Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Highlighting that conservative voters say they support criminal justice reform efforts

Vikrant Reddy authored this National Review commentary discussing the results of a recent interesting poll (which I highlighted here) under the headlined "The Conservative Base Wants Criminal-Justice Reform."  Here are excerpts:

Last week, the Charles Koch Institute (CKI) polled several hundred conservative voters to assess whether they recognize criminal justice as an important issue currently facing the nation. While specific reasons for their interest are debatable, 81 percent of Trump voters polled described the issue as either “very important” or “somewhat important” — a definite consensus.

Ordinarily, polls that confirm the status quo are not interesting.  This poll, however, caught the attention of those who have been asking whether conservative attitudes towards criminal-justice policy may have changed since the November 2016 election.  It’s a fair question.

The new presidential administration has given mixed messages, sometimes using strong rhetoric about increasing criminal penalties, but other times speaking with thoughtfulness about expanding treatment for opioid addiction.  Some prominent administration figures, such as Vice President Mike Pence, have a history as reformers.  Others, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have a history as skeptics.  The views of the president himself are unpredictable.

Furthermore, when asked if judges should have more freedom to assign punishments other than prison (such as civil or community service), 63 percent of Trump voters “strongly agreed” or “agreed.”  When asked about the practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows law-enforcement agencies to seize an individual’s property without requiring that the individual be charged or convicted of a crime, 59 percent of Trump voters found common ground with their liberal counterparts, responding that that they “strongly disagreed” or “disagreed” with such policing practices....

People surprised by the results of the poll ought to focus on one important figure: Fifty-four percent of Trump voters said they knew someone who is or has been incarcerated. That may surprise progressives who accuse conservatives of being out of touch and aloof from criminal-justice realities, but it shouldn’t surprise anybody who works in the criminal-justice arena and regularly talks to conservatives about their views....

Increasingly, then, the Americans who experience criminal justice as a personal issue are rural conservatives. Consider the example of Oklahoma.  On the night that Trump won the presidency, voters also approved changes to the state criminal code that reclassified certain drug felonies as misdemeanors, effectively expressing the view that too many drug offenses in Oklahoma were being treated with needlessly long bouts of incarceration. Oklahomans appear to prefer better probation and parole that monitors drug offenders and provides them with treatment.  This referendum vote took place in a state in which every single county voted for Trump.  A higher percentage of people (65.3 percent) voted for Trump in Oklahoma, than in any state, except Wyoming and West Virginia. It’s hard to be “Trumpier” than Oklahoma.

Leadership matters in public policy, and for that reason, it would be good to see clear support for criminal-justice reform from the White House.  Conservative legislators and governors, however, do not need to wait for cues from the administration.  The conservative base is already providing them. They have wanted criminal justice reform for a decade, and their minds did not change because of one election.

Recent prior related post:

May 10, 2017 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

"Trump will not pursue charges against Clinton, aide says"

The title of this post is the headline of this new FoxNews piece, which reports these details:

President-elect Donald Trump will not pursue charges against Hillary Clinton relating to the Clinton foundation or the former secretary of state’s use of a private email server, former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday.

In an interview with MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Conway said that while Clinton “has to face the fact that a majority of Americans don’t find her to be honest and trustworthy,” it would be a good thing if Trump can “help her heal.” "I think when the President-elect, who's also the head of your party…tells you before he's even inaugurated he doesn't wish to pursue these charges, it sends a very strong message, tone, and content,” she said.

The move is a significant break from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which included a warning that if he were president he’d get his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her behavior. In the second presidential debate he quipped to Clinton that if he was president: “you’d be in jail.” Cries of “lock her up” were a common feature at Trump’s campaign rallies....

Trump's decision not to pursue charges against Clinton would not prevent congressional Republicans from opening investigations and referring them to the Justice Department for charges. Trump expanded on his decision at a meeting with reporters at the New York Times Tuesday afternoon, telling them "I think it would be very very divisive for the country" to prosecute the Clintons, although he hadn't taken it off the table entirely.

Though I am 99.9% certain nobody will fully understand the full basis for my first two reactions here, I will share them anyway: (1) I am a tiny bit disappointed, and (2) I hope congressional Republicans will at least do some investigation into the deleted emails and/or into pay-to-play with the Clinton Foundation while Hillary Clinton was serving as Secretary of State. 

UPDATE: Kent over at Crime & Consequences has this post on this topic under the title "Amnesty for Hillary."

November 22, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Celebrity sentencings, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Monday, November 14, 2016

"A comeback for the death penalty?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this CNN commentary authored by Austin Sarat. Here are excerpts:

For supporters of capital punishment the most consequential development was the election of Donald Trump. Trump is such a vocal and enthusiastic supporter of capital punishment that, in December of 2015, he promised members of the New England Police Benevolent Association that he would issue an executive order as president containing the "strong, strong statement" that he wants the death penalty for those found guilty of killing a police officer. "Anybody," Trump said, "killing a policeman, a policewoman, a police officer, anybody killing a police officer: Death penalty is going to happen, okay?"

Trump's election is likely to put on hold any prospect that the Supreme Court will take up Justice Stephen Breyer's recent invitation to his fellow justices to reconsider the constitutionality of capital punishment.

The results of referendum questions on the ballot in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma also brought bad news for abolitionists. Voters in California delivered a double-barreled blow.  They rejected Proposition 62, a measure which would have replaced capital punishment for murder with life in prison without parole.  They also approved by a narrow margin a separate measure intended to speed up executions.  That measure designates special courts to hear challenges to death penalty convictions, limits successive appeals and expands the pool of lawyers who could handle those appeals.

