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February 4, 2017

"The Death Penalty as Torture From the Dark Ages to Abolition"

9781611639261The title of this post is the title of this new book authored by John Bessler about to be published by Carolina Academic Press.  Here is the blurb from the Press webpage:

During the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, Europe’s monarchs often resorted to torture and executions. The pain inflicted by instruments of torture — from the thumbscrew and the rack to the Inquisition’s tools of torment — was eclipsed only by horrific methods of execution, from breaking on the wheel and crucifixion to drawing and quartering and burning at the stake. The English “Bloody Code” made more than 200 crimes punishable by death, and judicial torture—expressly authorized by law and used to extract confessions—permeated continental European legal systems. Judges regularly imposed death sentences and other harsh corporal punishments, from the stocks and the pillory, to branding and ear cropping, to lashes at public whipping posts.

In the Enlightenment, jurists and writers questioned the efficacy of torture and capital punishment. In 1764, the Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria — the father of the world’s anti–death penalty movement — condemned both practices. And Montesquieu, like Beccaria and others, concluded that any punishment that goes beyond absolute necessity is tyrannical. Traditionally, torture and executions have been viewed in separate legal silos, with countries renouncing acts of torture while simultaneously using capital punishment. The UN Convention Against Torture strictly prohibits physical or psychological torture; not even war or threat of war can be invoked to justify it. But under the guise of “lawful sanctions,” some countries continue to carry out executions even though they bear the indicia of torture.

In The Death Penalty as Torture, Prof. John Bessler argues that death sentences and executions are medieval relics. In a world in which “mock” or simulated executions, as well as a host of other non-lethal acts, are already considered to be torturous, he contends that death sentences and executions should be classified under the rubric of torture. Unlike in the Middle Ages, penitentiaries—one of the products of the Enlightenment—now exist throughout the globe to house violent offenders. With the rise of life without parole sentences, and with more than four of five nations no longer using executions, The Death Penalty as Torture calls for the recognition of a peremptory, international law norm against the death penalty’s use.

February 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (6)

February 3, 2017

Oklahoma Governor's task force urging significant sentencing reform to deal with surging prison population

As reported in this lengthy local article, "faced with a rapidly growing prison population in a state with the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, a task force created by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a report Thursday calling for dramatic decreases in sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers." Here is more:

Without reform, Oklahoma is on pace to add 7,218 inmates over the next 10 years, requiring three new prisons and costing the state an additional $1.9 billion in capital expenditures and operating costs, the report said. But task members said those costs can be averted and the prison population can be reduced 7 percent over the next decade through a combination of sentence reductions and other reforms, including increased funding for alternative mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

Oklahoma currently has 61,385 individuals in its overcrowded prison system. That includes 26,581 incarcerated in state facilities and private prisons, 1,643 awaiting transfer from county jails and 33,161 on some form of probation, parole, community sentencing or GPS monitoring, said Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

Oklahoma's prison population, which is at 109 percent of capacity, has grown 9 percent in the past five years and is now 78 percent higher than the national average. Only Louisiana has a higher rate, the report said.

Oklahoma's female incarceration rate remains the highest in the nation, a distinction the state has held for 25 years, task members said. The state's female population grew 30 percent between 2011 and 2016 and Oklahoma now incarcerates women at a rate more than 2 1/2 times the national average.

In a 38-page report that contains 27 recommendations, the governor's task force on justice reform recommends a number of dramatic changes to stave off a looming state financial crisis, including sharply reducing sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers. The report also calls for sweeping changes in the parole system, including allowing many inmates to become eligible for parole after serving a fourth of their sentences. Currently, inmates typically serve about a third of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole for most nonviolent crimes.

Many of the task force's recommendations would require legislative action. The task force is recommending that the penalty for possession of methamphetamine, heroin or crack cocaine with intent to distribute be lowered to zero to five years for nonviolent first-time felony drug offenders, said Jennifer Chance, the governor's general counsel and a member of the task force. It is recommending that the penalty for manufacturing be lowered to zero to eight years.

Possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute currently carries a sentence of two years to life in prison for a first-time felony drug conviction, while possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute carries a term of five years to life and heroin seven years to life.

Oklahoma's criminal justice system has exacerbated the state's prison crowding crisis by repeatedly sentencing more nonviolent offenders — particularly drug offenders — to longer terms than neighboring states like Texas and Missouri, the report says. Many states have been far ahead of Oklahoma in reforming their justice systems, the task force found. "Since 2010, 31 states across the country have decreased imprisonment rates while reducing crime rates," the report states.

