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July 28, 2017

Texas completes second US execution in as many days

On the heals of Ohio on Wednesday completing its first execution in 3.5 years (details here), Texas late Thursday completed its fifth execution of 2017.  This Texas Tribune article provides some details, from which these excerpts are drawn:

After more than 12 years on death row, a San Antonio man convicted in a fatal stabbing was executed Thursday night. It was Texas’ fifth execution of the year. TaiChin Preyor, 46, had filed a flurry of appeals in the weeks leading up to his execution date, claiming his trial lawyer never looked into evidence of an abusive childhood and his previous appellate counsel — a disbarred attorney paired with a real estate and probate lawyer who relied on Wikipedia in her legal research — committed fraud on the court.

But he lost all of the appeals, with the U.S. Supreme Court issuing a final ruling in the case more than two hours after his execution was originally set to begin. At 9:03 p.m., he was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital in Texas’ death chamber and pronounced dead 19 minutes later, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. In his final words, he mentioned his love for his wife and kids and cited a Coretta Scott King quote, saying, "Justice has never advanced by taking a life," according to TDCJ.

Preyor was accused of breaking into 20-year-old Jami Tackett’s apartment in February 2004 and stabbing her to death. He was found at the scene by police covered in her blood. Preyor claimed the killing was done in self-defense after a drug deal gone bad, but the jury was unconvinced. He was convicted and sentenced to death in March 2005. No witnesses for Preyor or Tackett attended the execution, according to TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst.

During his latest appeals, Preyor’s attorneys argued that his trial lawyer, Michael Gross, was inadequate because he didn’t present evidence of a physically and sexually abusive childhood that could have swayed a jury to hand down the alternate sentence of life in prison. “[The jury] did not learn that Preyor jumped from a fourth floor balcony as a teenager, breaking both his ankles in the fall, to escape his mother as she chased him with a knife,” attorneys Hilary Sheard and Cate Stetson wrote in a filing to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. “... Any competent counsel would have recognized the importance of uncovering these harrowing details and presenting them to the jury responsible for recommending a life sentence or a death sentence.”

July 28, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (27)

July 27, 2017

Reviewing data and lessons of recent Urban Institute report on rising prison time

German Lopez has this new Vox piece that effectively reviews the data and lessons on the recent Urban Institute big new project on long prison terms titled, "A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons." (This prior post covered that report when it was first released a few weeks ago.)  The full title of this piece captures its primary themes: "Liberals often blame mass incarceration on the war on drugs.  That’s not quite right. A new report shows that the real increase in prison sentences has come from violent offenses, not lower-level crimes."  Here are excerpts:

“Longer sentences are stacking up,” Ryan King, the lead researcher for the Urban report, told me.  “And in many states, the data suggest that they’re stacking up at a rate significant enough that it can offset reforms for the less serious offenses.”

The report includes various other findings.  It found there are vast racial disparities in the top 10 percent of prison sentences, just as there are for lower-level offenses.  The people locked up also tend to be fairly young, which robs communities — particularly black neighborhoods — of people who could grow up to be productive citizens instead of serving out disproportionately harsh sentences. It also told the stories of a few people who suffered through some of these long sentences.  You should really read the whole thing.

But I want to home in on the big finding because it shows what the traditional story about mass incarceration has gotten wrong.  Much of the attention has gone to harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, but they seem to have had a fairly small impact on overall incarceration rates.  What seemed to change, instead, is that the system enforced longer prison sentences for some of the worst offenses — and that led to a lot more imprisonment....

To really address the problem of mass incarceration, then, it’s not enough to just focus on drug crimes; it’s also important to focus on violent offenses. It’s also not enough to just focus on the laws guiding prison sentences; it’s also necessary to look at how those laws are enforced in the real world. And addressing all of these issues will require a truly systemic effort — from addressing what the local prosecutor is doing to what laws state policymakers pass to what the president and his attorney general are asking the US Department of Justice to do.

It will be a long, arduous effort.  After years of lawmakers building up incarceration at every level of government, it will likely take years of more policymaking at every level of government to unwind what previous generations of leaders have done.  “This is a long-term project,” King of Urban said. “But we do see it as one that’s ringing a bell saying, look, we’re going to have to deal with this.”

