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July 7, 2018

Judge Jack Weinstein laments overuse of federal supervised release (and especially its revocation for marijuana use)

As regular readers know, US District Judge Jack Weinstein regularly produces interesting and important sentencing opinions, and his latest effort focuses on supervised release as well as marijuana reform. This New York Times article about this opinion, headlined "Brooklyn Judge Vows Not to Send People Back to Prison for Smoking Marijuana," starts with this accounting of the effort:

Noting that marijuana has become increasingly accepted by society, a federal judge in Brooklyn made an unusual promise on Thursday: He pledged he would no longer reimprison people simply for smoking pot.

In a written opinion that was part legal document, part mea culpa, the judge, Jack B. Weinstein, 96, acknowledged that for too long, he had been sending people sentenced to supervised release back into custody for smoking pot even though the drug has been legalized by many states and some cities, like New York, have recently decided not to arrest those who use it. Under supervised release, inmates are freed after finishing their prison time, but are monitored by probation officers.

“Like many federal trial judges, I have been terminating supervision for ‘violations’ by individuals with long-term marijuana habits who are otherwise rehabilitated,” Judge Weinstein wrote. “No useful purpose is served through the continuation of supervised release for many defendants whose only illegal conduct is following the now largely socially acceptable habit of marijuana use.”

The full 42-page opinion in US v. Trotter, No. 15-CR-382 (E.D.N.Y. July 5, 2018) (available here), is an interesting read and important for lot of reasons beyond the connections of criminal justice supervision and marijuana reform.  This first part of the introduction provides a taste for all the full opinion covers:

This case raises serious issues about sentencing generally, and supervised release for marijuana users specifically: Are we imposing longer terms than are needed for effective supervised release?  Should we stop punishing supervisees for a marijuana addiction or habit?

After revisiting and reconsidering these issues, I conclude: (1) I, like other trial judges, have in many cases imposed longer periods of supervised release than needed, and I, like other trial judges, have failed to terminate supervised release early in many cases where continuing supervision presents such a burden as to reduce the probability of rehabilitation; and (2) I, like other trial judges, have provided unnecessary conditions of supervised release and unjustifiably punished supervisees for their marijuana addiction, even though marijuana is widely used in the community and is an almost unbreakable addiction or habit for some.  As a result of these errors in our sentencing practice, money and the time of our probation officers are wasted, and supervisees are unnecessarily burdened.

In summary, in this and my future cases I will: (1) impose shorter terms of supervised release as needed; (2) give greater consideration to the appropriateness of conditions; (3) provide for earlier termination where indicated; and (4) avoid violations of supervised release and punishment by incarceration merely for habitual marijuana use.

July 7, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

July 6, 2018

The American Conservative explains "Where the Right Went Wrong on Criminal Justice"

JulyAugustArthur Rizer and Lars Trautman from the R Street Institute have this remarkable new commentary in The American Conservative under the full headline "Where the Right Went Wrong on Criminal Justice: Ending our 'incarceration nation' would help return conservatives to their roots, acting on principles most of them already hold."  Long-time readers are surely aware of my long-enduring contention that a lot of conservative ideology and rhetoric would seem to push toward advocacy for sentencing and other criminal justice reforms, and thus I really enjoyed this full lengthy piece (which, according the editors, is "the first in a collaborative series with the R Street Institute exploring conservative approaches to criminal justice reform). I recommend the piece in full, and here is just a small snippet:

When it comes to criminal justice, the Republicans have for decades declared themselves to be the party of “law and order.” This commitment to “tough on crime” policies helped it win elections in the latter half of the 20th century, but at the cost of a society in which a third of working-age Americans have criminal records and more than 10 million people go to jail each year. The fact that the United States, with nearly 2.2 million Americans behind bars, incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation is not a point of pride. This shameful position is put in even starker relief when one considers that the nations with the second and third highest number of incarcerated individuals are China and Russia, respectively.

These realities, products of the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” sensibility of yesteryear, have tarnished the image of Republicans and conservatives in the minds of many. Though Republicans have greatly increased their political power in recent elections, they have nevertheless alienated many of the fastest growing segments of the electorate, casting a pall across the impressive electoral successes of the past decade.

The extension of conservative principles to criminal justice policies offers a chance to court new constituencies and bring conservative messages to voting blocs that will dominate American politics in the future, all without risking the current base of conservative support. Already, right-leaning organizations, armed with polling data that show significant backing from many conservatives, are mobilizing on criminal justice issues. It’s time to leverage these efforts to rebuild the conservative identity. Perhaps no other policy area holds more potential than criminal justice reform....

The inherent dignity of every human life is another tenet of the Republican Party that lives on in the conservative movement today.  However, it is also an issue that permeates too few aspects of the criminal justice system.  From abhorrent prison conditions to the stigmatization of the formerly incarcerated to the negative public safety implications of ill-conceived criminal justice policies, there is no shortage of ways in which the justice system cheapens life.  Efforts to alleviate these various forms of suffering and protect our communities offer conservatives another path to better defend the intrinsic worth of every human life.

Given the Christian Right’s prominence within modern conservatism, it seems prudent to at least consider how current criminal justice policies compare to Christian values. While conservatives certainly do not hold dominion over Christian values, Christians represent a substantial portion of the conservative base.  Further, Christian interest groups hold special power within the conservative movement, with many, particularly on the Left, being wary of how this influence might be used.

Maybe the most obvious lesson is from Christ himself — a criminal in the eyes of the state, subject to a miscarriage of justice by an imperfect criminal justice system. Beyond the despicable treatment of Christ, however, are the lessons he gave on how those accused and those guilty of crimes should be treated.  He recognized the “legality” of stoning an adulteress but nonetheless shamed the crowd by asking for the one who had not sinned to “cast the first stone.”  This is an important lesson for conservatives—that the legality of punishment should not be the end of the inquiry of what is just.

While the Bible certainly has examples of harsh punishments, it’s important to note that throughout his life Christ spoke persistently and passionately about reconciliation over retribution.  He famously told his followers: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Criminal justice reform offers conservatives an opportunity to secure a more favorable image by returning to their roots and acting in concert with principles that most of them already hold.

