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October 28, 2017

"The Right Way: More Republican lawmakers championing death penalty repeal"

The-Right-Way-Thumbnail-232x300The title of this post is the title of this new report released this past week by the group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.  Here is its executive summary and part of its introduction:

More Republican lawmakers are recognizing that the death penalty is a broken policy and taking an active role in efforts to end it.  This report documents that shift by analyzing sponsorship of death penalty repeal bills in state legislatures between 2000 and 2017.

During the first part of this time period, from 2000 to 2012, Republican sponsorship of legislation to end the death penalty was relatively rare, with the number of Republican sponsors per year never exceeding single digits. But that has changed during the past five years, when there has been a significant increase in the number of Republican sponsors of repeal legislation.

In 2016 and 2017, dozens of Republican lawmakers sponsored death penalty repeal bills. In fact, during these two years, Republicans constituted around a third of all sponsors of death penalty repeal bills in state legislatures. As these data show, death penalty repeal efforts are becoming more bipartisan in many states.

These developments come as a number of conservatives have coalesced under the banner of Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty (CCATDP) to raise concerns about the death penalty in the media and other forums. Plagued by wrongful convictions, high costs, and delays, the death penalty has proven to be ineffective and incompatible with a number of core conservative principles. It runs afoul of conservative commitments to limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a culture of life.

Such concerns are increasingly impacting policy debates in state legislatures, among grassroots conservatives, and between conservative faith and party leaders. For many of us, our conservative principles inevitably lead to the conclusion that the death penalty is a failed government program that must end....

Conservatives Concerned About The Death Penalty launched in March 2013 at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).  At that time, death penalty use was rapidly declining. The number of executions was down to less than half of its peak in 1999. Annual death sentences were down to just over one quarter of their record high in 1996, and public support was down 20 points from its highest point in 1994....

Some of the biggest death sentencing drops occurred in reliably red states like Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Louisiana. Many point to the action of a Republican governor in January 2000 as the death penalty’s turning point when Illinois’ then-Governor, Republican George Ryan, imposed the nation’s first state-based moratorium on executions. This set off a wave of increased scrutiny and institutional opposition to the death penalty. That same year, New Hampshire’s Republican-controlled legislature voted to repeal the death penalty, only to have its Democratic governor veto it.

Despite this history of efforts from Republicans, death penalty repeal was still largely seen as a liberal concern.

CCATDP’s launch in 2013 put conservative death penalty opposition on the national radar. For many conservatives, our launch was their first exposure to the conservative case against the death penalty.  For many others, it was the first time they realized they weren’t alone.

Since then, dozens of national, state, and local conservative leaders have lent their support to CCATDP.  Eleven local CCATDP branches have formed in states across the country. More than 1,400 media stories have included our conservative take on the death penalty. Among those, we have appeared on conservative talk radio stations in every state in the country. And Republican lawmakers have taken on death penalty repeal in statehouses from Virginia to Washington, Louisiana to Utah.

This report documents this last point – the dramatic rise in Republican sponsorship of bills to end the death penalty. It includes profiles of several Republican lawmakers who are leading the way, and it highlights some of the other trends that helped contribute to this rise.

October 28, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

October 27, 2017

Expressing concerns about how risk assessment algorithms learn

This New York Times op-ed, headlined "When an Algorithm Helps Send You to Prison," is authored by Ellora Thadaney Israni, a law student and former software engineer at Facebook. In the course of covering now familiar ground in the debate over the use of risk assessment tools at sentencing, the piece adds some points about how these tools may evolve and soundly urges more transparency in their creation and development:

Machine learning algorithms often work on a feedback loop.  If they are not constantly retrained, they “lean in” to the assumed correctness of their initial determinations, drifting away from both reality and fairness.  As a former Silicon Valley software engineer, I saw this time and again: Google’s image classification algorithms mistakenly labeling black people as gorillas, or Microsoft’s Twitter bot immediately becoming a “racist jerk.”...

With transparency and accountability, algorithms in the criminal justice system do have potential for good.  For example, New Jersey used a risk assessment program known as the Public Safety Assessment to reform its bail system this year, leading to a 16 percent decrease in its pre-trial jail population.  The same algorithm helped Lucas County, Ohio double the number of pre-trial releases without bail, and cut pre-trial crime in half.  But that program’s functioning was detailed in a published report, allowing those with subject-matter expertise to confirm that morally troubling (and constitutionally impermissible) variables — such as race, gender and variables that could proxy the two (for example, ZIP code) — were not being considered.

For now, the only people with visibility into COMPAS’s functioning are its programmers, who are in many ways less equipped than judges to deliver justice.  Judges have legal training, are bound by ethical oaths, and must account for not only their decisions but also their reasoning in published opinions.  Programmers lack each of these safeguards. Computers may be intelligent, but they are not wise.  Everything they know, we taught them, and we taught them our biases.  They are not going to un-learn them without transparency and corrective action by humans.

October 27, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Is it time for new optimism or persistent pessimism on the latest prospects for statutory federal sentencing reform?

At the spectacular Advancing Justice summit yesterday (basics here), a whole set of "in-the-know" folks stated that there is wide bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for federal sentencing reform.  Specifically, as this brief Axios piece notes, Senator Mike Lee stated in the event's first session that "the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would have received 70 votes in the Senate if voted on last year, and would still get 70 votes in the Senate this year." (This Axios piece also report that Senator Lee "wants a vote on the bill before the end of the year.") Senator Lee's views here were echoed later in the day during a keynote speech by Senator Chuck Grassley and during a panel discussion by a number of in-the-know public policy advocates.

But, as optimistic as this all may sound, Matt Ford has this new this big piece at The Atlantic indicating that some key Democratic voices may be unwilling to move forward with sentencing reform proposals if mens rea reform is going to be part of the package.  The piece's headline highlights why pessimism may again be the justified perspective here: "Could a Controversial Bill Sink Criminal-Justice Reform in Congress?: A debate over mens rea stalled the last push for reform. Now, a similar battle could be brewing."   Here is a snippet:

A bill drafted by a group of Senate Republicans earlier this year would tweak the mens rea requirement in federal statutes, adding a default rule for juries to find criminal intent for federal offenses that don’t explicitly have an intent standard. (Mens rea is a legal term derived from the phrase “guilty mind” in Latin.) If enacted, federal prosecutors would need to prove a defendant’s state of mind to obtain a conviction for a host of existing crimes. Conservatives and criminal-defense organizations argue the measure is a necessary part of the congressional effort to reform sentencing and incarceration.