July 27, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Helpful summary of USSC's recent overview of mandatory minimums in federal system

As reported in this prior post, the US Sentencing Commission earlier this month released a lengthy new publication titled "An Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System" reviewing the use of federal mandatory minimum penalties and their impact on the federal prison population. Now the USSC has released this two-page publication with the big report's highlights. Here are highlights of these highlights:

July 27, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (1)

Some notable coverage of felon disenfranchisement via Take Care blog

The Take Care blog continues to be a must-read for anyone eager to get a range of law professor perspectives on a range of legal issues related to activities by the Trump Administration and other topics of the era.  And, thanks to a comment by Joe, I just saw that Nancy Leong has recently been covering the issue of felon disenfranchisement there via these teo postings:

Here is an excerpt from the latter of these posts:

Investigators have found a correlation between voting behavior and likelihood of recidivism. In one study, former felons who voted in 1996 were only half as likely to be rearrested during the years 1997-2000 as those who did not vote. Of course, correlation is not causation, and the study neither proves nor disproves that voting caused the rehabilitation of felons who voted. But this information does suggest that voting forms part of an overall pattern of behavior that, collectively, may help to prevent former felons from reoffending. The researchers who conducted the study acknowledged that “the single behavioral act of casting a ballot is unlikely to be the single factor that turns felons’ lives around,” yet also suggest that “it is likely the act of voting is tapping something real, such as a desire to participate as a law-abiding stakeholder in a larger society.”

Other researchers concur. Criminologist Shadd Maruna explains that “ex-offenders who desist seem to find some larger cause that brings them a sense of purpose,” which might include involvement in public affairs. He argues that re-enfranchisement can serve as a “reintegration ritual” that helps a former offender become part of law-abiding society. In a similar vein, legal scholars Guy Padriac Hamilton-Smith and Matt Vogel reason as follows: “if ex-offenders are not deserving of the protections of the law, then there is even less reason for them to abide by it.”

July 27, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

July 26, 2017

Timely and puzzling statement from AG Sessions on work of DOJ Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety

While he has been getting bashed repeatedly by Prez Trump in recent days, Attorney General Sessions has been noticably quiet.  This afternoon, however, the Justice Department released this press release under the heading "Statement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Recommendations From the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety."  Here is its full text:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions today issued the following statement on the work of the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety:

"Every American, no matter who they are or where they live, has the right to be safe in their homes and neighborhoods.  And yet, in many locations, the violent crime rate is rising, and in some of our urban areas, the increase is staggering.  Reducing this crime surge is a top priority for President Trump and the Department of Justice.  Consistent with the President's Executive Order on a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, I created the Task Force in February and it has provided me with recommendations on a rolling basis.  Dedicated professionals from throughout the Department have been listening to our partners in state, local, and tribal law enforcement; identifying successful violent crime reduction strategies; and developing recommendations on actions the Department can take to help improve public safety.

"I have been acting on the Task Force's recommendations to set the policy of the Department.  I will continue to review all of the Task Force's recommendations, and look forward to taking additional steps towards ensuring safer communities for all Americans."

I do not think this press release is meant as a direct response to recent statements by Prez Trump, but I do think it serves as an indirect way for AG Sessions to remind Prez Trump that the AG is busy doing the job Prez Trump appointed him to do.  In addition, an (informal?) deadline for the Task Force's recommendations was set for July 27, and I believe a lot of folks (myself included) thought we could be getting some public information about the Task Force's recommendations on that date or soon thereafter.  I believe this statement by AG Sessions is suggesting that no big formal announcements or big DOJ changes of policy should be expected tomorrow.

But maybe AG Sessions is saying and signaling something else with this statement.  When I first read it, I started looking for some other new document which set out some of the Task Force's recommendations.  But I have not found any such document, nor (after a re-read of this statement) do I think such a document is soon forthcoming.  That is why I find this statement somewhat puzzling, though perhpas I should not try so hard to read between the lines.

July 26, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Jared Kushner still finding time to work on sentencing reform with members of Congress

This lengthy new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Kushner’s Interest in Drug-Sentencing Limits Is at Odds With Attorney General: Jared Kushner has discussed criminal justice changes with lawmakers who backed a 2016 measure that then-senator Jeff Sessions opposed," reports on the continued efforts of President Trump's son-in-law to keep federal statutory sentencing reform afloat. Here are excerpts:

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and some Republican lawmakers are discussing potential changes to the criminal justice system, including to mandatory minimum sentencing, that could conflict with Attorney General Jeff Sessions ’ tough-on-crime agenda.

