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May 19, 2018

The latest political back and forth, on both sides of the aisle, as federal prison reform efforts gain momentum

Politico has two fascinating new articles about on-going political debates and maneuvering surrounding the FIRST STEP Act.  That proposal, as reported here, received a 25-5 vote in favor in the House Judiciary Committee ten days ago, and it seems to be the top federal criminal justice reform bill with a real chance to get to the desk of Prez Trump in the coming months. Here are the full headlines and the start of each Politico article:

"Trump pushes for prison reform bill that divides Democrats: The split among Democrats over whether to support a narrow bill or push for sentencing reductions spilled into the open on Friday":

President Donald Trump on Friday embraced a bipartisan prison reform proposal, but a sharp divide among Democrats on the issue threatens to undermine the deal.  The discord was on display Friday as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York circulated a scathing letter accusing fellow Democrats of trying to tank the effort by waging an opposition campaign “riddled with factual inaccuracies.” At issue is whether to move ahead with a more narrow overhaul or to hold out for a broader criminal justice bill that includes sentencing reductions.

Trump vowed in his remarks that his administration would make circumstances "far, far, far greater than ever before" for former prisoners looking to rebuild their lives.  But other leading Democrats are fighting Jeffries' approach, pushing for the sentencing reductions, which are opposed by the Trump administration. Jeffries' rebuke came in response to a letter [posted here] criticizing the narrower prisons bill circulated on Thursday by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), among others.

"Cotton jolts prison reform negotiations":

Multiple law enforcement groups say Sen. Tom Cotton’s office approached them about opposing a bipartisan prison reform bill — a key legislative priority for President Donald Trump — according to emails reviewed by POLITICO.

Cotton’s office says it made no direct request for groups to oppose the bill. But the outreach from the Arkansas Republican, one of Trump's closest allies in Congress, has left supporters of the prison reform effort suspicious that he is trying to tank the Trump-backed legislation before it reaches the Senate.

Cotton is a stalwart critic of broader criminal justice overhaul proposals but has yet to publicly come out against the narrower, prison-focused approach that Trump is backing. However, the emails reviewed by POLITICO show at least two leading law enforcement groups discussing a call by Cotton’s office this week for letters of opposition on prison reform ahead of a White House summit Friday on the issue.

In one instance, the request from Cotton’s camp appears to have lost the prisons bill a supporter: The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which had declared its endorsement in February, wrote to House and Senate Republican leaders on Friday announcing it was reversing that position and would oppose the prison reform bill, citing changes made to the measure in recent weeks. A member of the organization said Cotton’s office had asked the group to send a letter of opposition, according to one of the emails reviewed by POLITICO. The FLEOA did not return a request for comment.

In a separate email shared with POLITICO, another top law enforcement group said it and other similar organizations had been contacted by Cotton’s office with a request to oppose the bill in writing.

Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Tabler said the office had not directly requested any public opposition. “Senator Cotton believes it’s important that we get prison reform right, and that any legislation must fully protect law-abiding Americans. He’s consulted with Arkansans and several law enforcement groups and is actively working with his colleagues to address his concerns with the current bill,” Tabler said in a statement.

I suspect that there are not many examples of Senator Tom Cotton and Senator Kamala voting similarly on a high-profile piece of legislation, but the latest news and developments concerning federal criminal justice reform suggests they may both end up voting no (albeit for different reasons) if and when the FIRST STEP Act comes up for a vote in the Senate. Interesting times.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Noting the distinctive juve sentencing realities to face the Texas school mass murderer

Yet another horrific school shooting, this time by a juvenile offender, provides yet another need to work through modern sentencing realities facing a mass murderers.  This local article reviews the sentencing basics under the headline "The accused Santa Fe shooter will never get the death penalty. Here’s why." Here are excerpts:

The high school junior accused of gunning down 10 students and teachers at a Santa Fe school is facing a capital murder charge - but he’ll never face the death penalty, even in Texas. Some day, he’ll even be eligible for parole.

Though Dimitrios Pagourtzis was charged as an adult and jailed without bond, even if he’s found guilty he can’t be sentenced to death because of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. And in the Lone Star State, he can’t be sentenced to life without parole as the result of a 2013 law that banned the practice for minors....

The Santa Fe High School student admitted to the mass shooting that killed 10 and wounded 10 others early Friday, according to court documents. He planted fake explosives and selected his targets so as to spare the students he liked, he later told police.

For an adult, that sort of crime could lead to the death chamber.  Murders involving multiple victims can be charged as capital offenses, and for adults that leaves two options: death or life without parole.

At one time, those options were both on the table for teens, too. But then in 2005, Christopher Simmons, a Missouri killer condemned to die, won a landmark case in the Supreme Court. After surveying practices in death penalty states, the justices decided that the national consensus was against executing minors.  Only a few states — including Texas —  were the outliers still carrying out death sentences for those convicted of crimes committed as minors....

Before the court’s decision, Texas had been the biggest executioner of juvenile offenders, Dunham said.  Across the nation, there were 22 convicts executed for crimes committed as juveniles - and more than half of them were in Texas. After the court eliminated the practice, in June 2005 Gov. Rick Perry commuted a slew of death sentences to life, removing 28 prisoners from death row, including 12 from Harris County.

Then in 2012, the Supreme Court took it one step further when the justices struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles.  The following year, Texas legislators passed a law making life with parole — instead of life without parole — the only sentencing option for minors charged with capital crimes. For life sentences where parole is an option, Marzullo said, the first chance at release comes after 40 years in prison.

Whether or not he’s ultimately convicted, the accused Santa Fe shooter will be behind bars for the foreseeable future.  During his first court appearance Friday night, a judge opted to hold him without bond. "At the moment he's in solitary confinement," Judge Mark Henry said after the teen's first court appearance Friday evening. "He's going to be here a while."

Because Pagourtzis slaughtered 10 people and injured many more, his case has me wondering about the application of consecutive sentences under Texas laws to potentially extend the period in which a juvenile offender would not be eligible for parole under life sentences. As regular readers know, there is a robust debate in lower courts about whether and how the Supreme Court's announced Eighth Amendment jurisprudence limiting life without parole for juvenile offenders ought to be applied in cases in which a juvenile has committed multiple very serious crimes. That debate may well end up impacting how this latest school shooter gets sentenced.

May 19, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (11)

Interesting discussions of new prison units dedicated to offenders who are veteran

The start of this local article, headlined "Allegheny County Jail designates cell block for inmates who are veterans," really struck me:

The new veterans pod at the Allegheny County Jail made David Francis feel welcome in a way he didn't experience when returning from Vietnam.  “(The pod) gives veterans hope where there hadn't been any,” Francis said.  “We were not liked when we came back from Vietnam.  We weren't welcomed in coming home.  It wasn't like other wars.  So this is a blessing.”

Here is more from the piece:

An American flag and other patriotic images are also painted near the pod's entrance — the work of three inmates over the weekend. The paintings are the only visual difference between the pod and others in the jail. It consists of two levels of cells in a circle surrounding a common area, where jail and county officials held a news conference Monday.

The difference, though, will be the specialized services offered to veterans, as well as a chance to interact with their fellow veterans on a daily basis. “We decided we need to do something for the veterans in our facility and prepare them for a successful re-entry into society,” said Warden Orlando Harper, an Army veteran himself.

At least 86 prisons and jails across the country have pods designated for veterans. Many of them have been created in the past five years, according to an Associated Press report in January. Nationally, veterans account for about 8 percent of all inmates....

