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December 2, 2017

Lies, damn lies, and executions statistics for the first year of recent presidential terms

This recent story, reporting that Texas' last scheduled execution of the year was canceled, suggests it is not too early to start taking stock of 2017 with respect to the application of the death penalty.  This DPIC upcoming execution page reports that no more executions are slated to go forward in 2017, meaning that Ohio closed the books on 2017 executions with its failed efforts to kill Alva Campbell (details here) and that Texas and Florida were the last states to actually complete executions with their separate executions on November 8th (details here).  Notably, the AP has this new accounting headlined "US executions increase slightly in 2017," which includes these details:

The year-end numbers also show that Texas will regain its standing as the nation’s most active state in carrying out capital punishment....

Texas put to death seven prisoners this year, matching the state total from 2016. They were among the 23 inmates — up from 20 last year — put to death in eight states in 2017. Arkansas carried out four executions, followed by Alabama and Florida with three each, and Ohio and Virginia with two each. Georgia, which topped the nation in 2016 with nine, executed one prisoner this year, as did Missouri.

Oklahoma, which typically has one of the busiest execution chambers in the country, went another year without putting any inmates to death as the state struggles with implementing a new execution protocol. Oklahoma put all executions on hold two years ago after several mishaps, including a botched lethal injection in 2014 and drug mix-ups in 2015, and the state’s attorney general’s office has said it won’t request any execution dates until at least 150 days after new protocols are released....

Executions in the U.S. peaked in 1999, when 98 inmates were put to death. The following year, Texas alone carried out a record 40 executions. As recently as 2010, the national total was 46, but it has been declining steadily. “Partly it’s because of impediments to execution, like the embargo of the optimum drugs,” said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which advocates for capital punishment.  “Although Texas seems to have found ways to get them, many states have not.” Scheidegger also attributed the decline to a “dramatically lower” homicide rate compared with the 1990s and “greater selectivity in which defendants are sentenced to death, by both prosecutors and juries.”...

At least eight inmates — five from Texas and one each from Missouri, Alabama and Ohio — are set to die in the first quarter of 2018. The first, scheduled for Jan. 18 in Texas, is Anthony Allen Shore, who confessed to killing multiple people and is known in the Houston area as the “Tourniquet Killer.”

As the title of this post hints, one (distorting?) way to look at this year's execution numbers is to reflect on the impact (or lack of impact) from a change in presidential leadership in 2017. Because executions take place almost exclusively at the state level — there has not been a federal execution in nearly 15 years — arguably the politics and actions of the person in the Oval Office has little or no impact on yearly execution realities. But I actually think a President (and an Attorney General) can and historically have, at least in subtle ways, an impact on capital policies and practices nationwide. And, as the accounting below suggests, the raw first-year-of-term US execution numbers (drawn from DPIC here) are just intriguing:

Jimmy Carter only term: 1 execution in 1977

 

Ronald Reagan first term: 1 execution in 1981

Ronald Reagan second term: 18 executions in 1985

 

George H.W. Bush only term: 16 executions in 1989

 

Bill Clinton first term: 38 executions in 1993

Bill Clinton second term: 74 executions in 1997

 

George W. Bush first term: 66 executions in 2001

George W. Bush second term: 60 executions in 2005

 

Barack Obama first term: 52 executions in 2009

Barack Obama second term: 39 executions in 2013

 

Donald Trump first term: 23 executions in 2017

 

So, in last four decades we have had: five Democratic Prez first terms with a total of 204 executions (40.8/year); six Republican Prez first terms with a total of 184 executions (30.7/year). 

This fact that there have been, in modern times, an average of 10 more executions in the year starting Democratic terms than in the year starting Republican terms is itself perhaps proof that who is in the Oval Office is of no matter to state execution practices. But I still find even this facile sort of number crunching interesting, as will be watching whether Prez Trump and his Department of Justice gives any attention to these matters in the years ahead.

December 2, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thanks to SCOTUS McDonnell ruling, record-long sentence for Congress member reduced to (significant) time served

A little more than eight years ago, as detailed in this post, federal prosecutors were seeking a (within-guideline) sentence of 27 years or more years for former US Representative William Jefferson following his bribery convictions.  Jefferson’s attorneys urged a sentence of less than 10 years, noting that no member of Congress had ever previously been sentenced to more than 100 months in prison.  As reported in this post, US District Judge T.S. Ellis ultimately imposed a record-setting prison sentence of 13 years.

Fast forward to this press story from yesterday, and we learn the details of the notable final chapter in this particular federal white-collar sentencing saga:

Ex-New Orleans Congressman Bill Jefferson walked out of a suburban Washington courthouse Friday owing no further obligations to the United States government, aside from monthly check-ins with a federal parole officer.  The five years and five months Jefferson spent in prison, as well as the $189,215.42 the feds seized from his bank accounts, served as enough punishment for Jefferson’s corruption convictions, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III ruled.

The judge signed off on an agreement between Jefferson’s attorneys and federal prosecutors letting the disgraced former lawmaker walk away from the public corruption case against him after serving less than half of his original prison sentence.  “So, Mr. Jefferson, this ends a long saga,” Ellis said as Jefferson, his balding head shaved smooth and shoulders stooped slightly, stood before him. “You have paid your debt."

The former nine-term Democratic congressman was toppled from power a decade ago amid high-profile FBI raids on his home and congressional offices. Agents had secretly recorded meetings between Jefferson and a wealthy Virginia businesswoman acting as an FBI informant, eventually capturing Jefferson on video accepting a suitcase with $100,000 in cash in a suburban hotel room.  Agents later found $90,000 of the money in Jefferson’s freezer, wrapped in tinfoil and stuffed inside frozen food boxes.  The raid garnered national headlines and left Jefferson’s reputation in tatters....

Ellis, who presided over Jefferson’s trial and originally sentenced him to 13 years in federal prison, threw out seven of the ten counts against Jefferson in October in light of a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring federal prosecutors to do more to prove public officials had abused their positions in corruption cases. The decision, which vacated the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, triggered a wave of appeals from other former public officials. The judge also ordered Jefferson to be released early from federal prison.

Jefferson, however, had faced the prospect of returning to prison. Ellis left three counts of the conviction standing, each of which carried a potential prison term well beyond the five years Jefferson spent locked up. At Friday’s hearing, Jefferson said little, instead letting his attorneys — both of whom represented him during his eight-week trial — do the talking....

Jefferson offered his gratitude to friends, relatives and supporters who’d stood by him over the years while speaking to reporters outside the courtroom.  The former politician said he plans to stay retired from public life but hopes to become involved in the community and his local church....  “I don’t have time to be angry with anything,” Jefferson said when asked if he harbored bitterness about his time in prison.  Jefferson maintained his innocence in the case even after his conviction but declined Friday morning to say whether he did anything wrong.

