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October 13, 2018

Some prosecutors and some conservatives push back on momentum for federal criminal justice reforms

As highlighted via recent posts here and here, momentum seems to be picking up again for the passage of a version of the federal FIRST STEP Act that would reform federal prison practices and tweak federal sentencing rules.  Perhaps prompted by these realities, a new poll and new letter has emerged to push back on reform efforts. 

The poll comes from ORC International and was commissioned by the Foundation for Safeguarding Justice, a group which represents the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.  This press release reports on the heart of the poll:

A new survey of American adults, commissioned by the Foundation for Safeguarding Justice (FSJ), confirms that Americans overwhelmingly oppose sentencing and prison and “reforms” that would reduce federal criminal penalties for drug traffickers and allow the early release of prisoners to “home confinement.” Three out of four Americans surveyed (74 percent) said that they oppose proposals that reduce penalties for criminals involved in the trafficking of heroin, fentanyl, and similar drugs....

Public opposition to criminal leniency is deep across the American population and holds true regardless of race, gender, or party affiliation, the FSJ survey results (detailed below) show. The survey results represent an objective barometer of public opposition to criminal leniency for drug traffickers, in sharp contrast to the skewed results of a recent Kentucky poll touted by criminal leniency advocates....

The survey, conducted from September 13-16, 2018, interviewed 1,004 American adults, and was administered by ORC International, a nationwide polling firm. Full study results and methodology are available here.

Employing similar rhetoric and expressing similar concerns(and citing this poll), an assortment of conservative leaders have sent this letter to Prez Trump urging him to oppose FIRST STEP Act. Here is part of the letter:

Now, a leniency-industrial complex is urging you to support a bill that would reduce the sentences for federal drug traffickers, and allow large numbers of those same traffickers to “serve” their sentences outside prison in “home confinement.”

Mr. President, don’t do it. Trust your instincts. America seems, to many of us, to be plagued with different applications of justice. The public is losing faith in the rule of law and reforms are needed. But, here [we present] just four of many reasons why you should oppose this emerging new bill....

But this bill is not prison reform — it’s prison release. It’s not sentencing reform — it’s sentencing reductions. Contrary to what jailbreak supporters tell you, these policies are far from popular.  Proponents inadvertently acknowledge how unpopular their proposals are by disguising what they’re doing with buzzwords and abstract concepts.

Given how momentum for federal reform has built, slowly but surely, over much of 2018, I would be surprised if this new poll and letter significantly changes how important political players' are dancing with the FIRST STEP Act. But they both show that seemingly ever-growing consensus in support of federal reforms does not include everyone, and they also help highlight why even relatively modest reforms like the FIRST STEP Act can be a challenging political lift.

October 13, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"The Pope and the Capital Juror"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Aliza Cover now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Counterintuitively, the Pope’s recent announcement that the death penalty is impermissible in all circumstances may make death sentences easier to come by, at least in the short term.  The reason for this peculiarity is the “death qualification” of capital jurors — the process of questioning prospective jurors about their views on the death penalty and removing for cause those who are “substantially impaired” in their willingness to consider imposing a death verdict.

This Essay anticipates three problematic consequences of the Pope’s declaration, given a capital punishment system that relies on death-qualified juries.  First, prosecutors will likely be able to strike a greater number of death-averse jurors, thereby seating juries tilted in favor of death and obtaining death verdicts with greater ease.  Second, with more believing Catholics excluded from jury service, the representativeness — and hence the legitimacy — of capital juries will suffer.  Third, if the number of death verdicts rises with the ease of disqualification, one of the key “objective indicators” of “evolving standards of decency” will be skewed, registering more support for the death penalty despite — indeed, because of — societal movement against it.  The potential for these unexpected consequences to flow from a major pronouncement against the death penalty highlights how death qualification shapes and distorts the practice of capital punishment in our country.

October 13, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

October 12, 2018

Highlighting how constitutional problems with death penalty also apply to drug prohibitions

Over at Marijuana Moment, Kyle Jaeger in this post is quick to note interesting implications of key statements by the Washington Supreme Court in its big opinion yesterday striking down the state's death penalty as "unconstitutional, as administered, because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner."  The post is titled "Successful Constitutional Case Against Death Penalty Works For War on Drugs, Too," and here are excerpts:

The movement to restore civil liberties and resolve systemic racial injustices in the criminal justice system scored a major victory on Thursday. And no, this time we’re not talking about ending the war on drugs.  Or at least not yet. Washington became the 20th state to abolish the death penalty, with the state Supreme Court ruling that capital punishment is unconstitutional because “it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”

If you’re already seeing parallels to arguments for ending drug prohibition, you’re not alone.  Many of the same points the court made in their ruling against the death penalty ring true for the war on drugs, too.  For example, the court argued that death sentences have been disproportionately carried out against black defendants, at a rate more than four times higher than it is for white defendants....

Similarly, drug reform advocates have long maintained that prohibition is racially discriminatory given disproportionate rates of enforcement and arrests for drug-related offenses.  Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to be arrested for a drug-related crime, compared to white Americans.  That’s in spite of the fact that rates of consumption are roughly equal among both groups...

The Washington court said another factor that contributed to their decision concerned “contemporary standards and experience in other states.” “We recognize local, national, and international trends that disfavor capital punishment more broadly.  When the death penalty is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner, society’s standards of decency are even more offended.”

The parallel here couldn’t be more clear.  If such trends demonstrate a need to review and reform an existing law, the same rationale could theoretically apply to drug prohibition.  A majority of states have legalized cannabis for medical or adult-use, and national interest in changing federal marijuana laws has steadily grown in recent years.  Beyond marijuana, a broader drug reform push has included calls to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

Of course, marijuana is already legal in Washington, and no other states have yet legalized drugs, so this part of the ruling’s applicability to a potential case seeking to strike down broad drug prohibition in the state might not be quite ripe yet.  While it’s unclear whether the constitutionality of prohibition could be reasonably challenged on similar legal grounds, the similarities are striking. 

The justification for capital punishment was another point of interest for the justices, who noted that the system failed to achieve its “penological goals” of “retribution and deterrence.”  For all intents and purposes, drug prohibition too has failed to achieve similar goals.  Decades of drug war have not appreciably deterred consumption.  From 2001 to 2013, the rate of marijuana use among American adults almost doubled, for instance.  The Cato Institute analyzed the impact of the drug war in a 2017 report. It concluded that prohibitionist policies “fail on practically every margin.”...