But some Senate Democrats fear the measure is far too sweeping and could be a back-door attack on federal health and environmental regulations that police corporate behavior. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told me earlier this week that he wouldn’t support a sentencing-reform bill if it included the change to mens rea. “It would turn me into a warrior against it,” he emphasized. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, would also oppose such a bill, a spokesman confirmed.

Other Senate Democrats criticized a similar measure that passed the House during the last criminal-justice-reform push, which centered on a sentencing-reform bill.  In January 2016, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, a longtime supporter of reform, said that version of the mens rea proposal “should be called the White Collar Criminal Immunity Act.” (Like Whitehouse, Durbin serves on the Judiciary Committee, which would need to sign off on any mens rea- or sentencing-reform bills.)  Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a speech the following month that the House proposal would “make it much harder for the government to prosecute hundreds of corporate crimes — everything from wire fraud to mislabeling prescription drugs.”  Negotiations over criminal-justice reform ultimately collapsed that summer as the presidential election entered its final stretch.

I have said before and will say again that this kind of opposition to a reform designed to safeguard a fundamental part of a fair and effective federal criminal justice system shows just how we got to a world with mass incarceration and mass supervision and mass collateral consequences.  Nobody seems willing or able to understand that making life easier for prosecutors anywhere serves to increase the size and reach and punitiveness of our criminal justice systems everywhere.  In turn, if you want a less extreme and severe criminal justice system anywhere, the best way to advance the cause is by seeking and advocating to limit government prosecutorial powers everywhere.

So, to answer the question in the title of this post, I think I have to stick with persistent pessimism for the time being.

October 27, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"How to Assess Real World Application of a Capital Sentencing Statute: A Response to Professor Chad Flanders's Comment"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by John Mills now available via SSRN. As the title indicates, this piece is a response to a recent article by Chad Flanders, blogged here, about capital sentencing procedures. Here is the abstract:

In assessing the constitutionality of a capital sentencing regime, the raw number of aggravating factors is irrelevant. What matters is their scope.  To pass constitutional muster, aggravating factors (or the equivalent) must narrow the scope of death eligibility to the worst-of-the-worst.  Professor Chad Flanders wants courts to ignore empirical assessments of the scope of aggravating circumstances and uses an imagined State of Alpha as his jumping off point.  This response to Prof. Flanders makes the case for looking at the actual operation of a law, not just its reach in the abstract.  This response focuses on Arizona’s capital sentencing regime to illustrate the importance of understanding the real world operation of the law and discusses the well-established basis in law and policy for relying on empirical studies in support of narrowing claims.

Prior related post:

October 27, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

October 26, 2017

Gallup reports reduced levels of support for death penalty in US

Tfkakmgl20mit7ddmcueeqAs reported in this new posting from Gallup, "Americans' support for the death penalty has dipped to a level not seen in 45 years. Currently, 55% of U.S. adults say they favor the death penalty for convicted murderers." Here is more:

The latest results, based on an Oct. 5-11 Gallup poll, continue a trend toward diminished death penalty support as many states have issued moratoria on executions or abolished capital punishment.  Gallup first asked about the death penalty using the current question format in 1936. Support has generally been 60% or higher throughout most of the past 80 years, but has been as low as 42% and as high as 80%.

The low point came in 1966 during a period spanning the late 1950s through early 1970s when a series of court cases challenged the legality of capital punishment. This culminated with the Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia that halted all U.S. executions. Three months before that ruling, 50% of Americans said they favored the death penalty.  Four months after it, 57% were in favor, the last time support was below 60%.

State legislatures responded to the Furman ruling by rewriting state laws to address the high court's concerns that the death penalty was not applied fairly.  Those new laws were deemed constitutional, leading to the resumption of capital punishment in the late 1970s. Death penalty support generally increased from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, peaking at 80% in 1994, a time when Americans named crime as the most important problem facing the nation.

Most of the decline in death penalty support in recent years is attributable to a drop in support among Democrats. In the early 2000s, consistent majorities of Democrats favored capital punishment -- but their support has been below 50% in each of the past five years, including just 39% in the current poll.

In contrast, Republicans continue to largely back the death penalty, with typically around eight in 10 in favor of the practice, though slightly fewer, 72%, do so in the current poll.  Independents' support is similar to the national average, at 58%, but has been lower the past three years than it was in most of the previous two decades....

Currently, 39% of Americans say the death penalty is not imposed often enough, 26% say it is used too much, and 26% say its use is about right.  Those views have been fairly steady in recent years but reflect a decline since 2010 in the percentage saying the death penalty is not used often enough.  That decline has mostly been accompanied by an increase in the percentage saying it is used too often.

Attitudes about the fairness and usage of the death penalty correspond with basic support or opposition toward capital punishment more generally.  Thus, the declines in recent years in the percentage of U.S. adults who say the death penalty is applied fairly or who are critical of how often it is used are largely related to the decline in basic death penalty support.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has a few comments about these Gallup numbers, including this important observation:

The question Gallup has asked since 1936 is, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" The question is misleading as it asks about the death penalty for murder generally rather than just the worst murders. So understood, I would answer that question "no" myself. Gallup seems oblivious to the deficiency in this question, though, and regularly headlines the results in its reports. This year's "favor" answer to that question is the lowest since March 1972 (before Furman v. Georgia), and that is the headline on their report.

October 26, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Prez Trump to declare opioid epidemic a "public health" emergency

As reported in this piece from The Hill, "President Trump on Thursday will instruct the acting director of the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, White House officials said." Here is more about this notable news:

It's a move that won't free up additional federal funding and is a more narrow option recommended by the president's opioid commission.  The announcement has been months in the making and avoids declaring a more sweeping national emergency under the Stafford Act, which was one option the administration's opioid commission had previously recommended.  The commission recommended either a public health emergency or a Stafford Act emergency.

The Stafford Act “doesn't offer authority that is helpful here," a senior administration official said. "There has been some false reporting about this." A Stafford Act emergency is typically reserved for a terror attack or natural disaster in a more localized area.

Trump will formally make the announcement during a White House event Thursday.... On Aug. 10, Trump said his administration was drafting paperwork to officially declare the epidemic a national emergency, which was the “first and most urgent” recommendation in an interim report from his commission to combat the crisis. Two months later, some advocates and lawmakers were frustrated that the declaration still hadn’t come. At a press conference last week, Trump said he’d make the announcement this week, calling a declaration “a very important step” and saying “to get to that step, a lot of work has to be done and it’s time-consuming work.”

Administration officials said they felt that a public health emergency was a better use of resources.  It will allow acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan to loosen certain regulations and issue grants and spend money that he otherwise would not be able to.  A public health emergency needs to be renewed every 90 days until the declaration is no longer needed.

