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July 8, 2017

DOJ urges SCOTUS not to review Sixth Circuit panel decision finding retroactive application of Michigan sex offender law unconstitutional

As reported in this post from last summer, a Sixth Circuit panel concluded in Does v. Snyder, No. 15-1536 (6th Cir. Aug. 25, 2016) (available here), that Michigan's amendments to its Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) "imposes punishment" and thus the state violates the US Constitution when applying these SORA provisions retroactively.  Michigan  appealed this decision to the US Supreme Court, and SCOTUS in March asked for the US Acting Solicitor General to express its views on the case.

Yesterday, the Acting SG filed this brief with SCOTUS stating that in "the view of the United States, the petition for a writ of certiorari should be denied." The discussion section of the brief begins this way:

Michigan’s sex-offender-registration scheme contains a variety of features that go beyond the baseline requirements set forth in federal law and differ from those of most other States.  After applying the multi-factor framework set out in Smith v. Doe, 538 U.S. 84 (2003), the court of appeals concluded that the cumulative effect of SORA’s challenged provisions is punitive for ex post facto purposes.  While lower courts have reached different conclusions in analyzing particular features of various state sex-offender-registration schemes, the court of appeals’ analysis of the distinctive features of Michigan’s law does not conflict with any of those decisions, nor does it conflict with this Court’s holding in Smith.  Every court of appeals that has considered an ex post facto challenge to a sex-offender-registry statutory scheme has applied the same Smith framework to determine whether the aggregate effects of the challenged aspects of that scheme are punitive.  And although most state sex-offender-registry schemes share similar features, they vary widely in their form and combination of those features.  Accordingly, to the extent the courts of appeals have reached different outcomes in state sexoffender-registry cases, those outcomes reflect differences in the statutory schemes rather than any divergence in the legal framework.  Finally, petitioners’ concern (Pet. 26-29) that the court of appeals’ decision will prevent the State from receiving some federal funding does not warrant review.  That concern is premature, as it may well be the case that Michigan can continue to receive federal funds notwithstanding this decision.  And the decision does not prevent the State from implementing a sex-offender-registration scheme that is consistent with federal law.  Further review is therefore not warranted.

July 8, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

"Criminal justice reform starts before the trial and sentence"

The title of this post is the title of this new commentary at The Hill authored by Marc Levin and Ed Chung. Here are excerpts (with links from the original): 

Recent media stories have speculated on the future of federal efforts to reform the criminal justice system. Much of the discussion surrounds the possibility of rekindling bipartisan sentencing and corrections reform legislation that was on the cusp of being enacted in the previous Congress.

While comprehensive reforms to lower federal mandatory minimum sentences remain aspirational, there are other policies on which the right and left agree that could have as much, if not more, impact in reducing the nation’s incarcerated population while maintaining public safety. 

Every day, approximately 450,000 people who have not been convicted of a crime are currently behind bars while they await adjudication of their case.  This is more than double the number of people in federal prison and two and half times the total jail population in 1980.  According to a recent analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, “99 percent of the growth in jails over the last 15 years has been a result of increases in the pre-trial population.”  This increase was not due to a more criminalized or violent society but rather stemmed from discretionary criminal justice policies that increasingly conditioned release from jail on whether they could pay for bail. 

Money bail systems, however, are neither the most effective nor fairest way to achieve the goals of the justice system prior to trial.  For those whom a court determines to be a danger to society, allowing them to pay for their release seems like an illogical remedy where a rich dangerous person is freed but a poor dangerous person remains in jail. And, to ensure a person returns for court appearances, more effective methods have developed in recent years that combine an objective assessment of a person’s risks with appropriate human supervision and electronic monitoring.

The harms and inequities associated with money bail systems — especially when it comes to nonviolent, low-risk poor defendants — are well documented.  According to an analysis by the Arnold Foundation, keeping low-risk defendants in jail for even two or three days increases the likelihood that they will commit a new crime by 40 percent.  The impact also is felt disproportionately by those who cannot pay for even relatively modest bail and thus remain locked up.

The movement to reform bail systems has taken root in a small but growing number of both conservative and progressive states.  Connecticut last month enacted a statute that bars the imposition of financial conditions for pretrial release for most misdemeanors.  Earlier this year, New Jersey passed legislation that eliminated bail for minor crimes and instituted the use of a risk assessment tool to help courts determine pretrial supervision conditions.  Kentucky, which instituted the same risk assessment tool in 2013, will now automatically release people determined to be low-risk if they meet certain criteria.  And Washington, D.C., releases 90 percent of those arrested with conditions to report to a pretrial agency and comply with drug testing and other requirements. 

While state and local policy change is the primary means of achieving bail reform, given that pretrial detention implicates the guarantees of equal protection and due process found in the U.S. Constitution, the federal government can play a collaborative role, even if most of the people in jail awaiting trial are in local facilities.  Through its technical assistance efforts, the Department of Justice (DOJ) shares advancements made in a small number of states with a national audience and provides valuable data that reveals the impact of pretrial practices across the nation. From issuing statements of interest on bail in pending federal litigation to providing guidance on the proper use of risk assessment instruments, the DOJ must remain committed to pretrial policies that prioritize public safety over a person’s ability to pay.

Congress also has an important voice that can exemplify the bipartisan support for bail reform across the country.  The legislative branch’s bully pulpit is especially effective when emphasizing points of agreement across the political spectrum....