Nebraska voters, by a margin of 61% to 39%, approved reinstating that state's death penalty one year after state legislators voted to abolish it.  In Oklahoma, 66% of voters supported State Question 776 declaring that the death penalty cannot be considered cruel and unusual under the state constitution. It added a provision that "any method of execution shall be allowed, unless prohibited by the United States Constitution."

Despite these electoral victories, the likelihood of a reversal of fortune for capital punishment is remote.  The high costs of capital prosecutions, serious doubts about the reliability of capital convictions, concerns about arbitrariness in death sentencing, and the difficulty of finding reliable methods of execution remain.  These issues have allowed death penalty opponents to build their case state by state, appealing to public officials and offering them a different way to frame opposition to capital punishment.

Over the last decade, that strategy has led to judicial or legislative abolition in New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, Nebraska (a decision reversed by Tuesday's referendum) and Delaware.  Its success can also be seen in the dramatic drop in the number of death sentences handed out across the United States.  They have been cut from 315 in 1996 to 49 in 2015. The number of executions also has declined significantly, going from 98 in 1999 to 28 last year.

These changes have occurred because abolitionists have reframed the way many judges, legislatures, and governors think about capital punishment. The focus of political and legal debates has moved from moral and philosophical abstractions toward a careful consideration of the way the death penalty works in practice. Even after the recent election, public officials can continue to oppose the death penalty by questioning whether its day-to-day practices are compatible with central American values, like due process and equal treatment....

While they did not persuade the citizens of California, Nebraska or Oklahoma, opponents of the death penalty have made substantial progress with the American public. A 2015 national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 71% of Americans believed that there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death and only 26% thought that there are adequate safeguards in place to make sure that does not happen. That same survey found that 52% of respondents agreed that minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death for similar crimes.

Because of these concerns about the risk of executing the innocent and about racial discrimination in capital sentencing, 42% of the public now opposes the death penalty, the highest such opposition has been since 1972. Last week's electoral results are a reminder that the death penalty continues to have powerful populist and symbolic appeal, but it does not foretell a comeback for capital punishment. Abolitionists will remain on the offensive, and America still seems to be on the road to abolition.

November 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Which possible SCOTUS pick from the Trump list should sentencing reformers be rooting for?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by my strong belief that Prez-Elect Trump is very likely to keep his campaign promise to pick a SCOTUS nominee from his list of 21 possibilities released during his campaign.  Ed Whelan has this helpful new post over at Bench Memos that sets out all the 21 names and their current positions as well as a reminder that Trump said this list "is definitive and [that he] will choose only from it in picking future justices of the United States Supreme Court."

As a fan and follower of federal sentencing law and policy, there are three names on the Trump lists that jump out to me immediately:

Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah

William Pryor, Eleventh Circuit

Amul Thapar, Eastern District of Kentucky

For complicated reasons that I do not think can be adequately and effectively explained in this forum, I am cautiously optimistic that the appointment of any of these gentleman could be a relatively positive development for the future of SCOTUS sentencing jurisprudence.  (Critical disclosure: my views here, at least for the two jurists above, are significantly influenced by my own personal and professional interactions. Judge Pryor and I have exchanged emails a few times (both before and since he became a member of the US Sentencing Commission), and Judge Thapar and I have met and spoken more than a few times (and he hired a former student of mine as an intern and also solicited me to write an amicus brief in a fascinating sentencing case a few years ago).)

Sadly, other than this trio, I am unfamiliar with the sentencing views and record of any of the other 18 persons on Prez-Elect Trump's SCOTUS (not-so-)short list. Ergo, I am uncertain about whether to be cautiously optimistic or pessimistic about what any other nomination could mean for the future of SCOTUS sentencing jurisprudence.  I am certain, though, that a whole bunch of journalists and lawyers and advocates are now starting the hard work of investigating (and perhaps formally vetting) every person on the Trump SCOTUS list.

I am hopeful that anyone with any relevant sentencing-related information about these folks will share that information in the comments here or via email/links.  I suspect Prez-Elect Trump will nominate a replacement for Justice Scalia within his first few days as president, and so I do not think it is too early to start gearing up for what should be an interesting and dynamic confirmation process.

November 10, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

"Why Donald Trump’s election won’t doom the criminal justice reform movement"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Fusion commentary authored by Casey Tolan. The piece covers a lot of ground effectively in the wake of yesterday's election results and I recommend the piece in full.  Here are some extended excerpts:

In many ways, Donald Trump as president is a nightmare for criminal justice reformers. He has declared himself “the law and order” candidate and falsely painted American cities as hellholes with skyrocketing crime rates. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, had pledged to “reform our criminal justice system from end-to-end.”

But Trump’s stunning victory — while scary for many other reasons — isn’t a death blow to the reform movement. While Trump can undo changes President Obama made and prevent serious criminal justice reforms at the federal level for the next four years, the policies that are arguably more important to fighting mass incarceration are happening at the state and local levels.

Overall, it was a mixed-bag election night for criminal justice.  Even while Trump clinched the White House, reformers won important victories in state and local races that could lead to real declines in incarceration. And yet: the death penalty won in all three states where it was on the ballot.