The examination of principles and morality helps to answer “why” criminal justice reform nestles into a renewed conservative identity, but this does little to detail how such reforms will sustain this identity and propel it forward.  For these answers, it’s necessary to look at the problems that afflict each stage of the criminal justice cycle and how conservatives can reap political rewards from remedial action.  With the preamble of the Republican Party platform touting “limited government” and the “rights of the people” as bedrock principles, there is perhaps no better place to begin than pretrial jail reform.  Of the roughly 615,000 individuals held in our local jails at this very moment, around 465,000 are awaiting trial and have yet to be convicted of whatever crime has been alleged.  Too often, these incarcerated individuals are not the most dangerous, but the poorest—those unable to afford bond. Further, the incarcerated are hardly the only ones to suffer from this loss of freedom.  Even a short stay in jail raises the risk of criminal behavior after an individual’s release, meaning that unnecessary jailing is a public safety matter of concern to all.  We also pay dearly when we lock up so many of our fellow Americans, with the price tag of a single day in jail as high as $571.27 in some jurisdictions.

July 6, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Notable District Judge struggles against mandatory minimums, especially stacked gun charges

This new Politico article, headlined "Manafort judge emerges as skeptic of long mandatory minimum sentences," reports on a notable federal judge expressing notable concerns with mandatory minimums.  Here are excerpts:

The judge overseeing former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's looming trial on tax and bank fraud charges is known as a tough jurist, often snapping at attorneys for ignoring his directions and rebuking defendants he views as insufficiently contrite.  But, in recent years, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis has begun to direct his public ire at an unusual target for a Reagan-appointed judge: laws that impose lengthy mandatory minimum sentences judges have no authority to waive or reduce.

Ellis has complained directly to Congress about what he's called the "excessive" sentences required for some offenders. He's also publicly lamented the situation, as he did recently during a drug dealer's sentencing that took place in an Alexandria, Virginia courtroom packed with national media, high-powered prosecutors and others awaiting a key hearing in the case against Manafort.

"This situation presents me with something I have no discretion to change and the only thing I can do is express my displeasure," Ellis said last week as he sentenced Frederick Turner, 37, to a mandatory minimum of 40 years in prison for dealing methamphetamine.  "I chafe a bit at that, but I follow the law. If I thought it was blatantly immoral, I'd have to resign. It's wrong, but not immoral."  Ellis told Turner's lawyer that any relief for his client lies with Congress. "I think you're knocking on the wrong door for a remedy. The remedy is across the river," the judge said.

However, in another case, the 78-year-old judge is going even further.  In April, confronted by a 28-year-old armed robbery convict facing a mandatory minimum 82-year sentence, Ellis' frustration grew so intense that he balked at imposing what he called a "very severe" sentence.  Instead, the judge recruited a high-powered law firm to scour the law in search of some way to avoid imposing what is effectively a life sentence on Lamont Gaines, who was convicted of a string of robberies of 7-11 stores and a check-cashing business.

The judge appointed Daniel Suleiman, a former aide to Attorney General Eric Holder, to come up with any argument that might help Gaines win a more lenient sentence. Suleiman, a partner at Covington & Burling, set on one possibility: a Supreme Court ruling in April that invalidated a law very similar to the one requiring the lengthy sentence for Gaines.  In a brief filed last month, Suleiman argued that the April decision has "direct application" to Gaines' case and "would permit this Court not to sentence Gaines to 82 years."

Federal prosecutors rejected that argument last week, insisting that the 82-year sentence is still required in the case. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Alexander Blanchard and Rebeca Bellows filed a brief urging Ellis to consider Gaines "real-world conduct" and reminding the judge that the defendant "endangered...victims' lives and instilled them with the fear they would be physically harmed."  Ellis has yet to signal whether he'll buy into the new argument to cut down the potential sentence in Gaines' case.

Ellis' current preoccupation with federal sentencing laws is not that the mandatory minimums for specific crimes are too harsh, but that in cases involving multiple charges the result can be unjust, resulting in decades of extra incarceration for a defendant who chooses to go to trial rather than plead guilty.  While prosecutors often settle for a guilty plea to a single serious charge, carrying, say, a 10-year minimum sentence, the government will pursue several such charges when a defendant goes to trial.  Federal law typically requires that sentences for crimes involving use of a gun run consecutively, a phenomenon often referred to as "stacking."...

In 2015, Ellis wrote to Congress about the "stacking" practice, calling it "grossly excessive and unjust." He said the law was supposed to cover felons who re-offended after leaving prison, but is being applied to those "who never had the chance to learn a lesson from the sentence imposed for the first conviction."

While efforts have been underway in Congress for years to ratchet back some of the mandatory sentences, the Trump administration's policy on the issue has been confusing. White House officials, including President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, have shown interest in criminal justice reform proposals.  However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a letter to the Senate in February slamming a bipartisan bill that would limit the application of mandatory minimum sentences, including by reining in "stacking" of charges.  Sessions said the measure was ill-advised at a time when the U.S. is struggling with an epidemic of opioid abuse and deaths....

Back in 2015, though, Sessions said he believed changes to "stacking" were called for.  "I think the stacking issue is a problem....I would support reform on the stacking provisions," the Alabama senator said at a Judiciary Committee session on a similar reform bill that never passed....

Criminal justice reform advocates say Congress needs to step in and that laments like the one from Ellis last week underscore the urgency of the issue.  "The federal gun stacking law isn’t tough. It’s stupid. It’s irrational.  That’s why even conservative judges like Judge Ellis are urging Congress to fix it," said Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "It's a no-brainer."

July 6, 2018 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

The latest SCOTUS nomination betting odds

Predictit1I am always intrigued by betting markets, and I suppose these markets have become more of a Supreme Court story in the wake of the Court's work earlier this Term in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association to allow states to move forward with sports betting.  And since I reported here last week on the early betting lines on Prez Trump's pick to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, I figured I would do this update post featuring this new article from The Action Network with the headline "Updated Odds for Next Supreme Court Justice: Clear Three-Person Race."  Here is some of its content:

Offshore sportsbooks across the market didn’t take long to post odds for Kennedy’s replacement. At Bovada, Brett Kavanaugh opened as the favorite at +175. Kavanaugh is a former White House lawyer for George W. Bush who was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington in 2006....