There is still much work to be done to reform the criminal justice system.  Fortunately, this remains a priority that transcends partisanship, even in the current political climate. It is time for our national leaders to act on the consensus developed among states, local communities, advocates, and think tanks representing different ideological perspectives like ours. 

July 8, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

July 7, 2017

Split Third Circuit panel finds numerous problems with short federal sentences for child-abusing Army couple

A remarkable and unusual federal sentencing involving a child-abusing couple led yesterday to a remarkable and unusual federal circuit sentencing opinion in US v. Jackson, No. 16-1200 (3d Cir. July 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how the 80-page(!) majority opinion by Judge Cowen gets started:

John and Carolyn Jackson (“John” and “Carolyn”) were convicted of conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child and endangering the welfare of a child under New Jersey law— offenses that were “assimilated” into federal law pursuant to the Assimilative Crimes Act (“ACA”).  The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey sentenced Carolyn to 24 months of imprisonment (as well as three years of supervised release). John received a sentence of three years of probation (together with 400 hours of community service and a $15,000 fine). The government appeals from these sentences.

We will vacate the sentences and remand for resentencing.  Concluding that there is no “sufficiently analogous” offense guideline, the District Court declined to calculate Defendants’ applicable sentencing ranges under the Guidelines. Although we adopt an “elements-based” approach for this inquiry, we conclude that the assault guideline is “sufficiently analogous” to Defendants’ offenses of conviction. Furthermore, the District Court failed to make the requisite findings of fact — under the applicable preponderance of the evidence standard — with respect to this Guidelines calculation as well as the application of the statutory sentencing factors.  We also agree with the government that the District Court, while it could consider what would happen if Defendants had been prosecuted in state court, simply went too far in this case by focusing on state sentencing practices to the exclusion of federal sentencing principles. Finally, the sentences themselves were substantively unreasonable.

Here is how the dissenting opinion by Judge McKee gets started:

It is impossible for anyone with an ounce of compassion to read through this transcript without becoming extraordinarily moved by allegations about what these children had to endure. Had the defendants been convicted of assault, or crimes necessarily involving conduct that was in the same “ballpark” as assault as defined under New Jersey law, I would readily agree that this matter had to be remanded for resentencing using the federal guidelines that govern assault.  However, the district court held a ten and a half hour sentencing hearing in an extraordinarily difficult attempt to sort through the emotion and unproven allegations and sentence defendants for their crimes rather than the conduct the government alleged at trial and assumes in its brief. I believe the court appropriately did so pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §3553(a). Accordingly, I must respectfully dissent.

Before I begin my discussion, however, I must note that the defendants in this case were acquitted of the only federal offenses with which they were charged: assault with a dangerous weapon, with intent to do bodily harm, and assault resulting in serious bodily injury.  As I discuss more fully in Section II, these assault charges seem to drive the government’s argument and the Majority’s analysis.  In order to minimize confusion about the precise nature of the charges in this case and the conduct that was proven, a chart listing each of the charges and their outcomes is attached as an addendum to this dissent.

There are lots of lots of interesting elements to this unusual case, but the rarity of reversals of sentences as substantively unreasonable led me to read that part of the majority opinion most closely.  The majority here repeatedly finds flaws in how the district court weighed various permissible § 3553(a) considerations.  And the discussion begins by noting that the guidelines called for sentences of perhaps 20 or more years for these defendants so that "probation for John and 24 months’ imprisonment for Carolyn represented enormous downward variances, which require correspondingly robust explanations for why such lenience was warranted."

July 7, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Texas continues to demonstrate how state "smart on crime" reforms can lead to less imprisonment and less crime

This Dallas Morning News article, headlined "With crime, incarceration rates falling, Texas closes record number of lock-ups," highlights why the Lone Star state should be viewed as a shining star for anyone eager to see states find paths to having less crime and less incarceration.  Here are excerpts:

Texas will shutter more prisons this year than it has in any single year in history, a response to the state's tight budget and shrinking inmate population.  In the state's two-year budget, which lawmakers approved in May, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was ordered to close four prison facilities by Sept. 1.  When all four are closed, tough-on-crime Texas will have shuttered eight prisons in just six years.

Criminal justice reform advocates, agency officials and lawmakers say the closings are possible because of a combination of factors, including falling crime rates and legislative efforts to reduce the number of people who spend time behind bars.  "This is something we have done incrementally over the last decade," said Derek Cohen, deputy director at the Center for Effective Justice at the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation.  "We're not any less safe publicly for that."

The drop in Texas' prison population began around 2007, when lawmakers were faced with an expensive decision.  The state had spent decades and millions of dollars building hulking prison edifices across rural Texas.  Tens of thousands of cells were quickly filling, and without changing the way Texas operated its criminal justice system, the state would soon be forced to spend millions more to house a burgeoning inmate population.

A state known for its lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to crime began to shift its approach.  Instead of erecting more massive prisons, lawmakers invested in diversion programs to help troubled Texans get back on track and avoid incarceration.  They spent more on initiatives to provide services to people whose mental illnesses landed them crosswise with the law.  Lawmakers in 2015 updated a decades-old property crime punishment scheme that had resulted in felony punishments for thieves who had stolen penny-ante items.  "What we saw was almost within 18 months, just an immediate decrease in the number of people sent to state jail on property offenses," said Doug Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

At the same time, crime rates fell across the state.  Texas Department of Public Safety data shows that crime rates have fallen each year since at least 2012.  The overall crime rate in Texas fell nearly 6 percent from 2013 to 2014.  And it dropped another 4.7 percent the following year.