A last note from the Washington Supreme Court justices: “Under article I, section 14, we hold that Washington’s death penalty is unconstitutional, as administered, because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” the justices wrote.  “Given the manner in which it is imposed, the death penalty also fails to serve any legitimate penological goals.”  Now swap “death penalty” with “drug prohibition” in that last quote.  Fits like a glove.

Prior related post:

October 12, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noting the latest data on use of solitary confinement in the US

This recent post at Reason, titled "U.S. Prisons Held At Lest 61,000 Inmates in Solitary Confinement Last Year," by C.J. Ciaramella reports on the latest accounting of extreme version of incarceration in the US. I recommend the full post, which starts this way:

The number of U.S. prison inmates held in solitary confinement has dropped over the past five years, according to a new report, but an estimated 61,000 people last year still faced imprisonment in tiny cells for up to 22 hours a day in conditions that many former inmates, mental health professionals, and at least one sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice say amount to torture.

A longitudinal survey co-authored by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School found that, in the federal prison system and 43 state prison systems that provided data, 49,000 inmates in the fall of 2017 were confined to what is commonly known as "solitary." Extrapolating for the remaining states, the study estimates the total number to be 61,000.

The census asked jurisdictions to report, as of the fall of 2017, both their total prison populations and the number of prisoners held in restrictive housing. It includes federal and state inmates placed in any form of "restricted housing" for at least 22 hours a day for more than 15 consecutive days. In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture concluded that solitary confinement beyond 15 days constituted cruel and inhumane punishment.

The study's authors attribute the reduction to stricter state requirements for when inmates can be sent to solitary and how long they may be kept there. Colorado, for instance, has almost completely eliminated its use of solitary confinement. The Obama administration also banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system and limited the amount of time adults can spend in solitary.  "But the picture is not uniform," the ASCA warned in a press release. "In more than two dozen states, the numbers of prisoners in restrictive housing decreased from 2016 to 2018, but in eleven states, the numbers went up."

October 12, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 11, 2018

"Trump Is Mulling Candidates Who Could Replace Jeff Sessions"

The title of this post is the headline of this Wall Street Journal article, which gets started this way:

President Trump is considering as many as five candidates as his new attorney general on the assumption that Jeff Sessions will leave his post later this year, according to White House officials and outside advisers.

The potential candidates include Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Transportation Department general counsel Steven Bradbury, former Attorney General Bill Barr, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan and Janice Rogers Brown, a retired appeals court judge from the District of Columbia Circuit, the people said.

October 11, 2018 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tennessee Gov grants last-minute reprieve so state can fulfill condemned's request to be executed by electric chair

As reported in this Tennessean article, "three hours before Edmund Zagorski was scheduled to die, Gov. Bill Haslam delayed the inmate's execution so the state could prepare to use the electric chair to kill him."  Here is more:

Haslam said a short delay would give the state time to accommodate Zagorski's preference for the electric chair over a controversial lethal injection cocktail.  Late Thursday night, the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated two other legal hurdles that might have derailed the execution, making it more likely to move forward soon.

Haslam's temporary reprieve and the high court's decisions came after several days of rapid-fire developments put the state on the defensive and put the timing of Zagorski's execution in question. Haslam's reprieve was for 10 days, but it could take longer for a new execution date to be set by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down two stays Thursday night, essentially ending his remaining legal options to avoid execution:

The high court vacated a stay from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court had planned to weigh whether Zagorski may pursue claims his trial attorneys made errors in representing him.

A majority of justices rejected a request from Zagorski’s attorneys for another stay so the high court could review a constitutional challenge to Tennessee’s lethal injection protocol.

Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented, saying they would have reviewed the lethal injection protocol. In her dissent, Sotomayor said Tennessee's lethal injection method, which experts say leads to torture, should be scrutinized....

Zagorski sued this week to force the state to use the electric chair for his execution, saying the pain of electrocution would be preferable to the controversial lethal injection. A federal judge issued an order temporarily barring the state from executing him by lethal injection while that suit is pending. The suit could be moot if the state agrees to move forward with the electric chair.

Haslam specifically cited the electric chair suit in his reprieve, suggesting that a delay would give the state time to prepare to execute Zagorski using the electric chair. “I take seriously the responsibility imposed upon the Tennessee Department of Correction and me by law, and given the federal court’s decision to honor Zagorski’s last-minute decision to choose electrocution as the method of execution, this brief reprieve will give all involved the time necessary to carry out the sentence in an orderly and careful manner,” Haslam said in a statement....

The state initially refused Zagorski's request to be executed by the electric chair, saying he was too late and hadn't given two weeks' notice. But District Judge Aleta Trauger at noon Thursday said the state could not use lethal injection until she had considered Zagorski's claim.

Zagorski, 63, faces death for the April 1983 murders of John Dale Dotson and Jimmy Porter. He shot them, slit their throats and stole their money and a truck, prosecutors say. The two men had expected to buy 100 pounds of marijuana from Zagorski.

Verna Wyatt, an advocate with Tennessee Voices for Victims, has been in contact with Dotson’s family as the challenges and uncertainty piled up. “What this process does to the victims’ families is barbaric,” Wyatt said. “Thirty-four years, they don’t get justice and it’s an ongoing reliving of their grief and what happened to their loved one. If they won’t fix this system, it should be abolished. This is not justice on any level. It’s outrageous.”

Justice Sotomayor's dissent on the lethal injection claim is available at this link and it ends this way:

I accordingly would grant Zagorski’s request for a stay and grant certiorari to address what renders a method of execution “available” under Glossip. Capital prisoners are not entitled to pleasant deaths under the Eighth Amendment, but they are entitled to humane deaths. The longer we stand silent amid growing evidence of inhumanity in execution methods like Tennessee’s, the longer we extend our own complicity in state-sponsored brutality. I dissent.

October 11, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Washington Supreme Court strikes down state's death penalty based on its arbitrary administration

I am on road and so unable to read or comment on this big unanimous opinion. I hope to be able to do so before too long.

UPDATE:  Here is how the opinion for the court in Washington v. Gregory starts and ends:

Washington's death penalty laws have been declared unconstitutional not once, not twice, but three times.  State v. Baker, 81 Wn.2d 281, 501 P.2d 284 (1972); State v. Green, 91 Wn.2d 431, 588 P.2d 1370 (1979); State v. Frampton, 95 Wn.2d 469, 627 P.2d 922 (1981).  And today, we do so again.  None of these prior decisions held that the death penalty is per se unconstitutional, nor do we.  The death penalty is invalid because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner. While this particular case provides an opportunity to specifically address racial disproportionality, the underlying issues that underpin our holding are rooted in the arbitrary manner in which the death penalty is generally administered.  As noted by appellant, the use of the death penalty is unequally applied — sometimes by where the crime took place, or the county of residence, or the available budgetary resources at any given point in time, or the race of the defendant.  The death penalty, as administered in our state, fails to serve any legitimate penological goal; thus, it violates article I, section 14 of our state constitution....