Placing many of the jail's veterans all in one place makes it easier for organizations to serve them, as well as less costly for the county, officials said. “We want more veterans assistance programs,” Harper said. Many have already committed to participate.

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit will offer workforce literacy classes, including help with cover letter and resume writing, according to a county news release. Veterans Administration Veterans Justice Outreach will help the inmates apply for enrollment in the VA health care system, discuss treatment options and legal issues, along with presentations on post-traumatic stress, suicide prevention and job opportunities.

Organizations Soldier On; PAServes; the Veterans Leadership Program; the Duquesne School of Nursing; and Veterans Thinking for Change-Pittsburgh Mercy also have committed to providing services.

The AP article referenced above is available at this link and reports on some encouraging data emerging from this form of prison reform:

Inmates and officials say the Albany pod is cleaner and less troublesome than other tiers. When a guard was attacked here in 2016 by an inmate from another unit, the pod inmates ran from across the common area to the guard’s aid.

“We send all these young men and women overseas and when they come back, a lot of them with PTSD, domestic violence, drug issues,” said Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, who started the veterans pod more than three years ago. “And I just felt we could have treated them better or done something for them.”

Apple said 6 percent of the roughly 331 participating veterans in Albany over the years have returned to jail, far better than the typical jail recidivism rates of more than 40 percent.

It helps that Soldier On also provides post-release services like housing.  So when Tommy Hartmann was released from the Albany jail last year after 90 days he had a place to go. The 29-year-old Army veteran moved into Soldier On’s transitional housing in Leeds, Massachusetts. He also got a job with Soldier On, on the resident staff.

When the group helped serve a holiday meal recently, Hartmann returned to his old block to chat up inmates he knew. This time he wore khakis and a tie. And he got to go home at the end of the night. “They set me up to succeed when I got out,” Hartmann said before his visit. “Rather than just sitting on the tier, playing cards, watching TV, doing pushups, whatever, I was doing positive stuff toward my recovery and becoming a better part in society.”

These stories lead me to want to call modern prison reform efforts another important way to support our troops.

May 19, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Federalism and Constitutional Criminal Law"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Brenner Fissell now available via SSRN.  As the title itself suggests, Eighth Amendment jurisprudence is among the area of Supreme Court decision-making discussed in this paper. Here is the abstract:

A vast body of constitutional law regulates the way that police investigate crimes and the way that criminal cases are handled at trial.  The Supreme Court has imposed far fewer rules regarding what can be a crime in the first place, how it must be defined, and how much it can be punished. What explains this one-sided favoring of “procedure” over “substance?”

This Article aims to unearth and assess the justification that the Court itself most often uses when it refuses to place constitutional limits on substantive criminal law: federalism. While the Court often invokes the concept to rationalize its restraint, this Article argues that federalism is not a universally effective argument against the imposition of these types of constitutional limits.  Instead, different variants of “federalism” vary in their strength when used to resist different types of constitutional rules, and often the federalism-based argument is unjustified.

May 19, 2018 in Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 18, 2018

Head of federal Bureau of Prisons abruptly resigns

As reported in this USA Today article, headlined "Federal prisons chief Mark Inch abruptly resigns from job he took over in September," while Prez Trump and others today at the White House were discussing federal prison reform, the head of the federal prison agency surprisingly resigned. Here is the story and possible backstory:

Mark Inch, the director of the embattled federal Bureau of Prisons, abruptly announced his resignation Friday, the Justice Department announced Friday. There was no immediate reason provided for the departure of Inch, who had just assumed leadership of the country's largest detention system in September.

In a brief statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions thanked Inch for his service wished him "luck in his future endeavors." The attorney general did not elaborate. As director, Inch oversaw 122 detention facilities, 39,000 staffers and 186,000 inmates.

Inch’s resignation also comes as the White House was staging a summit Friday on prison reform. There, White House senior adviser and President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner commended Inch for his work on the Federal Inter-agency Reentry Council, though it was not clear whether he was aware of Inch's resignation. "We're working on the reentry commission, where the new director of the Bureau of Prisons, General Inch, has been working with Attorney General Sessions to look at all the different changes they can make in the prisons,” he said.

Hugh J. Hurwitz, assistant director of the BOP’s Reentry Services Division, will serve as acting director, Sessions said.

For the last year, the Bureau of Prisons has been the focus of a review by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been examining allegations of sexual harassment, management retaliation against staffers and staffing shortages. Those shortages have routinely thrust nurses, teachers, food service workers and others to take up guard duty in under-staffed prison yards and solitary confinement wings.

Hundreds of non-custodial staffers were tapped last year to fill guard posts across the Bureau of Prisons because of acute officer shortages and overtime limits, according to prison records reviewed by USA TODAY and staff interviews. The moves were made despite repeated warnings that the assignments placed unprepared employees at risk. And the practice has continued for years even though the agency has been rebuked by Congress and federal labor arbitrators....

According to his Justice biography, Hurwitz began his career with the BOP as a law clerk in the Office of General Counsel in 1988. He went on to serve in three other agencies before returning to the BOP in 2015 as the senior deputy assistant director of the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division.

May 18, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Prez Trump pledges to sign prison reform that will be "best in the world"

As reported in this CBS News piece, both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a prison reform summit the White House this morning. Here are some of the details:

Pence, taking to the podium, called prison reform a top priority for the Trump administration. Pence said the current prison system "too often" misses an opportunity to help improve people's lives, and instead just makes American communities more dangerous. Pence said the Trump administration will continue to hold accountable those who break the law, but also recognize that too many ex-offenders feel they have nowhere else to turn once they leave prison, and return to crime. "Prison reform is about changing lives, and about changing communities," Pence said.

The White House has hosted such discussions before, although not in such a large summit. But the reforms Mr. Trump's administration has floated before mostly entailed better preparing inmates for reentry and reducing recidivism rates, not the sentencing reform that liberals and some conservatives have hoped for in recent years. Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who has made prison reform a top issue in his portfolio, said Mr. Trump is "all in" on prison reform, but explained why the White House's focus is narrow for now.

"Sentencing reform is something that people still have different opinions on," Kushner said, noting how Washington has been unable to come to a consensus on the matter for years. Kushner said he thinks the country's system of governance works well, and requires intense deliberation on pivotal issues like prison reform.

I was able to hear live a few of the comments by Prez Trump, and he pledged to sign the prison reform bill Congress delivered to him and he closed by asserting, in Trumpian fashion, that the prison reforms would be the "best in the world." People who know about prisons around the world, particularly in Scandinavia and other part of Europe, surely realize that Prez Trump is setting quite a high bar for US prison reform. But I was please to hear him make this commitment and continue to be hopeful that the energized support of the Trump Administration helps ensure that at least some form of federal criminal justice reform becomes a reality this year.

May 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Death penalty restoration may get a vote in Illinois House

I have not blogged before about the recent suggestion by the Illinois Gov to restore the death penalty in his state, but this new article reports that the idea may now be headed toward a vote in the Illinois House.  Here are the details:

Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan agreed Thursday to allow a vote on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s controversial plan to reinstate the death penalty and expand the waiting period to purchase firearms, creating a political minefield Democrats contend could hurt re-election-seeking Republicans more than themselves.

Madigan said the issues the Republican governor raised “deserve a full hearing and consideration before the House.” “We look forward to hearing from stakeholders and continuing our effort to keep our children, our schools and our communities safe from senseless gun violence,” Madigan said in a statement.

Rauner’s rewrite would create a 72-hour “cooling off” period to buy any firearm and reinstate capital punishment for slaying a law enforcement officer or in cases where two or more people are killed. A new bill containing the governor’s plan will be discussed by the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, and Democrats said Madigan intends for it to be eventually called for a full House vote.