Mr. Kushner met this month with House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), continuing a dialogue with lawmakers that began in March with Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) and Sens. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah). Mr. Kushner also has huddled with leaders of organizations involved in criminal justice.

“He’s quietly listening to all sides, including outside groups, to understand what’s possible and to ultimately be able to make a recommendation to the president,” said a White House official familiar with the meetings. “It’s a personal issue to him given his father spent time in prison. He got to know the families and got to see what’s wrong with the federal prison system.” Mr. Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, a real-estate executive, was sentenced in 2005 to two years in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion.

Mr. Kushner’s discussions have included a range of issues, including curbing long mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. In contrast, Mr. Sessions is promoting mandatory minimums as a pivotal crime-fighting tool that helps prosecutors get cooperation from suspects and keeps dangerous offenders behind bars. Mr. Kushner has met with Mr. Sessions and is trying to find common ground, according to the White House official.

However, Mr. Sessions appears to have lost favor with the president for recusing himself from a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mr. Trump has taken to berating Mr. Sessions publicly, on Tuesday saying on Twitter Mr. Sessions “has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes,” referring to the Federal Bureau of Investigation look into her email practices. On Monday, Mr. Trump referred to Mr. Sessions as “our beleaguered A.G.”

“Everyone does see it as a challenge that some people in the White House and Congress want to do criminal justice reform but are at odds with actions the attorney general is taking,” said Greg Mitchell, a federal lobbyist who has worked on criminal-justice issues for years, representing groups that favor shorter sentences....

Mr. Grassley, in a recent speech outlining his agenda at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said he is awaiting input from the White House before reviving the sentencing bill. Supporters cast it as a bipartisan initiative that demonstrates the growing consensus around reducing the prison population. “It is consistent to be both tough on crime and still support sentencing reform,” Mr. Grassley said at AEI. “Passing a sentencing bill remains a top legislative priority for me as chairman.”

Advocates of less-punitive drug-sentencing laws view Mr. Kushner as their chief ally in the White House. However, Mr. Kushner’s responsibilities are broad, from Middle East politics to overhauling the federal bureaucracy. He has also been drawn into the Russia probes. As with climate change and other issues, criminal justice divides the White House into opposing camps. Mr. Trump ran on a law-and-order platform, and Mr. Sessions has largely executed that agenda.

“We have a chance of getting the support of this administration,” Mr. Grassley said in his AEI speech. “You look at some people appointed by this president, you might believe otherwise, but I have reason to believe it’s possible. I know there is both support and opposition within this White House.”

In a sign of the sensitivities surrounding drug sentencing, two newly-filed criminal-justice bills steer clear of the issue. Rep. Doug Collins (R., Ga.) introduced a bill Monday that would require federal prisons to assess inmates’ needs and offer rehabilitation programs. Co-sponsored by Mr. Goodlatte, the bill requests $250 million over the next five years to pay for prison education programs. “As a compassionate conservative, I know that people who are doing time will at some point re-enter the community,” Mr. Collins said.

Congress is unlikely to focus on criminal justice before the fall, lobbyists and staffers say. It’s unclear whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who declined to bring the 2016 sentencing bill to a vote, would embrace a similar bill this time around.

July 26, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Will Ohio successfully get its machinery of death operational today after 3.5 years of delays?... UPDATE: Yes

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the fact that, after years of difficulties securing execution drugs and then litigation delays, Ohio appear poised to have its first execution today since January 2014.  This AP story, headlined "US Supreme Court denies stay of execution for Ohio convict," provides the basic backstory:

A condemned child killer was scheduled to die on Wednesday in the state's first execution in more than three years after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his requests for more time to pursue legal challenges. Ronald Phillips was transported to the death house at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville on Tuesday morning, about 24 hours before his execution was planned. He was convicted of the 1993 rape and killing of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter in Akron.

Justices denied the 43-year-old Phillips a stay on three requests, with a pair of justices dissenting on a request by Phillips that was joined by two other death row inmates with upcoming execution dates. The inmates had asked the court for a delay while they continue challenging Ohio's new lethal-injection method. Justices Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissented, arguing the inmates had demonstrated a likelihood of success at trial. Sotomayor objected to the court's "failure to step in when significant issues of life and death are present."