Reducing Oklahoma prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes is critical to reversing those trends because nearly a third of all Oklahoma prison admissions are for drug crimes and those prison sentences are often lengthy, the task force said.

Chance said most of the 21 task force members were in agreement with the group's findings, but acknowledged that the two district attorneys on the panel, David Prater and Mike Fields, have strong disagreements with some of the report's recommendations. Prater is the chief prosecutor for Oklahoma County, while Fields is the chief prosecutor for Canadian, Garfield, Blaine, Grant and Kingfisher counties and president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association....

If the state cuts prison sentences for drug manufacturing, distributing and trafficking without dramatically increasing funding for drug addiction treatment programs, Prater predicted it will lead to more home and auto break-ins and other crimes. "This is such a dishonest report," Prater said. "It's going to make Oklahoma a much more dangerous place."

Prater said the report's backers like to point to Texas as a state that has simultaneously reduced its incarceration and crime rates through similar justice reforms, but he noted that Texas appropriated $241 million up front in 2007 to pay for a package of prison alternatives that included more intermediate sanctions and substance abuse treatment beds, drug courts and mental illness treatment slots. Unless Oklahoma dramatically increases upfront funding for substance abuse treatment and parole supervision programs, the state's experience is more likely to parallel that of Utah, Prater said.

That state drastically cut sentences without providing sufficient funding for community programs and police officers and judges there have complained about offenders repeatedly being released out on the street with little or no supervision, he said.  Critics of Utah's reform efforts have cited the January 2016 slaying of Unified police officer Doug Barney as a reason for re-evaluating changes that were made. Barney's shooter, Corey Henderson, went through the revolving door of prison and many have argued he shouldn't have been out of jail when Barney was killed....

The Oklahoma Attorney General's Office was noncommittal about the report.  “The Attorney General's Office was invited to take part in the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, and members of our team were in attendance," Lincoln Ferguson, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, said in a prepared statement.  "The AG's office takes no position on the merits or demerits of the proposal.”

The full report is an interesting read and is available here at this link.

February 3, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Lamenting that Henry Montgomery (and many other juve LWOPers) may not much or any benefit from Montgomery

Jody Kent Lavy, who is executive director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Children, has this notable new commentary headlined "Supreme Court's will on juvenile offenders thwarted." Here are excerpts:

A little more than a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Montgomery vs. Louisiana that Henry Montgomery — and anyone else who received mandatory life without parole for a crime committed when they were younger than 18 — was serving an unconstitutional sentence and deserved relief.

The sweeping opinion augmented three earlier decisions that had scaled back the ability to impose harsh adult penalties on youth, recognizing children’s unique characteristics made such penalties cruel and unusual. The Montgomery case made clear that the Eighth Amendment bars the imposition of life without parole on youth in virtually every instance.

But, in violation of the decision, prosecutors are seeking to re-impose life without parole in hundreds of cases, and judges are imposing the sentence anew. Hundreds of people serving these unconstitutional sentences — primarily in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan — are still awaiting their opportunities for resentencing. Henry Montgomery is among them.

I recently met Montgomery, now 70, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, notorious as a place where most of its thousands of prisoners are destined to die. Montgomery, who is African-American, was convicted of killing a white police officer as a teenager. At the time, John F. Kennedy was president. Though his resentencing has yet to be scheduled, prosecutors say they plan to again seek life without parole.

Given last year’s ruling from the nation’s highest court, it might seem surprising that Montgomery, remorseful for the crime he committed more than five decades ago, is still languishing in prison. This is indeed outrageous, and it highlights the failings of our justice system, especially as it pertains to juveniles....

Henry Montgomery is living on borrowed time. He is a frail, soft-spoken, generous man. When it was lunchtime at the prison, I noticed that he wasn’t eating. When I asked why, he said he wasn’t sure there was enough food to go around. On the anniversary of the ruling that was supposed to bring him a chance of release, we owe it to Montgomery, as well as the thousands of others sentenced as youth to die in prison, to seek mercy on his behalf. We cannot give up until the day comes when children are never sentenced to life — and death — in prison.

February 3, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Will Gorsuch Be Another Scalia on Criminal Justice Issues? Not Likely"

The title of this post is the headline of this terrific extended commentary at The Crime Report authored by Caleb Mason.  The piece does a wonderful job of reviewing many of the criminal jurisprudence highlights of Justice Scalia's three decades on the Supreme Court.  And the start and end of the commentary explains why the author does not expect a Justice Gorsuch to be able to fully fill the shoes of Justice Scalia:

What’s the outlook for criminal-justice jurisprudence from the new Supreme Court, if Neil Gorsuch fills the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat?

