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August 5, 2017

"Criminal justice reformers are hooked on drug courts, they should kick the habit"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by Jasmine Tyler in The Hill. Here are excerpts:

With opioid overdose deaths hitting record highs throughout the US, and the White House Commission calling for declaring a state of emergency, many are looking for new solutions to addiction and overdose. But one proposal popular in some circles — the expanded use of drug courts — is not the perfect solution some make it out to be.

Drug courts are an old idea. Created in the 80s to expedite the overwhelmed court dockets created by the drug war, they have already enjoyed a great deal of fanfare and funding — from both sides of the political aisle. But despite the good intentions that often underpin them, they are a flawed solution.

These courts are squarely housed in the criminal justice system, where there is little medical expertise or care available but where punitive sanctions are plentiful. Physicians for Human Rights recently reported that drug courts “routinely fail to provide adequate, medically sound treatment for substance use disorders, with treatment plans that are at times designed and facilitated by individuals with little to no medical training.”

And, even though relapse is an expected part of recovery, people brought before a drug court with a positive drug test are often jailed, and can end up serving lengthy periods of time — sometimes more than had they been prosecuted through the regular criminal system.

Interestingly, the White House Commission didn’t even mention drug courts in the interim report released on July 31, but they did support a number of cutting edge, public health centered, responses such as expanding harm reduction approaches like medication-assisted therapy.

Other solutions the commission should explore for their final report include promoting diversion programs to keep people out of the criminal justice system, making the overdose prevention medication Naloxone available over the counter, and decriminalizing possession of drugs for personal use....

A recent broad study found that there is no evidence that compulsory treatment is effective and may do more harm, and even the Government Accountability Office has found the purported cost-savings difficult to substantiate.

In my days working as a sentencing advocate with public defenders, clients would frequently ask for jail time in lieu of drug courts. This wasn’t because they had no concerns for their own health and well-being, but the opposite. They were deeply concerned with their own health and well-being and felt drug courts would cause more problems for them in the long run....

Beyond the many questions about their effectiveness, drug courts do not address the fundamental reality that any kind of criminal sanctions are simply inappropriate for the overwhelming majority of drug offenders, whose only crime is the personal use of drugs or possession of drugs for personal use. In fact, by offering a notionally “softer” kind of criminalization, drug courts may actually help entrench that fundamentally untenable paradigm....

Drug courts might be a tool in the toolbox of a better system if they are focused only on offenses other than drug use or possession — for example, property crimes committed in connection with drug dependence. But even in that case, they should only be considered if they are set up to provide treatment that is medically appropriate, as well as other social supports, and if — and this is a big if — courts would truly take high risk, high need defendants as the National Association of Drug Court Professionals says they should.

Our communities deserve 21st century solutions and drug courts are, at best, a better version of a broken and outmoded system. They may sometimes have a useful place in the reality we’re stuck with, but they certainly aren’t the way forward. Instead of looking back at a criminal justice solution that has failed, the commission should stay on the right track and focus on health-based programs that address the opioid crisis.

August 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8)

August 4, 2017

Kentucky judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for all offenders under 21 years old

As reported in this local article, headlined "Fayette judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for man under 21," a Kentucky judge reached a significant constitutional conclusion this week. Here are the basic details:

The death penalty is unconstitutional for a defendant who was younger than 21 at the time of his offense, Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled earlier this week. Scorsone issued an order declaring the death penalty unconstitutional in the case of 21-year-old Travis Bredhold. He was 18 years and five months old when he was charged in 2013 with murder and robbery in the fatal shooting of Marathon gas station attendant Mukeshbhai Patel.

Fayette County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn said in a statement Friday that she will appeal Scorsone’s order “because it is contrary to the laws of Kentucky and the laws of the United States.” Red Corn said two other cases eligible for the death penalty and pending before Scorsone will be affected by his ruling.... Red Corn’s statement said the judge’s ruling “will result in delays” in all three cases.

In a 2005 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of people who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes violated the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.

Bredhold’s defense team asked Scorsone to extend that exclusion to people 21 and younger. Prosecutors argued that the death penalty is constitutional and argued that there is no national consensus with respect to offenders under 21.

Scorsone disagreed. “Contrary to the commonwealth’s assertion, it appears there is a very clear national consensus trending toward restricting the death penalty, especially in cases where defendants are 18 to 21 years of age,” Scorsone wrote.

The judge also cited research showing that 18- to 21-year-olds are less culpable for the same reasons that the U.S. Supreme Court found teens under 18 to be. The age group lacks maturity to control their impulses and fully consider risks, making them unlikely to be deterred by knowledge of likelihood and severity of punishment, the judge wrote. In addition, they are susceptible to peer pressure and emotional influence. And their character is not yet well formed, “meaning that they have a much better chance at rehabilitation than do adults,” the judge wrote.

“Given the national trend toward restricting the use of the death penalty for young offenders, and given the recent studies by the scientific community, the death penalty would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for crimes committed by individuals under 21 years of age,” Scorsone wrote.

An individual evaluation that Bredhold “operates at a level at least four years below that of his peers” further supports the exclusion of the death penalty for Bredhold, the judge concluded.

