which he insisted this unprovoked ... attack was somehow my fault," Jacobs said.

When pressed by the judge, Gianforte at first did not give clear details on the assault but later said he grabbed for Jacobs' phone, ended up grabbing his wrists instead and a "scuffle" ensued where both men fell to the ground....  In his apology letter to Jacobs, Gianforte wrote “Notwithstanding anyone’s statement to the contrary, you did not initiate any physical contact with me, and I had no right to assault you.”  Neither Gianforte nor his staff have clarified why a false statement was sent out after the assault....

A handful of protesters were outside the Law and Justice Center after court ended.  They held up signs saying "Lock him up," "Shame" and "Justice vs. White Christian Privilege." Jackie Crandall drove up from Roberts that morning to protest. "I think Greg Gianforte got special treatment," she said.  "If he wasn't rich and powerful, he would be in jail. If he was black, he would be in jail."

As the title of this post suggests, I think a non-prison sentence for this violent crime seems quite sensible for a remorseful first offender who seems unlikely to be on a path to criminality (even though he is on a path to Congress).

June 12, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (9)

How will (and how should) new $100 million fund be used to advance criminal justice reform and "end mass incarceration"?

12FUND2-master675The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable New York Times article headlined "Agnes Gund Sells a Lichtenstein to Start Criminal Justice Fund." Here is the interesting art-world backstory that now prompts the question:

In January, rumors swirled that the art collector and patron Agnes Gund had sold her prized 1962 Roy Lichtenstein “Masterpiece” for a whopping $150 million, placing it among the 15 highest known prices ever paid for an artwork.  Ms. Gund is confirming that sale now, revealing that she parted with the painting (for what was actually $165 million, including fees) for a specific purpose: to create a fund that supports criminal justice reform and seeks to reduce mass incarceration in the United States.

This new Art for Justice Fund — to be announced Monday at the Museum of Modern Art, where Ms. Gund is president emerita — will start with $100 million of the proceeds from the Lichtenstein (which was sold to the collector Steven A. Cohen through Acquavella Gallery).  “This is one thing I can do before I die,” Ms. Gund, 78, said in an interview at her Upper East Side apartment, where the Lichtenstein used to hang over the mantel, along with works by Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko. “This is what I need to do.”

Ms. Gund, together with the Ford Foundation, which will administer the fund, has asked other collectors to do the same, in the hopes of raising an additional $100 million over the next five years.  The effort is noteworthy, not only for the amount of money involved — rarely do charitable undertakings start at $100 million — but because Ms. Gund is essentially challenging fellow collectors to use their artworks to champion social causes at a time when the market has made their holdings more valuable than ever.

“The larger idea is to raise awareness among a community of art collectors that they can use their influence and their collections to advance social justice,” said Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation’s president. “Art has meaning on a wall, but it also has meaning when it is monetized.”

Those who have already committed to the fund — and are being called founding donors — include Laurie M. Tisch, a chairwoman of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Kenneth I. Chenault, chief executive of American Express, and his wife, Kathryn; the philanthropist Jo Carole Lauder; the financier Daniel S. Loeb; and Brooke Neidich, a Whitney trustee. “I was moved by her passion,” Ms. Tisch said of Ms. Gund, adding that she would contribute $500,000 in proceeds from a Max Weber painting she recently sold. “It’s ambitious, but when Aggie puts in a $100 million, that’s a real signal that it’s important and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

The fund will make grants to organizations and leaders who already have a track record in criminal justice reform — like the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. — that seek to safely reduce jail and prison populations across the country and to strengthen education and employment opportunities for former inmates. The fund will also support art-related programs on mass incarceration.

“There’s long been this criticism that people who have the means to acquire fine art are allowed to surround themselves with beautiful things while they are unwilling to look at the ugly realities that sometimes shape a community or a culture or a country,” said Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. “Using this art to actually respond to over-incarceration or racial inequality or social injustice is a powerful idea.”

The impetus for the fund was personal. Six of Ms. Gund’s 12 grandchildren are African-American, and she has worried about their future as they’ve matured, particularly in light of shootings of black teenagers like Trayvon Martin in Florida. “I have always had an extreme sensitivity to inequality,” Ms. Gund said.

She added that she was also deeply affected by Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” and by Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary, “13th,” about African-Americans in the prison system. After seeing the film, Ms. Gund called Mr. Walker, long a close friend. “She said, ‘I really want to do something to help here,’” Mr. Walker recalled. “‘What if I sold one of my jewels and we used the proceeds to make grants to organizations working on mass incarceration?’” ... Participation in the fund does not require the sale of artwork, Mr. Walker said; any type of support is welcome....

Mr. Stevenson will take part in an evening event at MoMA on Monday to announce the fund that will also feature Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” and Glenn E. Martin, president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, which aims to reduce the prison population, in conversation with The New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles Blow.