The tension between Trump’s law and order rhetoric and the reform victories down the ballot points to a sometimes overlooked truth: The president does not actually have that much power over the policies that lead to mass incarceration. Only about 12% of prisoners in America are in federal prisons run by the executive branch, while the vast majority are in local jails and state prisons. In many ways, local district attorneys have a bigger impact on criminal justice and incarceration in their districts than the president does.

And reformers had a very good night in DA races. Challengers pledging reform defeated tough-on-crime prosecutors in Houston, Tampa, and Birmingham, and won an open district attorney election in Denver. This is especially good news for Houston, whose incumbent DA Devon Anderson has increased arrests for low-level drug possession, defended seriously flawed death sentences, and once jailed a rape victim during the trial of her rapist. Those results continued a trend from earlier this year of more reform-minded local prosecutor candidates prevailing in primaries.

The president does not actually have that much power over the policies that lead to mass incarceration. Elsewhere on the ballot were other bright spots. In California, voters passed a measure that would make nonviolent offenders eligible for parole and lead to fewer juveniles being tried in adult courts. In Oklahoma, they approved an item reclassifying drug possession and small property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and earmarked cost savings from those changes for mental health and rehabilitation programs. Both measures are expected to lead to substantial reductions in incarceration in their states. New Mexico approved a constitutional amendment that prohibits defendants from being jailed just because they can’t pay bail....

Of course, Trump will probably have a drastic effect on prospects for federal criminal justice reform. Last year, bipartisan senators introduced to great fanfare a bill that would reshape federal sentencing laws and let nonviolent inmates get out of prison sooner. Even with the wholehearted support of President Obama and substantial compromises that watered down the bill, efforts to pass the measure have failed thanks to a group of conservative senators like Alabama’s Jeff Sessions, Trump’s chief ally in the body. While Trump doesn’t seem to have directly addressed the bill, his past statements don’t make him seem amenable to the idea.

Moreover, Trump could easily undo many of the smaller-scale reforms put into place by the Obama administration. On day one, Attorney General Rudy Giuliani — or whoever Trump picks — could rip up the Obama directive telling federal prosecutors to focus on the most serious drug cases and ask for less mandatory minimum sentences. He could end Obama’s policy to “ban the box” in federal government hiring, which helps formerly incarcerated people get jobs by not making them check a box saying they have a criminal record at the first stage of applications. He could reverse the Justice Department’s plan to phase out federal private prisons (a prospect that has sent private prison company stocks soaring the morning after the election). And most importantly, Trump will almost surely be able to appoint a conservative Supreme Court justice, who could help pivot criminal justice law away from defendants’ rights for a generation.

Trump’s election is a shock for justice reform groups working at the federal level, some of which had already started preparing white papers on reducing mass incarceration for the Clinton administration. Nkechi Taifa, an activist at the Open Society Foundations who helped fight for drug policy reforms, told me she couldn’t believe what had happened. “We’ve always had an uphill battle on criminal justice,” Taifa said. “I just think we need to redouble our efforts. I don’t think we should retreat.”

With 71 days still in office, Obama could lock in some reforms with a broader use of his clemency power. He has already set records by commuting the sentences of more than 900 inmates serving time for drug crimes. But Taifa said he should go further, reducing the sentences of as many inmates as possible before Trump takes the keys to the White House. Clemencies cannot be undone by future presidents. “I’m saying to Obama, ‘What have you got to lose?'” Taifa said. “If he’s going to drop the mic, drop it that way.”

For families waiting to hear back about clemency decisions, Trump’s win was a sucker-punch. Obama “is my only hope,” Miquelle West, whose mother has applied for clemency from Obama, told me in a text message this morning. West said she doubted that her mother, who is serving a life sentence, would have a chance to be released after inauguration day. “I don’t see Trump being compassionate,” she said.

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Prison stocks are flying on Trump victory"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new CNBC article, which includes these excerpts:

Private prison stocks soared Wednesday after Republicans won control of Congress and the White House.

Corrections Corporations of America and GEO Group had suffered some of their biggest declines over the last several months. But on Wednesday, both stocks recouped some of those losses.  Corrections Corporation gained 43 percent, while GEO climbed more than 21 percent.

In August, the Department of Justice instructed its Bureau of Prisons to begin phasing out the use of private contractors for federal corrections facilities.  Both stocks tanked on the news, but analysts called the market reaction overblown, and questioned how feasible it would actually be for the federal government to build new housing for displaced prisoners....

The stocks fell particularly far after presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed her support for the moves and her intention to build on them. "I'm glad that we're ending private prisons in the federal system," Clinton had said in her first presidential debate with Donald Trump. "I want to see them ended in the state system. You shouldn't have a profit motivation to fill prison cells with young Americans."

Days after Clinton made her remarks, both stocks posted their worst quarters in more than 15 years. Now that Clinton has lost, and Democrats failed to gain control of Congress, it appears investors are more sanguine about the future of the businesses.

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Effective Marshall Project takes on Election 2016 and criminal justice now and in the future ... UPDATE: and another set of views via Crime & Consequences

The folks at The Marshall Project have four new articles that review and assess what this Election cycle says and suggests about the state and fate of criminal justice issues throughout the United States.  Here are links to these pieces:

UPDATE: For another informed and diverse perspective on criminal justice reform stories, I always check daily Crime & Consequences in addition to The Marshall Project.  Here are some of the early Election 2016 reaction posts from various folks at C&C: 

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Marijuana, Merrick and millenials: why cautious insider Dems lost another outsider/change election

In my effort to make sense of the various Election 2016 realities, these early stories and data points caught my attention:

1. Popular vote realities in 2012 and 2016

Popular vote totals in 2012: Obama 65,915,795; Romeny 60,933,504; Johnson + Green 1,745,579  (total vote = 128.6 million)

Popular vote in 2016 (as of now): Trump 59,007,205; Clinton 59,132,664; Johnson + Green 5,195,998 (total vote = 123.3 million)

In other words, as of this writing, there were roughly 5 million fewer voters total in 2016 compared to 2012 and also roughly 3.5 million more of those who did vote in 2016 voted for one of the third party candidates.  