As part of the deal with prosecutors, Jefferson accepted his conviction on two federal conspiracy counts and agreed not to file any further appeals in the case.  Ellis, in signing off on the agreement, noted that federal sentencing guidelines recommend 8 to 10 years in prison on those two charges.  The judge called it a fair resolution for everyone involved.  Yet Ellis still castigated the ex-lawmaker’s actions as “venal” in handing down the lesser sentence.

Prior related posts from 2009:

December 2, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 1, 2017

Looking into the politics and personnel of state-level criminal justice reforms

The December 2017 issue of the ABA Journal has this lengthy article on state-level reform efforts, giving particular attention to recent reforms in Louisiana and Alaska. In the magazine the article has the headline "“Rallying for Reform: Criminal justice reform may be languishing at the federal level, but it’s becoming a reality in the states with bipartisan support," and here is an excerpt:

Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, says 36 states have enacted some kind of criminal justice reform — eight of them more than once — over the past 10 years.

And although those reforms can be a struggle to get through legislatures, they tend to win approval — even in “red” states such as Louisiana — because they have bipartisan support. They bring together legislators with diverse backgrounds and interests, including controlling crime, reducing corrections costs, embracing religious ideas about redemption, reducing the size of government, grappling with the effect of imprisonment on families and minority communities, and questioning the morality of locking up so many people.

“The reason that it is so bipartisan and cross branch is that it meets many objectives,” says Alison Lawrence, Criminal Justice Program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “I would say behind all of it, everybody cares about public safety, and that’s the underlying factor.”...

According to the Urban Institute, which studies the outcomes of justice reinvestment, achieving a better return can be met in several ways.  Reducing sentences, in a thoughtful and politically palatable way, is one component.  But so are reducing the number of people held in lieu of bail and the time they’re held, expanding eligibility for parole and other ways to be released from prison, and providing alternatives to prison for probation and parole violations.

By reducing the number of prisoners, states save money — often hundreds of millions of dollars.  Then, states “reinvest” some of that money in programs they believe will reduce crime, and therefore the need for prisons.  That includes prison-based re-entry or job training programs, more probation and parole officers, and grants to community groups that help with re-entry-related problems like mental health and substance abuse.  States may also lift the legal restrictions they place on former offenders, such as eligibility for professional licenses.

States are receptive, Gelb says, in part because they’ve seen the success of earlier adopters — especially Texas, which is the widely acknowledged godfather of justice reinvestment.  In 2007, the Texas Department of Public Safety, which handles corrections, anticipated that it would need 14,000 to 17,000 more prison beds over the next five years.  So it asked the legislature for $2 billion.  Legislators blanched at that cost and instead tried to make the new prison beds unnecessary by spending $241 million on behavioral health and alternative sanctions programs.

Ten years — and several more bills — later, Texas has actually closed several prisons.  State authorities estimate that Texas has reduced its incarceration rate by 20 percent and its crime rate by 30 percent, all while avoiding $4 billion in costs.  It’s also become a model for other states, particularly its Southern neighbors.

December 1, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

With guilty plea entered, former national security director Michael Flynn now faces (easy?) sentencing

As reported here via the New York Times, "President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the F.B.I. about conversations with the Russian ambassador last December during the presidential transition."  Here are the most basic legal particulars:

Mr. Flynn, who appeared in federal court in Washington, acknowledged that he was cooperating with the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, into Russian interference in the 2016 election. His plea agreement suggests that Mr. Flynn provided information to prosecutors, which may help advance the inquiry....

Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to F.B.I. agents about two discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak. Lying to the F.B.I. carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

Sentencing fans know, of course, that the statutory maximum for any federal offense of conviction typically matters much less than the applicable federal guideline sentencing range. For that reason and others, sentencing fans will want to check out Michael Flynn's "Plea Agreement" and "Statement of Offense" available here via the National Law Journal.  (The folks at Lawfare also have lots of Flynn docs at this link.)  Pages 2-3 of the plea agreement highlight the sentencing story (which serves as the basis for the "easy" adjective in this post title), and here is a snippet: 

A. Estimated Offense Level Under the Guidelines

The parties agree that the following Sentencing Guidelines sections apply:

U.S.S.G. Base Offense Level: 6

Total: 6

B. Acceptance of Responsibility

The Government agrees that a 2-level reduction will be appropriate, pursuant to U.S.S.G. 3E1.1, provided that your client clearly demonstrates acceptance of responsibility, to the satisfaction of the Government, through your client's allocution, adherence to every provision of this Agreement, and conduct between entry of the plea and imposition of sentence....

In accordance with the above, the applicable Guidelines Offense Level will be at least 4....

D. Estimated Applicable Guidelines Range

Based upon the agreed total offense level and the estimated criminal history category set forth above, your client's estimated Sentencing Guidelines range is zero months to six months' imprisonment (the "Estimated Guidelines Range")....

The parties agree that, solely for the purposes of calculating the applicable range under the Sentencing Guidelines, neither a downward nor upward departure from the Estimated Guidelines Range set forth above is warranted, subject to the paragraphs regarding cooperation below. Accordingly, neither party will seek any departure or adjustment to the Estimated Guidelines Range, nor will either party suggest that the Court consider such a departure or adjustment, except as provided in the preceding sentence.

December 1, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Can, should and will AG Sessions seek a federal prosecution of Garcia Zarate after "disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case"?

Download (4)The provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by this news of a (surprising?) trial verdict in California state court in a high-profile prosecution and the immediate reactions thereto.  Here are the basics (with some emphasis added):

A jury handed a stunning acquittal on murder and manslaughter charges to a homeless undocumented immigrant whose arrest in the killing of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco Bay pier intensified a national debate over sanctuary laws.

In returning its verdict Thursday afternoon on the sixth day of deliberations, the Superior Court jury also pronounced Jose Ines Garcia Zarate not guilty of assault with a firearm, finding credence in defense attorneys’ argument that the shot that ricocheted off the concrete ground before piercing Steinle’s heart was an accident, with the gun discharging after the defendant stumbled upon it on the waterfront on July 1, 2015.

Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old Mexican citizen who was released from County Jail before the killing despite a federal request that he be held for his sixth deportation, was convicted of a single lesser charge of being a felon in possession of a gun. He faces a sentence of 16 months, two years or three years in state prison. Garcia Zarate, who has already served well over two years in jail and gets credit for that time, will be sentenced at a date not yet determined.