Texas closed its first prison in 2011 after much hand-wringing.  The Central Unit was a 79-year-old, sprawling behemoth on valuable land in the growing Houston suburb of Sugar Land. The prison population had begun to fall already, dropping 8 percent from 2004 to 2011. Legislators were facing a budget shortfall of up to $27 billion, and closing the Central Unit could save them about $50 million over two years.  For the first time in Texas history, it made political and fiscal sense to close a prison. It turned out, lawmakers were just getting started.

Two years later, they shuttered the Jesse R. Dawson State Jail in Dallas and a pre-parole unit in Mineral Wells.  Earlier this year, the criminal justice department closed a privately operated intermediate sanctions facility in Houston that was right next to Minute Maid Park.  As the closings continued, inmate population continued to drop, from 156,000 in 2011 to about 146,000 today, according to department spokesman Jason Clark....

It's unclear, though, whether the shuttering trend will continue in Texas.  Lawmakers this year did not approve any changes that criminal justice reform advocates said would keep the prison population on the decline.  Among the measures lawmakers rejected were proposals to reduce drug offense penalties and to keep 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, as most states do, instead of sending them to adult prisons.

July 7, 2017 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

July 6, 2017

Virginia Gov decides claim of delusional disorder does not justify halting scheduled execution of double murderer

As noted in this prior post, tonight's planned execution in Virginia of William Morva has brought renewed attention to the intersection of mental illness and capital punishment. That attention likely played a role in this decision by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to release this statement today explaining his decision not to prevent Morva's execution. Here is how the statement starts and ends:

Over the past several weeks, my staff and I have carefully considered the petition for clemency submitted by William Morva, who was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff Corporal Eric Sutphin and hospital security guard Derrick McFarland.  We have also reviewed extensive communications from family members of the victims, law enforcement officials, community leaders, and concerned observers from all over the world.

Consistent with the three previous petitions for commutation of a capital sentence that I have reviewed, I have evaluated Mr. Morva’s submission for evidence that he has been subjected to a miscarriage of justice at any phase of his trial that could have impacted the verdict or his sentence.  After extensive review and deliberation, I do not find sufficient cause in Mr. Morva’s petition or case records to justify overturning the will of the jury that convicted and sentenced him.

There is no question that, in a carefully orchestrated effort to escape custody while awaiting trial for burglary, robbery and firearms charges, Mr. Morva brutally attacked a deputy sheriff, stole his firearm and used it to murder Mr. McFarland, who was unarmed and had his hands raised as he was shot in the face from a distance of two feet.  The next day, Mr. Morva murdered Corporal Sutphin by shooting him in the back of the head.

Mr. Morva’s petition for clemency states that he suffers from a delusional disorder that rendered him unable to understand the consequences of his actions.

That diagnosis is inconsistent with the findings of the three licensed mental health professionals appointed by the trial court, including an expert psychiatrist who is Board-Certified in both Psychiatry and Forensic Psychiatry.  Two of these three experts were called by Mr. Morva’s own legal team.  These experts thoroughly evaluated Mr. Morva and testified to the jury that, while he may have personality disorders, he did not suffer from any condition that would have prevented him from committing these acts consciously and fully understanding their consequences....

I have determined that Mr. Morva was given a fair trial and that the jury heard substantial evidence about his mental health as they prepared to sentence him in accordance with the law of our Commonwealth.  In short, the record before me does not contain sufficient evidence to warrant the extraordinary step of overturning the decision of a lawfully empaneled jury following a properly conducted trial.

I personally oppose the death penalty; however, I took an oath to uphold the laws of this Commonwealth regardless of my personal views of those laws, as long as they are being fairly and justly applied. Thus, after extensive review and deliberation consistent with the process I have applied to previous requests for commutation, I have declined Mr. Morva’s petition. I have and will continue to pray for the families of the victims of these terrible crimes and for all of the people whose lives have been impacted.

UPDATE: This Reuters article suggests that Morva's execution was completed without difficulty Thursday night.

July 6, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

"The Wireless Prison: How Colorado’s tablet computer program misses opportunities and monetizes the poor"

Tablet_bannerThe title of this post is the title of this lengthy new Prison Policy Initiative posting about an important new part of the prison experience in a growing number of jurisdictions.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts from how it starts and concludes (with links from the original):

A recent Denver Post article reports that the Colorado state prison system has awarded a contract to prison communications giant GTL (formerly Global Tel*Link) for a tablet program that will eventually be deployed in all the state’s prisons.

The Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) is somewhat of an early adopter of emerging communications technology.  For several years it has offered electronic messaging, an email-like service that allows people in prison to send and receive messages using a proprietary, fee-based platform operated by a contractor.  Colorado DOC’s electronic messaging program isn’t perfect, but its rollout was notable for giving people a new communication option.  The tablet program, on the other hand, foreshadows a potential new paradigm in corrections, shifting numerous communications, educational, and recreational functions to a for-profit contractor; and, at the same time, making incarcerated people and their families pay for services, some of which are now commonly funded by the state.

What makes the Colorado/GTL contract especially frustrating is that it could have been an innovative step toward providing incarcerated people with useful technology. Experts who have studied government technology contracting warn that projects often fail because details are not sufficiently thought through.  The Colorado DOC seems to have walked down this familiar path by focusing largely on its own financial interest without giving much thought to the user experience or the financial impact on incarcerated people and their families....