It’s an interesting question, because, as I’ve written here before, Justice Scalia was genuinely idiosyncratic when it came to criminal cases.  And the short answer is that Gorsuch won’t be another Scalia on criminal law, because no one can be.  Scalia’s influence on criminal jurisprudence was powerful and multifaceted, and cut across the usual left-right voting divide on the Court.

Whether your perspective is defense or prosecution, you can say with conviction that Scalia was the driving force behind some of the best case law and some of the worst case law.

Here are some areas in which Scalia moved the law dramatically. On each of these issues, he argued vehemently for years before lining up the votes to shift doctrine....

In sum, Scalia was unique in his criminal-law jurisprudence.  The weird mix of judicial impulses that led to the dramatic shifts in the law listed above is his and his alone.  His criminal-law views didn’t predictably track right or left — though his hostility to court-created enforcement mechanisms was terrible for criminal defendants.

So now the question on everybody’s lips is whether Gorsuch is going to be Scalia-esque.

When it comes to criminal procedure and criminal law, I don’t think anyone is. If Judge Gorsuch is confirmed, he’ll have 30 years to forge his own judicial identity.  And whoever he becomes on the Court, he won’t be another Scalia.

Some prior related posts:

February 3, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

February 2, 2017

House Judiciary Chair Goodlatte says sentencing reform is part of his agenda

As detailed in this press release, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte yesterday discussed his agenda for the 115th Congress in a speech given to the Federalist Society at the National Press Club. Only a small section of the prepared remarks addressed criminal justice and sentencing reform, but what was said was still somewhat encouraging:

The Judiciary Committee also has the solemn responsibility to ensure our laws are fair, efficient, and enforced. Under my leadership, the Committee will continue to advance an agenda that ensures our federal criminal laws are designed to appropriately punish wrongdoers, are effectively and appropriately enforced, safeguard civil liberties, increase public safety, and work as efficiently as possible.

Both Ranking Member Conyers and I remain committed to passing bipartisan criminal justice reform. We must rein in the explosion of federal criminal laws, protect innocent citizens’ property from unlawful seizures, and enact forensics reforms to identify the guilty and quickly exonerate the innocent. We must also reform sentencing laws in a responsible way and improve the prison system and reentry programs to reduce recidivism.

Additionally, it’s imperative that we continually examine federal criminal laws to ensure they protect civil liberties while also providing law enforcement with the tools needed to fight crime and keep us safe.

February 2, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

One corrections officer dead as Delaware prison riot comes to end

As reported here, the "day-long hostage standoff inside Delaware’s largest state prison for men ended early Thursday after state police stormed the building, finding one corrections official dead and rescuing another who was being held hostage." Here is more:

The standoff began Wednesday at around 10:30 a.m. when inmates at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, about 40 miles south of Wilmington, took four corrections department workers — and possibly some fellow prisoners — hostage inside one of the facility’s buildings.

Prisons across the state were locked down due to the standoff there. Dozens of inmates were released in Smyrna as the situation progressed, along with two corrections officials who were being held, the Department of Correction said in a statement overnight. It was not immediately clear how many of the inmates held in the seized prison block were hostages as opposed to hostage-takers.

The Delaware State Police entered the building shortly after 5 a.m. Thursday, according to the corrections department. A Department of Correction employee who was being held was “safely rescued and is being examined at a local hospital,” where she is alert and talking, the agency said in a statement.

Police found the remaining hostage, a corrections officer who was not immediately identified, unresponsive when they entered, and he was pronounced dead at 5:29 a.m. Authorities said they would release more information later Thursday at a news conference.

Gov. John Carney (D), in a statement Thursday, said “I’m praying hard for the fallen officer’s family.”

“This serves as a tragic reminder that members of law enforcement risk their lives every day on behalf of the people of Delaware,” he said. “We will stand by the fallen officer’s family and fellow law enforcement officers during what is an extremely difficult time.” Carney said officials were now focusing on trying to learn “what happened and how this happened,” and vowed to “make whatever changes are necessary to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.”

The hostage-takers had said their rebellion was a direct response to President Trump’s policies. “Everything that he did. All the things that he’s doing now,” they said during the second of two manifesto-like phone calls to a local newspaper. “We know that the institution is going to change for the worse.”