The verdict set off a flurry of reactions.  Defense attorneys said the case had been overcharged, while U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions blamed the killing on San Francisco’s policy of refusing cooperation with immigration agents. Jim Steinle, who had been strolling on the pier with his daughter when she fell, told The Chronicle he was “saddened and shocked,” adding, “Justice was rendered, but it was not served.”...

President Trump, who has cited the case in his effort to build a border wall, said on Twitter, “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.”

Defense attorney Francisco Ugarte suggested a different lesson, saying, “From day one, this case was used as a means to foment hate, to foment division, to foment a program of mass deportation ... and I believe today is a vindication for the rights of immigrants.”...

Garcia Zarate was charged from the beginning with murder, and prosecutors gave the jury the option of convicting him of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Jurors rejected all three.

The defendant is not likely to be released again in the city. San Francisco officials have long said they will turn over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities if they obtain a warrant, and records show Garcia Zarate is being held on a U.S. Marshals Service warrant. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “will work to take custody of Mr. Garcia Zarate and ultimately remove him from the country,” Tom Homan, the agency’s deputy director, said in a statement.

Steinle, 32, had been walking with her arm around her father on Pier 14 when she was struck in the back by a single bullet. The round had skipped off the concrete ground after being fired from a pistol that had been stolen, four days earlier, from the nearby parked car of a federal ranger. Prosecutors told the jury that Garcia Zarate brought the gun to the pier that day to do harm, aimed it toward Steinle and pulled the trigger. Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia spent much of the trial seeking to prove the pistol that killed Steinle couldn’t have fired without a firm pull of the trigger, while establishing that Garcia Zarate tossed the weapon into the bay before fleeing the scene.

Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said Thursday that prosecutors had found sufficient evidence for the charges at every step of the case. “The verdict that came in today was not the one we were hoping for, but I think it’s unequivocal that both sides gave it their all,” Bastian said. “This really is about the Steinle family. They’ve shown incredible resolve during this whole process, and our hearts go out to them.”

Defense lawyers said the shooting was an accident that happened when Garcia Zarate, who had a history of nonviolent drug crimes, found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth under his seat on the pier just seconds before it discharged in his hands. Lead attorney Matt Gonzalez said his client had never handled a gun and was scared by the noise, prompting him to fling the weapon into the bay, where a diver fished it out a day later....

During the monthlong trial, jurors watched video from Garcia Zarate’s four-hour police interrogation, in which he offered varying statements about his actions on the pier. At one point he said he had aimed at a “sea animal,” and at another point, he said the gun had been under a rag that lay on the ground near the waterfront, and that it fired when he stepped on it. Gonzalez said it was clear in the video that Garcia Zarate — who has spent much of his adult life behind bars, was living on the street before the shooting, and has a second-grade education — did not fully understand what the officers were asking him through an officer’s Spanish translation.

What primarily prompts the question in the title of this post is the possibility that the current federal administration might view the California state court acquittal of Garcia Zarate in terms comparable to the California state court acquittal of Los Angeles police officers for their beating of motorist Rodney King. (These verdicts, as well as OJ Simpson's acquittal, lead me to think Californians at least sometimes take "beyond a reasonable doubt" quite seriously.)  The outrage over that state court acquittal surely played a significant role in the decision by federal authorities to pursue federal charges against the LA officers.  Perhaps similar outrage (at least from Prez Trump) over this state court acquittal will have federal authorities thinking the same way. (And, as criminal procedure gurus know, the dual sovereignty doctrine means there is no Double Jeopardy limit on the feds pursuing parallel charges in this case.)

I highlighted the limited severity of the sentence that Garcia Zarate now faces in state court to highlight another reason why federal authorities might be inclined to take up this case. Even if the federal prosecutors were only able secure a federal conviction for felon in possession, that charge alone in federal court would carry a sentence of at least up to 10 years and might actually have a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years if Zarate's criminal history made him subject to the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).  And, of course, the feds could and would get their usual two bites at the apple if they also charged various homicide offenses: a jury conviction of homicide charges would immediately raise the sentencing stakes, but even a jury acquittal would not preclude prosecutors from arguing to the judge that Steinle's death was critical "relevant conduct" at sentencing that should drive up his guideline range.

Last but not least, as I was typing up these thoughts, I saw this new FoxNews report headlined "DOJ weighing federal charges in Kate Steinle murder case, after not guilty verdict." Here is a snippet:

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores acknowledged Friday that the DOJ is looking at federal charges.  She suggested a possible charge could be felony re-entry or a charge pertaining to a violation of supervised release.  “We’re looking at every option and we will prosecute this to the fullest extent of the law because these cases are tragic and entirely preventable,” Flores said on “Fox & Friends” Friday.

If DOJ is really serious about "prosecut[ing] this to the fullest extent of the law," it seems to me that there are many more charges available beyond just immigration offenses (although those offenses, too, could be used to imprison Zarate for decades).

December 1, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

November 30, 2017

Does federal statutory sentencing reform become a bit more likely if Senator Tom Cotton were to become CIA Director?

The question in the title of this post is what kept coming to mind as I scanned this new Washington Post article headlined "White House readies plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo at State, install Cotton at CIA." Here is the start of the piece:

The White House has readied a plan to oust embattled Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has become one of the most personally loyal and politically savvy members of President Trump's national security team, two administration officials confirmed Thursday.

The plan, hatched by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, is expected to be set in motion over the next few weeks, and has broad support within Trump's inner circle, the officials said. But it was unclear whether Trump had signed off on the plan yet, and the president has been known to change his mind about personnel and other matters before finalizing decisions with public announcements.

Under the plan, Pompeo would likely be replaced at the CIA by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), one of Trump's most steadfast defenders and a confidant to some leading members of the foreign policy team, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House has not publicly announced the moves.

Federal statutory sentencing reform has not made much progress this year while GOP leadership in Congress has been focused on health care and tax reform. But, as noted here last month, some in-the-know folks believe the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act could receive 70 votes in the Senate if ever brought to a vote.  And, based on all of his vocal opposition to reform expressed last year (as noted in posts below), I think Senator Cotton is one big reason the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act seems unlikely to get a vote in the Senate in the near future.  But if Senator Cotton becomes CIA Director Cotton, maybe these political dynamic change for the better for those eager to see sentencing reform enacted in Congress.

Prior related posts about Senator Cotton's opposition to sentencing reform:

November 30, 2017 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Finality and the Capital/Non-Capital Punishment Divide"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Carissa Byrne Hessick now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This book chapter examines the role that concerns about finality have played in both capital cases and juvenile life-without-parole sentencing cases.  It will describe how finality has shaped the Supreme Court’s death penalty cases, as well as the role it has played in recent juvenile life-without-parole cases.  It will then offer some tentative thoughts on whether the non-capital finality concerns — specifically, the perceived need for post-sentencing assessments — should be extended to capital defendants and how post-sentencing assessments might inform the ongoing debate over the death penalty abolition in the United States.