Historically, people in prison have communicated with the outside world using tools that were simultaneously specialized and universal. Specialized in the sense that letters and phone calls were subject to restrictions and monitoring for security.  Universal in the sense that the actual communications networks were the same ones used by the population at large — namely the nation’s mail system and the network of Bell telephone companies.  These networks charged reasonable, regulated rates for universal service.   Emerging technologies for prison communication are taking a decidedly different approach: instead of applying security protocols to a general purpose network, prisons are relying on specialized providers that use proprietary systems and charge user fees far in excess of cost.  The profits of this model are then divided among the prison systems and the private equity firms that own the providers.

New technologies have the potential to help incarcerated people.  But the ways in which such systems are being implemented tend to focus on profits over people.  The Colorado/GTL contract provides other jurisdictions with a case study in how new technologies can be implemented in ways that financially exploit incarcerated people and their support networks.  Other jurisdictions should view the Colorado experience with caution, and strive to develop better, more humane models for bringing prison communications into the twenty-first century.

July 6, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

An amusing shout-out for the US Sentencing Commission's guideline simplification efforts

I just noticed an blog-worthy little concurrence by Judge Owens at the end of a Ninth Circuit panel decision last week in US V. Perez-Silvan, No. 16-10177 (9th Cir. June 28, 2017) (available here). The case concerned application of the "crime of violence" sentencing enhancement to a sentence for illegal reentry after deportation based on a prior Tennessee conviction for aggravated assault, and Judge Owen wrote this short opinion to praise the work of both his court and the US Sentencing Commission:

I fully join Judge O’Scannlain’s opinion, which faithfully applies controlling law to the question at hand.  But what a bad hand it is -- requiring more than 16 pages to resolve an advisory question.  I applaud the United States Sentencing Commission for reworking U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2 to spare judges, lawyers, and defendants from the wasteland of DescampsSee U.S.S.G. supp. app. C, amend. 802 (2016); U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2(b) (2016).  I continue to urge the Commission to simplify the Guidelines to avoid the frequent sentencing adventures more complicated than reconstructing the Staff of Ra in the Map Room to locate the Well of the Souls.  Cf. Almanza-Arenas v. Lynch, 815 F.3d 469, 482–83 (9th Cir. 2016) (en banc) (Owens, J., concurring); Raiders of the Lost Ark (Paramount Pictures 1981).

July 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Highlighting efforts to expand Miller (and Graham?) to older "kids" in Pennsylvania

This new local article, headlined "In Philly courts, whether they'll die in prison comes down to their birthday," reports on efforts by young adult offenders to expand the Supreme Court's recent Eighth Amendment doctrines limiting severe juvenile punishments.  Here are excerpts:

In 1982, when Judge Armand Della Porta sentenced Orlando Stewart to spend the rest of his life in prison, he did it with apparent regret.  “This is the best example of how wrong mandatory sentencing is,” he said.  Stewart was the last of 10 West Philadelphia teenagers sentenced in the 1981 death of University of Pennsylvania graduate student Douglas Huffman. They’d gone out in a pack, looking for someone to rob.  One teen hit Huffman, knocking him to the pavement where he hit his head hard enough to fracture his skull. Huffman declined medical treatment, and was found dead in his bed two days later.

Seven of the teens served short sentences, some as little as a year.  Ronald Saunders, who orchestrated the attack, was sentenced to life.  But he was made eligible for parole this March after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that drew on evolving brain science to conclude juveniles are less culpable than adults, and cannot be doomed to life without parole under mandatory sentencing rules.  Charles Manor, the teen who knocked Huffman to the ground, was also made eligible for parole.

But Stewart, who never touched Huffman, won’t get a new sentence.  That’s because two months and 10 days before the crime, Stewart turned 18.  Those two months were the difference between kid and adult under the law — and between the “hope for some years of life outside prison walls” promised in that 2016 Supreme Court decision and the certainty of death in prison.

Now, appeals by 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old lifers like Stewart have begun to reach Pennsylvania’s highest court.  One was filed in June by Charmaine Pfender, who was 18 when she shot a man she says was attempting to rape her at knifepoint, killing him.  Such petitions argue that the same immaturity and impulsivity that diminish younger teens’ culpability continue well into the 20s, as a person’s brain continues to develop.  If successful, the appeals could have sweeping implications: More than half of Pennsylvania’s lifers entered the state prison system between age 18 and 25.  That’s 2,763 inmates.

These arguments appear to be gaining traction elsewhere.  An Illinois appeals court in December granted a new sentencing hearing to Antonio House, who was 19 when he participated in a gang-related killing.  And a federal judge has agreed to hear arguments in the Connecticut case of Luis Noel Cruz, who was 18 when he participated in a murder.

Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychologist specializing in brain development, says such arguments have a scientific basis. His research shows that, while cognitive abilities mature by age 16, other parts of the brain mature later. Areas that influence criminal culpability, like impulsiveness, risk-aversion, and resistance to peer pressure, continue maturing well into the 20s.  “The science would certainly say there’s significant brain maturation that continues to go on at least until age 21, if not beyond,” he said. “The legal question is harder than the scientific question.”...

In light of evolving neuroscience, some jurisdictions have begun to set up young-adult courts, targeting those between 18 and 25 for consideration that is somewhere between juvenile and adult proceedings. San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Chicago have all launched such initiatives.  But in a string of U.S. Supreme Court cases, beginning with Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 case that abolished the juvenile death penalty, the court determined “a line must be drawn.” Age 18 seemed a conventional choice.