2.  Younger voters in 2016

As Nate Silver flagged here: "While the third-party vote wasn’t all that high tonight overall, an exception came among younger voters. According to the national exit poll, 9 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 went for third parties, as did 8 percent of voters ages 30 to 44." And until I see data to the contrary, I would guess that younger voters (especially younger minority voters) comprise a large portion of the roughly 5 million "missing" voters in 2016.

As the title of this post is meant to reveal, I already have my own (self-serving?) theories for why so many fewer folks showed up to vote in 2016 and for why so many younger progressive voters were much more eager to vote for third-party candidates.  Put simply, the tendency this cycle for Democrats (a) to nominate cautious insiders — like HRC for Prez and Ted Strickland for Senate in Ohio — and (b) to make cautious insider moves on a number of major high-salience law and policy issues — like Prez Obama nominating Merrick Garland for SCOTUS and HRC not taking up the populist cause of marijuana reform — led to a whole lot of folks not being excited enough to show up to vote and led to a whole lot of those folks showing up not being excited enough by Democrats to vote for their candidates.

In some prior posts in this space, I have highlighted some reasons why I considered the Merrick Garland nomination to be a big political mistake for Democrats:

And over at my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, here were my posts from last night detailing the remarkably large number of folks in a large number of states who rejected suggestions by all sorts of cautious insiders (of both parties) to slow down the rapidly-moving marijuana reform movement:

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Eager for thoughts on who President-Elect Donald Trump should or will appoint as to SCOTUS and as Attorney General

I have never been a big fan of conventional wisdom, and the 2016 election results reminds me why.  And while I am certain the coming days and weeks will have lots and lots of pundits looking back, I am already eager to look forward by trying to figure out whom President-Elect Donald Trump will be eager to put into the positions that can and will likely have the greatest impact on sentencing law and policy in the coming years.  As the title of this post highlights, who President-Elect Trump will select to serve on the Supreme Court and to serve as Attorney General seem to me to be the most important early decisions he will make that could shape the future of sentencing jurisprudence and doctrine.  

Notably, at least three persons named by Trump as possible SCOTUS nominees have notable sentencing reform interests or history:  Senator Mike Lee, Judge William Pryor, and Judge Amul Thapar.  I am not versed on the sentencing work of others' on Trump's SCOTUS nominee lists, but I am looking forward to learning more about whomever he decides to nominate.  Given his "law and order" campaign themes and the role played by three "tough on crime" former US Attorneys as close advisers, I am expecting Trump will seek to be drawn to an Attorney General who will echo these kinds of sentiments.

Long story short, as a CNN commentator is saying as I write this, the election of Donald Trump creates a "new world order," and I am already starting to think dynamically about who will be constructing this new world and and how it will approach "law and order." 

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22)

Nebraska voters resoundingly rejecting its legislature's abolition of state's death penalty

Though the votes are not all in, this official Nebraska election page has enough results and those results are lopsided enough that I feel comfortable concluding that Nebraskans have decided to preserve its death penalty.  The votes now in show 60% of voters deciding to repeal the legislation that abolished the death penalty in the state.  Together with the similarly strong pro-death penalty vote in Oklahoma, it is certainly clear that folks in the heartland are not eager to turn away from the ultimate punishment.

November 9, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

"How Do You Vote in Prison and Jail? For the most part, you don’t."

The title of this post is the headline of this new Slate article which serves as a fitting final Election Day post before I gear up to post about Election Day results.  Here are excerpts:

People who are incarcerated find creative ways to do things the rest of us don’t have to think much about.... But how do they vote in elections?

Well, they mostly don’t. In almost every state, the law states that incarcerated people are not allowed to cast ballots. In fact, most states even impose voting restrictions on former prisoners who are out on parole, and a few states — Kentucky, Florida, Iowa, and Virginia — have lifetime disenfranchisement laws for anyone who has ever been to prison. These laws combine to prohibit an estimated 6.1 million Americans from voting, per one October 2016 estimation.  There is a movement among criminal justice advocates to restore voting rights for felons, but the politics of reform on this issue are notoriously complicated and again, vary state by state.

There are two states that currently afford prison inmates the right to vote while in confinement: Maine and Vermont.  Inmates in both states vote through absentee ballots rather than on-site polling places. Utah, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts also used to allow prisoners to vote, but they don’t anymore. In Massachusetts the change came after a group of inmates tried to form a political action committee in 1997 pressing for better health care and less expensive phone calls, leading then-Gov. Paul Cellucci to propose a constitutional amendment to prohibit inmate voting that passed in 2000.

So that’s prisons.  Local jails are a different story, because most of the people confined in them on any given day are in pretrial detention — meaning they haven’t yet been convicted of whatever crime they’ve been arrested for — or they’ve been convicted of misdemeanors. While there are a handful of states that ban people serving time for misdemeanors from voting, it’s fair to say that most jail inmates and detainees — roughly 750,000 Americans at any given time — are legally allowed to cast ballots as long as they are otherwise eligible. (They will also most likely do so via absentee ballots, though it’s technically possible for jails to have polling places on-site.)