I cannot yet find a copy of Judge Scorsone's opinion, but I am looking forward to finding it and seeing what he cites to support the assertion that there is a national trend toward restricting application of the death penalty "especially in cases where defendants are 18 to 21 years of age.” I know a lot of death penalty opponents are eager to see Roper extended to older offenders, but I am not aware of any legislation in any state that has precluded those age 18 or older from the reach of the death penalty.

UPDATE:  I just found the full opinion in this case via the Death Penalty Information Center's website, and the court relies heavily on the overall decline of executions and death sentences in recent years to make the "objective" case that application of the death penalty to defendants aged 18 to 21 are in decline. 

August 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Split DC Circuit finds unconstitutionally excessive 30-year mandatory minimum sentences for Blackwater contractors who killed Iraqis

A huge new DC Circuit opinion released today in a high-profile criminal case include a significant Eighth Amendment ruling.  The full 100+-page opinion in US v. Slatten, No. 15-3078 (DC Cir. Aug. 4, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:

Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard (“defendants”) were contractors with Blackwater Worldwide Security ("Blackwater"), which in 2007 was providing security services to the United States State Department in Iraq. As a result of Baghdad shootings that injured or killed at least 31 Iraqi civilians, Slough, Liberty and Heard were convicted by a jury of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using and discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence (or aiding-and-abetting the commission of those crimes); Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder. They now challenge their convictions on jurisdictional, procedural and several substantive grounds....

The Court concludes ...that the district court abused its discretion in denying Slatten’s motion to sever his trial from that of his co-defendants and therefore vacates his conviction and remands for a new trial. Moreover, the Court concludes that imposition of the mandatory thirty-year minimum under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), as applied here, violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, a holding from which Judge Rogers dissents. The Court therefore remands for the resentencing of Slough, Liberty and Heard.

The majority's Eighth Amendment analysis is really interesting, running more than 30 pages and covering lots of ground. And it wraps up this way:

The sentences are cruel in that they impose a 30-year sentence based on the fact that private security contractors in a war zone were armed with government-issued automatic rifles and explosives. They are unusual because they apply Section 924(c) in a manner it has never been applied before to a situation which Congress never contemplated. We again emphasize these defendants can and should be held accountable for the death and destruction they unleashed on the innocent Iraqi civilians who were harmed by their actions. But instead of using the sledgehammer of a mandatory 30-year sentence, the sentencing court should instead use more nuanced tools to impose sentences proportionally tailored to the culpability of each defendant.

Judge Rogers' dissent from this conclusion is also really interesting, and it concludes this way:

Although it is possible to imagine circumstances in which a thirty-year minimum sentence for a private security guard working in a war zone would approach the outer bounds of constitutionality under the Eighth Amendment, this is not that case.  The jury rejected these defendants’ claim that they fired in self-defense, and far more of their fellow security guards chose not to fire their weapons at all that day.  Yet as my colleagues apparently see it, Congress should have included an exception for all such military contractor employees, or, rather, it would have included such an exception if it had only considered the issue.  See Op. 72–74.  Perhaps so, but that is not the question before us. The district court judge made an individualized assessment of an appropriate sentencing package for each of these defendants, and the result is not disproportionate to the defendants’ crimes, let alone grossly, unconstitutionally disproportionate.

I think it possible (but not at all certain) that the feds will seek cert review of this Eighth Amendment decision, and I think it also possible (but not at all certain) that SCOTUS might be interested in this issue in this setting.

August 4, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Sizable set of Senators inquire about BOP's continued failure to use compassionate release

As reported in this article from The Hill, headlined "Senators push federal prisons to expand compassionate release," a notable group of legislators sent a notable letter yesterday concerning the work of the federal Bureau of Prisons. Here are the details:

A bipartisan group of senators are calling on federal prison officials to follow through on recommendations to expand the use of compassionate release.

In a letter Thursday, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and 11 other senators asked acting Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Director Thomas Kane and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to take a serious look at a prison bureau program that allows federally incarcerated people to appeal for early release if they present certain “extraordinary and compelling” reasons.

The lawmakers, who include Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), pointed to a 2013 report in which the Department of Justice inspector general recommended expanding the compassionate release program to deal with the increasingly large number of aging inmates with serious medical conditions.

Though the senators said the BOP adopted new policies following that report to expand its criteria, none of the 203 elderly inmates who applied under medical reasons in the 13 months following the report were approved.  Last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission expanded and clarified the criteria for age and family circumstances that make an inmate eligible for compassionate release and encouraged the BOP to file a motion for release if an inmate meets the new policy.

In light of these changes, the senators asked Kane and Rosenstein how many compassionate release requests received in the last three years have been granted and denied, how many petitioners have died waiting for a response, what steps the bureau has taken to follow the commission’s directives and what action the bureau can take to increase its use of compassionate release.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) also signed the letter.

A few prior related posts:

August 4, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

August 3, 2017

Mississippi opioid task force apparently calling for extreme sentences for heroin dealers

In this post yesterday, I noted that recent reports and activity emerging from the Trump Administration concerning the opioid epidemic did not include any calls for new or increased federal sentences as part of the criminal justice response.  But this local article from Mississippi, headlined "Task force: Up to life sentences for heroin, fentanyl dealers," highlights that some state actors are talking about some remarkable sentencing reactions to the crisis.  Here are the basic details:

The Governor’s Opioid and Heroin Study Task Force is recommending some of the toughest measures in the U.S. to fight an epidemic that is now killing more Americans in a single year than U.S. service members who died during the entire Vietnam War...