November 30, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

November 29, 2017

Might we soon see Top 10 rankings of state criminal justice systems emerging from the Bureau of Justice Statistics?

The question in the title of this post is my slightly tongue-in-cheek reaction to the news reported here by The Crime Report

President Trump has announced his intention to appoint a director of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) who has no apparent experience in the field. He’s Jeffrey H. Anderson, a former senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute who is described by the White House as a “constitutional scholar” and a “leader in formulating domestic policy proposals.”... 

This year, the Trump administration named him to direct the Office of Health Reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where the White House said he led efforts “to reduce insurance premiums, regulatory burdens, and opioid abuse.”

The only statistical experience cited by the White House in Anderson’s background was co-creating the Anderson and Hester Computer Rankings, which boast of computing college football’s “most accurate strength of schedule ratings,” taking into account the quality of teams’ opponents.

The Crime Report article goes on to explain why this really is not a laughing matter:

BJS directors under President Obama, James Lynch of the University of Maryland and William Sabol, now of Georgia State University, both were long-time criminologists and recognized experts in crime and justice statistics.

In May, under the auspices of the American Statistical Association, four former BJS directors wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions urging that “serious consideration” to head BJS, which operates in Sessions’ Department of Justice, [be given] “to individuals who have strong leadership, management, and scientific skills; experience with federal statistical agencies; familiarity with BJS and its products; visibility in the nation’s statistical community; ability to interact productively with Congress and senior DOJ staff; and acceptance of the National Academies’ Principles and Practices for a Federal Statistical Agency.”

The letter was signed by Lynch, Sabol, Jeffrey Sedgwick, who served as BJS director in the last three years of the George W. Bush administration and now directs the Justice Research and Statistics Association, and Lawrence Greenfeld, who headed BJS in the first five years of the Bush administration.

Anderson does not appear to have any of those qualifications.

The same four recent BJS directors wrote in May to leaders of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees arguing that the requirement for Senate confirmation for the BJS director should “be restored and that the director’s status be changed from serving at the will of the president to serving a fixed term of at least four years, staggered from the presidential election.”  The ex-directors said in their letter: “It is imperative that policy discussions about the often-contentious issues regarding crime and justice be informed by statistical data trusted by the public to be objective, valid, and reliable…”

“To ensure BJS data are viewed as objective and of highest quality, BJS must be seen as an independent statistical agency wherein data collection, analysis, and dissemination are under the sole control of the BJS.”

As of this writing, the current Anderson and Hester Computer Rankings has Wisconsin ranked #1, University of Central Florida #2, Clemson #3, Georgia #4 and Alabama #5.  What this might portend fore the future of the Bureau of Justice Statistics is anyone's guess?

November 29, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Disrupting the Cycle: Reimagining the Prosecutor’s Role in Reentry - A Guide to Best Practices"

The title of this post is the title of this big new report from the NYU Center on the Administration of Criminal Law.  Here is the report's executive summary:

The report provides concrete recommendations that prosecutors can implement in order to focus on reentry and target the risk of recidivism.  The report proceeds in four parts:

PART I focuses on reforms that prosecutors can implement at the “front end” of the process, including considering how prosecutorial discretion at various stages of a criminal case can impact defendants’ risk of recidivism and affect their reentry process.  This includes using discretion to make screening and charging decisions, considering diversion and other alternatives to incarceration, supporting pretrial release of defendants where appropriate, and considering the use of creative sentencing alternatives;

PART II focuses on reforms that prosecutors can implement at the “back end” of the process to begin preparing for an incarcerated individual’s eventual reentry to their community.  This includes prerelease reentry planning, and removing barriers that interfere with their ability to reintegrate into their communities, such as obtaining identification and drivers’ licenses, providing them opportunities to expunge their convictions and reduce fines that may burden them upon release, and collaborating with employers and community-based resources;

PART III focuses on the prosecutor as office leader and highlights office-wide reforms that can shift office culture to include anti-recidivism concerns as part of a broader focus on public safety; and

PART IV focuses on the prosecutor’s role in the larger community and how he or she can use his or her power to engage a diverse group of stakeholders in outreach and education initiatives, including legislative reforms designed to target recidivism at the front and back ends of the justice system.

November 29, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

AG Sessions announces stepped up efforts to address opioid crisis

This new press release, titled "Attorney General Sessions and Acting DEA Administrator Patterson Announce New Tools to Address Opioid Crisis," reports on new developments from the Justice Department on the opioid front. Here are the basics from the start of the press release:

Joined by Acting DEA Administrator Robert Patterson, Attorney General Sessions announced the following efforts during a press conference at the Department of Justice: over $12 million in grant funding to assist law enforcement in combating illegal manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamine, heroin, and prescription opioids; the establishment of a new DEA Field Division in Louisville, Kentucky, which will include Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, a move meant to better align DEA enforcement efforts within the Appalachian mountain region; and a directive to all U.S. Attorneys to designate an Opioid Coordinator to work closely with prosecutors, and with other federal, state, tribal, and local law enforcement to coordinate and optimize federal opioid prosecutions in every district.

“Today we are facing the worst drug crisis in American history, with one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “That’s why, under President Trump’s strong leadership, the Department of Justice has been taking action to make our drug law enforcement efforts more effective. Today we announce three new initiatives to do just that. First, we will invest $12 million in funding for our state and local law enforcement partners to take heroin and methamphetamine off of our streets. Second, we will restructure DEA's Field Divisions for the first time in nearly 20 years. Third, we will require all of our federal prosecutors' offices to designate an Opioid Coordinator who will customize our anti-opioid strategy in every district in America. These steps will make our law enforcement efforts smarter and more effective—and ultimately they will save American lives."

“DEA continually looks for ways to improve operations and interagency cooperation and more efficiently leverage resources,” said Acting DEA Administrator Robert W. Patterson. “By creating a new division in the region, this restructuring places DEA in lockstep with our partners in the area to do just that. This change will produce more effective investigations on heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioid trafficking, all of which have a significant impact on the region.”

The Attorney General's two-page memo to United States Attorneys can is available here, and the text of the speech he gave to discuss these developments is available here.  That speech concludes this way:

I believe that these changes will make law enforcement more effective — and make the American people safer.  But our work is not finished.  We will not slow down for one day or even for one instant.  With one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes, enforcing our drug laws is more important than ever.