That doesn’t mean a lot of them end up actually doing it, though there are jails around the country that make a special effort to encourage inmates to exercise their right. In the Cook County facility in Chicago, the largest jail in America, a voter drive effort organized this year by lawyer Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley has resulted in about 1,000 new registered voters and 1,600 absentee ballots cast....

Other jails that are known for helping inmates exercise their right to vote include those in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In Suffolk County, Massachusetts, volunteers from the League of Women Voters this year helped register about 300 inmates (out of a total jail population of about 1,600); in New York, jail officials distributed voter registration forms and informational fliers in the facilities’ public areas, including law libraries and barber shops. Such efforts are outliers, however, and typically depend on the initiative of outside advocacy groups.

November 8, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Some Election Day headlines for sentencing fans ... (to read while waiting in line to vote?)

18702169.548e53c77fc3cI am about to head out to vote, and I have the great fortune (and white privilege?) of a local polling place where there is almost never a line to impede or slow down my voting efforts.  (And this year I have the extra excitement of getting to see one of my teenagers serving as a poll worker.  I am so very proud of her willingness to go through the local training and get up at 5am this morning in order to help everyone have an easy and smooth experience exercising the franchise.)

I am certain that starting this evening I will be blogging about results of key elections for those interested in sentencing reform (as partially previewed here), though I fear it will not be until Wednesday until we know about all the big initiative votes in California because polls there do not close until 11pm EST.  Before that time, though, I am hopeful we might have a sense of the outcomes of the big marijuana reform votes on the East Coast (especially in Florida, Maine and Massachusetts) and also of the death penalty votes in the Heartland (Oklahoma and Nebraska).

In the meantime, I have collected here some headlines and links to stories that provide a kind of Election Day starter.  Though I sincerely hope readers do not experience long lines or waits to vote, perhaps these stories can help some pass the time:

November 8, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 07, 2016

What are the elections that followers of sentencing reform are (or should be) watching especially closely?

On this Election Day eve, I am debating whether I should be putting together some kind of "Sentencing Reformers' 2016 Election Guide."  There are some obvious elections that everyone will obviously be watching which obviously will impact the fate of major sentencing reform efforts.  Who becomes Prez elect and which party controls the US Senate will, of course, be a focal point for all Election Night coverage, and these representative democracy outcomes will directly influence the direction and shape of future federal statutory sentencing reform developments.

In addition, those who care a lot about the state and fate of capital punishment will be following closely the big repeal/retain votes in California and Nebraska (and perhaps a lower-consequence vote in Oklahoma).  And those who care a lot about about the state and fate of marijuana reform will be following closely the big full legalization votes in five states (Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada) and the medical marijuana votes in four other states (Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota).

Not to be overlooked among the higher-profile ballot initiatives are (arguably more consequential) state sentencing reform initiatives in California (Prop 57) and Oklahoma (State Questions 780 and 781).  And, as detailed via this Governing round-up, there are various other "criminal justice" ballot initiatives in various states dealing with victim rights and gun control and a few other issues that surely can echo through sentencing systems.

In addition to all this action, I suspect there may some (lower-profile?) "sleeper" federal, state or local races in which candidates or issues could have a pretty big impact on sentencing reform.  I would be grateful to hear from readers in the comments about any particular races/issues they are following particularly closely with an eye on current and future sentencing realities.  

Are there any of the elections mentioned above that readers think are especially important for sentencing reform?  

Are there elections I have not flagged that ought to be on the radar screens of sentencing reformers?

UPDATE: Via Twitter, I was alerted to this new article from The Nation which spotlights local Arizona DA up for re-election whose race might be of interest to readers of this blog.  The full headline of the article provides a taste of its contents: "This Arizona Prosecutor Is Waging a Strange War on Weed — and That’s Just the Beginning: Bill Montgomery is up for election tomorrow."

November 7, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Do we need to worry seriously about voter confusion in the states in which the future of the death penalty is on ballot?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent article from Governing headlined "As Voters Decide Death Penalty's Fate, Ballots Confuse Some: This year's proposals aren't as simple as marking whether you're for or against capital punishment."  Here are excerpts:

The death penalty is legal in 30 states, but a growing number have repealed it in the last decade.  Depending on the election, California and Nebraska could be next.  While voters in those two states decide whether to do away with capital punishment, voters in Oklahoma — where botched executions have led to a temporary moratorium — could strengthen their state's ability to carry it out....

[But] like the issue of capital punishment, this year's ballot measures on the topic are complicated.

In Nebraska, the state legislature overrode their governor to repeal the death penalty in 2015, but the law never went into effect because opponents gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the ballot.  If voters ultimately uphold the law, it would be the first state under GOP control to ban capital punishment since 1973.

But first, voters will have to figure out which side they stand on — something that could be difficult for many.  The ballot measure gives voters two options: "repeal" or "retain." People who choose "repeal," as confusing as it may be, won't be voting to repeal the death penalty — they'll be voting to repeal the legislature's repeal of the death penalty and thus keep the option of executions available.

Nebraska GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts is campaigning in favor of capital punishment and has contributed about $400,000 to the effort.  In his veto letter to state lawmakers last year, he said their vote on a death penalty ban “tests the true meaning of representative government.”  Though a bipartisan majority of legislators overrode his veto, Ricketts may be correct that the public is with him: An August poll found that about 58 percent of likely voters in Nebraska are in favor of the death penalty.