To battle the increased problem of heroin and fentanyl overdoses, the task force is recommending tough punishment for drug dealers who sell heroin or fentanyl — an enhanced sentence of 40 years to life.

I cannot yet find a copy of this state task force's full recommendations, so I am not sure that it is really calling for all dealers of heroin or fentanyl to receive sentences of at least 40 years in prison.  But, whatever the particulars, I am sure that this task force is demonstrating how easy it is to advocate for increased sentences as one part of a response to our nation's latest drug epidemic.

UPDATE: A helpful comment below provides this link to the Mississippi Task Force recommendations.  The first recommendation in the law enforcement section simply urges "increased punishment" for heroin dealers and an "enhanced sentence of 40 year to life" for all who sell or transfer any controlled substance "that result in death (or serious bodily injury)."  So, intriguingly, the opioid epidemic has prompted a recommendation in Mississippi for a mandatory minimum 40-year prison term for any and every person who shares a drug that results in serious injury.

Though I am not sure how stringently Mississippi law approaches causation and serious bodily injury, I am sure this provision could be interpreted in expansive ways that could expose many drug-involved individuals to a mandatory minimum 40-year prison term. Indeed, were this recommendation to become law, I could imagine an aggressive prosecutor considering applying this provision to persons who passed around marijuana or ecstasy at a party if a partygoer thereafter badly crashed his car and broke some bones on the way home from the party.

August 3, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Capital Punishment of Unintentional Felony Murder"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper that I just recently came across via SSRN. The paper was authored by Guyora Binder, Robert Weisberg and Brenner Fissell, and here is its abstract:

Under the prevailing interpretation of the Eighth Amendment in the lower courts, a defendant who causes a death inadvertently in the course of a felony is eligible for capital punishment.  This unfortunate interpretation rests on an unduly mechanical reading of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Enmund v. Florida and Tison v. Arizona, which require culpability for capital punishment of co-felons who do not kill.  The lower courts have drawn the unwarranted inference that these cases permit execution of those who cause death without any culpability towards death.

This Article shows that this mechanical reading of precedent is mistaken, because the underlying justifications of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence require a rational selection for death of only the most deserving and deterrable offenders, and this in turn requires an assessment of culpability.  We argue that the Supreme Court should address this open question in Eighth Amendment law and that it should correct the lower courts by imposing a uniform requirement of at least recklessness with respect to death for capital punishment of felony murder.

August 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Justice Thomas, Criminal Justice, and Originalism’s Legitimacy"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay authored by Judge William Pryor as part of a Yale Law Journal Forum collections of essays under the heading "Justice Thomas: Twenty-Five Years on the Supreme Court."  The essay covers lots of elements of Justice Thomas's criminal justice jurisprudence, and I recommend the piece in full.  And especially because Judge Pryor is the current Acting Chair of the US Sentencing Commission, I figure sentencing fans might find this passage from the essay interesting:

A second area where Justices Thomas and Scalia agreed on a legal rule but disagreed on how to apply it was in determining whether statutory mandatory minimum sentences violated the right to a jury trial. Both Justices agreed with the rule established in Apprendi v. New Jersey that any fact, other than a prior conviction, that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the statutory maximum must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. And both voted to invalidate mandatory sentencing guidelines that required judges to find facts that would increase sentencing ranges. But the Justices disagreed about why mandatory sentencing guidelines were problematic. Justice Scalia saw the problem as permitting fact-finding to increase the ceiling of a judge’s discretion in a way that could disadvantage a defendant. Justice Thomas, on the other hand, saw the problem as changing the range of discretion, even if the sentencing ceiling remained unchanged.

This difference led the Justices to opposite positions in Alleyne, discussed above. Justice Thomas wrote for the majority that facts that trigger statutory mandatory minimum sentences must be proved to a jury because the facts “alter the prescribed range of sentences to which a defendant is exposed and do so in a manner that aggravates the punishment.” Justice Scalia joined a dissent written by Chief Justice Roberts that viewed the application of a statutory mandatory minimum as a limit on the discretion of the judge that in no way affected the role of the jury.

As an aside, I respectfully disagree with both Justices Scalia’s and Thomas’s decisions to join in the majority opinions in Blakely and Booker, the foundational decisions underlying Alleyne. The notion that mandatory guidelines that regulate judicial discretion within a statutory range of punishment to reduce sentencing disparities somehow violates a defendant’s right to a jury trial even though it is entirely permissible for judges, in an indeterminate system, to find sentencing facts and impose punishments anywhere within a broad statutory range has never made sense to me. I side with another Yalie, Justice Samuel Alito, on that one. But accepting the logic of Blakely and Booker that the Sixth Amendment requires a jury to find all facts essential to the potential penalty, only Justice Thomas’s position in Alleyne makes sense.