We will not cede one city, one neighborhood, or one street corner to gangs, violence, or drugs.  We need to use every lawful tool we have — and we will.  This Department will continue to take whatever steps we deem appropriate and effective toward our goal of turning the tide.

I know that this crisis is daunting — the death rates are stunning — and it can be discouraging.  But we will turn the tide. When the men and women of law enforcement work effectively in a focused way, we can stop the growth of destructive addiction, keep the American people safe, and save lives.  Thank you.

November 29, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Anyone have hot sentencing takes on the Supreme Court's big Fourth Amendment Carpenter case being argued today?

Folks interested in both criminal law and technology have been buzzing about the case Carpenter v. United States for quite some time.  Today, finally, the Supreme Court hears oral argument on this basic issue: "Whether the warrantless seizure and search of historical cellphone records revealing the location and movements of a cellphone user over the course of 127 days is permitted by the Fourth Amendment."

As they do so well, the folks at SCOTUSblog provide lots of helpful background and coverage though this case page with all the briefs linked, this preview by Amy Howe, and this on-line summer symposium.  And I expect SCOTUSblog will have lots of post-argument analysis this afternoon and in the days ahead, especially if this morning's oral argument is as interesting as everyone expects.

I have not blogged about the Carpenter case in part because it is well covered by many others and in part because the sentencing echoes of the case may be remote.  But practitioners may see more direct connections between Carpenter and sentencing than I see from the ivory tower, and I welcome this morning any and all "hot takes" on the case as it might relate to any and all sentencing stories.

November 29, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

November 28, 2017

"Looking Criminal and the Presumption of Dangerousness: Afrocentric Facial Features, Skin Tone, And Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now on SSRN authored by Mark Bennett and Victoria Plaut. Here is the abstract:

Social psychologists have established that faces of Black males trigger thoughts of violence, crime, and dangerousness and thoughts of crime trigger thoughts and images of Black males. This presumption of dangerousness increases with darker skin tones (colorism) and greater Afrocentric facial features and affects both men and women.

We examine the history of the stereotype of Blacks and crime, violence, and dangerousness arising in the United States from the time of slavery.  We focus on the historical development of this stereotype through a lens of history, literature, pseudo-science, emerging neuroscience, media distortion of crime reporting, and the development of the Negro-ape metaphor.  We then look beyond the Black-White race dichotomy to explore the evolving social science literature examining the influence of skin tone and Afrocentric facial features on the length of criminal sentences.  We further explore the social science supporting the presumption of dangerousness and conclude with recommendations to help ameliorate this problem that permeates the American criminal justice system.

November 28, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"The Law of Abolition"

the title of this post is the title of this new article by Kevin Barry available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Three themes have characterized death penalty abolition throughout the Western world: a sustained period of de facto abolition; an understanding of those in government that the death penalty implicates human rights; and a willingness of those in government to defy popular support for the death penalty.  The first two themes are present in the U.S.; what remains is for the U.S. Supreme Court to manifest a willingness to act against the weight of public opinion and to live up to history’s demands.

When the Supreme Court abolishes the death penalty, it will be traveling a well-worn road.  This Essay gathers, for the first time and all in one place, the opinions of judges who have advocated abolition of the death penalty over the past half-century, and suggests, through this “law of abolition,” what a Supreme Court decision invalidating the death penalty might look like.  Although no one can know for sure how history will judge the death penalty, odds are good that the death penalty will come to be seen as one of the worst indignities our nation has ever known and that a Supreme Court decision abolishing it will, in time, be widely accepted as right.

November 28, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Has Plea Bargaining Destroyed the Jury Trial?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new commentary at The Crime Report authored by Suja Thomas. Here are excerpts:

Despite the frequent presence of juries in media coverage of trials, the public is absent from much of the democratic process created by the U.S. Constitution.  While citizens elect officials, few participate in important daily criminal and civil justice decisions by serving on juries.  Juries decide less than four percent of criminal cases and less than one percent of civil cases.  Juries don’t determine criminal defendants’ fates, because defendants plead guilty around 95-97 percent of the time.

But why would a defendant plead guilty, when a prosecutor otherwise would be required to convince a jury to convict the defendant?  Almost invariably, the defendant pleads guilty because he or she will receive more time in prison if the case went to a jury trial and resulted in conviction.  Prosecutors use charge or sentence bargaining to “incentivize” defendants. Defendants are given less time in prison if they give up their jury trial rights and plead guilty.  In fact, even innocent people have pled guilty to avoid a longer sentence, which will be imposed, if they insist on a jury trial and are convicted by a jury.

The plea with the better sentence may be available for only a short period of time — and only before the defendant has significant information about the prosecutor’s case against him. The plea may even require the defendant to waive seeing the prosecution’s evidence and waive the indictment by a grand jury (in places where grand juries are required).

Although this system is widely accepted today, is it constitutional?

The statistics tell a disconcerting story. Ten percent of those who have been found innocent pled guilty — many times because of the severe difference in the sentence if convicted before a jury versus if pleading guilty.  What about those who are guilty?  Plea bargaining is equally troublesome in those circumstances....

In the past, the Supreme Court recognized the possible constitutional problem with significant sentence incentives for pleas over jury trials.  However, later, the Court sealed the fate of the jury trial and thus criminal defendants.

In Bordenkircher v. Hayes, the prosecutor asked the defendant to take a plea offer of five years for an alleged forged check for around $90.  He threatened the defendant with a new indictment subjecting him to life in prison, if he would not take the plea.  The defendant refused to plead guilty, was subsequently indicted by a grand jury on a new life imprisonment charge, was convicted by a jury, and sentenced to life in prison.

The defendant argued this was unfair.  His right to due process was violated when the prosecutor punished him for insisting on a jury.  But the Supreme Court decided that the defendant’s constitutional rights were not infringed.  Plea bargaining was an important part of the criminal justice system.

The Court has laid aside the Constitution and defendants’ rights in favor of efficiency.  However, the jury is enshrined in the Constitution, and defendants do not freely choose pleas over jury trials when facing much stiffer sentences if convicted by juries. 

I have argued elsewhere for jury reform including “the plea offer” and “sentence” requirements. The basic idea is if a prosecutor offers a plea bargain and the defendant decides to go to trial, the plea offer as well as the sentence associated with the plea can be placed into evidence at trial for the jury to consider.  The jury then has multiple options. It can convict on the original charge, convict on the plea charge, or not convict. In deciding on what, if any, charge to convict, the jury can consider the sentence associated with the plea charge and the sentence associated with the original charge.  This practice of considering the sentences would be consistent with historical convention.  English juries knew the sentences and often acquitted or gave partial verdicts for lesser offenses based on the sentence.