The death penalty has been on hold in Ohio since January 2014, when a condemned inmate repeatedly gasped and snorted during a 26-minute procedure with a never-before-tried drug combination. Republican Gov. John Kasich halted upcoming executions after that, and delays have continued because the state had trouble finding new supplies of drugs and death row inmates sued on the grounds the state's proposed new three-drug execution method represented "cruel and unusual punishment."

Phillips' arguments were backed up by 15 pharmacology professors, who stepped in Monday to argue that a sedative used in the process, midazolam, is incapable of inducing unconsciousness or preventing serious pain. A federal court last month upheld the use of midazolam, which has been problematic in several executions, including Ohio's in 2014 and others in Arkansas and Arizona.

Phillips also sought a delay based on his age at the time of the killing. He was 19, older than the Supreme Court's cutoff of 18 for the purposes of barring executions of juveniles. His request argued the age should be 21. His lawyers said he had such "psychosocial deficits" when he was picked up by police that they initially took him to a juvenile, rather than an adult, facility.

Attorneys for the state argued Phillips made meritless, often conflicting, legal claims. "Phillips argues that youth, like IQ, cannot be reduced to a number. But he also argues that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of adults under age twenty-one," they wrote in a court document filed Tuesday. "He cannot have it both ways; if age cannot make one eligible for death, it cannot make one ineligible for death."...

Phillips has had several previous delays to scheduled executions, most notably in 2013, when he made a last-minute plea to donate his organs. He said that he wanted to give a kidney to his mother, who was on dialysis, and possibly his heart to his sister. His request was denied. His mother has since died.

If Ohio completes this execution and two more scheduled for 2017 without difficulties, the state could be poised to be the most active execution state in coming years. Ohio has 10 "serious" execution dates already scheduled for 2018, and I believe the state has enough lethal injection drugs to complete them all.

UPDATE:  This local story reports that "Akron child killer Ronald Phillips was put to death Wednesday ... by lethal injection at 10:43 a.m. Wednesday at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville." According to the report, "there were no complications, and witnesses said Phillips showed no signs of gasping, choking or struggling."

July 26, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (15)

July 25, 2017

Shouldn't latest lawsuit challenging federal marijuana prohibition include an Eighth Amendment claim?

The question in the title of this post is my (sentencing-addled?) reaction to seeing the 89-page complaint filed yesterday on behalf of a number of notable plaintiffs in federal district court. The full complaint, which is available at this link, is summarized by Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the advocacy group NORML, in this new posting.  Here is part of that summary: 

Individual plaintiffs in the suit were two young children, an American military veteran, and a retired professional football player, all of whom are medical marijuana patients; and a membership organization alleging their minority members have been discriminated against by the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Seeking to overturn the 2005 Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Raich, plaintiffs request a declaration that the CSA, as it pertains to the classification of Cannabis as a Schedule I drug, is unconstitutional, because it violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, an assortment of protections guaranteed by the First Amendment, and the fundamental Right to Travel. Further, plaintiffs seek a declaration that Congress, in enacting the CSA as it pertains to marijuana, violated the Commerce Clause, extending the breadth of legislative power well beyond the scope contemplated by Article I of the Constitution....

In their Complaint, plaintiffs allege that the federal government does not, and could not possibly, believe that Cannabis meets the definition of a Schedule I drug, which is reserved for the most dangerous of substances, such as heroin, LSD, and mescaline; and that classifying Cannabis as a “Schedule I drug,” is so irrational that it violates the U.S. Constitution. Among the other claims in the lawsuit are that the CSA: (i) was enacted and implemented in order to discriminate against African Americans and to suppress people’s First Amendment rights; and (ii) violates plaintiffs’ constitutional Right to Travel.

Like every self-respecting law professor, I love novel constitutional claims -- they are certainly "good for business."  Consequently, I am intrigued and bemused by the effort to bring down the CSA as a violation of the First Amendment and the "Right to Travel."  But, especially because the CSA includes criminal penalties for any and all marijuana use, even if that use is recommended by a doctor for a serious medical condition, I have long thought there could be a viable Eighth Amendment claim that possible federal prosecution for some marijuana activity threatens a form of "cruel and unusual punishment."