Under article I, section 14, we hold that Washington's death penalty is unconstitutional, as administered, because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.  Given the manner in which it is imposed, the death penalty also fails to serve any legitimate penological goals.  Pursuant to RCW 10.95.090, "if the death penalty established by this chapter is held to be invalid by a final judgment of a court which is binding on all courts in the state, the sentence for aggravated first degree murder ... shall be life imprisonment."  All death sentences are hereby converted to life imprisonment.

October 11, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Prez Trump reiterates support for prison reform and says AG Jeff Sessions "gets overruled by me"

As detailed in this Hill article, headlined "Trump: I'll overrule Sessions on criminal justice reform," Prez Donald Trump stated yet again today his support for significant federal prison and sentencing reform provisions working through Congress. Here are the details:

President Trump on Thursday said he would overrule Attorney General Jeff Sessions if he tries to stymie efforts to overhaul the criminal justice system.

“If he doesn't, then he gets overruled by me,” Trump said when asked during an interview with “Fox & Friends” about Sessions's opposition to the effort.

“There has to be a reform because it's very unfair right now,” the president added. “It's very unfair to African-Americans. It's very unfair to everybody. And it's also very costly.”

Sessions, a law-and-order candidate who became estranged from Trump over the Russia probe, played a role in successfully urging the president to put off action on criminal justice reform before the midterm elections.

Trump's comments come hours before he's scheduled to have lunch with the rapper Kanye West and former NFL star Jim Brown, who are expected to urge Trump to move forward with sentencing and prison reforms. The president heaped praise on West and Brown, saying the support from the rapper caused his approval among African-Americans to shoot up "like 25 percent" because "he's got a big following in the African-American community."

Some of many prior related posts:

October 11, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Set your DVR for HBO's showing of documentary "The Sentence"

1468824_CC-CSR_NYLFF_TheSentence_v02_x1aThe folks at FAMM have been hosting advanced screenings of a new documentary about the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing, and in a few days HBO will make it possible for everyone to see "The Sentence."  Here is how HBO describes the film:

First-time filmmaker Rudy Valdez’s The Sentence tells the story of his sister Cindy Shank, a mother of three who received a 15-year mandatory sentence for conspiracy charges related to her deceased ex-boyfriend’s crimes. The documentary offers a searing look at the consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing and received critical acclaim when it premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

The Sentence draws on hundreds of hours of footage shot by Valdez, who initially copes with his sister’s incarceration by filming the family moments Shank misses in prison. In the midst of Shank’s sentence, Valdez discovers his voice as a filmmaker and activist.

During the last months of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative, the family starts to fight for Shank’s release. The aching question at the core of this deeply personal portrait is whether their attempts to free Shank will succeed.

This lengthy Newsweek piece provides more details and context about the movie and the issues it raises. Here is an excerpt:

The Sentence, which won the Audience Award at Sundance and airs October 15 on HBO, tells Shank’s story. Filmmaker Rudy Valdez, her younger brother — at the time a pre-K assistant teacher — began making home videos of his nieces on a spare camera, as a way to record Shank’s children growing up. Before long, he began to see it as an opportunity to tell the story of mandatory minimum sentencing through “the people left behind,” says Valdez. His sister was eager to cooperate: “Tell everyone,” she told him. “Please, somebody see us.”...

Through Shank, Valdez exposes a broken justice system, one that began with the Reagan administration’s war on drugs. Mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent cocaine and marijuana crimes were introduced as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 — an attempt by Democrats to respond to the crack cocaine epidemic following the highly politicized, fatal overdose of college basketball player Len Bias. Mandatory sentences are lengthy for drug offenses; in 2016, the average carried 7.8 years — more than double the average sentence for a drug offense without a minimum. As a result, defendants are encouraged to consider accepting a plea bargain — the option Shank rejected — to receive a lesser sentence than the minimum.

In theory, plea bargains — ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1970 — offer leniency to criminals who accept responsibility for their actions, allowing the accused and the state to avoid a time-consuming and expensive trial. In reality, defendants, even if they proclaim their innocence, are often pressured to plead guilty; go to trial, they are told, and you will likely get a much longer sentence. Such bargains have now become the norm: A 2017 New York Times investigation found that 98 percent of felony convictions occurred after a plea deal. And according to annual reports published by the Administrative Office on the U.S. Courts, total jury trials for U.S. criminal cases had dropped by roughly half between 1997, when there were 3,932 cases, and 2017, when there were 1,742.

The system “allows prosecutors to hold all of the cards,” says litigator Marjorie Peerce, co-chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Sentencing Committee. "Even if the government doesn’t have sufficient evidence, people will still plead guilty, for fear that they’ll be convicted and then sentenced with a mandatory minimum. People should not be penalized for exercising their constitutional right to trial.”

And of those penalized, the majority are black or Latino. A 2014 study found that black offenders were 75 percent more likely to face a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence than a white offender who committed the same crime. In 2016, Latinos represented the largest racial group in federal prison convicted of an offense that came with such a sentence. (Shank is Latina.)

October 11, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 10, 2018

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promises floor vote on FIRST STEP Act after midterm election if more than 60 Senators want to move forward

This short piece from The Hill, headlined "McConnell looking at criminal justice reform after midterms," provides an encouraging update on the prospects for federal criminal justice reform after next month's  election:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says he will move a criminal justice reform compromise after the Nov. 6 election if it has 60 votes.

The Senate GOP conference is divided on the package, which merged a House-passed prison-reform bill with bipartisan sentencing reform provisions crafted by the Senate....

“Criminal justice has been much discussed,” McConnell told reporters Wednesday. “What we’ll do after the election is take a whip count and if there are more than 60 senators who want to move forward on that bill, we’ll find time to address it.”

It’s a significant commitment from McConnell who has resisted bringing criminal justice reform legislation up for a vote because it divides his conference.