[E]arly sharp action came down on Amy Coney Barrett, a 46-year-old Notre Dame Law School alum and staunch pro-life advocate. Barrett was nominated by Trump to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and confirmed in 2017. Since opening, her odds moved from +450 to +155. She is now the favorite.

Kavanaugh dipped from +175 to +275, but late sharp money has brought him back to +180, putting him a relative dead-heat with Barrett.

Right on their heels is Kethledge. Over the past week, he’s quietly surged from +1000 to +350, giving him the third-best odds.

Other notable movement: Larsen has improved from +1500 to +800, keeping her in striking distance. Thapar has dipped from +500 to +900. Hardiman has fallen like a rock from +350 to +1200.

At one point it looked like Mike Lee (+1500 to +900) was on the rise, but he’s since fallen back to +2000. Pryor, Grant, Willett, Clement and Sykes have all ballooned to +5000, so you can likely cross them off the list....

Interesting to note: Trump said he wants to nominate someone to serve 40 to 45 years, which means he’s targeting a younger justice. And he’s also considering two women. Current ages of the top five candidates: Barrett 46, Kavanaugh 53, Kethledge 51, Larsen 49, Thapar 49.

At the political betting side PredictIt, Kavanaugh is the clear favorite as of July 5th. Barrett has been falling. Kethledge is an interesting value play. He’s the second most traded candidate and currently sits at +350 at Bovada.

Is Kavanaugh the play? Are you still backing Barrett even though she’s falling at PredictIt? Is Kethledge the dark horse? Is Larsen an under-the-radar value pick? Are there any other candidates being overlooked?

In my prior post, I suggested that Amy Coney Barrett at +450 and Amul Thapar at +500 would be good value plays. But a bet on Judge Barrett is now not such a good payoff, while Judge Thapar seems to me now an even better bet (though I think the "smart" money should still be on Kavanaugh).

Once we find out whom Prez Trump taps, I will turn from guessing about his selection to guessing about how his selection might approach sentencing and other criminal justices issues on the Supreme Court.  But, as always, I welcome early reader input on which of the possibilities might be seen as the most or least likely to follow Justice Kennedy's (unpredictable?) path on criminal justice issues.

Prior posts on Justice Kennedy's retirement and the possible impact of his replacement:

July 6, 2018 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

July 5, 2018

Interesting and intricate Ohio drug sentencing initiative poised to qualify for November 2018 ballot

As reported in this local Ohio article, supporters of "a proposal to reduce penalties for nonviolent drug crime offenders submitted hundreds of thousands of signatures on Wednesday to put the measure on the November ballot." Here is more about the remarkable initiative that seems likely to generate some interesting debate in the midst of a big election year in Ohio:

The "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation" amendment is backed by a bipartisan coalition of community, law enforcement, faith and business leaders and groups. The Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign submitted 730,031 signatures Wednesday; 305,591 valid signatures of Ohio registered voters are needed to qualify for the ballot....

Under the drug treatment and rehabilitation amendment:

  • Possessing, obtaining or using a drug or drug paraphernalia would be a misdemeanor offense, with a maximum punishment of 180 days in jail and $1,000 fine. First and second offenses within a two-year period could only be punished with probation.
  • Convicted individuals could receive a half day credit against their sentence for each day or rehabilitative work or programming, up to 25 percent of the total sentence.
  • Individuals on probation for a felony offense would not be sent to prison for non-violent violations of that probation.
  • Individuals convicted of such crimes could petition a court to reclassify the offense as a misdemeanor, which could result in their release from prison.

The provisions would not apply to convictions for the sale, distribution or trafficking of drugs or to convictions for any drug offense that, based on volume or weight, are a first-, second- or third-degree felony.

Money saved from those affected by the amendment would be diverted to substance abuse programs (70 percent) and to crime victims services (30 percent.)

Among the many remarkable elements of the ballot initiative, which can be read in full at this link, is that it proposes a state constitutional amendment; voter approval would make it nearly impossible for the Ohio General Assembly to alter the amendment's terms without another initiative vote.  Here is how the summary of the amendment explains its goals at the outset:

This Amendment would add a new section 12 to Article XV of the Ohio Constitution to reduce the number of people in state prison for low-level, nonviolent drug possession or drug use offenses or for non-criminal probation violations and by providing sentence credits for participation in rehabilitative programs and to direct the savings achieved by such reductions in incarceration to drug treatment programs and other purposes.

I have already heard a few folks express support for the initiatives substantive goals but concerns about amending the Ohio Constitution to achieve those goals. Interesting times.

July 5, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Interesting new Quick Facts report from US Sentencing Commission on "Women in the Federal Offender Population"

I am so pleased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission is continuing to produce a steady stream of its insightful little data documents in its terrific series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications.  Regular readers may recall from this prior post, roughly five years ago, the USSC started putting out these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format."

This month brings this new Quick Facts on "Women in the Federal Offender Population," and here are just a few data tidbits from the document that caught my attention:

July 5, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Police, Race, and the Production of Capital Homicides"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN and authored by Jeffrey Fagan and Amanda Geller. Here is the abstract:

Racial disparities in capital punishment have been well documented for decades.  Over 50 studies have shown that Black defendants more likely than their white counterparts to be charged with capital-eligible crimes, to be convicted and sentenced to death.  Racial disparities in charging and sentencing in capital-eligible homicides are the largest for the small number of cases where black defendants murder white victims compared to within-race killings, or where whites murder black or other ethnic minority victims.  These patterns are robust to rich controls for non-racial characteristics and state sentencing guidelines.