November 28, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

November 27, 2017

Congrats to new US District Judge (and former US Sentencing Commissioner) Dabney Friedrich

78f2e4da92fe9cc57460c45ed33e658d2e3168ee_1376771267As reported here, the "Senate on Monday overwhelmingly confirmed a former Bush White House lawyer who spent the last decade on the U.S. Sentencing Commission to a seat on a Washington, D.C. federal court." Here is more on the new Judge and her sentencing background:

The Senate sent Dabney Friedrich to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia with a 97-3 vote on Monday night, with only Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., voting against her.

Friedrich spent three years as associate counsel to former President George W. Bush before he appointed her to the United States Sentencing Commission in December 2006.

As a member of the panel, Friedrich helped craft sentencing guidelines and voted to retroactively apply the guidelines that reduced the disparity in sentences for crimes involving crack and powdered cocaine.

Speaking at the meeting when the commission voted to change the guidelines, Friedrich called the disparity in punishments for the two drugs an “injustice” and said the move would help “restore a greater fairness in sentencing.”

Friedrich told Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in a written response to questions submitted after her nomination hearing that her time on the Sentencing Commission would be an asset to her on the bench. “I believe that my experience as a commissioner provides me with insight into the aims and objectives of the federal sentencing regime that will prove valuable when I confront sentencing decisions,” Friedrich wrote to Durbin in August.

Friedrich worked as a federal prosecutor in both California and Virginia before moving to Congress, where she served as counsel to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Former President Barack Obama renominated Friedrich to the Sentencing Commission in 2010 and she served on the commission until her term expired at the end of last year. Trump nominated Friedrich to the D.C. federal bench in June after Republicans prevented Obama’s choice from taking the seat during the blockade they put up against judicial nominees in the last year of his term.

Interestingly, the US District Court for the District of Columbia now has three former US Sentencing Commissioners among its members as Judge Friedrich now joins Chief Judge Beryl Howell and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on this important court.

November 27, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Record sex-trafficking sentence, 472 years of imprisonment, imposed in Colorado court

This local article, headlined "‘The tough ones are us women:' Colorado pimp gets 472 year sentence," report on a sentencing in Colorado that seems to be record-setting. Here are the details:

A man convicted of sexually exploiting women as a pimp will spend the rest of his life – and then some – in prison. In a sentencing hearing [last] Tuesday afternoon, Arapahoe County Judge Peter F. Michaelson sentenced the man found guilty of running a child prostitution ring to 472 years in prison. That is more than four times the minimum required sentence - and the largest sentence brought down for a human trafficking case in the country.

Brock Franklin was indicted in 2015 by a grand jury for allegedly using drugs and violence to control young girls, often forcing them into lewd acts as part of a child sex trafficking ring. Four others have already been sentenced for their involvement in the human trafficking ring.

Prosecutors said Franklin preyed on young women and girls who were vulnerable. In his trial, a jury heard from eight of the nine victims in the case. “Damage isn’t lessened because of where someone came from or where someone did not come from,” an attorney for the Arapahoe County District Attorney’s Office said in court Tuesday.

In a packed courtroom Tuesday afternoon, prosecutors read two letters from Franklin’s victims. “Every morning I wake up I have to remind myself the defendant will no longer be able to hurt me,” the first letter began. The victim, identified only as “DY,” wrote to the court about the PTSD, anxiety, and depression she suffers because of Franklin’s actions....

In March of this year, Franklin went on trial for 34 counts including pimping a child, patronizing a child prostitute, kidnapping and assault. He was found guilty on 30 counts including human trafficking, sexual exploitation of a child, child prostitution, kidnapping, pimping of a child, and racketeering. He was acquitted of several charges including distributing marijuana and assault with a deadly weapon....

The minimum sentence would have been 96 years in prison, which is what Franklin’s defense team requested, reminding the judge Franklin had not been convicted of any violent crimes. Janet Drake, with the Attorney General’s Office, asked the judge for a 616 year sentence on behalf of the people of the state of Colorado. “This is not a minimum sentence type of case,” Drake said.

Franklin’s defense team argued a 616 year sentence would not be appropriate. His attorneys told the judge a 96 year to life sentence would be ample punishment, since Franklin would likely never live to see his parole eligibility even with that sentence. The defense also said Franklin’s troubled past, including being homeless at age five, should be considered in his sentencing.

I am not sure what I find more remarkable, the fact that the judge here imposed a sentence of nearly half a millennium or the fact that this sentence of 472 years was a full 144 years less than the term requested by prosecutors.

November 27, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Ohio getting started on Justice Reinvestment 2.0 to confront latest criminal justice challenges

For more than a decade, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Justice Department and the Pew Public Safety Performance Project have worked on "Justice Reinvestment" projects in numerous states. These projects generally involve careful study of state and local criminal case processing in order to identify inefficient use of limited prison space and efforts to reduce prison admission and reinvest resulting savings to services that would achieve better public safety outcomes at a lower cost. Now, as this local article from Ohio highlights, it at least one state a second generation of this project is underway:

Amid a glut of nonviolent drug offenders and probation violators serving time in state prisons, Ohio again is taking a look at criminal-justice reform. The effort seeks to tweak the system and criminal sentencing to account for the impact of violent crime and opioid-fueled offenses “while enhancing public safety.”

The 24-member “Justice Reinvestment” committee also hopes to reduce recidivism while pursuing schemes to better route offenders to the right place, whether prison or local community control programs. Emphasis will “explicitly focus on what is happening before prison, or in other words, the system’s ‘front end,’ where many decisions are made that impact both future judicial and corrections practices,” said Michael Buenger, administrative director of the Ohio Supreme Court.

The committee, which includes [State corrections Director Gary] Mohr, [Union County Prosecutor David] Phillips, [Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Charles] Schneider and other judges, prosecutors, lawmakers and state and local officials, is scheduled to submit a report and recommendations to the General Assembly in the fall of 2018.

The group began its work this month with a report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center that laid out the scope of its challenge:

‒ Reflecting the opioid addiction crisis, drug-abuse arrests increased 12 percent in Ohio to more than 32,000 annually between 2011 and 2016. Only North Dakota and South Dakota saw a higher increase. A total of 5,609 drug offenders were committed to state prisons last year alone.

‒ Property crime decreased 23 percent between 2011 and 2016 but violent crime ticked up 6 percent over 2015 and 2016, mostly because of increases in Cleveland, Dayton and Toledo. “Low-level crimes drive arrest activity and limit law enforcement’s capacity to respond to violent crime.”