August 3, 2017 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Distinct sentencing advice from family members for teen guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging suicide

This local article, fully headlined "Conrad Roy’s aunt: Give Michelle Carter 20 years; Defendant’s dad wants probation," reports in the very different advice being given to a juvenile judge in Massachusetts in a high-profile case due to be sentenced today. Here are the details:

A grieving aunt of teen suicide victim Conrad Roy III is looking for a 20-year prison sentence for Michelle Carter tomorrow on the heels of her conviction in the blockbuster suicide-by-text case — but the girl’s worried dad is pleading for probation. “I believe she should be kept far away from society,” wrote Kim Bozzi, Roy’s aunt, in a statement she said she plans to read at Carter’s sentencing inside Taunton Trial Court.

“Take away the spotlight that she so desperately craves. Twenty years may seem extreme but it is still twenty more than Conrad will ever have,” Bozzi said in the written statement she gave to the Herald.

But David Carter, Michelle’s father, begged for probation and “continued counselling” in a July letter to Judge Lawrence Moniz. “She will forever live with what she has done and I know will be a better person because of it,” David Carter wrote in the signed letter, provided to the Herald. “I ask of you to invoke leniency in your decision-making process for my loving child Michelle.”...

The judge found that Carter caused the death of Roy, who killed himself in a Fairhaven Kmart parking lot in 2014 by filling his truck with carbon monoxide. Carter, 20, of Plainville, who had an almost entirely virtual relationship with Roy, goaded him into killing himself through a series of texts and calls. The Mattapoisett teen left the truck as it filled with deadly fumes, but according to testimony at Carter’s trial, she told him on the phone to “get back in.”

“I’m unsure when she decided to set her sick plan into motion or why, but when she did she did it relentlessly, it was calculated and it was planned down to a T,” Bozzi wrote in the victim-impact statement. “She preyed on his vulnerabilities, he trusted her, which in turn, cost him his life.” Bozzi, who attended every court appearance, told the Herald other family members are prepared to speak as well. She said Carter’s conviction was a relief and that “what happens next is up to God and a judge.”

Prior related post:

UPDATE:  Michelle Carter received a prison sentence of 2.5 years, but only half has to be actually served in prison as explained in this CNN article.  It starts this way:

Michelle Carter, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the 2014 suicide of her boyfriend, was sentenced Thursday to a two-and-a-half-year term, with 15 months in prison and the balance suspended plus a period of supervised probation.

"This court must and has balanced between rehabilitation, the promise that rehabilitation would work and a punishment for the actions that have occurred," said Bristol County Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz.

August 3, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

August 2, 2017

Two big new Trump Administration efforts to address the opioid epidemic ... neither of which call for new or increased sentences

This week has seen two big notable developments concerning addressing the nation's opioid epidemic coming from the Trump Administration: (1) on Monday, the Administration’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis presented this interim report of policy recommendations; (2) today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the formation of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, which this press release describes as "a new Department of Justice pilot program to utilize data to help combat the devastating opioid crisis."

Both the Commission report and the AG Sessions' comments rolling out this new DOJ unit talk about the importance of criminal law enforcement as part of a national strategy to deal with opioid problems.  But, as I note in the title of this post, neither the Commission report nor AG Sessions calls for new or increased federal sentences as part of the criminal justice response.  Of course, federal (and state) criminal punishments for opioid and heroin offenses are already pretty severe in lots of settings.  But in prior eras, it would be common to hear politicians and others say that already tough sentencing schemes were "obviously" not tough enough when a problem persisted.  (Also, it should be recalled, the US Sentencing Commission reduced all guideline drug sentences by two levels back in 2014.  It would certainly be easy for AG Sessions to call for the heroin guidelines sentences to be restored to their pre-2014 levels.)

For those concerned about increased federal criminal prosecutions in drug cases and the potential impact on federal incarceration levels, the mere lack of a call for new or increased sentences surely will not be seen as a cause for celebration.  Nevertheless, I still think it notable and intriguing that a tougher sentencing scheme is not (yet) expressly part of the opioid agenda coming from the Trump Administration.

August 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Sentencing by Computer: Enhancing Sentencing Transparency and Predictability, and (Possibly) Bridging the Gap between Sentencing Knowledge and Practice"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting looking new article available via SSRN authored by Mirko Bagaric and Gabrielle Wolf. Here is the abstract:

Computer technology is rapidly infiltrating and changing many aspects of the law. Judicial decision-making has, however, remained largely impervious to technological developments. Sentencing is one of the most controversial, complex and dynamic legal areas.  Sentencing law is also fundamentally broken and has resulted in a mass incarceration crisis, which is the most serious sociolegal problem currently afflicting the United States.  Despite this, it is also ostensibly one of the areas of law that is most amenable to automated decisionmaking.  This is because the relevant variables that inform sentencing decisions are normally clear, especially in circumstances where an offense attracts a presumptive or fixed penalty.

In this Article, we examine the desirability of computers, rather than judges, making sentencing decisions. Some disadvantages may be associated with sentencing by computer, including the possibility that there could be less opportunity to adapt penalties to the specific facts of a case than if a judge made the decision.  However, if an algorithm is developed and applied in a clear and transparent manner, the benefits of computerized sentencing will outweigh the potential disadvantages.  Indeed, we argue that computerized sentencing has the potential to achieve superior outcomes to sentences imposed by judges.  In particular, it can lead to greater transparency, predictability and consistency in decision-making, and eliminate the subconscious bias that currently afflicts the decisions of some judges.  