In California, the ballot features two conflicting propositions — one that would repeal the death penalty and another that would keep it.  If both measures earn a majority of votes, whichever gets more will go into effect.  Most polls suggest the pro-death penalty measure will pass.

And in Oklahoma, the legality of capital punishment isn't up for a vote. Instead, voters will decide whether to add a section to the constitution that affirms the state’s authority to carry out executions, regardless of which method is used.  After several botched executions, the state halted any future ones until further notice. Oklahoma's ballot measure would also exempt the death penalty — but not specific methods of execution — from being invalidated by courts as cruel and unusual punishment.  "It takes away the debate on whether or not we should have capital punishment," said state Rep. John Paul Jordan in an interview with The Oklahoman.  "It allows us to direct our attention as a Legislature towards how we implement it and how we do it in the most humane way possible.”

Critics of the Oklahoma ballot question say the constitutional amendment is unnecessary, undermines the authority of the courts and could invite expensive lawsuits.  Several civil rights experts have raised concerns that the measure would strip citizens of their constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.  Nevertheless, a July poll found that more than 70 percent of likely voters supported the constitutional amendment.

Although polling in all three states suggest that a majority of voters support the death penalty, there's evidence that the framing of the question makes a major difference in how people respond. I n Oklahoma, when likely voters were asked if they supported the death penalty, three-quarters said yes.  But when given the option of eliminating the death penalty and replacing it with a life sentence without parole, along with other financial penalties, a slight majority favored a ban on the death penalty.

November 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 04, 2016

"Bridgegate" now a federal sentencing story after two former New Jersey officials convicted on all federal counts after lengthy jury deliberations

As regular readers know, I tend to avoid discussing high-profile criminal prosecutions unless and until they become interesting or important sentencing stories.  And then, perhaps problematically, once they become notable sentencing stories, I tend to discuss the cases too much.  These tendencies are going to be on full display now that the long-running so-called "Bridgegate" scandal this morning because a great sentencing story. This CNN piece explains, while concluding with an accurate and ridiculous sentencing point:

Two former officials linked to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's office were found guilty on all charges Friday in connection with the closure of lanes in 2013 on the George Washington Bridge in an act of alleged political retribution, the fallout for which has come to be known as Bridgegate. The news comes after nearly five days of deliberations from the jury.

Bridget Anne Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff to Christie, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, both faced seven counts of various charges including conspiracy, fraud, and civil rights deprivation.

The verdict is another setback in Christie's political career, following a controversy that spans nearly three years and put a significant dent in the Garden State Republican's presidential ambitions. Christie is heading planning behind Republican nominee Donald Trump's transition if he wins the presidency. CNN has reached out to the Trump campaign for comment and not yet gotten a response.

Prosecutors allege that the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge were part of a deliberate effort to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who did not endorse the Republican incumbent Christie in his 2013 re-election bid.  Emails and text messages released in January of 2014 form the basis of the charges. In one particularly damning email, Kelly told former Port Authority official David Wildstein, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee."  Kelly later said her messages contained "sarcasm and humor," and she claims that she had told Christie about traffic problems resulting from a study a day prior to sending the email....

Kelly and Baroni each face a maximum sentence of 86 years, according to Paul Fishman, the federal prosecutor in the case.

Though I am disinclined to accuse federal prosecutors of "overcharging" unless and until I know all the facts, the simple fact that the conviction on all counts here even presents the possibility of a sentence of 86 years in prison leads me to be more than a bit suspicious of how the feds approached this case. That concern aside, I feel pretty certain predicting (1) that now-convicted federal felons Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni are unlikely to be sentences to more than a few years in prison, and (2) that federal prosecutors are going to be inclined to ask for a pretty lengthy prison sentence for these two because they had the temerity to contest their guilt and put the feds through the bother of a lengthy trial, and (3) that a low-profile, high-impact legal question for Kelly and Baroni is whether they will be given bail pending what could be very lengthy appeals of their multiple convictions.

I have not followed this case closely enough to even begin to figure out what the advisory guideline calculations might look like in these cases, but I would love to hear from some informed folks about what they think Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni are now facing, formally or informally, as this long-running scandal becomes a fascinating federal sentencing case.

November 4, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Election 2016: astute views "this Year’s Soft-on-Crime Attack Ads"

Maurice Chammah has this effective new article at The Marshall Project taking a look at "Campaign ads in the age of criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts from how it starts and ends:

It’s campaign season, which means the long shadow of Willie Horton is with us yet again. George H.W. Bush’s 1988 attack ad, which blamed his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis for releasing a man who went on to commit more violent crimes, has become shorthand for a style of political advertising that continues to reappear every cycle. This year is no different.

But there are a few new approaches to these ads that may reflect larger trends in the politics of criminal justice....

“Most of these spots flinch when it comes to going for a pure fear appeal, à la Willie Horton,” says Robert Mann, a journalism professor at Louisiana State University who wrote a book on the 1964 “Daisy” ad. Mann noted that an attack ad about Democratic Connecticut state Sen. Mae Flexer — which criticizes her vote to repeal the state’s death penalty and support an early release program — “was careful to show several non-minority faces.” The attack on Kaine also features primarily white criminals.