The move provides some political insulation for Madigan, the chief political nemesis of the re-election-seeking governor. It prevents the governor from attacking the veteran House speaker for defending the lives of cop killers by blocking a vote on Rauner’s crime-fighting initiative. It’s doubtful the Rauner plan would pass the House, but Madigan’s move carries several political risks for individual lawmakers in both parties. It also creates significant complications for rank-and-file Republicans.

Lawmakers on both sides who vote against the measure could find themselves targeted by political opponents as being soft on crime and weak in their support of law enforcement by refusing to lift the state’s seven-year ban on capital punishment. That could particularly impact suburban Democratic lawmakers in a region where the party has made increasing inroads on traditionally Republican territory. Still, several lawmakers who served in 2011 when the state abolished the death penalty following a tarnished history of wrongful convictions are already on record with their vote.

The bill is more complex for Republicans. While reinstating the death penalty has its appeal to Republican voters, Rauner’s plan also would create a 72-hour waiting period for all guns, not just military-style firearms contained in the original bill. An expansion of the waiting period is opposed by the politically powerful National Rifle Association and is at odds with many voters in rural Illinois legislative districts represented by Republicans who champion their support for gun rights.

Kudos to leadership for allowing debate and a vote on these matters. Especially in an election year, voters should be able to know when their representatives stand on an array of high-profile political issues. I wish Senator Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders in Congress would take a page from the folks in Illinois when it comes to allowing high-profile criminal justice issues like sentencing reform and marijuana reform get a fair up-or-down vote so that voters can know for sure where there representatives stand and so that proposals with majority support can actually become law.

May 18, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

May 17, 2018

Five prominent congressional Democrats write in opposition to federal statutory prison reform without broader sentencing reform

As reported in this Politico piece, a set of "powerful Democrats stepped up their opposition campaign against a bipartisan bill on prison reform via a lengthy letter Thursday, their latest attempt to stamp out momentum for the proposal before it hits the House floor next week." Here is more:

The Democrats’ five-page opposition letter, which describes the bill as a “step backwards,” is just the latest volley in an ongoing battle over how far Congress should go this year to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system.  The legislation is backed by the White House and could be the last real chance for a bipartisan success — no easy feat in a contentious election year — but has several key opponents, particularly in the Senate.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the revered civil rights leader and one of the most influential members of the House Democratic Caucus, signed on to the letter.  Other Democrats already known to be opposed to the prison bill also added their names: Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

“We write to express our serious concerns with the First Step Act, legislation that purports to reform federal prisons but which would in fact be a step backwards,” they wrote. They go on to say that the bill, which would provide training programs for prisoners that are aimed at reducing repeat offenses, could actually have the opposite effect by putting in place policies that are more discriminatory toward inmates of color.

The letter — particularly Lewis’ opposition — could be a significant blow to efforts by the bill’s supporters to round up support ahead of an expected floor vote next week.  Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Doug Collins (R-Ga.), lead authors of the push for prison reform, have been meeting with members since the bill sailed out of committee last week....

The letter takes several shots at the prison reform proposal, saying that it doesn’t provide enough funding to be effective and that Sessions, a vocal opponent of criminal justice reform, would have far too much autonomy over the new programs.

The bill has strong Republican support in the House — all but one Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, including several far-right members, backed the proposal. But the legislation has divided Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Lewis’ opposition to the bill could be particularly influential for Democrats deciding how to vote.  But the bill’s authors can also point to several prominent backers on their side, including CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a leading progressive.

The full five-page "Dear Colleague" letter is available at this link, and it reiterates a series of arguments that the progressive opponents of prison reform have been making for months. As I have said before, though I see merit in many of the criticisms of prison-only reform efforts, I struggle to see any path forward for more robust reforms in the immediate future.  (There is also the irony that the prison-reform provisions they criticize in the FIRST STEP Act also appear in the broader sentencing reform bill they promote as an alternative.) 

As I noted in this recent post, broader reforms have now been robustly discussed for the better part of a decade and they did not become law even when there was a supportive Prez and Attorney General.  Perhaps the authors of this letter have a viable plan for getting a better bill to the desk of the Prez and signed into law, but I know I am more than tired of waiting to see any kind of serious criminal justice reform passed by Congress.  (Keep in mind it has been a full eight years since the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, the last notable statutory sentencing or prison reform, and that law only addressed one crime that makes up now less than 5% of the federal caseload.)

The strategy of hoping for more favorable political conditions for broader sentencing reform strikes me as an especially risky strategy given AG Jeff Sessions' obvious disaffinity for any reforms and his ability and eagerness to use any crime data and developments to make the case against reform.  If crime data in the coming months show a continued rise in crime, AG Sessions is sure to argue that cutting sentences at a time of rising crime is misguided; if data instead show a new decline, AG Sessions is sure to assert that his policy changes have been efficacious and that current law preserves the status quo. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Legal Innocence and Federal Habeas"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Leah Litman that is a must read for anyone following post-Miller or post-Johnson litigation (and who isn't?). Here is the abstract:

Although it has long been thought that innocence should matter in federal habeas corpus proceedings, innocence scholarship has focused almost exclusively on claims of factual innocence — the kind of innocence that occurs when new evidence reveals that the defendant did not commit the offense for which he was convicted.  The literature has largely overlooked cases where a defendant was convicted or sentenced under a statute that is unconstitutional, or a statute that does not apply to the defendant.  The Supreme Court, however, has recently begun to recognize these cases as kinds of innocence and it has grounded its concern for them in innocence-related considerations. 

This Article highlights how the doctrine has started to treat these “legal innocence” cases as cases in which defendants are innocent, as well as the reasons why it has done so.  As this Article explains, legal innocence is conceptually and inextricably linked with factual innocence; in both kinds of cases, the defendant was convicted or sentenced under a law she did not violate.  These cases raise similar concerns and implicate many of the same features of our criminal law system.  By recognizing the emerging category of legal innocence as a kind of innocence, this Article maps out how the existing federal habeas system can provide relief to legally innocent defendants.

May 17, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"How should we deal with wrongdoing? And you can’t say ‘prison.’"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Washington Post commentary authored by Danielle Allen. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

How should a kid like Michael [involved in multiple armed robberies at age 15] be sentenced? How, more generally, should we respond to wrongdoing? Here’s my challenge to you: In my thought experiment, you can’t answer “prison.”

Given that constraint, what punishment should Michael receive? Here are our goals: We want to respond to wrongdoing so as to ensure that victims are made whole, that society is made whole, and that the wrongdoer, too, becomes whole and, having paid recompense, is prepared to contribute productively to society.

Does your mind draw a blank? If so, you are like most of us, accustomed to a system that thinks incarceration is the only way to respond to wrongdoing.

In the United States, 70 percent of our criminal sanctions consist of incarceration.  That’s why it’s all we can think of. But a world that operates without an extensive reliance on prison is not a utopia; it is only a plane ride away.  In Germany, incarceration is used for 6 percent of sanctions; in the Netherlands, it’s 10 percent, according to a 2013 Vera Institute report comparing our criminal-justice system with theirs.

Germany and the Netherlands rely predominantly on fines, linked to the offender’s ability to pay, and “transactions” or community sanctions — for instance, work orders that benefit the community, or training orders, or a combination. Halfway houses connect residential oversight with supervised work opportunities, which can be connected to paying restitution to victims and the community.  The penal systems are built around the principles of rehabilitation, re-socialization and “association.”  This is the idea that a criminal sanction is more likely to result in a wrongdoer’s successful reentry to society if it works to strengthen, not damage, the wrongdoer’s positive connections to family and community....