The financier and collector Donald Marron, MoMA’s president emeritus, said he would support the fund — though probably not through the sale of his art — and commended Ms. Gund’s efforts. “Aggie has been so committed to art her whole life and now she’s using the art to jump-start her efforts in criminal justice,” he said. “That’s a model I hope other people will follow.”

There is not too much information at this website for the Art for Justice Fund, but the site does say the Fund is for a "movement to end mass incarceration." It also says that the "The Fund is a five-year initiative designed to make meaningful progress on key reforms in the U.S. criminal justice system" and that it "will support innovative advocacy and interventions aimed at safely cutting the prison population in states with the highest rates of incarceration, and strengthening the education and employment options for people leaving prison."

June 12, 2017 in Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

An (incomplete) accounting of the stalled state of federal statutory sentencing reform

The Atlantic has this lengthy new article providing something of an up-to-date accounting of the state of federal sentencing reform in Congress, and its first sentence serves as something of a summary: "You know a policy’s prospects are shaky when lawmakers on both teams are praying for Jared Kushner to ride in and save the day."  Here is more from the start, heart and end of the piece:

Not that Kushner isn’t a swell guy.  But Trump’s all-purpose son-in-law already had a pretty full plate (e.g., solving that whole Middle East thing) even before the feds started poking into his relations with Russia.  It seems unlikely he’ll have much bandwidth in the coming months to weigh in on Congress’s mundane domestic squabbles.  Which is why advocates of criminal-justice reform might want to take a moment to wave adios to any prospect of action in the foreseeable future....

Desperate for administration allies, reform advocates were tickled pink when Jared Kushner came to the Capitol in late March to talk reform with Grassley, Durbin, and Lee.  (The dream is that Kushner is sympathetic to reform because his dad did a stint in federal prison.)  Senate aides say it was more a listening session than an offer of support. But it gave disheartened advocates a shred of hope and emboldened them to renew their quest for backers.  Post-meeting, Grassley announced that he would know the administration’s position on reform legislation “in three weeks.”

Two-plus months later, the White House has yet to offer further guidance.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Sessions has jammed his thumb deep into reformers’ eye sockets.  Last month, his office issued a directive that federal prosecutors should pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences for even nonviolent drug offenders (a reversal of Obama-era policy). Reform fans on and off the Hill were dismayed.  (A trio of Senate Democrats from the Judiciary Committee had publicly petitioned Sessions not to go in this direction.)....

Complicating matters further, one of last year’s key SRCA backers, Senator John Cornyn, has begun toying with a new bill of his own. Cornyn is collaborating with House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul on a measure that would jack up mandatory minimums for certain immigrants and for people who commit violent crimes against law enforcement officials.  This move isn’t a total about-face for Cornyn. Last year, he introduced a “Back the Blue” bill establishing steep mandatory minimums for crimes against law enforcement.  More broadly, multiple Hill aides point out that Cornyn has always been in the “back-end” reform camp and has made clear he’d be just as happy to split his pet programs back off of SRCA.

At this point, folks on both sides of the aisle see Cornyn’s emerging proposal as more of a messaging move than an attempt at serious legislation. Even so, a competing bill is hardly welcome news to his reform colleagues. As a Judiciary Committee staffer noted, “A good amount of work went into putting together [SRCA]. It’s like an ecosystem: Change one thing and something else is changed.”

Bottom line, say Hill aides: For anything to happen on criminal-justice reform, Congress will need a kick in the pants from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. “It’s going to be difficult to move forward if we’re not able to build support in the administration,” said the Judiciary Committee staffer.

With Sessions charging in the opposite direction, Kushner is seen as the cause’s last, best hope. If Trump’s beloved son-in-law would climb on board, say aides, the situation could get super interesting in a Jared vs. Jeff reality TV-style smackdown. Said a senior Democratic staffer, “If Kushner gets behind this effort and decides this is good for Trump, we’re gonna find out whether he has any influence with the president or not.” Alas, for now Kushner is preoccupied with his own “drama,” sighed a Republican aide, noting, “We’re still trying to get a face-to-face with him.”

Of course, with each passing day, it matters less what Kushner does. Congress is grotesquely behind in handling even its top priorities of healthcare and tax reform, and things will get exponentially worse as the fall budget battles approach. Even the most upbeat reform advocates sound blue when discussing the congressional calendar. “The pace at which the Senate is moving right now is a problem,” acknowledged the Judiciary Committee staffer.