This line has led to perplexing moments in the courtroom over the last year and a half, as Pennsylvania judges have worked to resentence some 500 juvenile lifers — the largest such population in the nation.  Their sentences were deemed illegal under Miller vs. Alabama, a 2012 case, but it took a second case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, to get Pennsylvania courts to apply the ruling retroactively.

At least a half-dozen lifers who sought new sentences in Philadelphia waited for months while lawyers tracked down birth certificates from the 1950s, ’60s, or ’70s to determine whether they were on the right side of 18 at the time of the crime.  One, Steven Drake — the only 18-year-old in a group of 11 youths charged in a 1971 stabbing in West Philadelphia — was 23 days too old to make the cut, according to the date of birth on his court docket.

As the title of this post highlights, while this article discusses efforts to expanded the reach of the Supreme Court's Miller ruling precluding mandatory LWOP sentencing of juvenile murderers, this kind of litigation also would carry the potential to expanded the reach of the Supreme Court's prior Graham ruling precluding any LWOP sentencing for juvenile non-homicide offenders.

July 6, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

July 5, 2017

"How smart was Obama's 'Smart on Crime' initiative? Not very"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Fox News commentary authored by Lawrence Leiser (president of the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys), Nathan Catura (president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association), Bob Bushman (president of the National Narcotics Officers’ Associations’ Coalition), Al Regnery (chairman of the Law Enforcement Action Network), and Ron Hosko (president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund). The piece largely serves as a defense of the new Sessions charging/sentencing policies, and here is the bulk of what this impressive quintet have to say:

Department of Justice policies since the 1980s directed federal prosecutors to charge the most serious readily provable offense, unless justice required otherwise.  It’s undisputed that this charging practice, applied over the course of several Republican and Democratic administrations in recent decades, contributed to the reduction of violent crime by half between 1991 and 2014.

The Obama administration’s “Smart on Crime” initiative — touted by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in a recent oped in the Washington Post titled “Making America scared again won’t make us safer” — undermined those hard-fought gains in public safety, and ushered in significant increases in violent crime.  In 2015, violent crime rose 5.6 percent — the greatest increase since 1991 — and included a shocking 10.8 percent increase in homicide rates.  And, although the final numbers for 2016 have not been published, the preliminary data suggests another substantial increase in the violent crime rate.

Among the policies championed by then Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General Yates was one that reversed long-standing charging policies and directed federal prosecutors to avoid minimum sentences against drug traffickers, as mandated by Congress, and instead pursue lesser charges.  Despite the well-known and deadly violence associated with drug cartels, gangs and their networks, the Holder-Yates policies directed federal prosecutors in certain cases to under-charge drug trafficking cases and avoid triggering statutory minimum penalties by not pressing charges on the actual amount of drugs that traffickers distributed, such as heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine.

Changes in federal law enforcement policy can ripple through communities across the country and affect their safety.  “Smart on Crime” was part of a larger policy shift within the Obama administration from drug abstinence and accountability to drug acceptance and victimization.  Since its inception, correlative increases in drug abuse, overdose deaths and violent crime have had a devastating impact on every community, regardless of sex or demographics.  The reduced charging and sentencing of thousands of drug traffickers and their early release from prison — all hallmarks of the Holder-Yates policies of the Obama years — have begun to leave their devastating mark downstream on the safety of communities across the nation.  The surge in violent crime should not be surprising.  Drug trafficking by its very nature, is a violent crime.

Take the recent account of Michael Bell, a former federally-convicted methamphetamine dealer who, when facing new state charges in Tennessee for kidnapping and domestic assault, shot two sheriff’s deputies during a court proceeding.  Bell would have still been in federal prison had he not been released in 2015, three years earlier than scheduled, because of the across-the-board sentencing reductions prior administration leaders pushed the U.S. Sentencing Commission to impose.

Not surprisingly, those former officials continue to use the term “low level, non-violent offender” to promote a sanitized narrative of drug trafficking for profit.  Law enforcement professionals know that drug trafficking enterprises are comprised of integrated networks of street corner dealers, mid-level traffickers, distributors, producers and cartel leaders, whose collective efforts inherently rely on violence and have contributed to the deaths of over 50,000 Americans last year in drug overdoses alone.

Despite the evocative “second chance” narrative that stirs support among sentencing reformers, law enforcement professionals also know that the people who end up in federal prison work hard to get there.  Few offenders go to prison for their first offense, or even the second or third.  Many of the people who end up in federal prison have committed violent crimes, are members of drug trafficking and criminal organizations or simply have chosen to continue to disregard our laws. Because the majority of criminals admit their guilt, plea bargaining involves the dismissal or reduction of related charges, which greatly reduces the criminal histories and sentences of countless criminals. That means the numbers and types of crimes for which many of them are arrested, but never charged or convicted, are incalculable.  Criminals are committing thousands of crimes and violent acts against our citizens for which they are never held accountable.

Seeking justice and keeping the peace, it is federal law enforcement agencies and their state and local partners who will strive to enforce the laws that Congress enacted to protect our country and its citizens.  The surest way to preserve public safety is to honor the laws the people have passed and to enforce them to the fullest.