This year, many ads in the Horton tradition focus on the subject of rape, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to women voters. In Houston, Texas, an ad accuses the incumbent district attorney, Republican Devon Anderson, of jailing a rape victim to ensure she would testify. Republican ads against North Carolina gubernatorial candidate Roy Cooper and Catherine Cortez Masto, who is running for a Senate seat from Nevada, accuse each of them of putting a low priority on testing rape kits and solving rape crimes in general.

Ads in North Carolina are targeting Deborah Ross, the Democratic challenger to Sen. Richard Burr, for her efforts on behalf of a 13-year-old named Andre Green, who was charged with sexually assaulting his 23-year-old neighbor while the victim’s toddler was in the room. In 1994, as an ACLU lobbyist, Ross advocated against placing Green in an adult court. “If Deborah Ross had her way, Green would be on our streets,” the ad says. In response, Ross released her own ad attacking Burr for being soft on sex criminals. The ad points out that Burr voted against the Violence Against Women Act, which includes funding for rape crisis centers, and voted against funding the federal sex offender registry (in truth, his vote was against a much broader budget bill).

Jonathan Davis, a partner at Northside Research + Consulting, an opposition research firm in New York, sees the trend as a tactical appeal to women in an election where their votes are not as predictable. Hillary Clinton “is poised to win a historic percentage of Republican women,” he says. “There is a large block of female voters in key states who know they're backing Clinton for president, but are still open to persuasion in down-ballot races.”

Some of those down-ballot candidates, including district attorney hopefuls in Florida and Colorado, are also trying different strategies with their advertising: they are using the language of criminal justice reform, calling for rehabilitation rather than prison for minor crimes. Colorado Democrat Beth McCann is running an ad featuring Francisco Gallardo, a former gang-member who now works with at-risk youth. In the ad, Gallardo says, "We need something that's more comprehensive, that's not just about building jails, but promoting the front end, building more empathy, more education, more opportunities...the reason Beth [McCann] can make those hard choices is she’s connected in the community."

But at the end of the day, despite these newer trends, the soft-on-crime attack endures. The best proof of its power is that even critics of mass incarceration are willing to use it. The most surprising Horton-esque attack this season comes from the suburbs of Denver, where a radio ad is targeting incumbent district attorney Peter Weir. The ad accuses Weir, a Republican, of signing off on a plea deal granting probation for Michael David Miller, a rapist with numerous alleged victims. (Weir told The Marshall Project that Miller’s crime would have been difficult to prove before a jury, and his office pursued Miller more aggressively than other jurisdictions where accusations were made.)

The ads were paid for by a political action committee linked to billionaire George Soros, who is actually trying to bolster the campaigns of reformers (Soros, through a spokesman, declined to comment). Soros’s chosen candidate, Jake Lilly, is running his own, separate ads promoting reform; he calls for treatment for people with addiction and mental health issues. Weir, the incumbent being attacked, is broadly in agreement; he has promoted the use of specialty courts to divert drug offenders from jail time. Lilly spoke out against the Soros-funded ads that were designed to help him. “I don’t approve of the tone,” he told a local reporter. “I don’t approve of the negativity.”

November 2, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

A timely (and heartwarming?) story of felon enfranshisement

Particularly during an election season that seems almost intentionally designed to make everyone too depressed to want to vote, this local story from Tennessee is about as close to a "feel-good" election season sentencing story as we are likely to find.  The story is headlined "Facing felony, he asked to vote first," and here are the highlights:

A young man went to federal court last week to plead guilty to a felony. He knew he was facing up to 20 years in prison.  He knew he was about to lose his freedom.  He didn't realize he was about to lose his right to vote.  "I've been wanting to vote all my life," said Reginald Albright, who turned 20 this year.

When he was a kid, Albright would go with his grandfather to a polling place and wait in the car. "You're too young to vote now," his grandfather would tell him. That only made Albright more eager to vote.

Four years ago, he wished he could have gone with his mother to Mt. Zion Baptist Church to vote for President Barack Obama.  He was 16, still too young to vote. His mother, Gloria Hill, was an election poll worker for the 2012 presidential election....  Albright said he has always felt an obligation to vote. "I know my history," he said. He knows his Mississippi ancestors were spat on, slapped, threatened or worse for merely trying to register to vote.

He knows they faced laws designed to inhibit or prevent them from voting -- taxes they couldn't possibly pay, tests they couldn't possibly pass, whites-only primaries.  He knows how hard and long they struggled to gain the right to vote, and how long and hard they struggled to be allowed the privilege of voting. "My family takes voting seriously and so do I," he said.  Albright could have voted in last year's city elections, but he wanted to cast his first vote for president. So he waited.

Meanwhile, he was trying to figure out how he could afford to go back to school.  Albright graduated from Carver High School in 2014. His mother still has his football and weightlifting trophies on top of the TV. "He's never given me any trouble," she said. "In fact, he wanted to become a police officer." Albright started taking classes at Southwest Tennessee Community College, then dropped out when his money ran out. When he turned 18, he lost his share of his disabled mother's Social Security benefits.

Albright admits that he conspired with two others to rob a CVS drugstore in Memphis last December. The attempted robbery was botched, but one of the other robbers had a gun.  Albright was just sitting outside in a car when it all happened, but he knows he has no one to blame but himself.  "I made a stupid decision and hurt a lot of people who care about me," said Albright, who had no previous criminal record. "I learned a lot of lessons."

Before he went into the courtroom to face the judge last week, Albright sat down with his attorney. By pleading guilty, the attorney explained, Albright would be rendered infamous. That meant he would be deprived of some of his rights as a citizen – his rights to have a gun, to sit on a jury, to hold public office.