This article backs up the research on racial disparities to an earlier stage of capital case processing: the production of capital-eligible cases beginning with the identification of potential defendants by the police.  It seeks to trace these sentencing disparities to examining earlier stages in the processing of homicides. Using data from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports, we examine every homicide reported between 1976 and 2009, and find that homicides with white victims are significantly more likely to be “cleared” by the arrest of a suspect than are homicides with minority victims.  We estimate a series of hierarchical regressions to show that a substantial portion of this disparity is explained by social and demographic characteristics of the county in which homicides take place.  Most notably, counties with large concentrations of minority residents have lower clearance rates than do predominantly white counties; however, county characteristics do not fully explain the observed race-of-victim disparities.  Our findings raise equal protection concerns, paving the way for further research into the production of capital homicides and the administration of the death penalty.

July 5, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Strong safety net is crucial to Americans in life after prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent commentary in The Hill authored by Bruce Western. Here are excerpts:

The House recently voted to significantly cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, which helps fight hunger in America.  New work requirements have gained the most attention, but the House bill also includes lifetime bans for people with prior convictions for several kinds of violent crimes.  People with violent convictions keep their food stamp eligibility under the bipartisan Senate bill, setting up a showdown in the conference committee.  Cutting benefits for people with criminal convictions is a particularly mean display of “tough on crime” credentials and makes little sense as public policy.

In a study I directed at Harvard, a research team followed 122 men and women from Boston over the year after their release from prison.  Unlike many other states, Massachusetts allows people with criminal convictions to receive SNAP benefits.  The study found this was essential for income support and social integration immediately after release from prison.

Income right after incarceration is very low.  In the study, the median annual income was about $6,500.  This is about half the federal poverty line for people living alone, an income level that researchers call deep poverty....  Our respondents usually contributed their SNAP benefits to the household food budget if they were living with family or were required to turn over their benefits to a common pool if they lived in a shelter or a sober house.  Supporters of the House bill think people should work for SNAP benefits, but we found that the highest rates of SNAP enrollment were among those with disabilities that limited work.  Respondents with histories of mental illness and drug addiction were also more likely to be receiving SNAP than others. Former prisoners who were older, over age 45, or suffered from chronic pain were also more likely to be receiving SNAP benefits.

We also found little evidence that SNAP benefits deterred from people from working.  SNAP recipients were no more likely to be unemployed once age and health status were accounted for in the study.  Massachusetts has relatively good safety net programs, and these made a significant difference for the men and women leaving prison in Boston.

Besides receiving SNAP benefits, nearly everyone we interviewed in the study was enrolled in Medicaid either just before they were released from prison or a few weeks later. Medicaid was critical for ensuring continuity of medical care for the many people leaving prison with chronic conditions in immediate need of medication....  A year after release from prison, the rate of SNAP enrollment in the study had fallen to 40 percent from its peak at two months of 70 percent.  SNAP provided critical support that helped stabilize life after incarceration and allowed those who were able to move into the labor market to find work. The Massachusetts safety net was one of the real success stories of the study....

As Congress considers the final bill for SNAP funding, lawmakers should take account of the research evidence. A strong safety net is indispensable for helping people find their way back in life after incarceration and is one of the best reentry programs of all.

July 5, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

July 4, 2018

Hey Prez Trump, how about honoring Independence Day by using your clemency power to give some more Americans more liberty?

It is now been nearly a month since Prez Donald Trump commuted the life sentence of Alice Johnson at the behest of Kim Kardashian West (basics here).  Immediately thereafter, there were reports here of "a growing list of potential pardons or commutations under consideration by President Donald Trump" and Prez Trump himself said: "We have 3,000 names.  We’re looking at them.  Of the 3,000 names, many of those names have been treated unfairly."  A week later it was reported Prez Trump will be "pardoning a lot of people — pardons that even Obama wouldn't do" and reported that Mrs. West had "assembled a large legal team and was pursuing clemency for several other nonviolent offenders."  And, as posts here and here highlighted, plenty of folks have been taking up the President's call to put forward worthy clemency candidates.

I have been more than a bit worried that all the buzz about all sorts of clemency action may be a lot of talk that may not be followed by a lot of action.  But, as the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think Independence Day — when we celebrate a great document that starts by stressing the "unalienable Rights [of] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" — would be a fitting day for Prez Trump to help, through grants of clemency, at least a few more persons enjoy "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  

I am not yet going to get cynical about Prez Trump's clemency chatter because I am eager to hold out hope that he might have a desire to best Prez Obama's record-setting clemency numbers. But, as regular readers know, I am ever eager to criticize leaders who "talk the talk" but then fail to "walk the walk."  Today strikes me as a great time for the bold clemency walk to get started.

A few of many recent related posts about recent Trumpian clemency activity:

July 4, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Looking back on past patriotic posts

Holidays always seem to make me want to look back, and I always get a special kick out of mining the archives of this blog (which has been going now for more than 14 years).  Reviewing the archives, I realize I have not regularly done a special Independence Day post, but every so often I am inspired to do so.  Looking back, I particularly recall an effort to honor Frederick Douglass's famed Independence Day oration from 1852 through a post titled "What to the American imprisoned is the Fourth of July?". 

Here are a few other posts on this patriotic day from years past (folks can try to guess the year of the post for sport):

Also interesting in hindsight is a post from a decade ago, "Thinking creatively about different SCOTUS short lists," which is a reminder that just 10 years ago there was all sorts of pre-2008-election chatter about whom Prez candidates Barack Obama and John McCain might appoint to the Supreme Court.  In addition to thinking about how much (and how little) has changed in the past 10 years, that post led me to thinking about how much (and how little) can and will change in the next 10 years.

July 4, 2018 in On blogging | Permalink | Comments (3)

July 3, 2018

Reviewing Justice Kennedy’s contributions to sentencing and corrections reform (in the form of a special FSR issue)

The University of California Press Blog has this new posting titled "Justice Kennedy’s Contributions to Sentencing and Corrections Reform: An Appreciation."  The piece is authored by Margaret Colgate Love, and here are extended excerpts:

In 2003, Justice Anthony Kennedy made a dramatic and surprising presentation to the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco in which he raised fundamental questions about the fairness and efficacy of criminal punishment in the United States.  He recognized that arrests and highly publicized trials often command public attention, but that interest drops off sharply even among lawyers after a person has been convicted and sentenced.  He challenged the legal profession to consider what happens after “the door is locked against the prisoner,” remarking that “[e]ven those of us who have specific professional responsibilities for the criminal justice system can be neglectful when it comes to the subject of corrections.”