The inmates demanded education “first and foremost,” a “rehabilitation program that works for everybody” and a comprehensive look at the prison’s budget and spending, according to audio of the calls posted online by the News Journal in Wilmington, Del.

The Vaughn prison is the largest adult male correctional facility in the state, housing about 2,500 minimum, medium and maximum security inmates, according to the Department of Correction website. It is the landing place for people who have not yet been convicted of a crime and those who have been sentenced to death. Executions are carried out there, according to the website, although the death penalty in Delaware has been struck down by the state’s Supreme Court.

Inmate complaints about treatment within the prison, substandard medical care and poor record-keeping have increased in the past year, Stephen Hampton, an attorney from Dover who has represented prisoners in civil rights cases, told the Associated Press.

February 2, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (12)

"The Predictable Disarray: Ignoring the Jury in Florida Death Penalty Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Michael Radelet and G. Ben Cohen. Here is the abstract:

Both the United States Supreme Court, and the Florida Supreme Court have now made it clear that the Florida death penalty statutes that have been in use over the past 45 years are unconstitutional.  This result has been predicted since the original adoption of the statutes, and made clear by the Supreme Court's decisions in Sullivan v. Louisiana, Apprendi v. New Jersey, and Ring v. Arizona.

How the courts address the 393 prisoners currently on Florida's death row, sentenced to death under an unconstitutional statute, is yet to be determined. This paper reviews the history of the Florida death penalty statutes and provides a census of cases in Florida.

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

February 1, 2017

Highlighting the basis for hoping Judge Gorsuch will prove to be like Justice Scalia on some criminal justice issues

Leon Neyfakh has this piece at Slate of note headlined "Unlike Trump, Neil Gorsuch Has Shown Flickers of Humanity on Criminal Justice Issues." Here are excerpts:

Donald Trump got himself elected in part by acting not just tough on crime but merciless. The guy loves the police and hates anyone who’s even been accused of breaking the law—thinks they’re disgusting and dangerous and don’t deserve an inch of sympathy no matter the circumstances of their offense. This is what it means to be strong in Donald Trump’s mind—a reflection, it has been persuasively argued by historian Rick Perlstein, of the formative years he spent fearing for his life in New York during the bad old 1970s and ’80s.

So it comes as something of a surprise that his pick for the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, has a judicial track record dotted with flashes of humanity when it comes to issues of criminal justice. There’s the time he dissented from his colleagues about whether it was right for a school police officer to handcuff and arrest a seventh-grader for burping in class. (“My colleagues suggest the law permits exactly this option and they offer ninety-four pages explaining why they think that’s so. Respectfully, I remain unpersuaded.”)

There’s the time he argued it was unfair to hold a guy responsible for failing to follow a law he didn’t know he was breaking, a dissenting opinion that began: "People sit in prison because our circuit’s case law allows the government to put them there without proving a statutorily specified element of the charged crime. Today, this court votes narrowly, 6 to 4, against revisiting this state of affairs. So Mr. Games-Perez will remain behind bars, without the opportunity to present to a jury his argument that he committed no crime at all under the law of the land."

Maybe my expectations have sunk too low since Inauguration Day, but even just the premise of those sentences — that putting someone in prison is undesirable and that putting someone in prison who doesn’t deserve to be there is more likely unfair than fine — feels somewhat reassuring.

Also reassuring: a speech Gorsuch gave in 2006 that was being highlighted Tuesday night by the folks at Right on Crime, an organization of conservatives who support criminal justice reform. In that speech, Gorsuch mostly applied his soon-to-be-famous verve to the conservative parlor game of mocking silly federal statutes (“Businessmen who import lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes can be brought up on charges. Mattress sellers who remove that little tag? Yes, they’re probably federal criminals too”). But he also said something that betrays an awareness of just how dangerous it is for prosecutors — federal and otherwise — to enjoy so much discretion that they can pretty much punish anyone they want: “What happens to individual freedom and equality,” Gorsuch asked, “when the criminal law comes to cover so many facets of daily life that prosecutors can almost choose their targets with impunity?”...

But lest you think Mr. American Carnage has chosen a nominee who is some kind of soft-hearted criminal-coddler, consider the Gorsuch decisions flagged Tuesday by Igor Volsky from the Center for American Progress. One of them has Gorsuch declining to provide relief to a defendant who got life in prison without parole because his lawyer threatened to quit his case if he took a plea bargain instead of going to trial. Several others suggest a tendency to side with police officers who have been accused of excessive force—including one who killed a man by shocking him with a Taser to the head during a chase and another who put a 9-year-old who’d stolen an iPad from his school in a “twist-lock.”