Three agencies that play a role in the federal response to the opioid epidemic have acting directors instead of Senate-confirmed leaders: the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Drug Enforcement Administration.  Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) — an early backer of Trump — withdrew as the ONDCP nominee last week following a Washington Post-"60 Minutes” joint investigative report on a bill he sponsored that weakened the DEA's ability to enforce the nation’s drug laws.  Marino has vigorously defended himself. White House officials said Trump will be submitting names to lead HHS and ONDCP soon but pointed to “obstructionists” in the Senate for slowing down confirmation of lower level agency appointees who could help implement the action.

The declaration could spark a funding feud in Washington, as some say more cash is needed to make a declaration effective. The amount of money left in the public health emergency fund is paltry — just $57,000.  Administration officials said there have been ongoing discussions with Congress about securing more money for the fund as part of the year-end spending bill, but would not discuss specific dollar amounts.

Though I am sure there will criticism and debate as to whether the Trump Administration is doing enough with this latest move and other actions, I cannot help but note and praise the labeling and symbolism here.  Today's announcement involves a declaration of a "public health" emergency rather than a declaration of a "war on opioids" or advocacy for increased punishments for opioid activity.  (Although until we hear what Prez Trump actually says this afternoon, it may be premature to praise what it would seem he plans to say and I recall that last month AG Sessions talked about winning the war against opioids.)

In prior generations, such as when crack was the drug of great concern in the 1980s, the response at the federal level was to increase and emphasize the criminal justice fight in various ways.  A "public health" focus for drug problems is one that has been long urged by researchers and advocates; today's announcement suggests some rhetoric of late is shifting to embracing a "public health" model — although on-the-ground realities demonstrate that the criminal justice system is still playing a huge part of the public response to opioid and other drug issues.

A few of many recent related posts:

October 26, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"30 Years Later: A Look Back at the Sentencing Guidelines"

The title of this post is the title of an event the took place earlier this week at the Hofstra University Club and was recorded and preserved here via YouTube. Here is a brief description of the event:

In 1987, the U.S. Sentencing Commission transformed criminal law in the United States in releasing the original Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  From the start, Hofstra Law was at the forefront of sentencing scholarship, publishing key insights from the earliest days of the Commission.  On Monday, October 23, distinguished members of the Judiciary, past and present Commissioners, and leading scholars commemorated the original U.S. Sentencing Commission and marked the 30th Anniversary of the Sentencing Guidelines at the Hofstra University Club.

Notaby, the event included a keynote address by SCOTUS Justice Stephen Breyer (which starts around the 1:05 point on the video).

October 26, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

October 25, 2017

Excited to be inside the Beltway to help with "Advancing Justice"

Blogging may be light over the next 36 hours because I am in Washington DC to participate in this great event, "Advancing Justice 2017: An Agenda for Human Dignity & Public Safety." Here is how the event is described/summarized:

Criminal justice and policing reforms have made tremendous gains at both the state and federal level in the last several years.  However, the ongoing opioid crisis, questions around violent crime, and continued police militarization show us that there is still much to be done.

On Thursday, October 26, please join the Charles Koch Institute for a one-day conference in Washington, D.C. to identify the next set of criminal justice reform priorities, and showcase a broad coalition of policy makers, academics, think tanks, and community activists who’ve helped bring us this far.  Together, we are committed to supporting the best ideas and lending our voice to the national conversation for an advancement in human dignity and greater public safety. We hope you can join us.

The conference speakers include Senator Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), former U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, John Pfaff, professor of law and economics at Fordham University, Doug Berman, the Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law at Ohio State University, Anne Milgram, a professor of practice & distinguished scholar at New York University School of Law, former Baltimore Ravens Player Eugene Monroe, George J. Terwilliger III, former acting attorney general and partner at McGuireWoods, and Sharanda Jones, a criminal justice reform advocate who received clemency for a life sentence.

Given this amazing collection of 40+ speakers scheduled to speak at this event, I am amazed and humbled I got included in the summary "teaser" of conference speakers.  I will be speaking on a late morning panel titled "A Fight over Federalism: The Future of Marijuana Policy," and I am genuinely excited about attending so many of the other amazing sessions on this agenda covering so many timely and important criminal justice reform issues of the day.

October 25, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

US Sentencing Commission releases new report on "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses in the Federal System"

Cover_drug-mand-minVia email, I just learned that the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released another big notable data report on mandatory minimum sentences in the federal system.  This latest report it titled "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Drug Offenses in the Federal System," and this USSC webpage provides links to the full report and particular chapters. That same pages also provides this summary and overview of the report's key findings:

Summary

Using fiscal year 2016 data, this publication includes analysis similar to that in the 2017 Overview Publication, providing sentencing data on offenses carrying drug mandatory minimums, the impact on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population, and differences observed when analyzing each of five main drug types.  Where appropriate, the publication highlights changes and trends since the Commission’s 2011 Mandatory Minimum Report.  Because drug offenses are the most common offenses carrying mandatory minimum penalties, many of the trends in this publication mirror the trends seen in the 2017 Overview Publication.

Key Findings

Building directly on previous reports and the analyses set forth in the 2017 Overview Publication, this publication examines the use and impact of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses.  As part of this analysis, the Commission makes the 10 key findings:

1. Drug mandatory minimum penalties continued to result in long sentences in the federal system.  

2. Mandatory minimum penalties continued to have a significant impact on the size and composition of the federal prison population.  

3. Offenses carrying a drug mandatory minimum penalty were used less often, as the number and percentage of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty has decreased since fiscal year 2010.  

4. While fewer offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in recent years, those who were tended to be more serious.  

5. Drug mandatory minimum penalties applied more broadly than Congress may have anticipated.  

6. Statutory relief plays a significant role in the application and impact of drug mandatory minimum penalties and results in significantly reduced sentences when applied.  

7. Additionally, drug mandatory minimum penalties appear to provide a significant incentive to provide substantial assistance to the government pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) and the related guideline provision at USSG §5K1.1.  

8. However, neither the statutory safety valve provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) nor the substantial assistance provision at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) fully ameliorate the impact of drug mandatory minimum penalties on relatively low-level offenders.  

9. There were significant demographic shifts in the data relating to mandatory minimum penalties.  

10. Although likely due in part to an older age at release, drug trafficking offenders convicted of an offense carrying a drug mandatory minimum penalty had a lower recidivism rate than those drug trafficking offenders not convicted of such an offense.