A big new lawsuit attacking the CSA on various grounds on behalf of medical marijuana patients would now seem to present good new opportunity to bring a big new Eighth Amendment claim.  After a lot of recent initiative and legislative reforms, some kind of medical marijuana reform is the law in roughly 90% of US jurisdictions (details here).  And the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence always talks up "evolving standards," and it often stresses the import of "objective indicia of society’s standards, as expressed in legislative enactments and state practice" to evidence a "national consensus" against a particular type of punishment.  It thus strikes me that there is now an especially strong argument that there is now an especially strong national consensus in the US against criminally punishing anyone for using marijuana for a legitimate medical reason.

But perhaps I am missing something when I think about this issue in Eighth Amendment terms, and perhaps a reader can help me identify a possible good reason for this new lawsuit to be missing an Eighth Amendment argument.

July 25, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (8)

"Could Lyin' Ted replace 'beleagured' Jeff? Trump is 'openly considering removing Attorney General Sessions and could replace him with former enemy Cruz"

The title of this post is the headline of this press report that amusingly captures the latest crazy news from inside the Beltway.  Here are the basics:

Ted Cruz is reportedly near the top of Donald Trump's list of choices to potentially replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general.  Cruz, who was regularly mocked by Trump during the Republican primaries and nicknamed 'Lyin' Ted' by the then-candidate, could find himself taking Sessions' spot if the former Alabama representative resigns or is fired, the Washington Post reports.

Trump would reportedly be willing to make the Texan the country's chief law enforcement officer despite him having last year revived a rumor linking Cruz's father, Rafael, to Lee Harvey Oswald and the JFK assassination.

However, Cruz was quick to distance himself from the speculation on Monday night, releasing a statement that said he is 'deeply gratified that we have a principled conservative like Jeff Sessions serving as Attorney General.  He added: 'The stories being reported in the media tonight are false. My focus is and will remain on fighting every day to defend 28 million Texans in the US Senate.'

Another name reportedly under consideration is former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.  Giuliani denied he is in the running for the role, which reportedly is on the cusp of being available due to Trump's desire to fire special counsel Robert Mueller and bring the Russia investigation into his presidential campaign to an end, according to the Post.

Senator Cruz has in the not-so-distant past been a supporter of some federal sentencing reforms for nonviolent drug offenders (such as Smarter Sentencing Act) and also for allowing states to set their own marijuana policies. Generally speaking, because just about any new AG would likely be more supportive of sentencing reform than AG Sessions, advocates of modern sentencing reforms should be rooting for the President to make a change here. But, personally, I still think a change is pretty unlikely.

UPDATE: Prez Trump today criticized AG Sessions yet again, but has not yet indicated plans to fire him. And this Daily Beast article highlights why no one should expect AG Sessions to retire. The piece is headlined "Jeff Sessions Is Growing ‘Pissed’ at Trump, His Allies Say. And He Doesn’t Plan to Quit." Here is a snippet:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has no plans to leave office, as friends say he’s grown angry with President Donald Trump following a series of attacks meant to marginalize his power and, potentially, encourage his resignation. “Sessions is totally pissed off about it,” said a Sessions ally familiar with his thinking. “It’s beyond insane. It’s cruel and it’s insane and it’s stupid.”

Sessions’ allies say the president’s criticism of the attorney general is counterproductive. Perhaps more than any other member of Trump’s Cabinet, Sessions has been an uncompromising advocate for Trump’s agenda. The attorney general has worked methodically to dismantle Obama’s legacy at the Justice Department: reconsidering the department’s efforts to make troubled police departments change their practices, changing the DOJ’s stance on voter-ID lawsuits, and rolling back former Attorney General Eric Holder’s sentencing guidelines that were aimed at reduced incarceration and balancing out drug-crime-related punishments....

“He’s not going anywhere,” said another Sessions ally. “He is not going to resign. What he is accomplishing is way too important to the country.”