Moreover, the introduction of computerized sentencing could be the catalyst for a much needed, wide-ranging reassessment of substantive sentencing law, as occurred four decades ago when the United States’ sentencing system changed from an indeterminate system to the largely prescriptive process that exists today.  A fundamental review of sentencing law would almost inevitably close the gap between sentencing knowledge and practice, thereby resulting in profound community benefits, including enhanced community safety and a reduction in the number of prisoners.

August 2, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Two effective new commentaries on mass incarceration, the drug war and local realities of criminal case processing

These two new commentaries provide effective and important reminders of various realities of our nation's criminal justice system(s):

I recommend both pieces in full. 

August 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

August 1, 2017

"Prosecutors’ Dilemma: Will Conviction Lead to ‘Life Sentence of Deportation’?"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing New York Times front-page article which indirectly highlights the realities and uncertainties of prosecutorial discretion and collateral consequences.  Here are excerpts:

Now that President Trump’s hard line has made deportation a keener threat, a growing number of district attorneys are coming to the same reckoning, concluding that prosecutors should consider potential repercussions for immigrants before closing a plea deal. At the same time, cities and states are reshaping how the criminal justice system treats immigrants, hoping to hopscotch around any unintended immigration pitfalls.

These shifts may inaugurate yet another local-versus-federal conflict with the Trump administration, which is already tussling with many liberal cities over other protections for immigrants. For prosecutors, such policies are also stretching, if not bursting, the bounds of the profession. Justice is supposed to be blind to the identity of a defendant. But, the argument goes, the stakes might warrant a peek.

“There’s certainly a line of argument that says, ‘Nope, we’re not going to consider all your individual circumstances, we want to treat everybody the same,’” said Dan Satterberg, the prosecuting attorney for Seattle and a longtime Republican, who instituted an immigration-consequences policy last year and strengthened it after the presidential election. “But more and more, my eyes are open that treating people the same means that there isn’t a life sentence of deportation that might accompany that conviction.”...

But many prosecutors remain wary, hesitant to meddle in what they regard as the federal government’s business and even more reluctant to depart from what they say is a bedrock principle of the system. “There’s probably hundreds if not thousands of issues that I suppose we could take into consideration,” said Brian McIntyre, the county attorney in Cochise County, Ariz., “and when we do that, we necessarily wind up not being as fair to someone else.”... If he made accommodations for an immigrant, Mr. McIntyre said, he felt that he would also owe a citizen in similar circumstances the same option, “because is he not being, essentially, negatively impacted by his U.S. citizenry?”

A criminal record often has different stakes for an immigrant than it does for a citizen. It can mean losing a green card or being barred from citizenship. Those who lack legal status can lose any chance to gain it. Those with legal status, as well as those without, can face automatic deportation.

In many cases, the city-and-state-level changes dovetail with broader criminal justice reforms that were already underway before Mr. Trump took office. But to the administration, policies that help noncitizens duck immigration penalties are tantamount to an assault on the rule of law. “It troubles me that we’ve seen district attorneys openly brag about not charging cases appropriately under the laws of our country,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in April.

The local efforts to help immigrants may not always work. The Trump administration has made clear that anyone without legal status may be deported, regardless of whether they have been convicted of a crime. But reducing criminal penalties can help immigrants by keeping them out of jail, which can make it more difficult for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find them, or by preserving their options in immigration court....

Prosecutors who take immigration status into account say this consideration will not be extended to serious or violent crimes. They argue that showing flexibility in nonviolent, minor cases will help build trust with immigrants in their communities, making them more likely to report crimes and serve as witnesses. The acting Brooklyn district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, went further than most in April, when he announced that his prosecutors would begin notifying defense lawyers about the potential immigration fallout of their clients’ cases and that he would hire two in-house immigration lawyers to consult on prosecutions.

Days later, the state’s attorney for Baltimore, Marilyn J. Mosby, said she had told her staff members to use their discretion when it came to cases with an immigration factor, considering defendants’ prior records and community ties. “There’s no set standard,” she said. “You have to base it on everything that’s in front of you.”

It is not yet clear what that will look like in Baltimore or Brooklyn. But in Santa Clara County, Calif., whose district attorney was among the first to outline an official policy, prosecutors often allow a noncitizen to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for more jail time or probation. “If we’re giving something, we’re going to get something,” said the district attorney, Jeff Rosen.

California law now requires immigration consequences to be factored into criminal cases. The state has also passed a law allowing people to erase or revise old convictions if they successfully argue that they were not advised at the time that a guilty or no-contest plea would endanger their immigration status.

August 1, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Should Justice Ginsburg be accused of propagating "fake news" about the death penalty?

The somewhat tounge-and-cheek question in the title of this post is prompted by a short passage in this New York Times article by Adam Liptak discussing some recent public comments by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Here is that passage:

Justice Ginsburg spoke at George Washington University Law School, at an event sponsored by the Washington Council of Lawyers, a bar association. Asked about the future of the death penalty in the United States, Justice Ginsburg did not mention a 2015 dissent in which she and Justice Stephen G. Breyer had called for a fresh look at the constitutionality of the practice.  But she said capital punishment may soon be extinct in any event.

“The incidence of capital punishment has gone down, down, down so that now, I think, there are only three states that actually administer the death penalty,” she said.  “We may see an end to capital punishment by attrition as there are fewer and fewer executions.”