I blogged here a prior Hill article from a couple of months ago during Senate negotiations over the FIRST STEP Act which indicated that the White House back then had secured "30 to 32 ... 'yes' votes among Republican senators [and hoped] that the number of GOP supporters could eventually grow as many as 40 to 46."  That article led me to speculate in August that a version of the FIRST STEP Act could perhaps garner up to 90 votes in the Senate, and I do not think this head-counting is likely to change all that dramatically after the election (though one never knows).  Even if "only" 30 GOP Senators favor moving forward on the FIRST STEP Act, that will be more than enough for Senator McConnell to move ahead unless a whole lot of Democratic Senators decide they want to hold out for a more ambitious bill (which I think is unlikely). 

In other words, I am starting to think that the prospect of the FIRST STEP Act becoming law before the end of the year might be pretty darn good.  I am never inclined to count on Congress on get anything done, but on this front it does seem we are getting closer and closer.

Some of many prior recent related posts:

October 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Unequal Justice: How Obsolete Laws and Unfair Trials Created North Carolina’s Outsized Death Row"

The title of this post is the title of a new report from the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. Here is a summary of the report from this page at the CDPL website:

The death penalty is all but extinct in North Carolina.  Juries have recommended only a single new death sentence in the past four years.  The state hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006.  Yet, North Carolina has the sixth largest death row in the nation, with more than 140 men and women.  It is a relic of another era.

More than 100 of N.C.’s death row prisoners — about three-quarters — were sentenced in the 1990s, under wildly different laws.  During those years, North Carolina juries sent dozens of people a year to death row, more than Texas. The state’s courtrooms were dominated by prosecutors like Ken Honeycutt in Stanly County, who celebrated new death sentences by handing out noose lapel pins to his assistant prosecutors.

Beginning in 2001, after investigations and DNA testing began to reveal innocent people on death row, a wave of reforms transformed the landscape.  New laws guaranteed capital defendants such basic rights as trained defense attorneys and the right to see all the evidence in their cases.  A court mandate requiring prosecutors to seek death for virtually every first-degree murder — the only such requirement in the nation — was ended.

Today, the death penalty is seen as a tool to be used sparingly, instead of a bludgeon to be wielded in virtually every first-degree murder case.  Yet, new laws and shifting public opinion have had little impact on prisoners sentenced in another era.  The bulk of North Carolina’s death row is now made up of people who were tried 15, 20, even 25 years ago. They are prisoners of a state that has moved on, but has refused to reckon with its past.

CDPL’s report, Unequal Justice, finds that out of 142 death row prisoners in North Carolina:

92% (131) were tried before a 2008 package of reforms intended to prevent false confessions and mistaken eyewitness identifications, which have been leading causes of wrongful convictions across the country.  The new laws require interrogations and confessions to be recorded in homicide cases and set strict guidelines for eyewitness line-up procedures.

84% (119) were tried before a law granting defendants the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s file — including information that might help reduce their sentence or prove their innocence.

73% (104) were sentenced before laws barring the execution of people with intellectual disabilities.  Despite a promise of relief for these less culpable defendants, disabled prisoners remain on death row.

73% (103) were sentenced before the creation of a statewide indigent defense agency that drastically improved the quality of representation for poor people facing the death penalty, and a law ending an unprecedented requirement that prosecutors pursue the death penalty in every aggravated first-degree murder.  Before these changes, prosecutors did not have the ability to seek life sentences in these cases and poor people often received a sub-standard defense.

October 10, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Can Kanye West help jump-start now dormant clemency and criminal justice reform activity in White House?

RTX2UU4M-1024x683The question in this title of this post is prompted by this news as reported at Vox: "Kanye West will meet with Trump at the White House to talk prison reform, violence in Chicago." Here is some context:

West is expected to visit Washington on Thursday to meet with President Trump as well as White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, according to the New York Times. The Times reports that West will meet with Kushner first and will then have lunch with Trump. The meeting was confirmed in a statement by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

West is expected to discuss a number of topics during his visit, including job opportunities for those released from prison, manufacturing jobs in Chicago, and gang violence. Sanders said West — who grew up in Chicago and recently announced plans to move back into the area — will also discuss “what can be done to reduce violence in Chicago,” days after Trump proposed implementing stop-and-frisk policing tactics in the city.

The Thursday meeting won’t be the first between Trump and West; the rapper previously went to Trump Tower in December 2016 to discuss “multicultural issues.” In May, West’s wife, reality TV star and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian West, met with Trump to discuss prison reform and pardoning Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old black woman serving life in federal prison for a first-time drug offense. Trump commuted Johnson’s sentence, and in the months since, Kardashian West has returned to the White House to continue to lobby for prison reform.

Kanye West has become one of the president’s highest-profile celebrity supporters, and he has favorably tweeted about Trump on numerous occasions. Last month, West delivered a pro-Trump speech after a performance on Saturday Night Live. “So many times that I talk to a white person about this, and they say, ‘How could you support Trump? He’s racist.’ Well, if I was concerned about racism,” West said, “I would have moved out of America a long time ago.”...

The meeting also highlights the continued power of celebrities in the Trump era. While other presidents have often brought celebrities to White House — Barack Obama notably invited rappers including J. Cole and Nicki Minaj to discuss criminal justice reform — these gatherings were also accompanied by policy meetings with experts.

President Trump, meanwhile, has almost exclusively relied on celebrity references from figures like Kardashian West and Sylvester Stallone, as well as input from conservative figures like Ted Cruz and outlets like Fox News, to shape his approach to aspects of the justice system like pardons. Policy meetings on prison reform and sentencing, on the other hand, have been largely left to aides and advisers like Kushner.  The president has also fiercely criticized celebrities who speak out against his policies, most recently telling reporters that he likes Taylor Swift’s music “25 percent less” after her recent endorsement of Democrats running for office in Tennessee.

Not every celebrity invited to the White House has gone. For example, rapper Meek Mill, who experienced a decade-long saga with the criminal justice system, dropped out of a May discussion on prison reform, telling reporters that the event had become focused on him and Trump rather than policy.

Much of this seems to be the result of how much influence celebrities — or at least celebrities with minimal criticism of Trump himself — appear to hold in the Trump White House when it comes to matters of criminal justice. A September report from USA Today noted that the Trump administration has taken “an often chaotic, ad hoc approach to clemency.” The report added that the president “has granted pardons to people who haven’t applied for them, bypassed the formal Justice Department review process, and focused his pardon power on a handful of politically charged, high-profile cases.” While there have been efforts to create a more disciplined process, it is unclear if the president would respond positively to such a development.