Rather than quit, Sessions insiders predict the attorney general will call Trump’s bluff. And unlike other members of Trump’s Cabinet, he has political wiggle room to do so. Trump’s base of support — immigration restrictionists, rank-and-file law-enforcement officials, and states’ rights conservatives — were Sessions’ fans before they flocked to the president. They may very well scoff at the idea that the administration would be better off without its AG. Sessions also enjoys continued support in the Senate, where he served for a decade. On Tuesday morning, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) pushed back on Trump’s attacks and called the president’s encouragement that Sessions prosecute Hillary Clinton over her email use “highly inappropriate.”

July 25, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

July 24, 2017

Distinct approaches to the opioid epidemic

Earlier this month, Kathleen Sebelius and Tommy Thompson, who served as U.S. Secretaries of Health and Human Services under the last two Presidents, penned this Hill commentary headlined "5 big ideas to halt America's opioid epidemic."  Here are the five big ideas as these HHS Secretaries presented them: "Expand access to treatment through insurance...; Rein in overprescription of opioid pain relievers...; Treat opioid addiction as a public health problem...; Stop drug overdose deaths with this solution...; Learn how to treat pain with minimal side effects."

But as the headline of this New York Times article reports, some prosecutors in the New York region have been pursuing a much different big idea: "New Tactic in War on Opioids: Charging Dealers in Overdose Deaths."  Here is an excerpt from the piece:

As heroin and its synthetic cousin, fentanyl, send more and more victims to the morgue, prosecutors are leaping into largely uncharted legal terrain, as they tried in the 1970s, to fight the scourge. The second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges filed against Mr. Cummings follow similar strategies used recently by prosecutors in upstate New York and on Long Island. They also mirror a case brought three years ago by the city’s special narcotics prosecutor, Bridget G. Brennan, against a pain management doctor, Stan Xuhui Li, who was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.

Convicting a physician of recklessly causing the death of his patients is a leap beyond proving a drug dealer did the same to a customer, but they reflect the same approach: prosecutors mixing current laws with new investigative tools to fight back against the rising tide of opioid-related deaths. The Richmond County district attorney, Michael E. McMahon, has applied such tactics in more than 240 overdose cases....

Around the city, a more common path for such cases has been through federal courts. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have brought 13 cases over the last four years charging people with “distribution of drugs causing death,” a statute that carries a 20-year minimum sentence. A bill in Albany, dubbed Laree’s Law, to create a homicide charge in state cases, has languished in the Assembly. In all cases, the authorities said they sought the most punitive sanctions, which has led to a focus on tying narcotics rings to violence, particularly in gang takedowns.

July 24, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Nine Lessons About Criminal Justice Reform: What Washington can learn from the states"

The title of this post is the headline of this extended essay by Bill Keller published last week at The Marshall Project. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts focused on some of Bill's most sentencing-specific lessons:

“Reform” is one of those ambiguous words that mean different things to different people.  I think of reform as something that aims to reduce the numbers of Americans who are removed from society and deprived of their freedom, and to do it without making us less safe.  In 1972, when I was starting my newspaper life at The Oregonian, 93 out of 100,000 Americans were in state or federal prisons.  By 2008 the incarceration rate had grown nearly six-fold, to 536 per 100,000, and it has hovered in that vicinity ever since. That’s not counting the hundreds of thousands held in county jails on any given day or those confined in the juvenile justice system or immigrant detention.

Every year about 650,000 of those prisoners are released back into the world.  We know that most of them will be unemployed a year later, and that two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years.  We have a corrections system that fails to correct.

Here are a few lessons Washington can learn from the states.

Lesson 1: It is possible to reduce incarceration and crime at the same time. ...

Lesson 3: Probably the most effective way to reduce incarceration is not to lock people up in the first place — at least not so many, and not for so long....

Lesson 4: While the front end is important, don’t neglect the back end....

Lesson 5: Be wary of reformers who suggest you can cut incarceration drastically by releasing low-level, nonviolent offenders. ...

Lesson 6: Prison reform doesn’t necessarily mean a huge windfall for taxpayers. ...

Lesson 8: Many states are finding that incentives work better than mandates.

July 24, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

July 23, 2017

"North Dakota’s Norway Experiment: Can humane prisons work in America? A red state aims to find out."