Kudos to the USSC for continuing to release timely and informative reports as debates over federal sentencing policies and practices continue.  I hope in coming days to find time to mine some more findings from this report that I would consider "key," and I welcome comments that flag any and all elements of this latest report that folks consider especially interesting or important.

October 25, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 24, 2017

Can a defendant be given two maxed-out consecutive manslaughter sentences for killing one person?

The puzzling question in the title of this post would appear to be the remarkable issue that is now going to be considered by the top court in the Old Dominion State according to this local story headlined "Virginia Supreme Court will rule on Gregg sentencing."  Here is the press report that I am still trying to wrap my mind around:

Almost two years after a Fauquier jury found a Marshall man guilty of manslaughter, the legal debate over his prison sentence will go to the state’s highest court. The Virginia Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear the prosecution’s appeal of a decision that would void one of two homicide convictions of Carroll E. “Tootie” Gregg Jr. in December 2015.

The circuit court jury recommended a 10-year sentence on each.  Judge Herman A. Whisenant Jr. exercised a state code provision that allowed him to add three years on each conviction, which he suspended. Mr. Gregg got a 26-year prison sentence, with six years suspended.

He shot and killed Junior Jordan Montero Sanchez, 23, just after midnight June 6, 2014. Mr. Sanchez and a towing company coworker had gone to Mr. Gregg’s Conde Road apartment to repossess a pickup truck for delinquent loan payments.

But, Warrenton defense attorneys Blair Howard and T. Brooke Howard II immediately objected to the pair of manslaughter sentences, contending that the U.S and Virginia constitutions protect individuals from being punished twice for the same crime.

A Virginia Court of Appeals panel last December ruled that the dual convictions — on two involuntary manslaughter charges, one of them for “unlawfully shooting at an occupied vehicle wherein death resulted” — constituted double jeopardy. The panel sent the case back to Fauquier County Circuit Court, where the prosecution would choose which conviction to apply.

But, the state attorney general’s office appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which last week agreed to take the case.... “It will indeed be interesting to see the outcome in the Virginia Supreme Court,” Fauquier County Commonwealth’s Attorney James P. Fisher said.

The attorney general’s office handles most appeals of criminal cases that start with local prosecutors. Mr. Fisher has argued that the vehicle shooting conviction has different elements, even though state code labels it “involuntary manslaughter.”

The Virginia Court of Appeals ruling in this case is available at this link and it strikes me as eminently sensible.  Moreover, it has never really dawned on me to imagine that prosecutors could try to ramp up the punishment for a single killing by seeking multiple convictions and multiple consecutive sentences for every different type of possible homicide that the single killing might constitute. (For example, here in Ohio, we have nine different types of homicide and a drunk driver who kills one person might readily be found guilty of six different types of homicide.  I could never imagine a prosecutor looking to convict such a drunk driver of six different counts and asking for six max sentences to run consecutively on each count for a single killing.)

Perhaps I am missing something when I suggest it seems crazy for a defendant to be sentenced to two maxed-out consecutive manslaughter sentences for killing one person.  The local prosecutor and the sentencing judge obviously did not think this kind of doubling up was crazy.  Moreover, it would seem that Virginia Attorney General's office believes there is a legally defensible basis for pursuing a state Supreme Court appeal in order to preserve the double-max sentence imposed by the sentencing court. 

I would be grateful to hear in the comments if and how anyone can make the principled case for a double-max manslaughter sentence in a case involving only a single killing.

October 24, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (26)

Many (but not all) Massachusetts DAs come out against eliminating certain drug mandatory minimums and other proposed reforms

This Boston Globe article, headlined "In harsh letter, DAs pan Senate’s criminal justice proposal," reports on a notable letter signed by most of the District Attorneys of Massachusetts to oppose a set of state criminal justice reform proposals. Here is the start of the article (which includes a link to the letter to legislators):

In a blistering public rebuke, nine of Massachusetts’ 11 district attorneys came out Monday against major parts of the state Senate’s sweeping criminal justice bill, which is aimed at reducing the number of people caught in the system.  In a six-page letter that comes days before the chamber is set to take up the legislation, top law enforcement officials railed against what is a Senate priority.

Although they praise some aspects of the bill, overall it “undermines the cause and pursuit of fair and equal justice for all, largely ignores the interests of victims of crime, and puts at risk the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts’ approach to public safety and criminal justice for at least the last 25 years,” the DAs wrote.

The letter also marks a break among the top prosecutors, with the signatures of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan and Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan — who is the chief law enforcement official of the state’s most populous county — notably absent.

The nine DAs are against eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes such as trafficking up to 100 grams of cocaine — one proposal in the legislation scheduled for a Thursday vote in the Senate. And they expressed particularly vociferous opposition to the part of the bill that would make those changes retroactive, allowing hundreds of drug dealers the opportunity to get out of prison early.   “Where exactly are the residents eager for violent drug traffickers to be returned to their neighborhoods?” they wrote. 

Advocates and senators say mandatory minimums are a failed tactic from the war on drugs, one that has unnecessarily ensnared generations of people, particularly from communities of color, in the criminal justice system. And making the repeal of certain drug mandatory minimums retroactive is important for equity, they say.

The DAs energetically oppose the provision that would raise the age of criminal majority to 19, meaning all but the most serious offenses committed by 18-year-olds would likely be adjudicated confidentially in front of a juvenile court judge.

Advocates and Senate leaders say scientific research shows young people’s brains keep maturing into their 20s, and it is appropriate for the law to acknowledge that evolution. They say it’s just common sense to treat all high school kids the same way, instead of punishing an 18-year-old much more harshly than a 17-year-old for the same crime.

But the DAs wrote that “adopting a law that enables anyone to declare that ‘I am not responsible for my actions, my brain is!’ is something no rational parent would accept, and creates a slippery slope.”

The DAs vehemently oppose rewriting the state’s statutory rape law, which currently makes sex with anyone under 16 against the law. The bill would legalize consensual sex between teens close in age — an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old, or a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old, for example. That provision is “both unnecessary and dangerous, especially to girls and young women,” the nine DAs wrote.  But advocates say a so-called Romeo-and-Juliet law is sensible, and criminalizing the sexual contact young people inevitably have with each other is not the best way to respond to it.

October 24, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Resolving Judicial Dilemmas"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Alex Sarch and Daniel Wodak recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The legal reasons that bind a judge and the moral reasons that bind all persons can sometimes pull in different directions. There is perhaps no starker example of such judicial dilemmas than in criminal sentencing.  Particularly where mandatory minimum sentences are triggered, a judge can be forced to impose sentences that even the judge regards as “immensely cruel, if not barbaric.” Beyond those directly harmed by overly harsh laws, some courts have recognized that “judges who, forced to participate in such inhumane acts, suffer a loss of dignity and humanity as well.”