UPDATE: A helpful reader made sure I saw this new Washington Examiner article headlined "Trump says he will release more inmates: 'A lot of people' jailed 'for no reason'." The piece reports on Prez Trump continuing to talk up the prospect of coming (mass?) clemency grants:

President Trump said Tuesday he is "actively looking" for more inmates to release from prison with his clemency powers, saying "a lot" of people are jailed for years without good reason.

Trump told reporters in the Oval Office he was happy he released drug convict Alice Johnson from a life sentence in June, and that he intends to do more. "Alice Johnson is such a great person, such a great case. I'd like to find a lot of people like Alice Johnson. And there are a lot of people that are in a situation like that. And we are actively looking for those situations," he said.

Trump said Johnson "is a terrific woman. I've been watching her a lot and what a great spokesman she is for that situation. And that's covering a lot of people. There are a lot of people like that, that will unfortunately be locked up for many, many years, and there's no reason for it."

"We are looking for — we are actively looking for other situations exactly like that," he said.

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

October 10, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Reconceptualizing Criminal Justice Reform For Offenders With Serious Mental Illness"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by E. Lea Johnston and available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Roughly 14% of male inmates and 31% of female inmates suffer from one or more serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder. Policymakers and the public widely ascribe the overrepresentation of offenders with serious mental illness in the justice system to the “criminalization” of the symptoms of this afflicted population.  The criminalization theory posits that the criminal justice system has served as the primary agent of social control over symptomatic individuals since the closure of state psychiatric hospitals in the 1950s and the tightening of civil commitment laws.  The theory identifies untreated mental illness as the origin of individuals’ criminal justice involvement and mental health treatment as the clear solution to breaking their cycle of recidivism.  This article evaluates the three main bodies of evidence offered in support of the criminalization theory: individuals’ movement from psychiatric hospitals to jails and prisons (“transinstitutionalization”), the heightened policing of individuals with serious mental illness, and the science linking mental illness and crime. This evaluation reveals that the criminalization theory — the understanding that animates most current policies aimed at offenders with serious mental illness—largely rests on intuitive assumptions that are often unverified and sometimes false.

A growing body of behavioral sciences literature constructs an alternative account of the relationship between mental illness and crime.  Coined the “normalization theory,” it relies upon decades of research that demonstrate that clinical factors, such as diagnosis and treatment history, are not predictive of criminal activity.  Instead, the same risks and needs that motivate individuals without mental illness also drive those with mental disorders to commit crimes.  These “criminogenic risks” include, among others, substance abuse, employment instability, family problems, and poorly structured leisure time. Behavioral science researchers reject the premise that individuals with serious mental illness are overrepresented in the justice system because these individuals’ illnesses directly lead to criminal behavior. Instead, they theorize that serious mental illnesses fuel the greater accumulation and concentration of typical criminogenic risk factors.  This recognition holds dramatic potential for the redesign of criminal justice programs.  Programs that target the criminal behavior of offenders with mental illness should principally focus on addressing criminogenic risk factors that can be mitigated.  Officials should also address mental health needs, but only to the extent necessary to facilitate a better criminogenic risk profile and fulfill constitutional obligations.  Moreover, correctional experience suggests that institutions should allocate scarce programmatic resources according to offenders’ risk of reoffending and potential to achieve programmatic goals. These insights, which federal agencies are beginning to recognize, hold radical implications for the redesign — and possibly the existence — of jail diversion, mental health courts, specialized probation and parole, and reentry programs for offenders with serious mental illness. 

October 10, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

October 9, 2018

Justice Kavanaugh joins the ACCA fray in his first set of SCOTUS arguments

As noted in this prior post, a new Supreme Court, due to the addition of new Justice Brett Kavanaugh, got started working this morning by hearing two cases concerning the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Via SCOTUSblog, I see the oral argument transcript in Stokeling v. United States is available on at this link and the transcript in United States v. Stitt is at this link.  Helpfully, this additional post from SCOTUSblog provides these highlights:

In Stokeling v. United States, about whether a state robbery offense that includes “as an element” the common-law requirement of overcoming “victim resistance” is categorically a “violent felony” under the ACCA.

This argument has some moments that even young spectators seem to enjoy, such as when Roberts describes having his law clerks try to pull a dollar bill out of his hand while he held tight. (This was in response to an argument in the petitioner’s merits brief that “robbery can … occur where the offender does no more than grab cash from someone’s closed fist, tearing the bill without touching the person.”)

“It tears easily if you go like this,” Roberts says to Brenda Bryn, the lawyer for petitioner Denard Stokeling, motioning as if to tear a bill in half. “But if you’re really tugging on it … it requires a lot of force, more than you might think.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asks about whether a “ordinary pinch” can involve sufficient force to break the law. And to demonstrate, she pinches her neighbor on her right, Justice Neil Gorsuch. At that moment, he is lifting his coffee mug for a sip, and his wide-eyed reaction to being pinched suggests a mix of bemusement and mild alarm.

Whenever a justice asks a question, Kavanaugh looks down the bench at his colleague. He sometimes dons his reading glasses, and he jots notes. We cannot see whether he has his trademark Sharpie marker.

At 10:25 a.m., Kavanaugh has his first question, asking Bryn about her arguments relating to a 2010 Supreme Court ACCA decision, Curtis Johnson v. United States. “In Curtis Johnson, you rely heavily on the general statements of the court, but the application of those general statements was to something very specific: Battery and a mere tap on the shoulder,” Kavanaugh says to Bryn. “And all Curtis Johnson seemed to hold was that that was excluded. So why don’t we follow what Curtis Johnson seemed to do in applying those general statements to the specific statute at issue here and why wouldn’t that then encompass the Florida statute, which requires more than, say, a tap on the shoulder?”

In the second argument, for the consolidated cases of United States v. Stitt and United States v. Sims, the question is whether burglary of “a nonpermanent or mobile structure that is adapted or used for overnight accommodation can qualify as ‘burglary’” under the ACCA. Kennedy apparently decides that one hour of argument about the ACCA is enough, and he slips out at the break between the two arguments.

The Stitt and Sims argument will lead to questions about cars with mattresses, homeless people living in their cars in New York and Washington, and unoccupied recreational vehicles and campers.

Alito tells Erica Ross, an assistant to the solicitor general arguing that burglary of an unoccupied mobile structure should count as a strike under the ACCA, that the court has “made one royal mess” of its interpretations of the federal statute. Ross says that is something the court may need to think about in “some case,” but “I apologize … for continuing to bring us back to this case.” This simple point really tickles Justice Clarence Thomas for some reason, and he laughs heartily for several seconds.