Translation: Despite its lovely, bipartisan promise, the prospects for significant criminal-justice reform are — if not totally dead — only slightly worse than the odds that Kushner will go down in history as father of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

This article is rich with important inside-the-Beltway details, but it misses a bit of the broader context that also plays a role in federal statutory sentencing reform being stalled.  Specifically, the significant up-tick in violent crime in recent years (and also, to a lesser extent, various issues related to the opioid epidemic) has provided reform reform agnostics with a basis to believe we should tap the brakes on any federal sentencing reform efforts.   And this is why legislative reform to reduce sentences is always such a hard slog: when crime is down, the tough-on-crime crowd says toughness is working and we should not risk another approach; when crime is going up, the tough-on-crime crowd says we have to we tough and tougher to deal with increasing crimes.

June 12, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

In summary reversal, SCOTUS holds AEDPA precluded federal court from finding Virginia's geriatric release system was insufficient to comply with Graham

One may need to be a hard-core law-geek to fully appreciate all the nuance that it is in the title of this post, which aspires to be an accurate accounting of the Supreme Court's decision six-page per curiam decision this morning in Virginia v. LeBlanc, No. 16–1177 (S. Ct. June 12, 2017) (available here).  Here are excerpts from the heart of the opinion:

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit erred by failing to accord the state court’s decision the deference owed under AEDPA. Graham did not decide that a geriatric release program like Virginia’s failed to satisfy the Eighth Amendment because that question was not presented. And it was not objectively unreasonable for the state court to conclude that, because the geriatric release program employed normal parole factors, it satisfied Graham’s requirement that juveniles convicted of a nonhomicide crime have a meaningful opportunity to receive parole. The geriatric release program instructs Virginia’s Parole Board to consider factors like the “individual’s history . . . and the individual’s conduct . . . during incarceration,” as well as the prisoner’s “inter-personal relationships with staff and inmates” and “[c]hanges in attitude toward self and others.” See 841 F. 3d, at 280–281 (Niemeyer, J., dissenting) (citing Virginia Parole Board Policy Manual 2–4 (Oct. 2006)).  Consideration of these factors could allow the Parole Board to order a former juvenile offender’s conditional release in light of his or her “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Graham, 560 U.S., at 75. The state court thus did not diverge so far from Graham’s dictates as to make it “so obvious that . . . there could be no ‘fairminded disagreement’” about whether the state court’s ruling conflicts with this Court’s case law. White v. Woodall, 572 U.S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 11).

“Perhaps the logical next step from” Graham would be to hold that a geriatric release program does not satisfy the Eighth Amendment, but “perhaps not.” 572 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 11). “[T]here are reasonable arguments on both sides.” Id., at ___–___ (slip op., at 11–12).  With respect to petitioners, these include the arguments discussed above. Supra, at 4. With regards to respondent, these include the contentions that the Parole Board’s substantial discretion to deny geriatric release deprives juvenile nonhomicide offenders a meaningful opportunity to seek parole and that juveniles cannot seek geriatric release until they have spent at least four decades in prison.

These arguments cannot be resolved on federal habeas review.  Because this case arises “only in th[at] narrow context,” the Court “express[es] no view on the merits of the underlying” Eighth Amendment claim. Woods, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 7) (internal quotation marks omitted).  Nor does the Court “suggest or imply that the underlying issue, if presented on direct review, would be insubstantial.” Marshall v. Rodgers, 569 U. S. ___, ___ (2013) (per curiam) (slip op., at 7); accord, Woodall, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 5). The Court today holds only that the Virginia trial court’s ruling, resting on the Virginia Supreme Court’s earlier ruling in Angel, was not objectively unreasonable in light of this Court’s current case law.

A proper respect for AEDPA’s high bar for habeas relief avoids unnecessarily “disturb[ing] the State’s significant interest in repose for concluded litigation, den[ying] society the right to punish some admitted offenders, and intrud[ing] on state sovereignty to a degree matched by few exercises of federal judicial authority.” Harrington, supra, at 103 (internal quotation marks omitted).  The federalism interest implicated in AEDPA cases is of central relevance in this case, for the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit’s holding created the potential for significant discord in the Virginia sentencing process. Before today, Virginia courts were permitted to impose — and required to affirm — a sentence like respondent’s, while federal courts presented with the same fact pattern were required to grant habeas relief.  Reversing the Court of Appeals’ decision in this case — rather than waiting until a more substantial split of authority develops — spares Virginia courts from having to confront this legal quagmire.

Justice Ginsburg wrote a separate concurrence in LeBlanc to make this point:

Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), as today’s per curiam recognizes, established that a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide offense must have “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release [from prison] based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Id., at 75. See ante, at 2.  I join the Court’s judgment on the understanding that the Virginia Supreme Court, in Angel v. Commonwealth, 281 Va. 248, 704 S.E.2d 386 (2011), interpreted Virginia law to require the parole board to provide such a meaningful opportunity under the geriatric release program.  See id., at 275, 704 S.E.2d, at 402 (“the factors used in the normal parole consideration process apply to conditional release decisions under this statute”).  In other words, contrary to the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation of Virginia law, the parole board may not deny a juvenile offender geriatric release “for any reason whatsoever,”  841 F.3d 256, 269 (2016) (emphasis in original); instead, the board, when evaluating a juvenile offender for geriatric release, must consider the normal parole factors, including rehabilitation and maturity.  See ante, at 4.