When faced with such a judicial dilemma — a powerful tension between the judge’s legal and moral reasons—the primary question is what a judge can do to resolve it. We argue that the two standard responses — sacrificing morality to respect the law (“legalism”), or sacrificing the law to respect morality (“moralism”) — are unsatisfying. Instead, this Article defends an underexplored third response: rather than abandoning one ideal to maximally promote the other, we argue that judges should seek to at least minimally satisfy the demands of both.  Judges should, in other words, look for and employ what we dub Satisficing Options.  These are actions that enjoy sufficient support from both the legal reasons and the moral reasons, and thus are both legally and morally permissible — even if the acts in question would not strictly count as optimal by the lights of the law or morality.

This common sensical response to the problem is not only underappreciated in the literature, but also has great practical import.  Focusing on the sentencing context, this Article demonstrates that judicial dilemmas can be systematically resolved, mitigated or avoided through a range of concrete strategies that on their own or in conjunction can constitute Satisficing Options: these strategies include seeking out legally permitted but morally preferable interpretations of the law, expressing condemnation of unjust laws in dicta, and seeking assistance or cooperation from other actors to help defendants facing substantively unjust mandatory sentences.  While these strategies can at times also go too far, we argue that in certain contexts they can be sufficiently defensible on both legal and moral grounds to be a justifiable response to judicial dilemmas.  This Article thus provides both a novel theoretical framework for understanding the justification of judicial responses to unjust laws, as well as a practical a menu of options which judges can use to guide their responses to the judicial dilemmas that they are increasingly likely to encounter within our criminal justice system.

October 24, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

October 23, 2017

New study of Pennsylvania death penalty finds disparity based on race of victim and type of representation

This new local AP article, headlined "Study: Victim's race factor in imposing death sentences in Pa.," reports on some interesting findings of a big forthcoming report about the death penalty's application in the Keystone State.  Here are the details as reported by the AP:

A new study of capital punishment in Pennsylvania found that death sentences are more common when the victim is white and less frequent when the victim is black.  The report, which drew from court and prosecution records over an 11-year period, concluded that a white victim increases the odds of a death sentence by 8 percent.  When the victim is black, the chances are 6 percent lower.

“The race of a victim and the type of representation afforded to a defendant play more important roles in shaping death penalty outcomes in Pennsylvania than do the race or ethnicity of the defendant,” according to the 197-page report obtained by The Associated Press.

Penn State researchers produced the $250,000 study for the Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, and its findings are expected to be incorporated into a separate, ongoing review of the state's death penalty that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has said could affect the death penalty moratorium he imposed shortly after taking office in 2015.

The report also found the prosecution of death penalty cases varies widely among counties, calling that variation the most prominent differences researchers identified. “A given defendant's chance of having the death penalty sought, retracted or imposed depends a great deal on where that defendant is prosecuted and tried,” they concluded. “In many counties of Pennsylvania, the death penalty is simply not utilized at all. In others, it is sought frequently.”...

Researchers with Penn State's Justice Center for Research said there was no “overall pattern of disparity” by prosecutors in seeking the death penalty against black or Hispanic defendants, but did detect a “Hispanic victim effect” in which prosecutors were 21 percent more likely to seek death when the victim was Hispanic.  Black and Hispanic defendants who killed white victims were not more likely than a typical defendant to get a death sentence.

In nearly a quarter of all cases, defense lawyers did not present a single “mitigating factor” to push back against the aggravating factors that must be proven in order to justify a death sentence.... With the exception of Philadelphia, which has a unique system for providing lawyers to those who can't afford them, defendants represented by public defenders were more likely to get a death sentence than those with privately retained lawyers.

Unlike studies in some other states, the researchers said there was “no clear indication” that defendants with private attorneys — as opposed to court-appointed counsel — were more likely to get a plea deal with prosecutors that avoided a death sentence.

Notably, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association released on Monday this press release about the report titled "PA Report Refutes Death Penalty Myths."  Here is how it starts:

A study on capital punishment decisions in Pennsylvania found there is no racial bias in prosecutors’ decisions or in defendants who receive death penalty sentences. The findings of the report are in direct contrast to the racial-bias narrative pushed for years by anti-death penalty advocates and are important new facts any discussion about capital punishment must recognize.

“This report’s conclusion is clear: capital punishment in Pennsylvania is not disproportionately targeted against defendants of color,” said PDAA President and Berks County District Attorney John Adams. “For so long, those who have sought to abolish the death penalty have argued that the race of the defendant plays the critical role in decisions about who gets the death penalty. This report squarely debunks that theory.”

The report, prepared by Penn State University researchers for the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, has not yet been made public but was provided by an unknown source to the Associated Press. In it, the report clearly states that “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black or Hispanic defendants was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek and, if sought, to retract the death penalty.” Similarly, according to the report, “[n]o pattern of disparity to the disadvantage of Black defendants with White victims was found in prosecutorial decisions to seek or to retract the death penalty.”

October 23, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Is There a ‘Rational’ Punishment for My Rapist?"

The title of this post is the title of this powerful personal article authored by Amber Rose Carlson.  I recommend the piece in full, and I hesitate to reprint excerpts for fear of diluting the potency of the entire piece.  But this excerpt perhaps will help prompt folks to click through to read the full piece:

“Imagine your rapist had been found guilty and sentenced in court. What would you want his sentence to be?” This was the question asked to me in January 2016 by my therapist during a session of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (E.M.D.R.) — a treatment that researchers tout as one of the best remedies for severe trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I was raped repeatedly during a three-year span from age 13 to 16. I was also subject to physical and emotional abuse during that time. I’ve since undergone years of traditional talk and group therapy with trauma specialists, and I am more healed today than I ever thought possible.  Still, recovering from trauma is a serious endeavor, and I hoped for more healing....

I’m not a proponent of the death penalty primarily because the flaws in our criminal justice system are egregious and increasingly well-documented. The thought experiment’s framing, however, circumvented my usual concerns about unjust sanctions. I know what my rapist did to me, so I know he is guilty. Worries about the inhumanity of capital punishment were also blunted in part because this was purely hypothetical and in part because of the inhumanity he exhibited those long years with his penchant for violence.

Although the death sentence seemed wholly appropriate, I still considered how I would feel if a judge gave my rapist a less severe punishment: a natural life sentence — a life sentence with no chance for parole without a successful appeal.  In this scenario, my feelings were just as clear: I would be slightly disappointed, but I would still feel mostly satisfied.  Anything less than a death or natural life sentence, I knew, would seem inadequate....