Kavanaugh asks more questions in this second argument, though he also loses a couple of what I call “faceoffs” — when two justices battle for the floor, continuing to speak until one relents. He defers to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at one point, and to Kagan at another. (Although the rule of thumb is that a junior justice ought to defer to a senior colleague in such situations, that rule is not always observed.)

Kavanaugh will have several extended colloquies, appearing more at ease with each one. Several times, Jeffrey Fisher of Stanford Law School, the court-appointed lawyer for the respondents in the second case, begins his answer by saying, “Well, Justice Kavanaugh, …” It is in those tiny moments that the reality sinks in that Brett Kavanaugh of Maryland is now an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

October 9, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Despite fear-mongering opposition ads, drug sentencing and prison reform initiative polling strong in Ohio

I have blogged here and elsewhere about the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative on the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  Originally called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment," the initiative now is just known within Ohio as Issue 1. The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has been hosting public panels about Issue 1 under the title Ballot Insights, and has created a Resources Page for Issue 1 and a Commentary Page on Issue 1

I have not previously noted here the notable fear-mongering about Issue 1 that has emerged in recent months focused particularly on its effort to reduce drug possession offenses to misdemeanors and to allow prisoners to earn more time off their prison sentences.  In late August, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor wrote a public letter warning of “catastrophic consequences" for Ohio if Issue 1 passes, and last week Gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine began running a campaign ad involving local sheriffs stating "If you’re not scared [by Issue 1], you should be."  Lots of other judges and prosecutors and law enforcement official have used similar language their advocacy against Issue 1.

But, perhaps signalling just how strong the public supports significant drug sentencing and prison reform, the first big public poll on Issue 1 was released today and it shows the initiative with a nearly 18 point lead.  Here is a basic report on this poll:  

A criminal justice reform question on the Ohio statewide ballot has support from nearly 48 percent of likely voters while 30.5 percent oppose it and 21.7 percent aren’t sure how they’ll vote on the matter, according to a new poll released Tuesday by Baldwin Wallace University Community Research Institute....

The Baldwin Wallace poll, which was conducted Sept. 28 to Oct. 8, shows DeWine has 39.7 percent, Cordray 37.1 percent, Libertarian Travis Irvine has 4.3 percent, Ohio Green Party candidate Constance Gadell-Newton has 3.4 percent and 15.4 percent of voters are undecided. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Notably, the full poll results indicate women voters favor Issue 1 by a 22 point margin (49 to 27) and Democrats favor Issue 1 by a 35 point margin (57 to 22). Assuming this poll numbers are solid, this results suggest to be that Issue 1 is quickly likely to pass if it turns out that women and/or Democrats end up being those especially motivated to show up to vote this November.

 Prior related posts:

UPDATE: Another (smaller) poll was released on October 10 concerning Issue 1, and it showed a much closer contest. This press article provides these details:

Ohio voters support a constitutional amendment to reduce penalties for some drug crimes and make other criminal justice reforms, according to a new poll released on the first day of early voting.

Issue 1 has the support of 43 percent of likely midterm voters surveyed in a Suffolk University/Enquirer poll; 38 percent oppose the measure. Nearly one in five said they had not yet decided how to vote....

The poll surveyed 500 likely Ohio voters by landline and cell phone from Oct. 4 to 8. The poll has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points....

Issue 1 backers didn’t intend for the measure to become partisan but it has become a dividing line in the race for governor. Democrat Rich Cordray supports it as a way to reduce overcrowded prisons and funnel more money toward drug addiction treatment. His Republican opponent, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, has said Issue 1 will allow drug dealers to avoid prison time and lead to more drug overdose deaths.

Among likely Cordray voters, 53 percent said they also support Issue 1 compared to only 33 percent of DeWine voters. 

October 9, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Justice Sotomayor issues cert statement discussing "deeply troubling concern" with solitary confinement

The Supreme Court's order list this morning includes no cert grants, but does have an interesting eight-page statement by Justice Sotomayor starting this way:

A punishment need not leave physical scars to be cruel and unusual. See Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).  As far back as 1890, this Court expressed concerns about the mental anguish caused by solitary confinement.  These petitions address one aspect of what a prisoner subjected to solitary confinement may experience: the denial of even a moment in daylight for months or years.  Although I agree with the Court’s decision not to grant certiorari in these cases because of arguments unmade and facts underdeveloped below, I write because the issue raises deeply troubling concern.

UPDATE:  Amy Howe provides this helpful context and summary of this case via this post at SCOTUSblog:

The justices announced today that they will not hear the cases of three Colorado inmates who argue that holding them in solitary confinement, without any access to the outdoors or concerns about security, violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Two of the inmates, Jonathan Apodaca and Joshua Vigil, didn’t go outdoors for more than 11 months, while the third inmate, Donnie Lowe, didn’t have outdoor recreation for several years.  Prison officials argued that they could not be sued because it was not clearly established -- the standard to overcome the general presumption that government officials are immune from lawsuits -- that their solitary-confinement policy was unconstitutional.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit agreed, and the inmates asked the Supreme Court to weigh in.  Justice Stephen Breyer has expressed concern about holding inmates in solitary confinement before: Last year he dissented from the Supreme Court’s announcement that it would not block the execution of a Texas death-row inmate who had been held in solitary confinement for 20 years.  And now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested in 2015 that extended periods of solitary confinement might violate the Eighth Amendment’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment.  But there were apparently not four votes to take up the issue now.

In an eight-page opinion regarding the court’s decision to deny review, Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that the justices might have rejected these cases because the lower courts had not focused on whether Colorado had valid security reasons for its solitary-confinement policy.  But Sotomayor then went on to express “grave misgivings” about solitary confinement, noting that as many as 100,000 inmates (including many who are not on death row) are held in cells alone.  And she pointed out that Donnie Lowe -- who was held in solitary confinement for 11 years while serving time for second-degree burglary and smuggling contraband into prison -- died earlier this year: “While we do not know what caused his death,” she concluded, “we do know that solitary confinement imprints on those that it clutches a wide range of psychological scars.”  She ended her opinion with a plea to courts and prison officials to “remain alert to the clear constitutional problems raised by keeping prisoners like Apodaca, Vigil, and Lowe in ‘near-total isolation’ from the living world, in what comes perilously close to a penal tomb.”