Currently, two criminal-justice-reform strategies are moving through Congress. Last fall, Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  The act tackles the problem of mandatory minimums and seeks to “improve fairness in sentencing of low-level, nonviolent offenders,” so as to permit law enforcement to focus on “violent offenders, major drug traffickers and criminal masterminds.” This month, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), alongside Reps. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), introduced a prison reform bill called the First Step Act.  This bill would offer individualized recidivism-reduction plans to all people incarcerated in federal prisons, and increase access to vocational training and educational support, as well as substance-abuse and mental-health resources. The bill would also introduce halfway houses or home confinement for the final phase of incarceration.

These bills have wrongly been cast as competitors.  If we are to undo mass incarceration, we have to envision viable alternatives to incarceration.  By making halfway houses and rehabilitative strategies central to our sanctioning system, the First Step Act would help the American public see new possibilities.  It could thereby lay the foundation for true transformation of sentencing.

Policymakers too often forget that three-quarters of their work should be winning the hearts and minds of the public.  To win sustainable, unwavering, widespread support for meaningful sentencing reform, we have to show that strategies of rehabilitation and restorative justice work.  Lawmakers should embrace the First Step Act as a necessary part of painting that new picture.  The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act would benefit from our collective ability to imagine alternatives to incarceration.  

May 17, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (15)

Updated accounting of America's aging prison population

In this post four years ago, I spotlighted a notable white paper from The Osborne Association titled ""The High Costs of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population." Today, via this Crime Report piece, I see that a new version of this paper is available at this link.  Here is the start of the Crime Report's review of its coverage:

At least one-third of the U.S. prison population will be over 50 by 2030, according to a white paper released Thursday by the Osborne Association.

The association, a New York-based advocacy group that works with justice-involved people and their families, cited figures showing that even as states are working to reduce prison populations, the number of older adults in prison and jail is projected to grow by a “staggering 4,400 percent” in the 50-year period between 1980 and 2030—to an estimated 400,000 people.

According to statistics quoted by the researchers, adults over 50 comprised just three percent of the total incarcerated population in 1993, representing 26,300 individuals.

“Justice isn’t served by keeping elderly people locked up as their bodies and minds fail them and they grow infirm and die,” said Elizabeth Gaynes, president and CEO of the Osborne Association, which advocates for improved conditions in prisons and jails, better discharge planning, and expanded compassionate release of the elderly and infirm. “It’s both inhumane and inefficient.”

According to the report, entitled “The High Cost of Low Risk: The Crisis of America’s Aging Prison Population,” extreme sentences doled out during the tough- on-crime era, as well as limited mechanisms for compassionate release, have driven what is now a costly and inhumane crisis that the corrections system is unequipped to manage.

The medical costs of caring for a burgeoning elderly population behind bars alone will add to the strains of resource-strapped corrections systems, many experts have said. According to data analyzed by the American Civil Liberties Union, it costs twice as much to incarcerate someone over 50; in some cases, it may cost up to five times more when medical costs are added.

Between 40 percent and 60 percent of prisoners over 50 have some type of mental illness or cognitive impairment, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Some prisons are setting up makeshift hospice wings and opening nursing wards for people with serious cognitive degeneration.

Elsewhere, inmates suffer from such pronounced dementia that they are unable to follow rules, and may not remember why they are incarcerated. For many with cognitive, visual, or hearing loss, a diminished capacity leads to behaviors that are mistaken for disobedience, subjecting them to punishments such as solitary confinement.

Prisons were never designed to be geriatric care facilities and this surging elder incarceration comes at a high cost,” wrote the authors of the Osborne report. At the same time, research by the Pew Center on the States shows that incarcerated people over 50 pose little public safety risk, and have the lowest recidivism rate as any other inmate demographic.

May 17, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (15)

US Sentencing Commission releases new research report on "The Criminal History of Federal Offenders"

Cover_2018-crim-histAs reported via this webpage, the US Sentencing Commission has released a new research publication titled simply "The Criminal History of Federal Offenders." The full report, available here, has lots of notable data and charts and graphs, and here is how the USSC summarizes its contents and key findings on its website:

Summary

The publication The Criminal History of Federal Offenders provides for the first time complete information on the number of convictions and types of offenses in the criminal histories of federal offenders sentenced in a fiscal year.

While the Commission has collected the criminal history points and Criminal History Category (CHC) as determined under the guidelines, it has not collected complete information on the number of convictions or the types of offenses in the criminal histories of federal offenders until now. The Commission is now able to utilize recent technological improvements to expand the scope of information it collects on an offender’s criminal history and provide a more complete assessment of the criminal history of federal offenders. In completing this report, the Commission collected additional details about the criminal histories for 61,946 of the 67,742 federal offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2016 for whom complete documentation was submitted to the Commission.

Key Findings

Key findings of the Commission’s study are as follows:

  • Almost three-quarters (72.8%) of federal offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2016 had been convicted of a prior offense. The average number of previous convictions was 6.1 among offenders with criminal history.

  • Public order was the most common prior offense, as 43.7 percent of offenders with prior criminal history had at least one conviction for a public order offense.

  • A conviction for a prior violent offense was almost as common as prior public order offenses, as 39.5 percent of offenders with criminal history had at least one prior violent offense. Assault was the most common violent offense (29.5%), followed by robbery (8.1%), and rape (4.4%). Just under two percent of offenders with criminal history had a prior homicide offense.

  • The nature of offenders’ criminal histories varied considerably by their federal instant offense.  The substantial majority (91.7%) of firearms offenders had at least one previous conviction compared to about half of fraud (52.4%) and child pornography (48.2%) offenders.  Firearms offenders were also most likely to have violence in their criminal histories, as 62.0 percent of firearms offenders with a previous conviction had a violent previous conviction.  Fraud offenders were the least likely of offenders with criminal history to have a violent previous conviction (26.2%).

  • Most (86.6%) federal offenders with criminal history had convictions that were assigned criminal history points under the guidelines.  Offenders who had at least one three-point conviction were the most likely of all offenders with convictions to have a murder (3.8%) or rape/sexual assault (7.0%) offense in their criminal histories.

  • A criminal history score of zero does not necessarily mean an offender had no prior criminal history. Almost one in ten offenders (9.8 percent) in fiscal year 2016 had a criminal history score of zero but had at least one prior conviction.

May 17, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 16, 2018

Texas completes its sixth execution of 2018

As reported in this local article, in Texas "Juan Castillo was put to death Wednesday evening, ending his death sentence on his fourth execution date within the year."  Here is more:

The 37-year-old was executed for the 2003 robbery and murder of Tommy Garcia Jr. in San Antonio. The execution had been postponed three times since last May, including a rescheduling because of Hurricane Harvey.

Castillo's advocates and attorneys had insisted on his innocence in Garcia’s murder, pleading unsuccessfully for a last-minute 30-day stay of execution from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott after all of his appeals were rejected in the courts. The Texas Defender Service, a capital defense group who had recently picked up Castillo’s case, asked Abbott for the delay to let its lawyers fully investigate claims they said discredited the prosecution’s evidence against Castillo — including recanted statements and video of police interrogations that contradict testimony at trial.

But with no action from the governor, Castillo was taken into the death chamber in Huntsville, and at 6:21 p.m., injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital, according to the Texas Department of Justice. Twenty-three minutes later, he was pronounced dead.... [H]e became the sixth person executed in Texas this year and the 11th in the country.