IN FEBRUARY 2016 — only weeks after the thought experiments with my therapist — the philosopher Jennifer Lackey published an opinion piece in The Stone. In the article, she uses her experience teaching philosophy to inmates to argue for the irrationality of natural life sentences.  Lackey bases her argument against natural life sentences on two reasonable claims: (1) people (criminals, specifically) can and do change in profoundly transformative ways, and (2) we cannot know the future.

For Lackey, the fact that we have good statistical evidence that criminals can and do change is especially problematic given our vast epistemic limitations regarding the future. “Natural life sentences,” she wrote, “say to all involved that there is no possible piece of information that could be learned between sentencing and death that could bear in any way on the punishment the convicted is said to deserve, short of what might ground an appeal.” Citing the possibility of prisoner transformation, Lackey then puts her question about rationality directly: “How is it rational,” she asks, “to screen off the relevance of this information? How, that is, is it rational to say today that there can be no possible evidence in the future that could bear on the punishment that a decades-from-now prisoner deserves?”...

I read Lackey’s article very soon after the thought experiments with my therapist. I noticed that Lackey’s argument easily applied to the death penalty, and I realized that the sentences I desired for my rapist were precisely the ones Lackey condemns as irrational.  Since nothing in her argument prevented me from applying her logic to my own desires, I had to wonder if her argument also concluded that I was irrational for desiring permanent punishments.  If it is irrational for the state to prescribe a permanent punishment given our epistemic limitations and prisoners’ likelihood for change, wouldn’t it be similarly irrational for victims to ignore these considerations?

There are, of course, crucial differences between victim’s desires and punishments carried out by the state. While sometimes the criminal justice system considers the wishes of victims and their families, the criminal justice system’s central aim is to protect the interests of the state and the community.  This aim does not always coincide with the interests or wishes of the victim.  Admittedly, there are often very good reasons for the state to ignore the wishes of victims.  But my concern is less about what the state should do in practice and more about what arguments that prioritize transformation say about victims who desire permanent punishments.

Here I will be blunt: it matters very little to me whether my rapist is transformed at some point in his life. It matters to me only to the extent that I will readily agree that it would be better if he became the sort of person who did not inflict violence upon others.  I would be very happy hearing that no other women would be harmed by him. But in terms of the punishment that he deserves?  Transformation does not matter to me.  And this is not irrational: There are many carefully considered reasons one might want a natural life sentence for perpetrators of egregious and irrevocable harm.

Desiring death or a natural life sentence for those who inflict traumatic violence is a rational response because whether or not my particular rapist transforms is irrelevant to whether or not I will ever have the chance to be the sort of person I might have been.  His transformation is irrelevant to whether or not I will be able to live the sort of life I could have were it not for the injustice done to me. I desire a death or natural life sentence for my rapist because that is what seems appropriate given the amount of damage he wrought in my life....

Although my attitude is in no way representative of all victims, epistemic arguments that prioritize criminal transformation must contend with the implication that they can be used to paint trauma victims irrational when they desire retribution.  It’s certainly important to advocate for prisoners who are wrongly incarcerated and for those who were victims of the overzealous war on crime era.  The injustices in our criminal justice system are too numerous and too serious to ignore. But criminal justice reform should not be so myopic that it compounds trauma survivors’ victimization.  Those who manage to survive traumatic crimes have enough to battle without arguments that undermine their rational considerations. Advocates for criminal justice reform can, and should, do better.

October 23, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Reviewing publicity's role in federal sentencing decision-making

This new Forbes piece by Brian Jacobs, headlined "The Role of Publicity in Sentencing," reviews how a case's high-profile nature can play a role in a defendant's federal sentencing. Here are excerpts concluding with the author's closing criticism of "any substantial reliance on publicity as a sentencing factor":

Should defendants in cases that attract press coverage be given longer sentences than defendants in cases that pass unnoticed?  The knee jerk response of anyone familiar with the basic principle of equality under the law would likely be a resounding “no.”  And yet, as some recent cases have starkly demonstrated, courts can and do consider a defendant’s level of notoriety as a factor weighing in favor of harsher punishment.

The ability of courts to take publicity into account at sentencing traces back to Section 3553(a) of Title 18, United States Code, which provides a list of factors that district courts are required to consider in imposing sentence, including “the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant.”  One of the factors district courts must consider is “the need for the sentence imposed— to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct.”...

The extent of publicity a case has received and will continue to receive naturally figures into the analysis of whether a given sentence will further the goal of general deterrence.  As one commentator wrote some time ago, “[i]f a case has for some reason attracted great publicity, a severe sentence could be expected to have great deterrent effect.  If, on the other hand, the publicity is minimal and the sentence probably will be known only to the defendant himself and the officials involved with the case, the judge could let the offender off with a light sentence without sacrificing any general preventive effects.”

As evidenced by some recent cases, courts have generally followed through on this reasoning and have considered the extent of a case’s publicity as one factor weighing in favor of higher sentences.  In Ross Ulbricht’s appeal of his conviction for crimes “associated with his creation and operation of an online marketplace known as Silk Road,” the Second Circuit Court of Appeals condoned the district court’s consideration of the extent of the case’s publicity as one factor justifying the life sentence imposed. Specifically, the Second Circuit approved the district court’s reference to the general deterrence that would result from the “unusually large amount of public interest” in the case.  (Ironically, it appears that the Ulbricht’s life sentence and the attendant publicity, far from deterring crime, “actually boosted dark web drug sales.”)

By the same token, in sentencing former congressman Anthony Weiner to 21 months’ imprisonment for transferring obscene materials to a minor, U.S. District Judge Denise L. Cote made express reference to Mr. Weiner’s high profile: “Because of the defendant’s notoriety, gained well before he engaged in this criminal activity, there is intense interest in this prosecution, in his plea, and his sentence, and so there is the opportunity to make a statement that could protect other minors,” she said.  Judge Cote elaborated that, “[g]eneral deterrence is a very significant factor in this sentence.”...

But even as courts are required to consider general deterrence, the consideration given to a case’s publicity, in particular, should be minimal.  The use of general deterrence as a sentencing factor is inherently unfair to an individual defendant, to the extent that the individual defendant’s case is used as a “means for the public good.”  To base a defendant’s sentence on the extent of the publicity a case has received or will receive only exacerbates this unfairness, as notoriety has even less to do with the individual defendant’s case, and more to do with the whims of the press corps and the Department of Justice’s media operation.  In the long run, any substantial reliance on publicity as a sentencing factor, rather than deterring crime, seems just as likely to increase the risk that people will, as one commentator wrote, “find the system unjust” in violation of “the principle of equality before the law.”