October 9, 2018 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

On eve of execution, Tennessee Supreme Court rejects challenge to state's execution protocol

As reported in this legal news story, "Tennessee’s execution method is not cruel and unusual, the state supreme court ruled Monday, three days before the state’s next execution, because inmates challenging its three-drug lethal injection protocol did not present a viable alternative." Here is more on the ruling and a link to the full opinion:

Twenty-seven death-row inmates claimed the execution protocol violates the Eight Amendment because midazolam, a sedative, does not counteract the burning and suffocating effects of the next two drugs: vecuronium bromide, a paralytic, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.

But in the 4-to-1 ruling Monday, Chief Justice Jeffrey Bivins wrote: “(T)he Plaintiffs failed to carry their burden to establish that Tennessee’s current three-drug lethal injection protocol constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution or article 1, section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution. As a result, we need not address the Plaintiffs’ claim that the three-drug protocol creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain.”

That burden, Bivins said, included offering a viable alternative, as laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in Glossip v. Gross (2015), which unsuccessfully challenged Oklahoma’s virtually identical execution protocol.

The Tennessee inmates said at trial that the state could execute them through Tennessee’s other execution protocol: one lethal dose of pentobarbital. Texas and Georgia executed people that way this year.

But the Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed and sided with the state, which said it could not obtain pentobarbital. Many pharmaceutical companies refuse to provide the drug for executions. Bivins also ruled that the court could not “establish new law” by accepting the inmates’ argument that Tennessee secrecy laws involving death penalty protocols affected their ability to argue their case.

Tennessee is scheduled to execute Edmund Zagorski on Thursday, October 11.

October 9, 2018 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

October 8, 2018

Highlighting efforts by some prosecutors to help with expungements

Today's New York Times has this notable new article under the headline "Convicts Seeking to Clear Their Records Find More Prosecutors Willing to Help." Here are excerpts:

[A]lthough law enforcement officials have traditionally opposed [broadened expungement and sealing laws] for an array of reasons — including accountability, a belief that records are vital to public safety, and unstinting support for crime victims — a growing number of them have begun to recognize that criminal records can be enduring obstacles to self-sufficiency and even help trap people in cycles of crime.  Increasingly, they are overtly endorsing mercy through record suppression.

“It’s just a matter of trying to remove obstacles that would make it more difficult for someone to become a productive member of the community,” said Terry Curry, the elected prosecutor in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis and has a population approaching 1 million residents.  “If an individual has stayed out of the criminal justice system, then why should they continue to have that stain forever?”

Though in most places the paperwork burden for expungements has fallen on private lawyers and nonprofit legal clinics, South Florida prosecutors now routinely hold events intended to help people wipe away records of arrests but not convictions.  A district attorney in rural Louisiana leads information sessions about expungements for some felony convictions after a 10-year waiting period; a Vermont prosecutor recently held a record-clearing clinic; and the authorities near Fort Bragg, N.C., attracted about 500 people to an expungement event last year.  Last month, the Brooklyn district attorney promoted “Begin Again” events, where, one advertisement said, people were invited to “clear your record of a misdemeanor marijuana conviction or warrant.”

But there is still a national patchwork of policies and terminologies, from destroying records to sealing them to simply noting that a conviction is effectively vacated. States have imposed various waiting periods, conditions and fees.  Some places have made their processes deliberately simple, while others have complicated approaches that may require legal assistance or court hearings.

The proliferation of new laws, and newfound enthusiasm on the part of some prosecutors, has hardly erased all doubts about the wisdom of suppressing records.  Many prosecutors, especially in rural areas, remain skeptical of any action to show mercy for a person’s past, and some judges engage in measured resistance, holding hearings more to complain about an expungement law than to weigh an application’s merits.  “You have prosecutors and judges who just think it’s wrong: ‘You’ve caused trouble in this county, you’re a wrongdoer and you shouldn’t get a blank slate,’” said Bernice Corley, the executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council.

But Margaret Love, the executive director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center and a former United States pardon attorney, said that clemency and expungements are part of the criminal justice process for a reason.  “It ought to be something that prosecutors welcome and use to their advantage to create criminal justice success stories, to advertise criminal justice success stories,” she said.

The nuanced approach in Indiana, where officials hoped that expungements would improve people’s job prospects, is increasingly seen as a model.  Under its so-called Second Chance law, the state has a tiered system in which the offense, and the outcome of the case, determines the waiting period and the exact relief.  Indiana does not destroy records, but can limit access to them and mark them as expunged, and crime victims are permitted to express their views before any decision is made.  “Indiana should be the worst place in America to commit a serious crime and the best place, once you’ve done your time, to get a second chance,” Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president, said when he signed the records measure into law in 2013.

I am glad to see this topic garner the attention of the Times, though I am a bit disappointed not to see any mention of the particularly notable marijuana-reform developments on this front. Specifically, as I discussed briefly in this recent paper for the Federal Sentencing Reporter, a number of prosecutors in California began taking proactive steps to clear prior marijuana convictions after the state enacted marijuana legalization in 2016.  

October 8, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

First cases for a new SCOTUS: two more efforts to sort out ACCA uncertainty with old criminal history

A new Supreme Court, due to the addition of new Justice Brett Kavanaugh, will get to work on old convictions by considering Tuesday morning the latest possible twists in an ever-twisting jurisprudence concerning the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  The latest ACCA fun comes in the form of oral arguments in Stokeling v. United States and United States v. StittHere are the basics on these cases via SCOTUSblog coverage:

Stokeling Issue: Whether a state robbery offense that includes “as an element” the common law requirement of overcoming “victim resistance” is categorically a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(i), when the offense has been specifically interpreted by state appellate courts to require only slight force to overcome resistance.

Argument preview: Do "slight force" robberies count for enhancing Armed Career Criminal Act sentences? by Rory Little

Stitt Issue: Whether burglary of a nonpermanent or mobile structure that is adapted or used for overnight accommodation can qualify as “burglary” under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii).

Argument preview: What vehicle burglaries, if any, count for enhancing Armed Career Criminal Act sentences? by Rory Little

October 8, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Highlighting the importance of policies that support families values for the incarcerated

The group R Street has this notable new policy paper titled "The importance of supporting family connections to ensure successful re-entry" authored by Emily Mooney and Nila Bala.  Here is the paper's introduction and conclusion:

As of the latest estimates, approximately two million individuals are currently incarcerated in the United States. Each of these has a family, which broadens the impact of incarceration to millions of family members across the nation. This brings negative repercussions: incarcerated parents are separated from children, interpersonal relationships become strained and financial support disappears.  Furthermore, federal, state and local policies often present barriers to meaningful and continued family connections while incarcerated. Yet, paradoxically, it is during this time that positive family connections are so key.  Indeed, they are critical to successful re-entry after a person’s time is served, as they help encourage individual transformation, mitigate the negative impact of incarceration on children and other loved ones, and support stronger families in general.  This, in turn, makes communities safer.  For these reasons, society can benefit by understanding the importance of these connections and creating policies that help to bolster them for the good of incarcerated individuals, their families and their communities at large....