Texas appears to be on pace to return to its modern historical pattern of 10 or more execution per year.  As this Death Penalty Information Center chart reveals, from 1992 through 2015, the Lone Start State had 10 or more executions every single year save one year.  Over this 24-year period, Texas averaged more than 20 executions per year, including a single year high of 40 executions in 2000.  But in 2016 and 2017, Texas only executed 7 condemned inmates each year.  With six more executions scheduled in Texas before the end of September, it seems Texas is poised to regress toward its historical execution mean in 2018.

UPDATE:  I just saw this new AP piece reporting on two new Texas execution dates set for October "bringing to eight the number of inmates set for lethal injection in the coming months."

May 16, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (9)

A fittingly depressing account of the current state and potential fate of federal statutory criminal justice reform

This NPR piece from earlier this week, headlined "White House Adviser Jared Kushner Pushes Prison Reform Bill Forward," reviews the state of federal proposals in Congress with a few fitting flourishes about the continuing slog to get any form of criminal justice reform passes. These emphasized passages in particular prompted this post:

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST: There is some movement on the bipartisan effort to overhaul the nation's federal prisons.  The House Judiciary Committee recently advanced a bill to improve prison conditions, and the White House is also getting involved. Here to talk more about the effort is NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.  Hey there.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So you've been covering plans it seems like for years, plans to change, upgrade, update the U.S. prison system. Get us up to speed.  Where do those plans stand?

JOHNSON: Well, last week the House Judiciary Committee voted 25 to 5 to approve legislation called the FIRST STEP Act.  That bill would make life a little bit easier for pregnant inmates. And it would offer programs prisoners could take to earn good time credits, credits for possible early release.... I'm hearing the bill could get a vote from the full U.S. House of Representatives next week before the Memorial Day holiday.

KELLY: All right, so that sounds promising.  But I gather there is a catch 'cause you're talking about the House and the Senate may be in a really different place.

JOHNSON: Mary Louise, there's a big catch.  For some justice advocates this legislation in the House is actually a step backwards, not forwards ... [as] this is not the same plan we've been talking about for six or seven years since the Obama White House. That bigger plan would touch tens of thousands of prisoners and change some of those tough mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, actually reducing the number of people who go behind bars in the first place.  What the House is doing now is a much smaller bite of the apple.  And people in the Senate, including the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, Chuck Grassley, are now holding out for a lot more....

JOHNSON: Yeah. So [Jared] Kushner since he got to the White House has been holding roundtable discussions about this.  One of the people he's trying to partner with is the Texas senator John Cornyn, a member of the Republican leadership.  Cornyn has introduced a more modest version of prison reform as of last week.  It's a kind of a companion to the House plan we've been talking about.  And together Kushner and Cornyn are going to try to push the Senate to take up this legislation even though the leader of the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, thinks that's a bad idea in an election year.  Now, experts who've been following these issues for a long time thinks it's - think it's going to be a tough slog, lots of talking, lots of energy. But in the end it's quite likely that Congress won't be able to get anything done.

KELLY: Wow. It sounds like you may have many more years to come of following person reform.

To review, then: there have been reform plans in Congress for years, and the leading "bigger plan" is one "we've been talking about for six or seven years" (but have not really even gotten close to passing).  But now that a seemingly viable smaller reform plan in the form of the FIRST STEP ACT (which, in fact, will "touch tens of thousands of prisoners") looks like it might make it through the House of Representatives this week, it appears Senate leaders are going to blocks its progress for various reasons.  Consequently, smart folks are predicting "lots of talking, lots of energy" to no effect, because "in the end it's quite likely that Congress won't be able to get anything done."  But at least Carrie Johnson (who is a terrific reporter) will likely have "many more years" to cover this particular story of congressional dysfunction. 

Some of many prior related posts:

May 16, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Will the Supreme Court Scrutinize Solitary Confinement? One Justice Offers a Map"

The title of this post was the headline of this Sidebar piece by Adam Liptak in yesterday's New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is a fierce critic of solitary confinement. “It drives men mad,” he said in 2015 at Harvard Law School.  He attacked the practice in a 2015 concurring opinion. “Years on end of near total isolation exact a terrible price,” he wrote, noting that “common side effects of solitary confinement include anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”

Justice Kennedy concluded that opinion with an unusual request, inviting lawyers to file appeals challenging the constitutionality of prolonged isolation.  The requested appeals arrived, but the Supreme Court has so far turned them down.  The court, which typically moves in measured increments, may not want to take on a question as broad as whether extended solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment barred by the Eighth Amendment.

But the court will soon consider whether to hear appeals raising a much narrower question: Do prisoners held in solitary confinement have a right to regular outdoor exercise?

As it happens, Justice Kennedy has already answered that question.  Almost 40 years ago, not long after he became a federal appeals court judge, he wrote that prisoners held in solitary confinement have a constitutional right to a little fresh air once in a while.

“Some form of regular outdoor exercise is extremely important to the psychological and physical well being of the inmates,” he wrote in 1979 for a unanimous three-member panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco. “It was cruel and unusual punishment for a prisoner to be confined for a period of years without opportunity to go outside except for occasional court appearances, attorney interviews and hospital appointments.”

Justice Kennedy, who joined the Supreme Court in 1988, may now have the opportunity to establish that principle nationwide.  The new appeals were filed by several prisoners in Colorado. One of them, Donnie Lowe, 46, has spent almost his entire adult life in various prisons for various offenses.  He was held in solitary confinement for 11 of those years. Mr. Lowe’s lawsuit took issue with a decades-long blanket policy at the Colorado State Penitentiary that denied him outdoor exercise for the more than two years he was in solitary there....

The Supreme Court is not a fan of lawsuits seeking money from state officials for constitutional violations. But Mr. Lowe’s appeal, along with a companion case, present the court with the opportunity to tell the nation what the Constitution requires even if it rules in favor of the prison officials on the ground that the law used to be unclear. In a sign that the court might be interested in the cases, Lowe v. Raemisch, No. 17-1289, and Apodaca v. Raemisch, No. 17-1284, it ordered the officials to file responses to the plaintiffs’ petitions.

Justice Kennedy is nearing the end of a long judicial career, and he might think it fitting to return to an issue he considered just a few years after he first put on a robe. “Underlying the Eighth Amendment,” he wrote in 1979, “is a fundamental premise that prisoners are not to be treated as less than human beings.”

May 16, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Encouraging findings from big study of 16 prosecutor-led diversion programs in 11 jurisdictions

I saw today a big report from a big National Institute of Justice study on the topic of diversion programs.  This big report has this full title: "NIJ’s Multisite Evaluation of Prosecutor-Led Diversion Programs Strategies, Impacts, and Cost-Effectiveness."  And here is part of its executive summary:

In recent years, a growing number of prosecutors have established pretrial diversion programs, either pre-filing—before charges are filed with the court—or post-filing—after the court process begins but before a disposition. Participating defendants must complete assigned treatment, services, or other diversion requirements. If they do, the charges are typically dismissed. With funding from the National Institute of Justice, the current study examined 16 prosecutor-led diversion programs in 11 jurisdictions across the country and conducted impact evaluations of five programs and cost evaluations of four programs....

Case Outcomes, Recidivism, and Cost

  • Case Outcomes: All five programs participating in impact evaluations (two in Cook County, two in Milwaukee, and one in Chittenden County, VT) reduced the likelihood of conviction — often by a sizable magnitude.  All five programs also reduced the likelihood of a jail sentence (significant in four and approaching significance in the fifth program).