October 23, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

"In Defense of Risk-Assessment Tools"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Marshall Project commentary authored by Adam Neufeld. its subheadline highlights its main theme: " Algorithms can help the criminal justice system, but only alongside thoughtful humans." And here is an excerpt:

It may seem weird to rely on an impersonal algorithm to predict a person’s behavior given the enormous stakes.  But the gravity of the outcome — in cost, crime, and wasted human potential — is exactly why we should use an algorithm.

Studies suggest that well-designed algorithms may be far more accurate than a judge alone.  For example, a recent study of New York City’s pretrial decisions found that an algorithm’s assessment of risk would far outperform judges’ track record.  If the city relied on the algorithm, an estimated 42 percent of detainees could be set free without any increase in people skipping trial or committing crimes pretrial, the study found.

But we are far from where we need to be in the use of these algorithms in the criminal justice system.  Most jurisdictions don’t use any algorithms, relying instead on each individual judge or decisionmaker to make critical decisions based on their personal experience, intuition, and whatever they decide is relevant. Jurisdictions that do use algorithms only use them in a few areas, in some instances with algorithms that have not been critically evaluated and implemented.

Used appropriately, algorithms could help in many more areas, from predicting who needs confinement in a maximum security prison to who needs support resources after release from prison.

However, with great (algorithmic) power comes great (human) responsibility.  First, before racing to adopt an algorithm, jurisdictions need to have the foundational conversation with relevant stakeholders about what their goals are in adopting an algorithm.  Certain goals will be consistent across jurisdictions, such as reducing the number of people who skip trial, but other goals will be specific to a jurisdiction and cannot just be delegated to the algorithm’s creator....

Many criticisms of algorithms to date point out where they fall short.  However, an algorithm should be evaluated not just against some perfect ideal, but also against the very imperfect status quo.  Preliminary studies suggest these tools improve accuracy, but the research base must be expanded.  Only well-designed evaluations will tell us when algorithms will improve fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.

Public officials have a social responsibility to pursue the opportunities that algorithms present, but to do so thoughtfully and rigorously.  That is a hard balance, but the stakes are too high not to try.

A few (of many) prior related posts:

October 23, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

October 22, 2017

Notable defense of prison labor from a former prisoner

Chandra Bozelko, a former prisoner and author of the blog Prison Diaries, has this interesting Los Angeles Times commentary headlined "Think prison labor is a form of slavery? Think again."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

When a prison inmate prays for release from her cell, prison industries can be her first salvation. I couldn’t wait to head to work in the kitchen of the maximum-security women’s prison in Connecticut where I did six years for identity theft and related crimes. I was paid 75 cents to $1.75 a day to make and serve a lot of casserole.  Yet I consider most of the criticism lobbed at prison labor — that it’s a form of slavery, a capitalist horror show — unfair, and even counterproductive in the effort to reform the justice system.

Among the firefighters on California’s fire lines this fall, 30% to 40% are inmates, paid $1 an hour to work side by side with crews making a lot more money. Some inmate firefighters have gone on the record saying they feel the same way I do about prison jobs.  It’s people on the outside who rail against prison work assignments, particularly hiring prisoners to fight fires.

“We don’t want prison policy driven by a desire for cheap labor,” says David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. He worries that a captive labor force incentivizes mass incarceration. Fathi can point to some unfortunate remarks made by prison administrators.  Last month, the sheriff of Caddo Parish, La., lamented the loss of the “good” prisoners who washed prison cars.  In 2014, the office of the attorney general of California balked at reducing prison overcrowding because it would deplete the prison workforce.

Still, less than half of America’s prison population works.  The most recent available Bureau of Justice statistics come from 2005, when 800,000 to 900,000 inmates, out of a population of about 2.3 million, had jobs within their facilities.  That left at least 1.3 million prisoners for the government to house, clothe and feed without getting anything in return.  It doesn’t seem likely that captive labor is the reason our prisons are overcrowded.

Most labor in prison is menial work for the state. Inmates sew hems on jackets for municipal employees; they do laundry duty or janitorial work.  These are also normal, outside-world activities and jobs. When a prisoner is cooking, mopping floors or folding clothes, she knows somewhere, an unincarcerated person is doing the same thing.  When a prisoner is working, she is the closest to free she can be, until she gets out.

My prison job made me feel like I was fulfilling my existential duty to society: I was contributing. It doesn’t surprise me that prison work assignments are credited with reducing recidivism. Any change for good that happened within me while I was incarcerated grew out of my job. If I feel that way about my time making chicken a la king, an inmate who’s saving lives fighting fires must feel it 10 times over.

Some call prison labor the new Jim Crow because of the outsized number of black and brown inmates in U.S. prisons.  It’s a facile charge, and worse, it may be keeping progressive companies away from prison projects.  Socially conscious businesses and agencies are likely to pay inmates higher wages, train them for better jobs and do more to prepare them for life after prison — if those companies aren’t scared away by vociferous critics of prison labor.

Whole Foods used to sell goat cheese made from milk produced on a prison farm in Colorado. “We felt supporting suppliers who found a way to be part of paid, rehabilitative work being done by inmates would help people get back on their feet and eventually become contributing members of society,” a company spokesman said. Whole Foods ended the program in 2015, after consumer protests I can only assume came from people who’ve never been incarcerated. Anyone who’s done time wouldn’t deny a fellow prisoner that kind of lifeline....

Don’t get me wrong, prison labor is by no means problem-free. Two inmate firefighters died in work-related accidents in California this year. It’s unclear whether a lack of training or the inherent danger of firefighting contributed to those deaths. We may never know because there is too little investigation of worker safety in all prisoner occupations. If safety and worker empowerment were the focus of prison labor reform, rather than dismantling the system, the movement would get my support.

The way to protect workers is the same inside and outside: unionization. It’s a misconception that inmate unions are against the law. The Supreme Court held 40 years ago that wardens don’t violate prisoners’ 1st Amendment rights when they bust inmate unions, but at the same time, nothing prohibits prison administrators from allowing unions to form. That’s where the pushback against prison labor should be aimed, toward persuading wardens to allow physical and organizational safeguards for inmate workers, protections they can negotiate for themselves.

October 22, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Should we call it the Sessions effect?: "enthusiastic" federal prosecutors operating at "full throttle" in the Southern District of Ohio

My local Columbus Dispatch has this fascinating new article highlighting an uptick in federal prosecution in the Southern District of Ohio.  The piece is headlined "Surge in prisoners prompts federal court to contract with northwest Ohio jail," and here are excerpts (with a few points highlighted):

Benjamin C. Glassman is costing taxpayers more money, and he’s OK with that. Glassman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, is reaching far and wide — very far, in some cases — to fight crime that could hurt Ohioans.