Behind most incarcerated individuals is a family that is critical to encouraging positive change on the inside and supporting them as they prepare for life on the outside.  Despite this, government policies and family circumstances often impede the ability of families to stay connected during incarceration.  However, changes to government policies, community-based partnerships and the expansion of family-oriented programming can help families overcome these obstacles, with great benefit both to individuals and to society as a whole.

October 8, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

October 7, 2018

"Robot Criminals"

I just noticed this recent paper on SSRN that had a title too good not to blog.  The paper is authored by Ying Hu, and here is its abstract:

When a robot harms humans, are there any grounds for holding it criminally liable for its misconduct? Yes, provided that the robot is capable of making, acting on, and communicating the reasons behind its moral decisions.  If such a robot fails to observe the minimum moral standards that society requires of it, labeling it as a criminal can effectively fulfill criminal law’s function of censuring wrongful conduct and alleviating the emotional harm that may be inflicted on human victims.

Imposing criminal liability on robots does not absolve robot manufacturers, trainers, or owners of their individual criminal liability.  The former is not rendered redundant by the latter.  It is possible that no human is sufficiently at fault in causing a robot to commit a particular morally wrongful action.  Additionally, imposing criminal liability on robots might sometimes have significant instrumental value, such as helping to identify culpable individuals and serving as a self-policing device for individuals who interact with robots.  Finally, treating robots that satisfy the above-mentioned conditions as moral agents appears much more plausible if we adopt a less human-centric account of moral agency.

The article does not discuss sentencing until its very end, but this paragraph covers robot punishment possibilities:

Assuming we can punish robots, a new question naturally follows: how should a robot be punished? In this regard, a range of measures might be taken to secure that the robot commit fewer offenses in the future. These include:

  a. physically destroying the robot (the robot equivalent of a “death sentence”);

  b. destroying or re-write the moral algorithms of the robot (the robot equivalent of a “hospital order”);

  c. preventing the robot from being put to use (the robot equivalent of a “prison sentence”); and/or

  d. ordering fines to be paid out of the insurance fund (the robot equivalent of a “fine”).

In addition, the unlawful incident can be used to design a training module to teach other smart robots the correct course of action in that scenario.

October 7, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

You be the Illinois judge: what sentence for Jason Van Dyke after second-degree murder conviction in slaying of Laquan McDonald?

Though somewhat eclipsed by Supreme Court confirmation controversies, a high-profile criminal case culminated with a murder conviction on Friday when a jury found Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke guilty Friday of second-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.  This CNN article about the verdict details that Van Dyke was also "found guilty of 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm [but] found not guilty of official misconduct."  And this AP piece, headlined "With conviction, Van Dyke likely avoided decades behind bars," highlights some of the sentencing realities that attend this verdict:

Jurors convicted Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke for murder and aggravated battery in the slaying Laquan McDonald, the black teenager who was shot 16 times as he walked away carrying a knife on Oct. 20, 2014.  But a legal expert explained that the 40-year-old Van Dyke is likely looking at less than 10 years in prison for killing the teen rather than many decades because jurors opted to convict him of second- and not first-degree murder.

After less than two full days deliberating on three weeks of testimony, jurors returned Friday with 17 guilty verdicts and one acquittal. By far the most serious charge Van Dyke faced originally was first-degree murder.  But Judge Vincent Gaughan told jurors before they started deliberations that they had the option of replacing first-degree murder with second-degree murder.

First-degree required a finding that Van Dyke's use of deadly force wasn't justified — that it was both unnecessary and unreasonable.  But Gaughan said jurors could find that Van Dyke truly believed his life was in jeopardy but that that belief wasn't reasonable.  That's the criteria for second-degree murder.

The jury also found Van Dyke guilty of all 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. Each count corresponded to every bullet Van Dyke shot into McDonald. They acquitted him on the least serious charge, official misconduct....

First-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. And with enhancements for having used a gun, Van Dyke would have faced a mandatory minimum of 45 years, according to Chicago defense attorney Steve Greenberg, who has defended clients at more than 100 murder trials.  Such a sentence, at Van Dyke's age, could have amounted to life.  The punishment for second-degree murder is no less than four years but no more than 20 years behind bars.

Jurors weren't told anything about the range of punishments for each charge. The judge did tell them that whether one charge might carry a greater or lesser sentence shouldn't factor at all into their decisions.

Each count of aggravated battery carries a mandatory minimum six years and a maximum of 30 years in prison. If Van Dyke had to serve six for each of the 16 counts — and do so one sentence after another - that would add up to 96 years. But Greenberg said judges almost always order defendants to serve such sentences simultaneously.  So, if Van Dyke gets the minimum for each count, he'd serve six years for all the battery convictions.

Another possibility is that the defense will ask, under complicated legal rules, for the judge to merge the crimes for which Van Dyke is convicted for sentencing purposes since they were all tied to a single event, Greenberg said.  That could mean Van Dyke is effectively sentenced only for second-degree murder, with its lower four-year mandatory minimum.

For a man convicted with no previous criminal record, Greenberg said the mandatory minimum is his best guess for a sentence handed down on Van Dyke.  "I would be shocked if he got a day over the four or six years," Greenberg said.

Greenberg said prison conditions for an officer, like Van Dyke, could be rougher than for average convicts. As a white officer convicted of killing a young African-American, prison authorities are likely to conclude he has to be kept away from other prisoners for his own safety. "He will probably be in a cell by himself," Greenberg said.  "It will be very hard time." That may have already started.  At prosecutors' request, Van Dyke's bond was revoked minutes after the verdicts were announced and Judge Gaughan ordered he be held in jail pending sentencing. He stood up from the defense table, then put his arms behind his back as two deputies led him away.

I am not an expert on Illinois sentencing law, but presuming this article has the law corrected, I am struck that the mandatory minimum prison term for second-degree murder in the state is 50% less than mandatory minimum for aggravated battery with a firearm. It is also notable and telling that if the sentencing judge here were permitted and inclined to run the various sentences consecutively rather than concurrently, the defendant here would be facing 100 years in prison as the applicable mandatory minimum.  But if the crimes are found to be "merged" under Illinois law, four years could become the minimum and 20 years the max.

October 7, 2018 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)