The number of executions has indeed fallen sharply, with only 20 carried out in 2016, the smallest number in decades.  But seven states have executed condemned inmates this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In addition to 7 states completing executions in 2017, the DPIC reports here that 13 states imposed death sentences in 2016.  I certainly consider the imposition of death sentences to be another aspect of "actually administering the death penalty," and one might also note that more than 30 jurisdictions in the US have persons sitting on death row.  So, in various ways, the suggesting that only a few states still use the death penalty is really not quite right.

Moreover, and arguably ever more important for Justice Ginsburg's comments here, three states had voters in 2016 reaffirm a committment to having an operational system of capital punishment.  Initiatives votes in favor of the death penalty in Oklahoma, Nebraska and especially California all run counter to the suggestion that we may soon see "an end to capital punishment by attrition."

That all said, there is no doubt that the use and importance of the death penalty diminished considerably in recent decades, both politically and pratically.  I find particularly notable, for example, that neither Prez Trump nor AG Sessions has promoted greater us of the death penalty in their "law-and-order" rhetoric or in policy proposals.  But that reality does not lead me to expect to see the end of executions or death sentencings anytime soon. 

August 1, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Eighth Circuit affirms exclusion of juve who moved from Nebraska's sex offender registry

As noted in this prior post last year, a federal judge has blocked Nebraska from putting a 13-year-old boy who moved to the state from Minnesota on its public sex offender registry. Yesterday, an Eighth Circuit panel affirmed this ruling via this opinion which starts this way:

The State of Nebraska, along with the Nebraska State Patrol (NSP) and various state officials (collectively, the State), appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment to A.W. and A.W.'s guardians, John and Jane Doe, enjoining it from applying to A.W. a provision of Nebraska's Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA).  That provision, Neb. Rev. Stat. § 29-4003(1)(a)(iv), applies SORA to any person who, on or after January 1, 1997, "[e]nters the state and is required to register as a sex offender under the laws of another village, town, city, state, territory, commonwealth, or other jurisdiction of the United States."  We hold that this provision does not apply to appellant A.W. and, accordingly, affirm the district court.

The full panel ruling is interesting for how it applied Nebraska's sex offender registry law, but a final footnote highlights some broader constitutional questions the panel saw implicated in the case. Here are excerpts from the footnote:

We note that even if we found "sex offender" to be ambiguous, leaving us with the choice of selecting between two reasonable constructions, one requiring conviction and one not, we would be strongly inclined to affirm the district court.  We believe the application of SORA and its public notification requirement to juveniles adjudicated delinquent in other jurisdictions but not in Nebraska raises serious constitutional concerns under the rights to travel and to equal protection of the laws.  Of the events triggering application of SORA under NSP regulations -- residency, employment, carrying on a vocation, or attending school in Nebraska, 272 Neb. Admin. Code ch. 19 § 003.02 -- it is highly likely a juvenile would be subject to SORA due to residency. This raises troubling implications under the third prong of the right to travel, arising from the Privileges and Immunities and the Privileges or Immunities Clauses of the U.S. Constitution..., as well as under the Equal Protection Clause.  Further, to the extent the purpose of § 29-4003(1)(a)(iv) is to prevent migration into the state of undesirable citizens, application of SORA to A.W. under that provision may raise other constitutional concerns as well. Saenz, 526 U.S. at 503 ("The states have not now, if they ever had, any power to restrict their citizenship to any classes or persons." (quoting Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36, 112 (1872) (Bradley, J., dissenting))). Given the choice between two reasonable constructions, we will generally avoid a construction that raises "grave and doubtful constitutional questions." Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. United States Dep't of Homeland Sec., 738 F.3d 885, 892 (8th Cir. 2013).

August 1, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

July 31, 2017

"The Republican Party, Conservatives, and the Future of Capital Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Ben Jones now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The United States has experienced a significant decline in the death penalty during the first part of the 21st century, as death sentences, executions, public support, and states with capital punishment all have declined.  Many recent reforms banning or placing a moratorium on executions have occurred in blue states, in line with the notion that ending the death penalty is a progressive cause.  Challenging this narrative, however, is the emergence of Republican lawmakers as champions of death penalty repeal legislation in red states.  This Article puts these efforts by Republican lawmakers into historical context, and explains the conservative case against the death penalty: its incompatibility with limited government, fiscal responsibility, and promoting a culture of life.  Understanding Republican opposition to capital punishment takes on particular importance now following setbacks to efforts against the death penalty in the 2016 election.  In this environment, building support among Republicans and conservatives likely will prove critical for taking further steps toward limiting and eventually ending the death penalty in the U.S.

July 31, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

AP series looks deeply at a "patchwork of justice" for juve lifers after Graham and Miller

The AP has some new in-depth reporting on juvenile LWOP sentences and resentencings in this series labeled "Locked Up For Life."   This lead article published today is headlined "AP Investigation: A patchwork of justice for juvenile lifers," and here are some excerpts from the extended piece:

Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases.  Last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get a chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.

But prison gates don’t just swing open. Instead, uncertainty and opposition stirred by the new mandate have resulted in an uneven patchwork of policies as courts and lawmakers wrestle with these complicated, painful cases.  The odds of release or continued imprisonment vary from state to state, even county to county, in a pattern that can make justice seem arbitrary.