  • Re-Arrest: Four of five programs reduced the likelihood of re-arrest at two years from program enrollment (with at least one statistically significant finding for three programs and at least one finding approaching significance in the fourth).  The fifth site did not change re-arrest outcomes.

  • Cost: All four programs whose investment costs were examined (two in Cook County and one each in Chittenden and San Francisco) produced sizable cost and resource savings.  Not surprisingly, savings were greatest in the two pre-filing programs examined, which do not entail any court processing for program completers.  All three programs whose output costs were examined (i.e., omitting the San Francisco site) also produced output savings, mainly stemming from less use of probation and jail sentences.

Conclusions

There were a number of important study limitations, including a focus on 16 high-volume diversion programs mainly located in large jurisdictions, a smaller number of study sites for the impact and cost evaluations, and limitations in the scope and quality of quantitative data available in some of the impact sites.  Understanding these limitations, we generally found that today’s prosecutor-led diversion programs pursue a wide range of goals, not limited to rehabilitation and recidivism reduction.  We also found that these programs serve a mix of target populations — including felonies as well as misdemeanors and, in virtually all programs we examined, including defendants with a prior criminal record.  Although it bears noting that we evaluated program impacts in a limited number of sites, meaning that our findings may not be generalizable to other sites and programs that we did not study, our research yielded positive results. Across five programs in three sites, diversion participants benefited from a reduced likelihood of conviction and incarceration; and in four of the five programs, pretrial diversion participation led to reduced re-arrest rates.  In addition, in all four programs where a cost evaluation was conducted, diversion cases involved a lesser resource investment than similar comparison cases.

May 16, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The Right to Two Criminal Defense Lawyers"

the title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Bruce Green now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In conjunction with a symposium on “disruptive innovation in criminal defense,” this article proposes that indigent defendants be assigned two lawyers each of whom would have primary responsibility for different functions -- the “settlement lawyer” would have responsibility for the counseling and negotiating roles while the “trial lawyer” would be the principal advocate. 

The proposal to divide defense representation between two lawyers, as a potential “disruptive innovation”, provides an occasion to consider various problems associated with indigent defense apart from underfunding and excessive caseloads.  These problems relate to how some defense lawyers think about and structure their work, where they choose to direct their energy and how they prioritize their time, how they respond to incentives, preferences and even unconscious motivations, and how they relate to prosecutors, clients or others in the criminal process.  Whether or not a right to two lawyers is realistically achievable, the proposal provides a vehicle for contemplating deficiencies in criminal defense representation and potential responses.

May 16, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

May 15, 2018

Lots of juvenile sentencing developments as Oklahoma sorts through application of Miller

Last week brought interesting developments in the arena of juvenile sentencing in Oklahoma thanks to all three branches of the state government.   As this local article details, the Oklahoma legislature earlier this month passed, with some controversy, a new law to seeking to operationalize existing Eighth Amendment limits on LWOP sentences for juveniles:

Senate Bill 1221 would put sentencing for teen killers in the hands of a judge, not the jury that convicted them....  The bill passed Wednesday in the state Senate would require judges to determine sentencing based on a number of factors including the underage killers’ maturity, psych tests, and take jury’s out of the sentencing equation.

But some lawmakers cried foul. “We are going to circumvent an Americans right to equal protection under the law because the kid is 17 years old not 21,” said Senator AJ Griffin (R) Guthrie....  “It’s disrespectful to the citizens of this state that elected us and put us here in order to do our job. If an adult deserves a jury a kid deserves a jury,” Senator Griffin said.

As this excerpt indirectly reveals, because jury sentencing is the norm in Oklahoma, this new law would have created a distinctive judge-centric sentencing procedure just for juvenile murders in Oklahoma.  But before Oklahoma's Governor acted on this bill, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (the state's highest criminal court) handed down a big new juve sentencing ruling in Stevens v. Oklahoma, 2018 OK CR 11 (Ok. Crim. App. May 10, 2018) (available here). Stevens is yet another notable example of another state court working through just how Miller and Montgomery should be applied, and it includes these notable passages (with most cites removed):

In all future trials where the State intends to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for an offender who committed his or her offense under the age of eighteen (18) years of age the State shall give notice of this fact by stating at the bottom of the Information in bold type: "The State is seeking the punishment of life without the possibility of parole for the offense of Murder in the First Degree, as Defendant (state last name here) is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible." See Parker v. State, 1996 OK CR 19, ¶ 24, 917 P.2d 980, 986 (adopting notice pleading). Both parties shall be afforded full discovery on this issue in accordance with established discovery law. 22 O.S.2011, § 2001 et seq. The assigned trial judge has the authority under our Discovery Code to issue any orders necessary to accomplish this task.

The Sixth Amendment demands that the trial necessary to impose life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender must be a trial by jury, unless a jury is affirmatively waived. Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000). The defendant's trial shall be bifurcated and the issue of the defendant's guilt shall be separately determined from the enhancement of his or her sentence.... [E]ach party shall be afforded the opportunity to present evidence in support of its position as to punishment in the second stage of the trial. The trial court shall submit a special issue to the jury as to whether the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible....

It is the State's burden to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible. Luna, 2016 OK CR 27, ¶ 21 n. 11, 387 P.3d at 963 n. 11; see also Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584 (2002) (holding facts increasing punishment beyond the maximum authorized by a guilty verdict must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt). The State shall have the opportunity to present any evidence tending to establish this fact subject to the limitations of 12 O.S.2011, § 2403. Generally, this will include, but not be limited to, evidence concerning the defendant's: (1) sophistication and maturity; (2) capability of distinguishing right from wrong; (3) family and home environments; (4) emotional attitude; (5) pattern of living; (6) record and past history, including previous contacts with law enforcement agencies and juvenile or criminal courts, prior periods of probation and commitments to juvenile institutions; and (7) the likelihood of the defendant's rehabilitation during adulthood. See Luna, 2016 OK CR 27, ¶ 20, 387 P.3d at 962; Cf. 10A O.S.2011, § 2-5-205(E).

Similarly, the defendant must be permitted to introduce relevant evidence concerning the defendant's youth and its attendant characteristics. Miller, 567 U.S. at 489 ("[A] judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for a juveniles."). Generally, this will include, but not be limited to, evidence concerning the defendant's: "(1) chronological age and its hallmark features--among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences; (2) the incompetencies associated with youth--for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys; and (3) whether the circumstances suggest possibility of rehabilitation." Luna, 2016 OK CR 27, ¶ 20, 387 P.3d at 962 (quotations and citation omitted).

If the sentencer unanimously finds that the defendant is irreparably corrupt and permanently incorrigible it is then authorized to consider imposing a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.  If the sentencer does not make this finding it is prohibited from considering a sentence of life without the possibility of parole and may only impose a sentence of life imprisonment.

Notably, Oklahoma's Governor followed up all this activity by vetoing the bill that would allow for juvenile sentencing to be before a judge.  Gov Mary Fallin's veto statement here states:

Senate Bill 1221, also known as the Alyssa Wiles Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentencing Act, has provisions that, are in my opinion, in violation of the United States Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 132 SCt. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407. That decision was followed by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in its decision rendered May 10, 2018, in Roberts A. Stevens v. The State of Oklahoma. Case No. PC-2017-219.