Justice Kennedy lamented the sheer number of people in prison, the severity of mandatory punishments, and their disproportionate impact on racial minorities. He urged greater judicial discretion in sentencing, and he also called for reinvigoration of the pardon power.  Perhaps most significantly, he spoke in compelling terms about the dehumanizing experience of prison and the importance of rehabilitation as a punishment goal.  He ended by asking the ABA to “help start a new public discussion” about the American way of punishment. Incoming ABA President Dennis Archer moved quickly to begin that discussion by establishing a commission to which Justice Kennedy subsequently agreed to lend his name....

In 2008, the ABA commission to which Justice Kennedy had originally lent his name convened a Roundtable in Washington to discuss mechanisms that permit reduction of a court-imposed sentence.  These mechanisms are sometimes collectively referred to as “second look” provisions, a term that originated in the American Law Institute’s project to revise the sentencing articles of the Model Penal Code.  It includes not only rules that authorize reduction of a specific prisoner’s term, such as executive clemency, but also provisions available on a more routine basis to all or most similarly situated prisoners, such as parole or good time.

Foreseeing the importance of a thoughtful and interactive discussion of sentence reduction mechanisms, the ABA invited an extraordinary group of judges, practitioners, and academics to give these mechanisms a serious look. The Roundtable format involved a brief presentation of papers followed by discussion by Roundtable participants moderated by Jeremy Travis, then president of John Jay College.  Justice Kennedy himself joined the Roundtable for part of its afternoon session.  The papers prepared for the occasion, as well as a record of the Roundtable proceedings and recommendations, were published in the spring of 2009 in a dedicated issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

In appreciation for the role Justice Kennedy has played in inspiring public discussion of sentencing and corrections reform, FSR is proud to make available to the public the articles and proceedings from that 2009 symposium issue on the “Second Look Roundtable,” on the occasion of his retirement from the Supreme Court.

A few prior posts on Justice Kennedy's sentencing jurisprudence:

July 3, 2018 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Two interesting takes on the Catholic faith and criminal justice by two persons newly prominently in political discourse

Images (13)Long-time readers know I have long been interested in this various connections between various religious faiths and various criminal justice issues.  Thus, I found quite interesting this recent commentary by the newest "star" in Democratic political circles, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  (As most readers likely know, Ocasio-Cortez defeated in a recent primary a senior congressional representative and is now the Democratic nominee in New York's 14th congressional district.) This commentary is in thee Jesuit publication America, and the piece is headlined "Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on her Catholic faith and the urgency of a criminal justice reform," here is how it ends:

Discussions of reforming our criminal justice system demand us to ask philosophical and moral questions. What should be the ultimate goal of sentencing and incarceration?  Is it punishment?  Rehabilitation?  Forgiveness? 

For Catholics, these questions tie directly to the heart of our faith.

Solutions are already beginning to take shape, which include unraveling the War on Drugs, reconsidering mandatory minimum sentencing and embracing a growing private prison abolition movement that urges us to reconsider the levels at which the United States pursues mass incarceration.  No matter where these proposals take us, we should pursue such conversations with an openness to change and an aim to rehabilitate our brothers and sisters wherever possible and wherever necessary.

By nature, a society that forgives and rehabilitates its people is a society that forgives and transforms itself.  That takes a radical kind of love, a secret of which is given in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And let us not forget the guiding principle of “the least among us” found in Matthew: that we are compelled to care for the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick and, yes — the imprisoned.

As I was thinking about posting this Ocasio-Cortez commentary on the intersection of Catholic faith and criminal justice, a helpful reader reminded me that another newly prominent person in political (and legal) circles has spoken interestingly about these intersections.  Specifically, SCOTUS short-lister Judge Amy Coney Barrett co-wrote an interesting article back in 1998, titled Catholic Judges in Capital Cases, which explores whether and how Catholic judges can and should be involved in enforcing the death penalty as members of the judiciary.  That article runs 48 pages and has so much nuance that it merits a full read by all.  But its essentials can be reasonably captured with quotes from  part of the introduction and the full conclusion:

Amy-barrett-faith-attack[W]e believe that Catholic judges (if they are faithful to the teaching of their church) are morally precluded from enforcing the death penalty. This means that they can neither themselves sentence criminals to death nor enforce jury recommendations of death. Whether they may affirm lower court orders of either kind is a question we have the most difficulty in resolving. There are parts of capital cases in which we think orthodox Catholic judges may participate - these include trial on the issue of guilt and collateral review of capital convictions. The moral impossibility of enforcing capital punishment in the first two or three cases (sentencing, enforcing jury recommendations, affirming) is a sufficient reason for recusal under federal law. But mere identification of a judge as Catholic is not a sufficient reason. Indeed, it is constitutionally insufficient....

Catholic judges must answer some complex moral and legal questions in deciding whether to sit in death penalty cases. Sometimes (as with direct appeals of death sentences) the right answers are not obvious. But in a system that effectively leaves the decision up to the judge, these are questions that responsible Catholics must consider seriously. Judges cannot-nor should they try to-align our legal system with the Church's moral teaching whenever the two diverge. They should, however, conform their own behavior to the Church's standard. Perhaps their good example will have some effect.

July 3, 2018 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Study after study shows ex-prisoners would be better off without intense supervision"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Brookings commentary authored by Jennifer Doleac.  I recommend the piece in full, and here is how it starts and concludes:

Two-thirds of those released from prison are re-arrested within three years.  This incarceration cycle hurts families and communities — and also costs a lot of money. Governments and nonprofits have tried many programs to reduce recidivism, but most are not successful.  In a recent review of the literature on prisoner reentry, I summarized the best evidence on how to improve the lives of the formerly incarcerated.  One of the most striking findings was that reducing the intensity of community supervision for those on probation or parole is a highly cost-effective strategy.  Several studies of excellent quality and using a variety of interventions and methods all found that we could maintain public safety and possibly even improve it with less supervision — that is, fewer rules about how individuals must spend their time and less enforcement of those rules.  Less supervision is less expensive, so we could achieve the same or better outcomes for less money.