The Associated Press surveyed all 50 states to see how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are re-examining juvenile lifer cases. Some have resentenced and released dozens of those deemed to have rehabilitated themselves and served sufficient time.  Others have delayed review of cases, skirted the ruling on seeming technicalities or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.

Many victims’ relatives are also battling to keep these offenders in prison.  They “already had their chance, their days in court, their due process,” says Candy Cheatham. Her father, Cole Cannon, was killed in 2003 in Alabama by Evan Miller, the 14-year-old whose no-parole sentence was the basis for the 2012 sentencing ban....

The AP’s review found very different brands of justice from place to place.  For years, officials in states with the most juvenile life cases were united in arguing that the Supreme Court’s ban on life without parole did not apply retroactively to inmates already serving such sentences. Now, states are heading in decidedly different directions....

The AP also found that while many states have taken steps to make former teen criminals eligible for parole, in practice, officials regularly deny release.  In Missouri, the parole board has turned down 20 of 23 juvenile lifers, according to the MacArthur Justice Center, which filed a federal lawsuit this year claiming the board is denying the state’s juvenile life-without-parole inmates a meaningful chance for release as required by the Supreme Court....  Maryland, meantime, has 271 juvenile lifers whose sentences have always given them a chance for release.  But no such prisoner has won parole in more than 20 years, prompting a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union....

The impact of last year’s Supreme Court ruling goes far beyond the 2,000-plus offenders who faced mandatory no-parole sentences as teens.  In many states, legal challenges are being mounted on behalf of juveniles sentenced to life without parole at the discretion of a judge or jury, or those who are legally entitled to parole but serving such lengthy terms they are unlikely to ever get out.  The latter group encompasses some 7,300 inmates, according to The Sentencing Project.  The Supreme Court didn’t specifically address these cases, however, and that’s led to different outcomes.

July 31, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

July 30, 2017

Should an uptick in federal gun prosecutions garner bipartisan praise?

The question in the title of this post was my first thought upon seeing this press release from the Justice Department released Friday under the heading "Federal Gun Prosecutions Up 23 Percent After Sessions Memo."  Here is the full text of the press release:

Today, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that, following the memorandum from Attorney General Sessions to prioritize firearm prosecutions, the number of defendants charged with unlawful possession of a firearm increased nearly 23 percent in the second quarter of 2017 (2,637) from the same time period in 2016 (2,149).

“Violent crime is on the rise in many parts of this country, with 27 of our biggest 35 cities in the country coping with rising homicide rates,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  “Law abiding people in some of these communities are living in fear, as they see families torn apart and young lives cut short by gangs and drug traffickers.  Following President Trump’s Executive Order to focus on reducing crime, I directed federal prosecutors to prioritize taking illegal guns off of our streets, and as a result, we are now prosecuting hundreds more firearms defendants. In the first three months since the memo went into effect, charges of unlawful possession of a gun -- mostly by previously convicted felons -- are up by 23 percent.  That sends a clear message to criminals all over this country that if you carry a gun illegally, you will be held accountable.  I am grateful to the many federal prosecutors and agents who are working hard every day to make America safe again.”

In February, immediately after the swearing-in of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, President Trump signed an Executive Order that directs the Attorney General to seek to reduce crime and to set up the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.  The Task Force has provided Sessions with recommendations on a rolling basis.  In March, based on these recommendations, Attorney General Sessions sent a memorandum to Department of Justice prosecutors, ordering them to prioritize firearms offenses.

In the three months immediately following the Attorney General’s memo -- April, May and June -- the number of defendants charged with unlawful possession of a firearm (18 U.S.C. 922) increased by nearly 23 percent compared to those charged over the same time period in 2016.  The number of defendants charged with the crime of using a firearm in a crime of violence or drug trafficking (18 U.S.C. 924), increased by 10 percent.

Based on data from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA), in Fiscal Year 2016 (starting October 1), 11,656 defendants were charged with firearms offenses under 18 U.S.C. 922 or 924.  EOUSA projects that in Fiscal Year 2017, the Department is on pace to charge 12,626 defendants with these firearms crimes.  That would be the most federal firearms cases since 2005.  It would also be an increase of eight percent from Fiscal Year 2016, 20 percent from 2015, and an increase of 23 percent from 2014.

Of course, as regular readers on this blog know well, many on the political left have been critical of various efforts by AG Sessions to ramp up federal prosecutions. But much of the criticism is based on concerns about escalating the federal drug war, especially as it applies to lower-lever and nonviolent offenders. As the title of this post is meant to suggest, perhaps this latest data showing a ramp up of gun prosecutions could be met with some applause from political left given the tendency of the left to support tougher restrictions on gun possession. (Of course, some parts of the libertarian-faction of the political right has also expressed concerns about recent work by AG Sessions, and they might be more troubled by these data.)

Critically, without having more information about the "who and how" of increased federal gun prosecutions, I do not feel sufficiently informed to robustly praise or criticize these developments. But I do think it interesting and notably that the first new data being stressed by the Sessions DOJ involves a type of prosecution that could garner support from both sides of the political aisle.