In case anyone cares, I believe there is at least a plausible argument that Apprendi jurisprudence does not demand that a jury make the essential "findings" that Miller and Montgomery seem to make constitutionally required under the Eighth Amendment for sentencing a juvenile to life without parole.  Readers with long memories may recall that I have long argued that Blakely's Sixth Amendment rule makes most sense only when applied to offense facts rather than to offender characteristics.  The Supreme Court has vaguely, but not conclusively, rejected such a conceptual distinction in the reach of the Sixth Amendment.  But even though I can see possible constitutional uncertainty as to how offender-eligibility factors are must be adjudicated under the Supreme Court's Sixth and Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, I think it may well be sound practice for these kinds of determinations to be given to juries (perhaps particularly in a state with a strong tradition of jury involvement in sentencing decision-making).

May 15, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Blakely Commentary and News, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thoughtful BBC series of articles on "Criminal myths: Misconceptions about criminals and crime"

I just came across this series of special articles via BBC Future under the headine "Criminal Myths."  Here is how this introductory piece sets up what follows:

In both the UK and the US violent crime has recently been rising, records show. There are now also record numbers of individuals behind bars around the world, about 10.35 million, a figure that has increased by 20% in under two decades.  The highest number of these are in the United States, where those convicted are serving increasingly long sentences.

Among the prison population, 70,000 are women and girls, a figure that has been rising higher than for males.  A high proportion of women behind bars have mental health problems and have been victims of abuse.

Despite these rises, we are not living in the most violent era of history (in 1991 the violent crime figures in the US were about double those of today).  While in the UK, although police figures indicate that crime is rising, a national crime survey found that most crimes "either fell or were at a similar level".

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, prisons are closing due to a lack of inmates to fill cells, as our reporter discovered on a visit to a Dutch jail, though this does not necessarily mean that crime is dramatically falling. These examples show that statistics can be confusing, and there is often more going on than the numbers suggest, such as falling police officers, longer jail terms, to a rise in community sentencing.

That's why we are taking a look at some of these issues, to tackle the misconceptions about criminals and the factors that shape crime.

Here are the full headline of some of the articles in this series:

May 15, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (2)

Puzzling through the current politics of pursuing federal statutory criminal justice reforms

Rolling Stone has this notable new report on the latest politics surround federal criminal justice reform efforts under the headline "'We Don't Have to Worry About Senator Sessions': A look inside the Congressional battle for criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts:

Less than one month ago, there was no hope for any meaningful criminal justice reform to make its way out of this Republican-controlled Congress. But last week a large, bipartisan block of members of the House Judiciary Committee passed a narrow prison reform bill aimed at stemming the recidivism rate. That tees it up for a floor vote, even as many political watchers have predicted most major legislative efforts will be put on hold until after voters go to their polling booths in November.

"This is just a money and morals issue for me," Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), who is one of the bill's lead authors, tells Rolling Stone.  "It's about money that we're saving by not only redirecting that in our prison system, but also the moral aspect that everybody deserves a second chance."

Collins was able to revive the effort by massaging the bill with his ally Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), who represents Brooklyn and Queens and is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.  The legislation sailed through their House committee by a lopsided 25-5 vote, but it faces stiff opposition in the Senate from those who want it to go much further in overhauling the nation's system of mandatory minimum prison sentences that critics say constrain the nation's judges and have left prisons brimming with nonviolent drug offenders.

"I'm disappointed, but it doesn't change anything that we have to do over here," Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, tells Rolling Stone. "[Senate Minority Whip Dick] Durbin and I are working together to make sure that if there's going to be anything done on criminal justice reform, it's going to contain sentencing reform."...

Collins says they were able to revive the bill in the House because they narrowed its scope to win over Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "We're not dealing with sentencing reform at this point, and he understood that," Collins said.

In response to reports that Sessions supported the measure, a DOJ official tells Rolling Stone that Sessions did not, in fact, sign off on the House bill, and that he opposes it.  The official refused to elaborate on reasons why.

But Grassley maintains the attorney general is irrelevant on the issue – even though he's the top law enforcement official in the nation. "We don't have to worry about Senator Sessions," Grassley tells Rolling Stone. "Why's that?"

"We don't have to worry about Senator Sessions," he repeated. "You don't have to know why. We just don't have to worry about him."  Grassley's staff refused to answer questions as to whether the senator has been assured that Trump would sign a mandatory minimum bill over Sessions' protest, or, on a more sinister note, whether Grassley believes Sessions will remain in his current position as attorney general.

Independent of Sessions, however, it's unclear whether there's enough support in Congress to pass criminal justice reform that leaves mandatory minimums untouched. Supporters of the House bill argue that doing anything to help current prisoners escape the incarceration cycle is better than not sitting idly by.

"[Sessions] is an impediment, and I'd suspect Trump's people are basically against sentencing reform," Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) tells Rolling Stone. "To get sentencing reform is probably going to necessitate a Democratic Congress, so that'll come next year. There's no reason to have people sit in a jail for another year when they don't need to be."

To review: it seems we do not know if AG Sessions is formally for or against the prison reform bill, the FIRST STEP Act, that passed the House Judiciary Committee last week, and we do not know if Senate Judiciary Committee leaders (or other Senators) may be willing to move forward with this FIRST STEP Act. I continue to fear AG Sessions' general opposition to any meaningful reforms and Senate leaders' eagerness for sentencing reforms may mean nothing gets done to bring any relief to any federal defendant anytime soon.

Some of many prior related posts:

May 15, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 14, 2018

"Killer Nanny" gets LWOP sentence plus 50 years for murdering kids in her care

Though I am never quite sure how often to blog about individual cases, I sometimes cannot resist reporting on the high-profile sentencing of defendants who get notorious monikers.  Today, as reported in this New York Daily News piece, the "Killer Nanny" got sentenced.  Here are some details:

The Upper West Side nanny who butchered two helpless children in 2012 was sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 50 years Monday, capping a harrowing story that has gripped the city for nearly six years.

Yoselyn Ortega, 55, was convicted of first-degree murder on April 18 after a heartbreaking two-month trial in Manhattan Supreme Court. The conviction, which carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole, sealed her fate of never seeing the light of day as a free woman.

It provided a much-needed measure of relief for the parents of 6-year-old Lulu and 2-year-old Leo Krim, who were savagely slain in the bathroom of their W. 75th St. home on Oct. 25, 2012, while the mom was out at a swim class with their middle sibling Nessie, then 3.

The children's parents, Kevin Krim, 42, and Marina Krim, issued statements thanking the judge and jurors and the district attorney's office. Marina Krim, 41, went a step further, and called out the "evil defendant" and her "entire family of bad, unethical people." Her husband echoed her sentiments, but dedicated his statement to memories of their two slain children....

At trial, Ortega's lawyer argued she should be found not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect — a bid the jury rejected after weeks of psychiatric testimony from experts on both sides. Ortega stabbed and slashed the adorable children in the rear bathroom of the second-floor apartment of the La Rochelle before plunging a kitchen knife into her own throat in a failed suicide attempt.

She settled her affairs by leaving her important documents for her sister and family heirlooms for her 17-year-old son — which prosecutors argued was proof she was of sound mind when she planned the unthinkable acts of that day.

Assistant District Attorney Stuart Silberg argued she was driven by spite aimed at Marina and rage over her own personal failures. "It was her intention to take their lives and to destroy the family," he said at the sentencing. "This defendant to this day has shown no remorse. She has never shed a tear for these children. Why isn't she in tears now?"

Little Lulu, who desperately tried to defend herself, sustained about 30 knife wounds, many defensive, while her kid brother suffered about five. Ortega cut them both across the throat leaving the tots no chance for survival. "Every stab, every slash — each one had a purpose and that purpose was to end the lives of those children," Silberg argued in summations....