February 1, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Say no to restorative justice for sex offenders"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary published in The Hill authored by Michael Dolce.  Here are some of the details:

The debate around the Senate’s possible confirmation of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, should kick start a national discussion on how colleges and universities handle sexual assault.  Recently, much of that conversation has revolved around “restorative justice,” programs that aim to respond to misconduct or crime by redressing the harm inflicted on victims and the community, rather than simply punishing offenders.

As a victim of childhood sexual abuse myself and an attorney who now represents sexual assault survivors every day, I can say without doubt that restorative justice is not only horribly insufficient for handling sexual abuse but, in many cases, actually serves to leave an offender free to offend again.

Whether as an alternative or a supplement to traditional discipline, restorative justice programs require offenders to make amends with victims — often with apologies and mediation — and participate in reformative programs like anger management or cultural sensitivity training, measures rarely imposed by the criminal justice system.  In an education setting, employing these programs for offenses like racial harassment and alcohol misuse have had some success, leading to understandable calls from some criminal justice reform advocates and college administrators to expand their use to college sexual misconduct cases.

It’s true that our colleges and universities routinely fail victims of sexual assault, as last year’s abhorrent handling of the Brock Turner case at Stanford University reminded us.  It’s also true, as the Chicago Tribune reported late last month, that the future of campus sex assault investigations under President Trump are “uncertain,” particularly since GOP convention platform calls for a reduced federal government role in investigations of campus sexual assault.

But, for several important reasons, restorative justice is not the answer for handling sex offenders. First, this method only works if offenders feel empathy when confronted with the impact of their misconduct.

According to prominent forensic psychology researchers Drs. Daryl Kroner and Adelle Forth, about half of convicted sex offenders exhibit psychopathology, meaning they are incapable of feeling remorse or empathizing with their victims. Sex offenders are often skilled at manipulating others into believing they are safe, which helps them gain their victims’ trust before attacking....

Second, advocates for restorative justice programs in this context often make the flawed assumption that sex offenders are similar to repeat offenders of other habitual offenses like drunk driving. But while underage drinking and alcohol abuse are certainly a common problem on university campuses, alcohol does not turn a college student into a sex offender. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, some offenders actually drink alcohol before committing sexual assault specifically to later justify their behavior. Relying on restorative justice to ‘treat’ this group would be a dangerous validation of their criminal deceit.

The third common argument – that schools might be safe relying on restorative justice methods in cases of sexual harassment that don’t involve physical assault – is risky at best. Those who sexually harass others are objectifying and dehumanizing their victims, behavior that is often a prelude to assaults....

The reality is that I believe the majority of sex offenders are largely incapable of empathy. Two-thirds of male sex offenders will re-offend if they are not treated and restrained as criminals. The consensus among mental health and criminal justice professionals is that most sex criminals cannot be reformed; they can only be monitored, controlled and contained.

These are people who look at the tears and agony on victims’ faces, show no mercy and then quickly move on to their next victim. Restorative justice can be a wonderful tool for certain types of offenses, but let’s not ask victims of sexual assault to suffer an even greater burden by making them take part in their attackers’ so-called “reformation.”

February 1, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19)

"Constitutional Liberty and the Progression of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Robert J. Smith and Zoe Robinson. Here is the abstract:

The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment has long been interpreted by scholars and judges to provide very limited protections for criminal defendants.  This understanding of the Eighth Amendment claims that the prohibition is operationalized mostly to prevent torturous methods of punishment or halt the isolated use of a punishment practice that has fallen into long-term disuse.

This Article challenges these assumptions.  It argues that while this limited view of the Eighth Amendment may be accurate as a historical matter, over the past two decades, the Supreme Court has incrementally broadened the scope of the cruel and unusual punishment clause.  The Court’s contemporary Eighth Amendment jurisprudence — with its focus on categorical exemptions and increasingly nuanced measures of determining constitutionally excessive punishments — reflects an overt recognition that the fundamental purpose of the Eighth Amendment is to protect vulnerable citizens uniquely subject to majoritarian retributive excess.

Animating these developments is a conception of constitutional liberty that transcends the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  Indeed, 2015’s same-sex marriage decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, reflects a similar trajectory in the Court’s substantive due process jurisprudence.  Taken together, these doctrinal developments illustrate a concerted move to insert the Court as the independent arbiter of legislative excesses that undermine the basic right to human dignity by virtue of unnecessarily impinging upon individual liberty.  Ultimately, these liberty-driven developments signal new possibilities for the protection of defendant rights in a variety of contemporary contexts, including juvenile life without parole for homicide offenses, life without parole for non-violent drug offenses, the death penalty, certain mandatory minimum sentences, and the prolonged use of solitary confinement.