‒ Ohio has the nation’s third-highest rate of people on probation and parole, nearly 244,000 at the end of 2015. Offenders released and then sent back to prison for probation violations account for 23 percent of annual commitments to state prisons. “Ohio still lacks a coherent strategy for recidivism reduction.”

‒ The number of offenders in the $1.8 billion-a-year prison system grew by 9 percent between 2000 and 2016, with the population generally holding steady since 2007 around 50,000 to 51,000. Offenders, in general, also are serving longer stretches in prison. “Prison crowding and costs remain high.”

‒ Ohio’s criminal sentencing scheme “has contributed to crowded prisons and large misdemeanor and felony probation populations. ... Ohio law shows a micromanaged approach to sentencing policy that is needlessly complex.”

State prisons housed 8,300 offenders when Mohr joined the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction as a teacher’s aide in 1974. By the middle of last year, that number had increased six-fold to 51,014 prisoners (just a tad off the all-time high), who cost an average of $72 a day to house. “Think about the budget, the amount of investment, the reason why we’re still on this path,” Mohr said. “I think there are too many Ohioans incarcerated. It’s a much better investment to place nonviolent offenders in community programs. All evidence shows it’s twice as effective at one-third the cost.”

Mohr is encouraged by a community-alternative program in which the state is spending up to $58 million over two years to divert low-level, nonviolent felony offenders, many convicted of drug possession, from state prisons to local programs. Since the middle of last year, the prison population has dropped nearly 5 percent to 48,799. Forty-eight participating counties are using work-release, substance-abuse treatment, intensive supervision and other programs. Franklin and other large counties still are deciding whether to participate.

Mohr said the state should invest in the lives of low-level offenders “earlier in their lives” in local corrections programs to help address employment, behavioral health and substance-abuse issues before they lead to more serious offenses and state prison time. “All of the counties that have tried it loved it. Ohio is, in my mind, safer than it was before.”

Part of the group’s discussions should center on taking some low-level felonies, such as simple drug possession, that are contributing to prison packing and making them misdemeanors to be handled locally, and improved probation services, Mohr said.

Judge Schneider said that judges are chafing under some criminal sentencing guidelines. “Mandatory sentencing makes sense for crimes like murder and rapes, but some of the drug charges where it is mandatory is frustrating,” he said. Judges should be free to tailor sentences for lower-level offenses to match the offender and his crime “if you can articulate specific facts” whether a prison sentence is appropriate or not, he said.

“If you want us to treat certain (felony) offenses as misdemeanors, then make them misdemeanors. Quite frankly, the legislature doesn’t have the will to do that,” Schneider said, adding, for example, that the current fifth-degree felony threshold of $500 in a theft offense should be raised. Lawmakers, he said, are too fond of creating new offenses and tinkering with prison sentences.

The state’s current scheme also is “schizophrenic” about drug addicts, the judge said. “We say it’s not his fault, it’s a disease. But when that person breaks into a house to fund that disease, it becomes a serious crime. It’s the same person, folks,” Schneider said.

Union County’s Phillips said that, from the perspective of prosecutors, “our primary interest is public safety, No. 1, and holding offenders accountable, No. 2.” He differed from Mohr’s assertion that prison is not appropriate for some. “You should talk to victims of crime and see if they think that is true. Community control sanctions do not work for some people and they need to go to prison.”

At the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission's website, one can now find these background documents with more information concerning the state's reinvestment in justice reinvestment:

Ohio Justice Reinvestment Ad Hoc Committee Kicks off Review of Criminal Justice System

Justice Reinvestment in Ohio: Overview

Justice Reinvestment 2.0 in Ohio: Launch Presentation

November 27, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

November 26, 2017

Interesting Eighth Amendment attack waged against extreme application of Tennessee's "Drug Free School Zone" law

This recent post from the Supreme Court of Tennessee Blog reports on an interesting constitutional challenge to the severe mandatory sentence that goes with the application of Tennessee’s "Drug Free School Zone" law.  Here is an excerpt from the post by Daniel Horwitz (who happens to represent the defendant).  Links are from the original post:

groundbreaking constitutional challenge has been filed regarding Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone Act,” a flawed but well-intentioned law that has recently come under fire by several conservative groups because it “ensnare[s] many individuals who fall outside of the scope and purpose of the law” and has resulted in significant collateral consequences that have been “passed on to taxpayers without any public safety returns.”  The law has long been a target of criminal justice reformers, who have argued that the severe, mandatory minimum penalties contemplated by Tennessee’s School Zone law fail to make appropriate distinctions between people who sell drugs to children and people who don’t....

The government’s informant had thirty-nine (39) separate convictions on his record in Davidson County alone at the time of the drug sales at issue—many of them violent felonies.  Even so, the informant was paid more than $1,000 in taxpayer money and avoided jailtime in exchange for helping secure Mr. Bryant’s conviction.  Mr. Bryant’s first trial ended in a hung jury after several jurors concluded that Mr. Bryant had been entrapped.  After his second trial, however, Mr. Bryant was convicted of selling drugs.

Even though it was a first-time, non-violent offense — Mr. Bryant had no other criminal history of any kind — because Mr. Bryant’s residence was located within 1,000 feet of a school, Mr. Bryant received a mandatory minimum sentence of seventeen (17) years in prison.  As a result, Mr. Bryant received a considerably longer sentence for committing a first-time, non-violent drug offense than he would have received if he had committed a severe, violent crime such as Rape, Second Degree Murder, Aggravated Robbery, Aggravated Vehicular Homicide, or Attempted First Degree Murder.  Mr. Bryant has been incarcerated for the past decade.  He has at least six years in prison left to serve.

Given the extraordinary circumstances of his prosecution, Mr. Bryant has filed a novel constitutional challenge to the application of Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law to his case.  Notably, even the District Attorney who prosecuted Mr. Bryant has submitted an affidavit supporting his early release, stating that: “I fail to see how an additional six years of incarceration will improve Mr. Bryant’s amenability to correction or would be required to maintain public safety.  I additionally fail to see how his release at a time earlier than 2023 — and after over nine years of incarceration — will deprecate the seriousness of the offenses for which he was convicted or significantly imperil public safety.”

Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law was designed to keep drugs away from children.  Nobody disputes that this is a laudable goal.  However, many people, including several elected officials and judges in Tennessee, have disputed whether the law was ever intended to apply to drug sales between adults inside an adult’s residence and outside of school hours — especially when a government informant has set up a drug transaction inside a school zone on purpose....