For instance, Hennigan, et al. (2010), measured the effects of intensive supervision using a randomized controlled trial (RCT) in Los Angeles.  Juveniles sentenced to probation were randomly assigned to intensive supervision—in the form of a community-based after-school program—or standard probation.  Five years later, there were no significant differences in outcomes between the treatment and control groups, with one exception: Low-risk boys (ages 15 or younger) who were randomized to intensive supervision were worse off. Intensive supervision for that group led to more incarceration and a higher likelihood of continued criminal justice involvement in the years ahead.  That is, intensive supervision increased criminal activity by this group, without reducing criminal activity by other groups.

Barnes, et al. (2012) used an RCT to study supervision levels in Philadelphia.  Low-risk probationers were randomized to probation as usual or low-intensity supervision by parole officers with high caseloads (which forced them to pay less attention to each individual case).  Less supervision means probationers may be less likely to get caught for technical violations, such as using drugs or breaking curfew.  But these requirements of probation are a means to an end: what really matters for public safety is the number of new offenses committed.  Eighteen months after randomization, there were no significant differences between the treatment and control groups in the likelihood of being charged for a new offense.  In other words, low-intensity supervision did not result in more recidivism....

These studies show that current efforts to reduce recidivism through intensive supervision are not working.  Why is intensive supervision so ineffective?  Requiring lots of meetings, drug tests, and so on can complicate a client’s life, making it more difficult to get to work or school or care for family members (meetings are often scheduled at inconvenient times and may be far away).  A heavy tether to the criminal justice system can also make it difficult for individuals to move on, psychologically.  Knowing that society still considers you a criminal may make it harder to move past that phase of your life.  These difficulties may negate the valuable support that probation and parole officers can provide by connecting clients to services and stepping in to help at the first sign of trouble.

It is unclear what the optimal level of supervision is for those on parole or probation, but these studies demonstrate that current supervision levels are too high.  We could reduce the requirements of community supervision — for low-risk and high-risk offenders alike — and spend those taxpayer dollars on more valuable services, such as substance abuse treatment or cognitive behavioral therapy.  This would be a good first step toward breaking the vicious incarceration cycle.

July 3, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

July 2, 2018

US Sentencing Commission releases mid-FY 2018 sentencing data with re-engineered accounting of departures and variances

US Sentencing Commission has now released here its latest quarterly data report, and this one "contains preliminary quarterly data on cases in which the offender was sentenced during the first half of fiscal year 2018" (which is the period from October 1, 2017, through March 31, 2018).  I do not believe the USSC released first quarter FY 2018 data, so this new report seems to be the first big data report of the "post-Sessions Memo era" -- i.e., since AG Jeff Sessions issued his May 2017 charging and sentencing memorandum directing federal prosecutors to pursue those offenses that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences, and to more regularly seek within-guideline sentences.

From a quick glance and comparing this data from the last full year of sentencing data from the Obama Administration (in this FY 2016 data report), there does seem to be a noticeable uptick in mean sentences in some big crime categories.  For example (drawing from Table 6 in both data runs): the mean drug trafficking sentence was 75 months in the first half of FY 2018, the mean in FY 2016 was only 66 months; the mean fraud sentence was 27 months in the first half of FY 2018, the mean in FY 2016 was only 25 months.  But, interestingly, in other big crime categories there was a downtick in mean sentences: the mean firearm sentence was 70 months in the first half of FY 2018, the mean in FY 2016 was 75 months; the mean immigration sentence was 11 months in the first half of FY 2018, the mean in FY 2016 was 13 months.  Putt this all together with other less common offenses, and it turns out the cumulative mean federal sentence for the first half of FY 2018 was 45 months, the exact same mean for all federal sentences in FY 2016.

I would report some similar comparable data on departures and variances, but the USSC in this data run has significant altered how it accounts and reports this data.  Here is part of the USSC's explanation of its new accounting:

Beginning with this report, the Commission is again updating the way it presents quarterly data.  In this report, all analyses that involve a comparison of the position of the sentence imposed to the guideline range that applied in the case are presented in a new way.  Sentences are now grouped into two broad categories: Sentences Under the Guidelines Manual and Variances.  The former category comprises all cases in which the sentence imposed was within the applicable guideline range or, if outside the range, where the court indicated that one or more of the departure reasons in the Commission’s Guidelines Manual was a basis for the sentence.  Variance cases are those where the sentence was outside the guideline range (either above or below) and where the court did not cite any guideline reason for the sentence.  Data for important subgroups within these two categories are also reported.

In other words, within-guideline and "traditional departure" sentences are grouped together, while all Booker-allowed variances broken out distinctly.  It seems that all the key data previously reported on Table 8 of past USSC's data reports still appears in Table 8A of the new report.  But, fascinatingly, the new organization showcases now that roughly 3/4 of all sentences (74.7% to be exact) are "Sentences under the Guidelines Manual" with "variances" now accounting for only 25.3% of the sentences (with 2% being upward variances, 5.5% being "government motion" variances and 17.7% being "non-government" variances). 

Repackaging aside, we can still look at the "within-guideline" number on Table 8 and 8A for direct comparisons on this front between the first half of FY 2018 and all federal sentences in FY 2016.  Doing so shows that the within-guideline sentencing rate has increased from 48.6% in FY 2016 up to 50% in the first half of FY 2018.  Without a more intricate and sophisticated analysis controlling for caseloads and other factors, it is too hard to say there is conclusive evidence that the Sessions Memo is having a real impact on federal sentencing outcome.  But these data are suggestive of trends that seem likely to continue as move cases more through the pipeline and as a new set of federal prosecutors give effect to commands from Main Justice.