July 5, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25)

Divided California Supreme Court decides Prop 47 did not alter rules for retroactivity of Prop 36 three-strikes reform

As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, headlined "California Supreme Court makes it harder for three-strike prisoners to get sentence reductions," earlier this week the top court in California divided over the resolution of an intricate and interesting retroactivity question. Here are the details:

Judges have broad authority in refusing to lighten the sentences of “three-strike” inmates, despite recent ballot measures aimed at reducing the state’s prison population, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday. In a 4-3 decision, the court said judges may freely decline to trim sentences for inmates who qualify for reductions under a 2012 ballot measure intended to reform the state’s tough three-strikes sentencing law.

Justice Leondra R. Kruger, an appointee of Gov. Jerry Brown, joined the more conservative justices to reach the result. The decision aimed to resolve questions posed by two ballot measures in recent years to reduce the population of the state’s overburdened prison system.

Proposition 36 allowed three-strike inmates to obtain sentence reductions if their third strike was neither serious nor violent. Judges were entitled to refuse a reduction if they believed the inmate posed an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety.” They could consider the inmate’s history, disciplinary record in prison or other evidence.

Two years later, voters passed another ballot measure to reduce the prison population.  That measure, Proposition 47, created a definition of a safety risk that judges were required to apply.  Inmates could be denied a sentence reduction only if they were deemed to pose an unreasonable risk of committing certain crimes, including a killing, a sexually violent offense, child molestation or other serious or violent felony punishable by life in prison or the death penalty.

The court majority, led by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, said Monday that definition did not apply to three-strikers, who have been sentenced to 25 years to life for repeated crimes.  If it had, Cantil-Sakauye wrote, it would “result in the release of more recidivist serious and/or violent offenders than had been originally contemplated under Proposition 36.”

Cantil-Sakauye noted that none of the ballot materials for Proposition 47 mentioned that it would affect three-strike prisoners. Proposition 47 allowed judges to reduce some nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.  “Based on the analysis and summary they prepared, there is no indication that the Legislative Analyst or the Attorney General were even aware that the measure might amend the resentencing criteria governing the Three Strikes Reform Act,” the chief justice wrote.

The ruling came in appeals filed by David J. Valencia and Clifford Paul Chaney, who were both sentenced to 25 years to life under the three strikes law and both eligible for reduced terms under Proposition 36. Valencia’s criminal history included kidnapping, making criminal threats and striking his wife.  Chaney’s record included armed robbery and three convictions for driving under the influence....

Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Brown’s two other appointees — Justices Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar — noted in dissents that Proposition 47 clearly stated that the definition would apply throughout the criminal code.  The more restrictive definition advanced “the goal of concentrating state corrections spending on the most dangerous offenders,” Cuéllar wrote, and gave three-strike prisoners only “a marginally stronger basis” for winning sentence reductions.

Liu said the court majority had concluded “that the drafters of Proposition 47 pulled a fast one on an uninformed public.” But it is also possible that voters, unhappy about the huge amounts of money being spent on prisons, “knew exactly what they were doing,” Liu wrote.  Monday’s ruling “disserves the initiative process, the inmates who are now its beneficiaries, and the judicial role itself,” he said.

The full 110-page(!) opinion in this case is available at this link.

July 5, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal district judge explains his remarkable reasons for rejecting an unremarkable plea deal in heroin dealing prosecution

A helpful reader alerted me to a fascinating opinion issued last week by US District Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia in US v. Walker, No. 2:17-cr-00010 (SD W. Va. June 26, 2017) (available here).  The full opinion is a must read, and here is its conclusion:

My twenty-two years of imposing long prison sentences for drug crimes persuades me that the effect of law enforcement on the supply side of the illegal drug market is insufficient to solve the heroin and opioid crisis at hand. I also see scant evidence that prohibition is preventing the growth of the demand side of the drug market. Nevertheless, policy reform, coordinated education efforts, and expansion of treatment programs are not within my bailiwick. I may only enforce the laws of illicit drug prohibition.

The law is the law, and I am satisfied that enforcing the law through public adjudications focuses attention on the heroin and opioid crisis.  The jury trial reveals the dark details of drug distribution and abuse to the community in a way that a plea bargained guilty plea cannot.  A jury trial tells a story.  The jury members listening to the evidence come away with personally impactful information about the deadly and desperate heroin and opioid crisis existing in their community.  They are educated in the process of performing their civic duty and are likely to communicate their experience in the courtroom to family members and friends.  Moreover, the attendant media attention that a jury trial occasions communicates to the community that such conduct is unlawful and that the law is upheld and enforced.  The communication of a threat of severe punishment acts as an effective deterrent.  As with other criminalized conduct, the shame of a public conviction and prison sentence specifically deters the sentenced convict from committing the crime again — at least for so long as he is imprisoned.

Over time, jury verdicts involving the distribution of heroin and opioids reinforce condemnation of the conduct by the public at large. In turn, respect for the law propagates.117 This respect for the law may eventually reduce such criminal conduct.

The secrecy surrounding plea bargains in heroin and opioid cases frequently undermines respect for the law and deterrence of crime.  The bright light of the jury trial deters crime, enhances respect for the law, educates the public, and reinforces their sense of safety much more than a contract entered into in the shadows of a private meeting in the prosecutor’s office.

For the reasons stated, I REJECT the plea agreement.

It will be quite interesting to see if the parties appeal this rejection of the plea agreement or if the defendant decides to plea without the benefit of any agreement (which I believe must be accepted if the judge finds it is voluntary).