He persuaded the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to deposit four Ecuadorean cocaine traffickers caught off the Galapagos Islands for prosecution on his turf in Columbus. And members of the multinational gang MS-13 were charged in September with extorting money from Columbus businesses and laundering it back to the gang’s leadership in El Salvador.

The increase in the prosecution of violent crimes and drug cases such as these, especially amid the opioid crisis, had the U.S District Court for Southern Ohio looking for extra jail space to keep a record 483 defendants whose cases were pending as of Oct. 7. “That’s a lot for us,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Edmund A. Sargus Jr. 

Of the total defendants, 223 were up on drug charges, 43 for violent crimes and 38 for child pornography.

To prevent overtaxing the Franklin and Delaware County jails that hold federal prisoners, Peter C. Tobin, the U.S. marshal for the 48-county Southern District, recently contracted with a regional jail in Williams County, 150 miles northwest of Columbus, to hold some defendants.  So far, 30 defendants have been sent to the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio near Bryan.  That jail is charging $90 a day per federal inmate, about $25 more than the local jails.

Other federal court districts are having similar problems housing the influx of defendants, Sargus said.  The largest districts, such as New York City and Los Angeles, have their own holding facilities.

An Obama administration appointee last year, Glassman swears he’s not padding his crime-fighting resume because President Donald Trump could replace him at a moment’s notice. Ohio’s U.S. senators have recommended Greg Hartmann, an attorney and former Hamilton County commissioner, to replace Glassman. “We just want to reach out as far as we can and as far as we need to go to stop crime that is hurting people in this district,” Glassman said. “I sincerely believe people in Russia can hurt us, people in China can hurt us here.”

He spoke enviously of fellow prosecutors in North Dakota who this month “beat us to indicting” two men in China with selling fentanyl over the “dark web’ that has been tied to deadly overdoses. It was unclear whether Chinese officials have taken action against the suspects.

“We have violent crime initiatives in Cincinnati, and now Columbus, that are successfully bringing more violent crime prosecutions,” he said. Glassman’s office works closely with state and local law enforcement, counting on street cops to identify the “small number of people disproportionately responsible for a large number of violence.”  Suspects are charged in state or federal court depending on which nets prosecutors the best results, meaning guilty pleas and stiff prison sentences....

Glassman said his office is operating at “full throttle, with a lot of hardworking, really enthusiastic prosecutors.”  Individual assistant U.S. attorneys specialize in handling violent crime, drugs, illegal immigration, child pornography, tax and fraud cases.  Where only the top offenders in a drug ring were usually charged, now it’s not uncommon for cases to include a list of 15 or so defendants with even the most minor players. “We are looking to dismantle entire distribution organizations,” he said.

I find fascinating that even with a violent crime initiative and directions from Attorney General Sessions to focus on violent crime, this accounting of on-going federal prosecutions indicates that less than 15% of the current caseload (and maybe less than 10%) involves violent crimes (43 out of the 304 noted above, or maybe 43 out of the full 483).  Meanwhile, nearly half or perhaps even more than half of all the cases are drug cases, and now apparently even the most minor players in a drug ring are being subject to federal prosecution — no doubt in part because guilty pleas and stiff prison sentences are more common when drug charges are brought in the federal system.

I am inclined to call much of this a "Sessions effect" because the signals from the top of the current Justice Department would seem to be urging more and more federal prosecutions across the board (while also urging tougher approaches to sentencing).  I suspect it may be still some months before we see the full impact of these dynamics in federal sentencing statistics, but I also suspect I will be talking more about the Sessions effect in the months and years ahead.

October 22, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Lengthy look into latest significant(?) execution in Alabama

This lengthy local article, headlined "'I hate you': Inside the execution chamber as Alabama cop-killer put to death," provides an extended account of the lethal injection process to complete the sentence given to Torrey McNabb for murdering a police officer back in 1997. The folks at the Death Penalty Information Center suggest in this posting that the execution is significant because of how long the lethal injection process took.  In contrast, as evidenced by posts here and here, Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences instead found significant the willingness of the Supreme Court to vacate lower court stays concerning executions protocols to ensure this execution went forward.

I have put a question mark in the title of this post because I am not sure any individual executions or individual stay ruling are really all that significant in the long-running litigious lethal injection wars.  Some lower court judges still seem inclined to find problems in nearly every possible state lethal injection plan, while a majority of the Supreme Court Justices seem now content that the latest standard approaches states have been adopting are sufficient for constitutional purposes. This leads me to predict continued lower-court legal wrangling that gums up the works of the machinery of death, but still allows a few states to complete an execution or two every so often.

Notably, this DPIC review of yearly executions indicates that this latest Alabama execution was the 21st of 2017, meaning this year already represents an uptick in execution compared to 2016.  But it also means that we are still on pace this year to have the second or maybe third fewest years executions in a quarter century. 

UPDATE: This new USA Today article, headlined "Executions rise in 2017, but downward trend continues," provides a broader context for recent developments. It starts this way:

The nation's rapidly declining rate of executions has leveled off, but opponents of capital punishment say the death penalty remains on borrowed time. The execution Thursday of Alabama cop killer Torrey McNabb was the 21st this year, marking the first time that number has risen since 2009. The 2017 total could approach 30 before the year is out, depending on last-minute legal battles.

That ends a relatively steady drop in executions since 2009, when there were 52. Only three times has the annual number increased since executions peaked at 98 in 1999.

Several factors have contributed to this year's hiatus in the broader trend. Eight states carried out executions, a spike from recent years. Among them were Arkansas, which executed four prisoners over eight days in April before its supply of lethal injection drugs expired, and Florida, which had halted executions for 18 months after the Supreme Court found its sentencing procedure unconstitutional.

Other executions this year have illustrated the problems opponents highlight in their quest to end capital punishment. Claims of innocence and requests for additional forensic testing went unheeded. Faced with complaints from pharmaceutical companies, some states used secretive methods to obtain drugs for lethal injections. And amid charges of racial disparities, nearly all the murder victims were white.

Yet another issue will be on display during oral arguments at the Supreme Court next week: whether indigent defendants in capital cases must prove they need more experienced lawyers and resources before they will be provided.

Despite all those factors, death penalty opponents say they're not worried about the slight uptick in executions. They note that three-, five- and 10-year trends remain down.

October 22, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)