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new Mother Jones piece.  Here are a few excerpts from a piece that justifies a full read:

Scandinavian prisons tend to elicit eye rolls from law-and-order types weaned on the punitive American model.  Yet a growing number of state corrections officials are coming to the realization that our approach is ineffective, costly, and cruel.  Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute of Justice, cites the nation’s staggering recidivism rate — 77 percent of inmates released from state prisons are rearrested within five years.  “Once you realize that this system isn’t working well,” he says, “it’s fairly easy to pivot to: ‘How do we do something different?'”...

North Dakota has advantages as a laboratory for correctional reforms. Like Norway, it is sparsely populated and relatively homogeneous — race-based prison gangs hold little sway here.  Another advantage, Don Specter told me, is simply that the state government is sufficiently small that it can be responsive to the exertions of a visionary leader.  Yet [North Dakota prisons chief Leann] Bertsch and [deputy Karianne] Jackson have no illusions about transforming their system into a corrections utopia overnight.  “You have to pace yourself,” Bertsch says.

The Norwegian principle of “dynamic security” posits that warm relationships between inmates and staff reduce the potential for violence. American prisons typically try to create safe conditions by means of oppressive rules, random searches, and the threat of additional punishment. Transitioning from one approach to the other requires a profound paradigm shift and the ability to sell front-line prison workers on a brand new mindset.  “How do you get somebody who thinks they’re in law enforcement to figure out you need to be more of an empath, more of a social worker, a friend, and a mentor?” Jackson asks.

The correctional officers I met at the state penitentiary, ex-military all, weren’t outwardly hostile to the idea of cultivating relationships with prisoners, but it clearly didn’t come naturally to them.  For that reason, perhaps, the brass created a mandate: Guards in the segregation unit must have at least two conversations per shift with each of the inmates under their supervision.  “It’s worth a shot,” a corrections officer named Josh Hedstrom told me.  “Because what we were doing before wasn’t working.”

July 23, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Reduced jail time in Tennessee for inmates who ... agree to vasectomy or birth control implant!?!?!

This local story out of Tennessee is hard to believe, but it does not appear to be fake news.  The story is headlined "White County Inmates Given Reduced Jail Time If They Get Vasectomy," and here are excerpts:

Inmates in White County, Tennessee have been given credit for their jail time if they voluntarily agree to have a vasectomy or birth control implant, a popular new program that is being called “unconstitutional” by the ACLU.

On May 15, 2017 General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield signed a standing order that allows inmates to receive 30 days credit toward jail time if they undergo a birth control procedure. Women who volunteer to participate in the program are given a free Nexplanon implant in their arm, the implant helps prevent pregnancies for up to four years. Men who volunteer to participate are given a vasectomy, free of charge, by the Tennessee Department of Health.

County officials said that since the program began a few months ago 32 women have gotten the Nexplananon implant and 38 men were waiting to have the vasectomy procedure performed.

Judge Benningfield told NewsChannel 5 that he was trying to break a vicious cycle of repeat offenders who constantly come into his courtroom on drug related charges, subsequently can’t afford child support and have trouble finding jobs. “I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children. This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves,” Judge Benningfield said in an interview.

First elected in 1998, Judge Benningfield decided to implement the program after speaking with officials at the Tennessee Department of Health. “I understand it won’t be entirely successful but if you reach two or three people, maybe that’s two or three kids not being born under the influence of drugs. I see it as a win, win,” he added.

Inmates in the White County jail were also given two days credit toward their jail sentence if they complete a State of Tennessee, Department of Health Neonatal Syndrome Education Program. The class aimed to educate those who are incarcerated about the dangers of having children while under the influence of drugs. “Hopefully while they’re staying here we rehabilitate them so they never come back,” the judge said.

District Attorney Bryant Dunaway, who oversees prosecution of cases in White County is worried the program may be unethical and possibly illegal. “It’s concerning to me, my office doesn’t support this order,” Dunaway said....

On Wednesday, the ACLU released this statement on the program: "Offering a so-called 'choice' between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional. Such a choice violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity by interfering with the intimate decision of whether and when to have a child, imposing an intrusive medical procedure on individuals who are not in a position to reject it. Judges play an important role in our community – overseeing individuals’ childbearing capacity should not be part of that role."

There are many thing so very remarkable about this story, but I am especially struck by how many jail inmates are willing to undergo a life-changing procedure simply to avoid 30 days in jail. Anyone who doubts the coercive pressures of even a short jail stay (say because of an inability to make bail) should be shown this story.

July 23, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)