February 1, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Missouri completes fourth execution in US in 2017

As reported here by the AP, "nearly 19 years to the day that Susan Brouk and her two children were taken to a Missouri pond and killed, one of the men responsible for the crime was put to death Tuesday." Here is more:

Mark Christeson was given a lethal injection -- Missouri’s first execution since May. Christeson, 37, was hours away from execution in 2014 when the U.S. Supreme Court granted a temporary stay. This time, though, the court allowed the execution to proceed, and Gov. Eric Greitens declined a clemency request for Christeson, the first inmate to be put to death since the Republican took office.

As the execution drug was administered, Christeson appeared to mouth “I love you” a couple times to people who were gathered to watch the lethal injection on his behalf.  Soon, the inmate’s eyes closed.  He was pronounced dead at 7:05 p.m. CST, eight minutes after the lethal injection, a Department of Corrections spokesman said.

The killings of Brouk, her 12-year-old daughter, Adrian, and 9-year-old son, Kyle, traumatized the rural area around the south-central Missouri town of Vichy.  “It was a heinous crime. I’m just happy to see justice finally served,” said Maries County Sheriff Chris Heitman, who witnessed Christeson’s execution.  “I have regrets for the family that it took so long, but I hope it provides closure to them.” ...

The U.S. Supreme Court intervened in 2014 amid concerns about the ineptitude of Christeson’s earlier lawyers, who missed a 2005 deadline to file a federal appeal of his death sentence -- standard procedure in death penalty cases. Attorneys for Christeson again argued that he deserved a federal court review, and raised concerns about his mental competence, claiming he had an IQ of 74. But this time, the courts declined to step in.

Missouri executed 16 men from 2014 to 2015, second only to the 23 executions in Texas over the same two years.  Last year, Missouri had just one execution, largely because most of the 25 men on the state’s death row have appeals remaining or are unlikely to be executed due to medical or mental health concerns.

I have flagged that this execution was the fourth in the US in January 2017 because that is the most in a single month since last January.

February 1, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 31, 2017

Prez Trump notes Judge Gorsuch's law school work on behalf of prisoners and defendants during SCOTUS nomination

President Trump lived up to his promise to appoint a judge from his not-so-short lists, and tonight the pick he announced was Tenth Circuit judge Neil Gorsuch. Though I would like to see some more diversity on the High Court, I can never be too disappointed when another graduate from my law school alma mater gets tapped to be a Justice. And, I found really interesting that Prez Trump noted this bit of Judge Gorsuch's history while in law school (with my links added):

While in law school, he demonstrated a commitment to helping the less fortunate. He worked in both Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Projects and Harvard Defenders Program.

This law school history is certainly not evidence that Judge Gorsuch would be likely to vote one way or the other in criminal cases, but I still think it quite notable that the judge has this history and than Prez Trump would stress this history.

In the days ahead, I hope to identify any interesting and notable criminal justice opinions of Judge Gorsuch from his time on the Tenth Circuit over the last decade.

January 31, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Exactly who should (or are) sentencing fans rooting for as Prez Trump is about to announce his SCOTUS pick?

Regular readers know I have blogged a fair amount about some of the folks on Prez Trump's not-so-short SCOTUS pick list, and some of these prior posts are collected below.  According to press reports, a couple of well-established and generally well-regarded circuit judges have emerged as the most likely pick.  I now wonder if readers with a special interest in sentencing jurisprudence have a special reason to be pulling for a special candidate.  If so, please share who and why in the comments.

Once a pick is announced, I expect to do a little blogging on the nominees' sentencing work even though I expect very few others will be assessing the pick's work in this arena.  And, as always, I both welcome and depend on help from readers who might have insights and perspectives that I am sure to miss hanging out in my ivory tower. 

A few prior related Trumpian SCOTUS posts:

January 31, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Delaying a Second Chance: The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by The Sentencing Project. Here is the first part of the report's Executive Summary:

Amid growing public support for criminal justice reform, policymakers and criminal justice practitioners have begun to scale back prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent crimes. Although the results have been modest — a 5% reduction in the overall U.S. prison population between 2009 and 2015 — this shift follows almost four decades of prison expansion. But so far, criminal justice reform has largely excluded people in prison with life sentences.  This growing “lifer” population both illustrates and contributes to the persistence of mass incarceration.