July 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

July 4, 2017

"Everyone should go to jail, say, once every ten years"

The title of this post is the (slightly off) headline of this recent Los Angeles Times op-ed authored by Jesse Ball. Here is the start of the provocative piece: 

To a nation of jailers:

A notable demand that is made upon the citizens of the United States of America is that of jury duty.  Although many despise, hate and avoid it, there is a general sense that the task is necessary. We believe a society is only just if everyone shares in the apportionment of guilt.

To this demand of jury duty, I would like to add another, and in the same spirit.  I propose that all citizens of the United States of America should serve a brief sentence of incarceration in our maximum-security penitentiaries.  This service, which would occur for each person once in a decade, would help ensure that the quality of life within our prisons is sufficient for the keeping of human beings.

The new population of inmates would not be separated from the general population. They would be like any others, and treated like any others. The length of incarceration would be randomly determined, anywhere from three to 90 days. Crucially, you would not be told in advance how long you would have to be there.

And of course, while you are in prison serving your incarceration duty, your behavior will have to be perfect. If you were to fight with another inmate or rebuke a guard, your time might be extended, and that would go for everyone: peons, aristocrats, elected officials. All elected and appointed officials, judges, federal, state servants, members of the military, would participate in incarceration duty. There would be no putting it off.

Just think, if everyone in the United States were to become, within a 10-year period, familiar with what it is like to be incarcerated, is there any question that the quality of our prisons would improve? It also follows that the skill and understanding of our juries might grow apace, as they would now know to what they were condemning those they condemn.

I describe the headline of this piece as "slightly off" because it seems the author is actually calling for national service duty at maximum-security penitentiaries, not just jails.  As one who has visited a few maximum-security penitentiaries and a few jails, I can say that one learns a lot just from a visit to any locus of incarceration.  But while I am not sure I would endorse a mandate of actual periods of incarceration as a civic duty, I still thought it worth spotlighting this notable commentary on a day we celebrate independence and freedom.

July 4, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (13)

"Impeachable Offenses? The Case for Removal of the 45th President of the United States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new blog created by former federal prosecutor and sentencing guru Professor Frank Bowman. Frank sent a note about the blog around a criminal law professor listserve yesterday, and I thought sharing that note today was, in a nerdy-law-professor way, kind of patriotic. So here is a bit of what Frank had to say about his new blog:

I propose to discuss, as dispassionately as possible, the case for impeachment of Mr. Trump. An actual impeachment is, as I’m sure you’d agree, a highly unlikely event.  But the prospect is talked about constantly, so I thought I’d try to create a resource for careful examination of all aspects of the question. I hope to make it a combination of (1) sources for those really interested in the subject, (2) quick-hit posts of links to other articles by other authors discussing impeachment, and (3) a growing series of essays by me, perhaps some of my students, and maybe other contributors on aspects of the impeachment problem.

Although it is a work in progress, I now have enough content on the site that I feel comfortable in telling people about it. I am in the midst of a series of posts analyzing the case for criminal obstruction of justice against Mr. Trump. See, e.g., this posting. In it, I discuss the views of Eric Posner, Daniel Hemel, Randall Eliason, Alan Dershowitz, and others. Professor Dershowitz has been kind enough to respond to my remarks on his position, and I’ve posted a rejoinder.

July 4, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

July 3, 2017

Highlighting Justice Gorsuch's interesting concurrence in Hicks on the perils of permitting sentencing error to persist

Adam Liptak has this effective new article in the New York Times about the effectiveness of the new Justice on the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. The article is headlined "Confident and Assertive, Gorsuch Hurries to Make His Mark," and it develops the point that Justice Gorsuch's "early opinions were remarkably self-assured." The article and that line reminded me that I have been meaning to highlight Justice Gorsuch's remarkable little concurrence on the final day of the term in the Hicks v. US, No. 16-7806 (S. Ct. June 26, 2017) (available here).

Hicks is a quirky case in a quirky posture after the defendant was sentenced under the wrong crack sentencing law during the transitional uncertainty after the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act. The government admits in its briefing to SCOTUS that Hicks' 20-year mandatory-minimum sentence was legally erroneous, but the government asked SCOTUS to remand the case to the Fifth Circuit to conduct the full plain error analysis. The Supreme Court did just that via a short order, but the Chief Justice joined by Justice Thomas dissented with a short opinion suggesting that SCOTUS should make a plain error decision before being willing to vacate the judgment below. This dissent, it seems, prompted Judge Gorsuch to want to defend the Court's action and in so doing he had a lot of interesting things to say. These passages from the end of his concurrence in particular caught my attention:

A plain legal error infects this judgment—a man was wrongly sentenced to 20 years in prison under a defunct statute.  No doubt, too, there’s a reasonable probability that cleansing this error will yield a different outcome.  Of course, Mr. Hicks’s conviction won’t be undone, but the sentencing component of the district court’s judgment is likely to change, and change substantially. For experience surely teaches that a defendant entitled to a sentence consistent with 18 U.S.C. §3553(a)’s parsimony provision, rather than pursuant to the rigors of a statutory mandatory minimum, will often receive a much lower sentence.  So there can be little doubt Mr. Hicks’s substantial rights are, indeed, implicated.  Cf. Molina-Martinez v. United States, 578 U. S. ___, ___ (2016).  When it comes to the fourth prong of plain error review, it’s clear Mr. Hicks also enjoys a reasonable probability of success.  For who wouldn’t hold a rightly diminished view of our courts if we allowed individuals to linger longer in prison than the law requires only because we were unwilling to correct our own obvious mistakes?  Cf. United States v. Sabillon-Umana, 772 F.3d 1328, 1333 (CA10 2014).