June 12, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Notable report of Missouri parole board playing a version of "turkey bingo" during hearings with inmates

I just noticed an interesting report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about an intriguing controversy swirling around Missouri's parole board.  Here are links to two lengthy stories about the controversies and their first few paragraphs:

"Missouri parole board played word games during hearings with inmates"

The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole allegedly toyed with prisoners during hearings by trying to get them to say a chosen word or song title of the day, such as “platypus” and “Hound Dog.”

Don Ruzicka, a member of the seven-member board, along with an unnamed government employee were accused of keeping score during the hearings, according to a Department of Corrections inspector general report completed on Nov. 1, 2016. Each time one of them used a predetermined keyword while interviewing an offender they earned a point. Two points were granted if the offender repeated the word. Occasionally, the duo spiced the game up by wearing matching clothing, like the time they dressed in black shirts, ties, pants and shoes.

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis recently obtained the state report and released it Thursday after a news conference, asserting that public servants “played games with people’s lives and liberty.”

"Officials insist Missouri parole board takes job seriously despite games played during hearings"

The day after a human rights law firm called on Republican Gov. Eric Greitens to remove former state Rep. Don Ruzicka from the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole for toying with inmates during hearings, two top prison officials stood by the panel on Friday.

A previously undisclosed state investigation found that Ruzicka and an unidentified Department of Corrections employee entertained themselves at some parole hearings by trying to get inmates to say words and song titles such as “platypus” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.” They even kept score.

“We have very credible members who take their job seriously,” insisted Parole Board Chairman Kenneth C. Jones, who is also a former Republican state representative as well as a former sheriff. “There is no joking around. It’s a very serious job.”

June 12, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

June 11, 2017

"Are 18-year-olds too immature to face the death penalty?"

The question in the title of this post is part of a headline of this local Kentucky article describing an effort to extend the reach of the Supreme Court's Roper ruling. The article's headline continues with the phrase "Lexington attorney says yes." Here are excerpts from the article:

Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone will soon decide whether to exclude the death penalty for a murder defendant who was 18 when he was charged with murder and robbery.

In a 2005 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of people who were younger 18 at the time of their crimes violated the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments. The defense team for Travis Bredhold wants Scorsone to extend that exclusion to people 21 and younger. Bredhold, 21, was 18 when he was charged Dec. 13 with murder and robbery in the fatal shooting of Marathon gas station attendant Mukheshbhai Patel.

Police said surveillance camera footage indicates that Patel, 51, was trying to comply with a robber’s demand for cash when he was shot. He died later at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.

Bredhold was “only five months and 13 days older than the limitation” established by the U.S. Supreme Court, public defender Joanne Lynch said. More importantly, Lynch said, research indicates that people’s brains don’t mature until they are in their mid-20s. The Supreme Court ruled that people who are young and immature and who are likely to be more impulsive are not as culpable as a group and shouldn’t be up for the death penalty.

Bredhold’s defense team is asking to extend the exclusion “because people under the age of 21 are almost completely like people under the age of 18. You really don’t mature until you are in your mid-20s,” Lynch said.

Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn argued during a hearing Friday that there isn’t a “national consensus” on whether to extend the death-penalty exclusion to defendants 21 and younger.

June 11, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (17)

"From Retribution to Public Safety: Disruptive Innovation of American Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new book, authored by William Kelly, Robert Pitman and William Streusand, that a helpful reader made sure I noticed.  Here is description via the book's Amazon page:

Over the past fifty years, American criminal justice policy has had a nearly singular focus -- the relentless pursuit of punishment.  Punishment is intuitive, proactive, logical, and simple. But the problem is that despite all of the appeal, logic, and common sense, punishment doesn't work.  The majority of crimes committed in the United States are by people who have been through the criminal justice system before, many on multiple occasions.
There are two issues that are the primary focus of this book.  The first is developing a better approach than simple punishment to actually address crime-related circumstances, deficits and disorders, in order to change offender behavior, reduce recidivism, victimization and cost.  And the second issue is how do we do a better job of determining who should be diverted and who should be criminally prosecuted.
From Retribution to Public Safety develops a strategy for informed decision making regarding criminal prosecution and diversion.  The authors develop procedures for panels of clinical experts to provide prosecutors with recommendations about diversion and intervention.  This requires a substantial shift in criminal procedure as well as major reform to the public health system, both of which are discussed in detail.
Rather than ask how much punishment is necessary the authors look at how we can best reduce recidivism. In doing so they develop a roadmap to fix a fundamentally flawed system that is wasting massive amounts of public resources to not reducing crime or recidivism.

June 11, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)