Most people serving life sentences were convicted of serious crimes.  Their incarceration was intended to protect society and to provide appropriate punishment.  But many were sentenced at a time when “life with the possibility of parole” meant a significantly shorter sentence than it has become today. Many remain incarcerated even though they no longer pose a public safety risk.

Researchers have shown that continuing to incarcerate those who have “aged out” of their crime-prone years is ineffective in promoting public safety.  Long sentences are also limited in deterring future crimes given that most people do not expect to be apprehended for a crime, are not familiar with relevant legal penalties, or criminally offend with their judgment compromised by substance abuse or mental health problems.  Unnecessarily long prison terms are also costly and impede public investments in effective crime prevention, drug treatment, and other rehabilitative programs that produce healthier and safer communities.

Despite this body of criminological evidence, the number of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984 — a faster rate of growth than the overall prison population.  Even between 2008 and 2012, as crime rates fell to historic lows and the total prison population contracted, the number of people serving life sentences grew by 12%.  By 2012, one in nine people in U.S. state and federal prisons — nearly 160,000 people — were there under life sentences.  Two factors have driven this growth: the increased imposition of life sentences, particularly those that are parole-ineligible, and an increased reluctance to grant parole to the 110,000 lifers who are eligible. MO

January 31, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

January 30, 2017

Is VP Pence going to be a key player for possible federal sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting new Daily Caller article headlined "Want Drug-Sentencing Reform? Look To Mike Pence, Congressman Says. Here are the details:

Criminal-sentencing reform proponents in Congress are “hopeful” that Vice President Mike Pence will be an ally, helping them to work with the new law-and-order administration to pass legislation to cut mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-law offenders. “I’ve got reason to be hopeful,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz told reporters at a morning session of the Seminar Network, a large group of wealthy libertarian and conservative donors gathered in Palm Springs by Charles and David Koch....

Speaking to reporters alongside Sen. Mike Lee, also of Utah, Chaffetz said, “Gov. Pence, having been a governor, he understands this. In the end, he’s done some wise things. And I also think you will see concerted support from conservative governors who will buoy up any support in the White House.”

“If you’re going to be tough on crime, you better be smart about it.  And there are hardened criminals who do need to spend the rest of their lives in prison.” But, he added, we need to fix the problem of repeat offenders spending years in prison for drug crimes.

Doug Deason, a Seminar Network donor with an interest in sentencing reform, highlighted the White House’s new legislative director, Marc Short, as another reason to be hopeful. Before joining the administration, Short was a longtime adviser to Pence and a lead deputy in the libertarian Koch network. “He cares passionately about criminal justice reform,” Deason said.  Deason, a Texas businessman who is president of Deason Capital Services, was less enthusiastic about Sessions, telling reporters, “I’m glad they got him out of the Senate, they got him out of the way!”

Chaffetz defended Sessions, however, pointing to the Fairness in Sentencing Act the Alabama senator shepherded through in 2010, reducing the difference between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. “I think last year we were caught up in presidential politics… and I think he’s in a different position now,” Chaffetz said....

“We were so close last time,” Lee, a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, lamented to reporters at the seminar.

January 30, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

January 29, 2017

"A Better Approach to Violent Crime"

The title of this post is the headline given by the Wall Street Journal to John Pfaff's extended weekend commentary about crime and punishment in the United States. The subheadline provides a better summary of the themes of the extended essay: "If we’re going to end mass incarceration in the U.S., it will mean figuring out better ways to prevent violent crimes and to deal with those who commit them." John's analysis of modern mass incarceration is always in the must-read category, and here are some extended excerpts from this latest piece that help highlight why:

If we are serious about ending mass incarceration in the U.S., we will have to figure out how to lock up fewer people who have committed violent acts and to incarcerate those we do imprison for less time.

There is an obvious rejoinder, of course: Don’t we need to keep people convicted of violence locked up for long periods? Isn’t this how we’ve kept the crime rate down for so long? The answer to both of those questions is, “No, not likely.” Simply put, long prison sentences provide neither the deterrence nor the incapacitation effects that their proponents suggest. (There may be moral arguments for long sentences, but that is a separate issue from public safety.)...

Violence is a phase, not a state. People age into violent behavior and age out of it: A 24-year-old is more violent than a 7-year-old or a 60-year-old. It’s true that some people are more prone to violence than their peers, but almost everyone exhibits some sort of bell-curved trajectory of violence over their lives. Young men are simply more prone to violence than any other demographic group.