Mr. Bryant’s petition paints a heartbreaking picture of a law that was never intended for cases like his but which applied to him anyway.  In Davidson County, he notes, so-called “drug free” zones “cover[] almost every habitable portion of Nashville and [nearly] all of its urban core.”  As a result, based solely on a prosecutor’s discretion, the law can be applied “to virtually every drug sale that takes place in Nashville.”  Even so, in the approximately two decades since the law was enacted, only 62 defendants have ever been punished with the school zone sentencing enhancement in Davidson County, which upgrades a defendant’s conviction by a full felony class and renders defendants ineligible for parole for decades.  Although, as a general matter, the law has been used sparingly to punish dangerous or repeat offenders, Mr. Bryant’s petition notes that he has “the dubious distinction of being the only defendant in the history of this jurisdiction to receive Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432’s sentencing enhancement for a first-time offense.”...

Mr. Bryant notes that in the time since his conviction, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 has been reformed both judicially and operationally to avoid precisely the type of strict liability penalty that applied in his case.  Consequently, if Mr. Bryant had committed the exact same offense today, then he would likely have been subject to a maximum sentence of between two and eight years in prison, rather than seventeen years.  Further, given his status as a first-time, non-violent offender, Mr. Bryant may well have avoided prison time at all.

Mr. Bryant has asked Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier to declare his sentence unconstitutional as applied to the unique circumstances of Mr. Bryant’s case, arguing that these circumstances render his sentence excessive under both the Eighth Amendment and Article 1, Section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution.  Mr. Bryant has also petitioned Judge Dozier for release while he submits an application for a pardon or commutation.  More than a dozen supporters — including Mr. Bryant’s own prosecutor, local politicians, business owners, friends, family members, and civil rights activists — have also filed affidavits in support of Mr. Bryant’s early release.  A hearing on Mr. Bryant’s petition is set for December 15, 2017 in Davidson County Criminal Court, Division 1.

November 26, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Is California finally going to get it machinery of death operational come 2018?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Los Angeles Times article headlined "Pace of executions in California may be up to Gov. Jerry Brown." Here are excerpts:

When the California Supreme Court upheld a voter initiative in August to speed up executions, some death penalty advocates assumed lethal injections would resume before the end of the year. Three months after the court’s action, both backers and opponents of the death penalty concede that executions might be more than a year away.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has yet to finalize an execution protocol, which is necessary to resolve a federal court case that has blocked lethal injection in California for nearly 12 years.  An injunction stopping executions also is pending in state court.

“Brown is the shot caller” in the litigation over lethal injection, said Michele Hanisee, president of the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys for L.A. County. Hanisee expects the state to finalize a lethal injection protocol by January, but if Brown “doesn’t want it to move forward quickly, it won’t move forward quickly,” she said.

Although no one can now predict when executions will resume, UC Berkeley law school Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said “it is just a matter of time.”

“The uncertainty in all of this,” he added, “is what will Jerry Brown do.”  Brown personally opposes the death penalty but enforced it as attorney general.  He took no position on two recent and unsuccessful ballot measures that would have ended the death penalty.

Chemerinsky and other lawyers said it was conceivable that Brown and defense lawyers could delay executions until Brown steps down as governor in January 2019. Brown also could try to commute death sentences to life without parole, but his power is limited by the California Constitution. Unlike former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who just before leaving office in 2003 commuted the death sentences of all of Illinois’ condemned inmates, Brown would need the support of the state Supreme Court to spare inmates with multiple felonies on their records.

Lawyers estimate that at least half of all death-row inmates have committed two felonies. The governor would need the support of four of the seven California high court justices to commute those inmates’ sentences. Brown has three appointees on the court and a fourth vacancy to fill. But whether his appointees would support commutations is questionable. Two of them — Justices Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar — are moderately liberal, but Justice Leondra Kruger, the third, has voted with conservatives on criminal justice issues.

Ronald Reagan was the last California governor to commute a death sentence, deciding in 1967 to move Calvin Thomas off death row because Thomas had serious brain damage. Under former Gov. Pat Brown, Jerry Brown’s father, 35 death row inmates were executed. The elder Brown commuted the capital sentences of 20 others.

Among the most famous executions under Pat Brown’s watch was that of Caryl Chessman, convicted of robbery, sexual assaults and kidnapping. He was sentenced to death under a law, later repealed, that made certain kidnappings capital offenses. Chessman, who represented himself at trial, wrote four books on death row and attracted international sympathy. The elder Brown tried to commute Chessman’s sentence, but the California Supreme Court refused to go along, on a 4 to 3 vote.

Jerry Brown has never faced the wrenching decisions that confronted his father over executions, and the issue also is new for Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra, appointed by Brown after Kamala Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate. Becerra, now the top law enforcement officer in California, has testified that he supports the death penalty, but not “the way it is being executed,” and would enforce Proposition 66, the execution speed-up measure largely upheld by the state supreme court in August. Becerra also has said he would run for election to continue as attorney general.

Prosecutors are expected to press Becerra to move quickly to overturn the injunctions preventing executions, but his role is to represent Brown’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in the case, a Becerra press aide said. Prosecutors, who sponsored Proposition 66, and crime victims also are considering trying to intervene in the two court cases preventing executions....

“There is no enthusiasm inside the administration to do anything” to hasten executions, said Michael D. Rushford, the founder and top executive of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that helped write Proposition 66. Voters narrowly approved the measure a year ago. The state Supreme Court ruling that permitted its enforcement became final only a few weeks ago, delayed by an unsuccessful request from challengers for the court to reconsider. “There are laws in this state that if the administration doesn’t want to enforce, they don’t,” Rushford said, “and this is one of them.”

Rushford’s group sued to force the Brown administration to produce a single-drug lethal injection method, which has not yet been made final, and has warned it would sue the administration again if it does not move toward executions.

There are about 18 inmates who could immediately be executed because they have no appeals left. But these inmates have obtained federal stays to prevent their executions until the lethal injection case overseen by Seeborg is concluded. For the stays to be lifted, Seeborg would have to decide that California’s new single-drug method of execution, once finalized, did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Whatever he decides could then be appealed....

Brown’s press office referred questions about executions and possible commutations to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which said it was revising a lethal injection protocol but declined to estimate how long that might take.

Ana Zamora, a policy director of the ACLU of Northern California, said she does not expect executions to resume soon. “The D.A.s and the proponents of Prop. 66 really sold voters a false bill of good,” she said. “Nothing has changed. There are still significant problems around lethal injection, and those are not going to go away anytime soon.”

If I understand the sequence of events that needs to take place before a California execution goes forward, it includes (1) California officials finalizing an execution protocol, (2) the federal district court approving that protocol, (3) the Ninth Circuit and SCOTUS affirming a decision about the protocol. and (4) setting a real execution date by California officials.  I am inclined at this moment to predict that California will not complete these tasks (in part because it seems many do not wish to) before the end of 2018.

November 26, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)