July 2, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Rich new issues of Federal Sentencing Reporter covers "Managing Collateral Consequences in the Information Age"

The fine folks over at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center reminded me through this new post that the big new double issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter is right now fully available on-line here thanks to the fine folks at the University of California Press. Here is how the CCRC folks summarize the issue's coverage:

“Managing Collateral Consequences in the Information Age” is the title of a symposium issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter.  It is composed of papers prepared for a conference on criminal records issues jointly sponsored by the American Law Institute and the National Conference of State Legislatures in January 2018, and associated primary source materials. The issue’s Table of Contents shows the breadth and variety of topics covered.  An introductory essay by Margaret Love summarizes the approach to managing collateral consequences in the revised sentencing articles of the Model Penal Code, and the seemingly contrary trends in records management in state legislatures in recent years. She also describes each of the papers.

This special double issue of FSR contains so much interesting an diverse material, I recommend readers check out the TOC and Introductory essay to decide which articles they want to read first.

This issue includes the final version of of my recent paper titled "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices."  Another piece focused on particular types of offenders is authored by Nora Demleitner under the title "Structuring Relief for Sex Offenders from Registration and Notification Requirements: Learning from Foreign Jurisdictions and from the Model Penal Code: Sentencing."  But the bulk of the of the materials in the issue covers individual state reforms in states that are not often at noticed to be at the forefront of criminal justice reforms efforts.  Specifically, a set of pieces look at Indiana's new expungement laws, and other piece look closely at other states including Nevada, North Carolina and Tennessee.

July 2, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Recommended reading, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Might Justice Kennedy's retirement lead to defendants having stronger Sixth Amendment rights under Apprendi and Blakely?

As hard core sentencing fans know, Justice Anthony Kennedy has been a long-standing opponent of the Sixth Amendment jury trial rights that were recognized for defendants in Apprendi v. New Jersey and expanded in Blakely v. Washington.  He was in the dissent in both of those cases, as well as in every subsequent non-capital case that ruling in favor of defendants regarding Sixth Amendment jury trials rights (e.g., BookerCunningham, Southern Union, Alleyne).   In his separate Cunningham dissent, Justice Kennedy lamented "the Court continu[ing] in a wrong and unfortunate direction in the cases following Apprendi v. New Jersey."  But with his impending departure, Justice Kennedy will no longer have any say in the Court's  direction in the cases following Apprendi v. New Jersey.

Critically, because Chief Justice Roberts has been a supporter of some (though not all) expanded applications of the Sixth Amendment as shown through his votes in Cunningham and Southern Union, the Court already has five Justices who have voted for extensions of Apprendi and Blakely in some settings without counting the possible (and likely?) sixth vote of the new Justice Neil Gorsuch.  Since the next new Justice is almost certain to be at least somewhat more supportive of Sixth Amendment jury trial rights than Justice Kennedy has been, it seems to me that coming SCOTUS Terms could well have seven possible votes for extending Apprendi and Blakely jury trial rights in some settings.  (Justice Breyer has never, sadly, really heeded Justice Scalia's advice that he "buy a ticket to Apprendi-land," and Justice Alito does not seem to want to be in any land that gives criminal defendants more rights.)

These issues come to mind in part because of this interesting "Petition of the Day" spotlighted by SCOTUSblog.  The petition was filed by the feds in United States v. Haymond, a case in which the defendant prevailed in the Tenth Circuit on an Apprendi-type claim after the district court revoked a ten-year term of supervised released and imposed five years of reimprisonment following a preponderance of the evidence finding that the defendant violated the conditions of his release by knowingly possessing child pornography.  I am not sure fans of Apprendi and Blakely ought to be actively rooting for this case to be taken up by SCOTUS (in part because it is the feds appealing), but I am sure fans of Apprendi and Blakely should be welcoming a Court in which a new Justice more in the originalist mold of Justices Gorsuch and Scalia and Thomas will be replacing Justice Kennedy.

A few prior posts with thoughts on a post-Justice Kennedy Court:

July 2, 2018 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

"The Institutional Design of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Aaron Rappaport now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

For the past 40 years, policymakers have engaged in a debate over which institution should wield the principal power over punishment.  Should courts and parole boards have the dominant role at sentencing, or should that power be left to legislatures and sentencing commissions?  These debates are typically couched in policy terms, yet they also raise deeply philosophical questions, most notably: What is the morally justified sentencing system?

Perhaps surprisingly, criminal theorists have almost uniformly ignored this normative question, and that neglect has degraded the quality of the on-going institutional debates.  This paper seeks to address that shortcoming by exploring the moral ramifications of design choices in the sentencing field.  In particular, the paper identifies the institutional structure best suited for promoting utilitarianism, a widely-accepted moral theory of punishment.

Drawing insights from cognitive science and institutional analysis, the paper concludes that a properly structured sentencing commission is the institution best able to satisfy the moral theory’s demands.  Beyond this policy prescription, the paper has a broader goal:To start a conversation about the link between moral theory and institutional design, and to encourage policymakers to explore more fully the premises of their own institutional choices in the criminal justice field.

July 2, 2018 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Notable Sixth Circuit panel reverses as procedurally unreasonable big upward variance in cocaine sentence based on opioid overdoses

On Friday, the Sixth Circuit handed down a notable new sentencing opinion in US v. Fleming, No. 17-3954 (6th Cir. June 29, 2018) (available here). The start of the opinion reviews its essentials:

Marcus Fleming was convicted of a cocaine offense, and the United States Sentencing Guidelines provided for a recommended sentence of 60 months’ imprisonment.  At his sentencing hearing, the district court doubled that.  It did so based in large part on a brief local news article that described a recent surge in drug overdose deaths, mostly due to powerful opioids like fentanyl.  Neither this article, nor the underlying Ohio state report on which it was based, was provided to the parties before the start of the sentencing hearing.  Nor was Fleming notified before the hearing that the district court planned to consider the article or the issues it addressed.  Because this procedure denied Fleming a meaningful opportunity to comment on information that led to a substantial increase in his sentence, the resulting sentence was procedurally unreasonable.