It is almost impossible, however, to predict how violent a young person will be in the future. Imposing harsh sanctions for a first violent act needlessly detains many people who are not serious future risks.  In addition — and somewhat counterintuitively — by the time a person in his 30s has generated a long criminal history suggesting that he poses a continuing risk, he is likely to have started “aging out” of crime, violent behavior in particular.

A prominent study of hundreds of at-risk men that tracked their behavior from ages 7 to 70, for example, found that most started to engage in crime in their late teens and began to stop in their mid to late 20s. Only about 10% continued to offend consistently into their 30s, and only about 3% did so at high rates.

California has tested this proposition. Since 2012, the state has granted early release to over 2,000 people convicted under its harsh three-strikes law, and their recidivism rate has been about a 10th of the state average (4.7% vs. 45%) — due in no small part to the fact that those released early are often in their 40s and 50s and thus no longer likely to offend. ​

Whether aimed at younger or older defendants, lengthy incapacitation often imposes substantial, avoidable costs — not just on prison budgets but on society at large, which loses many people who might otherwise be productive citizens.  A long prison sentence also undermines someone’s ability to find the stabilizing influence of a job or a spouse, thus increasing the long-run risk that he will reoffend.

The good news is that a growing number of proven tactics can keep violent crime low, and perhaps reduce it even further, without relying as much on prison. If governments lock up fewer people for violent crimes, they can use some of the savings to help fund these alternatives.

One widely adopted approach is what experts call “focused deterrence,” which was first tried, with great success, in Boston in the mid-1990s. Aimed at reducing the violence associated with gang membership, the program brings gang members together with the police, social-service providers and respected members of the local community. They are told that if violence continues, the police will crack down quickly and severely. Those who agree to put violence behind them, however, are offered help with housing, education, drug and alcohol treatment and other services, and community leaders make a moral plea to them.  Such programs have had a significant effect on street violence in many places. Nine of the 10 high-quality studies that have been done on focused deterrence report strong impacts — a 63% decline in youth homicides in Boston, a 35% decline in murders among “criminally active group members” in Cincinnati and so on. ​

A related but less conventional approach called “Cure Violence” has been tried in New York City and Chicago (and even as far afield as Rio de Janeiro and Basra, Iraq). This program treats gun violence as a public-health problem: If left “untreated,” a shooting will be transmitted to another victim, thanks to retaliation. The idea is to interrupt that cycle, relying on people like former gang members (as opposed to the police) to help shooting victims and their friends and family find other, nonviolent ways to resolve the conflict.

Like focused deterrence, this approach also seeks to provide at-risk youth with access to resources, ranging from housing to entertainment. In New York City, a study conducted between 2010 and 2012 found that areas where Cure Violence operated had experienced 20% fewer shootings as compared with similar areas. Conversely, shootings in Chicago began to rise sharply shortly after a stalemate over the state budget resulted in a drastic cut in funding for Cure Violence in March 2015. The biggest increases in lethal violence occurred in those neighborhoods where the program had been used most widely.

Another key tactic is “hot-spot policing.” Crime is generally concentrated in particular neighborhoods.  Some studies have found that half of all urban crimes take place in under 10% of all city blocks.  In Chicago, nearly 45% of the increase in murders between 2015 and 2016 occurred in only five neighborhoods, home to just 9% of the city’s population. Hot-spot policing identifies these high-crime blocks and significantly increases patrols and community involvement there.

It has produced significant results, even in nearby neighborhoods not subject to increased enforcement, which suggests that people are not simply changing where they commit crimes. The Philadelphia Foot Patrol Experiment, for example, identified 120 blocks that had high levels of violent crime and then assigned additional patrol officers to 60 randomly selected blocks for three months. Hot spots with extra patrols experienced a 23% drop in violent crime relative to those that didn’t. A comprehensive review of the hot-spot literature found that 20 out of 25 tests reported “noteworthy crime control gains.”...

Prison, in short, is by no means the only effective way to respond to violent behavior.  In fact, compared with these programs, prison is likely one of the least efficient approaches that we have.  The declines in incarceration over the past six years are worth celebrating.  But they are modest, in no small part because politicians are understandably afraid to confront a fundamental source of prison growth: our shortsighted policies on violent crime.

If we really hope to scale back our sprawling prison system, we must send fewer people to prison for violent crimes and keep those we do lock up for less time.  Fortunately, we can preserve the tremendous reductions of violence we have experienced over the past 25 years with smarter, safer and more humane approaches.

January 29, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)