July 30, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Gun policy and sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Reviewing the unique (and uniquely important?) Texas experience with criminal justice reform

This lengthy new Business Insider article, headlined "Texas is shedding its lock-'em-up image thanks to a 37-year-old tattooed lawyer and an unlikely political alliance," provides an extended account of how one significant state became a significant leader on criminal justice reform. Here is a small excerpt:

Until 2005, criminal-justice reform had been nearly impossible to pass in Texas, as was the case in many conservative states. Reformers were derided as "soft on crime" while even popular bills ran into vetoes from Republicans like Gov. Rick Perry, budget crises, and tough-on-crime district attorneys, many of whom view securing harsh sentences as a metric of success.

But with Texas's prisons bursting at the seams, legislators were faced with a choice: reduce incarceration with reforms or funnel billions into new prisons.  At the same time, a new movement emerged among conservatives, led by Marc Levin, the director of the Right on Crime campaign created by the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation. Levin, an Austin-based attorney and public-policy expert, and other conservatives like him understood ideas such as addressing substance abuse with treatment rather than incarceration, and promoting parole, probation, and reentry programs, as inherent to conservative ideology, not antithetical to it.

Meanwhile, fiscal conservatives in the state had grown appalled by the taxpayer burden of funding and maintaining new prisons, while libertarians were cynical of the broad government power required to funnel vast numbers of Texans through prisons each year.  Social conservatives like Prison Fellowship, an evangelical Christian organization founded by Chuck Colson, a former Watergate-era felon, approached reform after witnessing through their prison-ministry programs how rarely inmates were given opportunities for redemption.

"You really had a point where the only thing that was standing against reform from the conservative perspective ... would just be the muscle memory of being 'tough on crime' for decades," Derek Cohen, the deputy director of Right on Crime, told Business Insider.

What propelled reform forward, however, was that those groups were able to join with liberals long clamoring for change in the Republican-controlled state.  The movement formed the Texas Smart On Crime Coalition to push their agenda in the statehouse and, while the coalition is bipartisan, that doesn't mean they agree on everything.  The movement can be thought of as a sort of Venn diagram.  Liberals, conservatives, and religious groups each have their own reform plans, and they work together on issues where there is broad agreement, while still vehemently opposing one another where values diverge.  "This shows that just because it's bipartisan doesn't mean that it's compromise," Cohen said. "We're retaining our perfect circles and just in the few places that they overlap, that’s where we're working together."

Common issues like bail reform, rehabilitation and treatment programs, and prosecuting youths through juvenile rather than adult courts are all fair game for collaboration. But issues like "mens rea reform," or requiring more proof of a defendant's culpable mental state, are more polarized. Similarly, en masse sentence reductions for drug crimes and "ban the box" initiatives — some of which impose civil or criminal penalties on employers that ask about applicants' criminal histories — remain partisan battlefields.

Cohen said the key to unlocking reforms in Texas has been that most Americans, whether conservative or liberal, just want a system that works. "They want a system that shows that that behavior is morally blameworthy ... but also that which rehabilitates," Cohen said. "There isn't this monolithic, punitive impulse in Texas or in conservatives or liberals or anywhere in the country."

July 30, 2017 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Spotlighting BOP's continued curious failure to make serious use of "compassionate release"

Mike Riggs has this notable new piece at Reason headlined "Congress Wants to Know Why the BOP Won't Let Elderly Prisoners Go Home to Die: 'Compassionate release' is an excellent tool that the BOP refuses to use." Here are excerpts:

For years, federal prisoners and their advocates have begged the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to shorten the sentences of elderly and terminally ill offenders using a provision called "compassionate release."... In 2013, the BOP Office of Inspector General encouraged the BOP to send these kinds of prisoners home. In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission went so far as to expand eligibility for the program in hopes the BOP would use it more.

But the BOP has largely ignored those recommendations [and now] Congress demanded that the BOP explain why it continues to incarcerate geriatric and terminally ill prisoners who pose no threat to public safety and are unlikely to commit new crimes upon their release.

In a report accompanying the 2018 appropriations bill, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) ordered the BOP to turn over reams of data about the compassionate release program. Including:

  • the steps BOP has taken to implement the suggestions of the BOP Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Sentencing Commission

  • a detailed explanation as to which recommendations the BOP has not adopted, and why the number of prisoners who applied for compassionate release in the last five years, as well as how many requests were granted, how many were denied, and why

  • how much time elapsed between each request and a decision from the BOP

  • the number of prisoners who died while waiting for the BOP to rule on their application for compassionate release

Only 10 percent of America's prisoners are in federal prisons, but it is an increasingly old and sick population due to the disproportionately long sentences tied to federal drug offenses. As of June 2017, BOP facilities held 34,769 prisoners over the age of 51. More than 10,000 of those prisoners are over the age of 60.

Elderly prisoners pose financial and human rights problems. "In fiscal year 2014, the BOP spent $1.1 billion on inmate medical care, an increase of almost 30 percent in 5 years," BOP Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz wrote in prepared testimony to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. "One factor that has significantly contributed to the increase in medical costs is the sustained growth of an aging inmate population."...

Shelby's letter gives the BOP 60 days from the passage of the appropriations bill to submit its data to the committee. "Elderly and sick prisoners cost taxpayers the most and threaten us the least, and there's no good reason they should stay locked up or die behind bars because bureaucrats can't or won't let them go home to their families," Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in a statement. "It's time for someone to get to the bottom of why the BOP's answer is always no on compassionate release."

July 30, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)