Now this Court has no obligation to rove about looking for errors to correct in every case in this large country, and I agree with much in Justice Scalia’s dissent in Nunez v. United States, 554 U.S. 911, 911–913 (2008), suggesting caution..... But, respectfully, I am unaware of any such reason here.  Besides, if the only remaining objection to vacating the judgment here is that, despite our precedent routinely permitting the practice, we should be wary of remanding a case without first deciding for ourselves the latter elements of the plain error test, that task is so easily done that in this case that I cannot think why it should not be done. Indeed, the lone peril in the present case seems to me the possibility that we might permit the government to deny someone his liberty longer than the law permits only because we refuse to correct an obvious judicial error.

Based on Justice Gorsuch's votes in a few other criminal cases, early indications suggest that he is far more often going to vote in favor of the government rather than in favor of criminal defendants across the range of criminal law and procedure cases.  But his decision to write separately in this little case to push back at the dissenters here with this particular language leads me to wonder if Justice Gorsuch (like the Justice he replaced) might prove to be an especially interesting and unpredictable vote and voice in federal sentencing cases in particular.

July 3, 2017 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Crime, the Constitution, and the Trump Administration"

The title of this post is the title of this extended commentary authored by Tim Lynch, who directs the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.  Here is how it starts and ends:

President Trump says crime is a serious problem and that he’s going to do something about it.  His first move was to nominate Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to be the new attorney general.  Sessions, a former federal prosecutor, is widely known for his “lock ‘em up” philosophy and tough stances on drugs and immigration.  As the first 100 days of the Trump presidency recede into history, it is a good time to pause and assess what’s in store for the American criminal justice system.

To begin, it is very unfortunate that Trump has chosen to elevate the crime problem in the way that he has because it reinforces the mistaken idea that the federal government “oversees” our criminal justice system.  In fact, the Constitution says very little about federal criminal jurisdiction.  According to the constitutional text, piracy, treason, and counterfeiting are supposed to be the federal government’s concern, but not much else.  The common law crimes of murder, rape, assault, and theft are to be handled by state and local governments.  Of course, as the federal government grew in size and scope, it came to involve itself in a host of local matters — from schools to road maintenance to crime fighting.  Although Trump has spoken of “draining the swamp” and slashing the federal budget, he not only seems uninterested in reducing the federal role in crime-fighting, but is also clearly moving to expand that role....

To conclude this overview of the criminal justice policy landscape, the first few months of the Trump presidency have been unsettling, to say the least.  Trump may have good intentions, but his gut instincts in the area of criminal justice are terribly misguided.  Massive deportations, marijuana raids, property seizures, and militarized policing will jolt the foundations of our constitutional republic.  Criminal justice reformers will win some policy battles — especially at the state and local level, but the road ahead looks treacherous indeed.

July 3, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

July 2, 2017

Reviewing what Hurst has come to mean for the death penalty in Florida

This new Miami Herald article, headlined "There are fewer murderers on Florida’s Death Row but not because of executions," reports on the enduring echo effects of the Supreme Court's most significant capital punishment ruling in recent years. Here is how the article gets started:

The full impact of a historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Florida’s death penalty system is finally emerging as the state’s Death Row population is smaller than it was more than a decade ago and will keep shrinking for a long time.

Florida has not executed an inmate in 18 months. No inmates haves been sent to Death Row in more than a year, a sign that prosecutors are not trying as many first-degree murder cases because of uncertainties in the sentencing system.

“There is no reason to sign a death warrant if you know it’s going to get delayed,” said State Attorney Bernie McCabe, the top prosecutor in Pinellas and Pasco counties. “I think judges are reluctant to if they don’t know what the rules are.”

Florida’s Death Row population now stands at 362, according to the Department of Corrections web site. That’s the lowest number since 2004; only a year ago, the population was 389.

Many more cells on Death Row are certain to be emptied as the Florida Supreme Court continues to vacate death sentences because they violate a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Hurst v. Florida.  The case struck down the state’s death penalty sentencing system because it limited jurors to an advisory role, a violation of the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.

In four new cases, the state’s high court upheld first-degree murder convictions Thursday but ordered that all four defendants must be resentenced because of the Hurst decision, a step that could spare any or all of them a trip to the execution chamber.

One of the four, John Sexton, was convicted of the brutal 2010 Pasco County slaying of Ann Parlato, a 94-year-old woman who lived alone. The jury that convicted Sexton recommend his execution by a vote of 10 to 2, a split decision that justices said Thursday is a violation of the Hurst decision.  Justices also lifted the death sentence of Tiffany Ann Cole, convicted of burying a couple alive in Jacksonville.  She’s one of three women on Death Row.

Legal experts say that in all, up to 150 death sentences could be reversed or be sent back to trial courts for resentencing hearings in other cases in which the jury’s recommendation of a death sentence was not unanimous. Those penalty phase hearings will strain the limited resources of prosecutors and public defenders, who must scramble to find old trial transcripts and witnesses and must empanel new juries.  “I’ll use one word: ‘chaos,’ ” said retired Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan of Miami. “It’s just a mess.”

Scott Sundby, a law professor at the University of Miami, said the impact on the criminal justice system will be significant.  “It essentially means that every new penalty phase is going to have to be re-investigated and presented in full,” Sundby said.  “There will not be an ability to simply rely on the prior penalty phase.”

July 2, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)