Ortega also cried a little just before the sentence was imposed, framing herself as the real victim. "I'm very sorry for everything that happened, but I hope that no one goes through what I have gone through," she told the court.

May 14, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Interesting accounting of history and modern realities of victims' rights

The New Yorker has this notable lengthy new article authored by Jill Lepore under the headline "The Rise of the Victims’-Rights Movement: How a conservative agenda and a feminist cause came together to transform criminal justice."  The article covers lots history (with a particular focus on the importance of the Oklahoma City bombing) along with considerable law and policy (taking mostly a jaundiced view on victim rights). I recommend the piece in full, and here are a few excerpts:

Because victims’ rights is a marriage of feminism and conservatism, the logic behind its signal victory, the victim-impact statement, rests on both the therapeutic, speak-your-truth commitment of a trauma-centered feminism and the punitive, lock-them-up imperative of law-and-order conservatism.  Arguably, this has been a bad marriage....

Some of the things admitted as victim-impact evidence, including testimony that the victim was an excellent piano player, was “good honest hardworking God fearing people,” was a “smart person with higher IQ than others in her family” or had “a 3.8 grade point average,” would appear to advance the fundamentally anti-democratic notion that the lives of the eloquent, the intelligent, the beautiful, the cherished are more worthy of the full protection of the law than others.

How much evidence is enough, or too much?  Challenges in some states have sought to limit admissible victim-impact witnesses to numbers that range from three to eleven, but, effectively, the number is limitless.  What kind of evidence is allowed?  Courts have admitted poems, “handcrafted items made by the victim,” “letters children wrote to their murdered mother,” and “photographs of the stillborn child victim dressed in clothes that the victim-mother had intended him to wear home from the hospital.”  Judges often report that they themselves find it difficult to recover their emotional equilibrium after hearing victim-impact statements.  Sorrow knows no bottom....

Thirty-two states have passed victims’-rights amendments; five more ballot initiatives may pass in November. Once enough states have acted, activists will again press for a federal amendment.  The last time the measure reached Congress, one of the prosecutors in the Oklahoma City bombing case argued against it (victims had tried to prevent one of McVeigh’s associates from signing a plea agreement in exchange for his testimony against McVeigh, which proved crucial in the trial).  [Paul] Cassell believes that there is much more work to be done.  The movement’s latest campaigns would expand the range of victim-impact evidence allowed in both capital and non-capital cases, and more strictly enforce victims’ rights that are already on the books.  In the age of #MeToo, victims’ rights are making remarkable political headway, for many of the same reasons they did after the Oklahoma City bombing.  Tragedy is a fierce tailwind.  And, as Susan Bandes puts it, “Nobody really wants to have to tell victims, or survivors of violent crime, that they cannot be heard.”

Critics remain.  Nancy Gertner, a former district-court judge from Massachusetts, is among those who have questioned Judge Aquilina’s conduct at Larry Nassar’s sentencing. Gertner told me, “The question is whether the victims needed that, as bloodletting, and the question is should the justice system allow that?  Or is it a throwback to public hanging?” Scott Sundby, a former prosecutor who studies capital juries, told me that the Nassar sentencing reminded him of Biblical punishments.  “Hey, we all get to pick up a rock and throw it at this person!”

May 14, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Among lots of CJ work, SCOTUS finds capital defendant's Sixth Amendment rights violated by counsel's unauthorized concession of guilt

The US Supreme Court got back to business this morning with a lot of notable activity in the criminal justice arena.  As noted in this prior post, there were a bunch of significant Dimaya GVRs.  In addition, the Court handed down five opinions in argued cases.  Four of the cases decided today involve criminal defendants, though the biggest of the rulings should also be of great interest to criminal justice fans as it addresses the relationship between federal prohibitions and state laws.  The federalism case, Murphy v. NCAA, No. 16–476 (S. Ct. May 14, 2018). (available here), may be of particular interest to advocates for state-level marijuana reforms, and I have this initial post on that case over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.

Criminal procedure is the focal point of the four other SCOTUS cases handed down this morning: Byrd v. United StatesDahda v. United StatesMcCoy v. LouisianaUnited States v. Sanchez-Gomez.  This alphabetic list of these four rulings may also roughly approximate their order of importance/significance, though I welcome reader input on whether there are some important elements to a set of decisions that all seem somewhat narrow and fact-specific.  The ruling that may be of greatest interest to sentencing fans in McCoy, which split the Court 6-3 and starts with these paragraphs from Justice Ginsburg writing for the Court:

In Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175 (2004), this Court considered whether the Constitution bars defense counsel from conceding a capital defendant’s guilt at trial “when [the] defendant, informed by counsel, neither consents nor objects,” id., at 178.  In that case, defense counsel had several times explained to the defendant a proposed guiltphase concession strategy, but the defendant was unresponsive. Id., at 186.  We held that when counsel confers with the defendant and the defendant remains silent, neither approving nor protesting counsel’s proposed concession strategy, id., at 181, “[no] blanket rule demand[s] the defendant’s explicit consent” to implementation of that strategy, id., at 192.

In the case now before us, in contrast to Nixon, the defendant vociferously insisted that he did not engage in the charged acts and adamantly objected to any admission of guilt. App. 286–287, 505–506.  Yet the trial court permitted counsel, at the guilt phase of a capital trial, to tell the jury the defendant “committed three murders. . . . [H]e’s guilty.” Id., at 509, 510.  We hold that a defendant has the right to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty. Guaranteeing a defendant the right “to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence,” the Sixth Amendment so demands.  With individual liberty — and, in capital cases, life — at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

May 14, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

A couple dozen Dimaya GVRs in federal criminal cases in latest SCOTUS order list

The US Supreme Court this morning handed down this order list, and criminal justice fans should take notice of the significant number of federal criminal cases in which certiorari is granted followed by the "judgments are vacated, and the cases are remanded to the United States Court of Appeals ... for further consideration in light of Sessions v. Dimaya." 

Based on a quick scan, it would appear that SCOTUS has now "GVRed" at least one of every type of post-Dimaya case that John Elwood flagged in this SCOTUSblog "Relist Watch" post a few weeks ago (though in one case it appears SCOTUS said the GVR was to allow further consideration in light of Beckles).

Long story short: the fall-out from the Dimaya vagueness ruling seems likely to take many months (perhaps years) and many rulings to sort out.  Of course, I said this same thing about the Johnson vagueness ruling in 2015, and Dimaya et al three years later is really just itself one big part of the post-Johnson fall-out.  And because Johnson was fundamentally the product of the late Justice Scalia's continued railing against the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act, the long tail of the Johnson/Dimaya jurisprudence serves as an interesting (and perhaps never-ending) part of his constitutional legacy.

May 14, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 13, 2018

Mother's Day review of moms in incarceration nation

Growing awareness and concern with incarceration levels in the US are reflected in the significant number of articles I have noticed this week discussing incarcerated mothers.  I figure Mother's Day is a fitting day to round-up some of these recent pieces:

From The Crime Report here, "Mother’s Day Behind Bars"

From Teen Vogue here, "Mother's Day Needs to Be Inclusive of Incarcerated Moms, and Here’s How You Can Help"

From USA Today here, "In remembering her own mother, activist and attorney makes Mother's Day plea for incarcerated women"

From Jezebel here, "Mothers Are Incarcerated at Record Rates, Yet Prison-Nursery Beds Go Empty"

From Leafy here, "9 Ways to Help Moms Jailed for Cannabis"

From Yahoo here, "Mom serving 16 years for marijuana pens Mother's Day letter to daughters: 'I'm dreaming of your sleepy faces'"

May 13, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)