Here is small part of the Sixth Circuit panel's analysis:

Here, the district court’s reliance on information about mixed cocaine-opioid overdose deaths in the Cleveland.com article was a surprise, and that surprise was prejudicial to Fleming’s sentencing presentation. Therefore, Fleming’s sentence was rendered in a procedurally unreasonable manner.

The district court’s consideration of information about mixed cocaine-opioid overdose deaths was a surprise because, before the sentencing hearing, there was no indication that opioids were relevant to this case, let alone that they would play a prominent role. Fleming was convicted for possession of cocaine, not opioids.  Nothing in the record suggested that opioids were found in Fleming’s car, or that Fleming had ever sold or possessed opioids, or even that any cocaine Fleming sold had ever been mixed with opioids. Of course, opioids have been a topic of grave public concern in recent years, as their devastating and tragic effects have been felt across the country. But it was far from apparent that they were relevant to Fleming’s sentence for possession of cocaine.

This ruling strikes me as notable or at least two reasons beyond its substantive particulars: (1) one of jurists on Prez Trump's SCOTUS short list, Judge Raymond Kethledge, was one of the judges on this Fleming panel, and (2) this Cleveland.com report highlights that the erroneous sentencing judge has a history of unreasonably long sentences:

An Akron federal judge who has been criticized by a federal appeals court had a sentence reversed again on Friday -- this time because of his reliance on a cleveland.com article....

Adams has been removed from cases a few times in recent years and has been the target of criticism by the 6th Circuit.  Most recently, the appeals court removed him from a case involving two men arrested in Cleveland with more than 200 pounds of cocaine. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case agreed to recommend prison sentences of about three years, but Adams gave them both 10 years and did not give any good reasons for the higher sentences, the 6th Circuit ruled.

July 2, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

July 1, 2018

With Justice Kennedy retiring, overturning Harmelin should become a focal point for criminal justice reformers

Afa20c10520c365bf6ac550a70c058e6There are lots of important Supreme Court precedents that lots of people will be discussing in the wake of Justice Anthony Kennedy's announced retirement from the Court.  Decisions like Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges are, obviously, of great concern to a great many.  But for criminal justice reformers, there is one particular precedent, Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991), that I think should become a focal point for aggressive advocacy seeking to overrule a lousy Eighth Amendment precedent.

Harmelin, as many know, was the Supreme Court's 1991 fractured decision that rejected an Eighth Amendment challenge to Michigan's imposition of a (1) mandatory (2) life without parole sentence for (3) mere possession of 672 grams of cocaine.  I have numerically labeled the three potent essentials of Harmelin, because each part has worked in modern times to functionally preclude any successful constitutional challenges to just about (1) any mandatory sentencing statutes or (2) any life without parole sentences or (3) any drug possession sentences.  (Thanks to the recent Graham and Miller rulings, some juvenile offenders have some (small) protection against some extreme sentences, but those Eighth Amendment rulings have not been of any help to older offenders.)

As discussed here a few months ago, in a terrific recent First Circuit opinion while denying rehearing en banc in United States v. Rivera-Ruperto, No. 12-2364 (1st Cir. Feb 27, 2018) (available here), Judge David Barron lamented how judges "have no choice but to approve mandatory 'forever' sentences ... so long as they can hypothesize a rational reason for the legislature to have thought that the underlying criminal conduct was as serious as the large quantity drug possession at issue in Harmelin."  In so doing, Judge Barron highlighted not only questionable elements of the Harmelin ruling, but also stressed the possible impact of "two lines of Supreme Court precedent that have developed since Harmelin was decided" (referring to Alleyne and Graham/Miller).  Though not quite calling for Harmelin to be overruled, Judge Barron, writing on behalf of the entire First Circuit, makes clear that he is urging SCOTUS to reconsider the "three-decades old, three-Justice concurrence in Harmelin."

The author of the key "three-Justice concurrence in Harmelin" was, of course, Justice Anthony Kennedy, and no other member of the current Court was serving when Harmelin was decided.  So, once Justice Kennedy's replacement is seated, it will be a whole new Court available to reconsider Harmelin without any existing member eager to make the case that Harmelin was right.  Moreover, as the retired Justice Stevens noted in this interesting 2010 speech about Harmelin, Chief Justice Roberts' concurrence in Graham could be read as an indication he might be open to a return to the more defendant-friendly Eighth Amendment approach as set forth in Solem.  And, as noted in this prior post, the newest Justice, Neil Gorsuch, is seemingly more often voting in favor of federal criminal defendants in contested cases than against them.   We know Justice Thomas does not like the Harmelin precedent, but that is because he does not think the Eighth Amendment limits the length of prison sentences at all.  And Justice Alito seems unlikely to want to expand the reach of the Eighth Amendment (though I have long believed he nearly signed on to Chief Justice Roberts' Graham concurrence).  We do not know who will be replacing Justice Kennedy, so we cannot yet make informed speculations about how he or she might vote on this issue.  But if Prez Trump picks someone in the mold of Justice Gorsuch, that could mean yet another Justice with an open mind on these kinds of issues.

Notably, the Justices have already decided to take up a case concerning the Eighth Amendment for next Term, Timbs v. Indiana.  Though that case only technically concerns "whether the Eighth Amendment's excessive fines clause is incorporated against the states under the Fourteenth Amendment," perhaps Justices engaged already by the topic of possibly excessive financial sanctions might want to give some more thought to possibly excessive prison punishments.  More to my main point, I sincerely think criminal defense lawyers and advocates should be trying regularly and persistently to "litigate against" each of the three potent essentials of Harmelin by arguing against the constitutionality of (1) extreme applications of mandatory sentences and/or (2) extreme applications of life without parole sentences and/or (3) extreme applications of drug possession sentences.  Shrewd arguments for those facing extreme sentences ought to include a claim of unconstitutionality even applying Harmelin, but also be sure to preserve a claim that Harmelin is no longer good law.

I am not confident the Court will be eager to reconsider Harmelin anytime soon, but very slim chances may have gone up just a little with Justice Kennedy's retirement.  And the best and really only chance to get Harmelin before the Court is to keep asking and asking and seeking and seeking and knocking and knocking.

July 1, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)