"What about my right to vote?" Albright asked.

"You'd lose that, too," attorney Alex Wharton replied.

"Can I vote before I plead guilty?" Albright asked.

Wharton, son of former Mayor A C Wharton, couldn't believe what he was hearing. "People will spend $20 to go to a movie, but they won't take 20 minutes to go vote," Wharton said. "And the cost has already been paid . People fought and shed blood and died for the simple right and privilege just to cast a vote."

Wharton decided to ask the judge for a brief continuance so Albright could go vote. The U.S. attorney did not object. “The government had no objection in this case to the court allowing the defendant the opportunity to exercise his constitutional right to vote before pleading guilty," said U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III.

U.S. District Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr. said yes. "I've been in criminal law in some form or fashion as a lawyer or judge for 30 years, and I've never heard anyone ask that," Fowlkes said afterward. "It's an important right and I was glad to give that young man a chance to exercise it."

Albright left the courtroom with his mother. He pushed her wheelchair out of the federal building half a block up Front Street, then two blocks down Poplar to the Shelby County Election Commission.  They waited in line about half an hour. She pushed him to vote first. "I knew he'd been waiting a long time," she said.

After they both voted, Albright pushed his mother's wheelchair back to the federal building and into the courtroom.

"Did you vote?" the judge asked.

"Yes, sir," Albright said, pointing to his Tennessee-shaped "I Voted" sticker.

He thanked the judge for allowing him to vote for the first time in his life.  Then he pleaded guilty to a Class C felony and forfeited his right to vote.

He is scheduled to be sentenced in January. He faces up to 20 years in prison, but probation is an option. "It made me feel good to vote, to do this one time before it was taken away from me," he said. "Maybe I'll get another chance."

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Two new Washington Post commentaries making federal sentencin reform sound (way too) easy

The "In Theory" section of the Washington Post now has posted two notable new commentaries about prison reform.  Here are the authors, full titles and links:

Here is how the second of these two commentaries gets started:

When our next president enters the Oval Office, she or he will be faced with two questions: First, how to make a mark as president ? Second, how to break through gridlock in Congress?

Prioritizing reducing our prison population is one way to achieve both goals. Most Republicans and Democrats agree: Mass incarceration devastates communities of color and wastes money.  Even Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan see eye-to-eye. Committing to such reform in the first 100 days would make a lasting and imperative change.

Regular readers will not be surprised to know I support the spirit and much of the substance of these two commentaries.  But the "can-do" talk and the direct or indirect suggestion that this kind of reform should be "easy for the next president" really seem to me to miss the mark.  After all, Prez Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan and current Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley all right now largely "see eye-to-eye" on the importance of "reducing our prison population."  And yet, despite diligent work by lots and lots of folks on the federal reform front for more than two years now, Congress has so far been unable to get any kind of significant criminal justice reform bill to the desk of Prez Obama. 

Though I know the 2016 election is certain to disrupt the existing political status quo, I do not know if anything that happens at the voting booth next week can make it that much easier for the folks inside the Beltway to find their way to turn all sorts of talk into actual statutory reforms.  I sure hope advocates like those who authored these commentaries keep talking up the importance of making criminal justice reform a priority in 2017.  But, as I have been saying for too many years already, I am not counting any federal sentencing reform chickens until they are fully hatched.

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Is California's parole reform initiative, Prop 57, among the most important and consequential sentencing ballot issues?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in large part by this recent Los Angeles Times article headlined "Why Gov. Jerry Brown is staking so much on overhauling prison parole." Here are excerpts (with my emphasis added for later commentary):

Few California voters likely know much, if anything, about the state Board of Parole Hearings — from the qualifications of the 12 commissioners to their success in opening the prison gates for only those who can safely return to the streets.  And yet Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping overhaul of prison parole, Proposition 57, is squarely a question of whether those parole officials should be given additional latitude to offer early release to potentially thousands of prisoners over the next few years. “I feel very strongly that this is the correct move,” Brown told The Times in a recent interview. “I’m just saying, let’s have a rational process.”

Prosecutors, though, contend the governor’s proposal goes too far after several years of trimming down California’s prison population to only the most hardened criminals. They believe the parole board, whose members are gubernatorial appointees, already is swinging too far away from being tough on crime. “They are recommending release of people we never would have expected would have occurred so soon,” said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey. “I’m concerned about people who really haven’t served a significant amount of time.”

In some ways, Proposition 57 is a proxy for a larger battle over prison sentences.  There are sharp disagreements between Brown and many district attorneys over the legacy of California’s decades-long push for new and longer mandatory sentences, a system in which flexibility is often limited to which crimes a prosecutor seeks to pursue in court.  The warring sides have painted the Nov. 8 ballot measure in the starkest of terms, a choice for voters between redemption and real danger.  “We’re dealing with deep belief systems,” Brown said.

Proposition 57 would make three significant changes to the state’s criminal justice framework. It would require a judge’s approval before most juvenile defendants could be tried in an adult court — reversing a law approved by California voters in 2000.  Critics believe prosecutors have wrongly moved too many juveniles into the adult legal system, missing chances for rehabilitation.

What’s most in dispute are two other Proposition 57 provisions, either of which could result in adult prisoners serving less time than their maximum sentences. Brown tacked those two provisions onto the juvenile justice measure in January.  One would allow an expansion of good-behavior credits awarded by prison officials; the other gives new power to the state parole board to allow early release of prisoners whose primary sentences were not for “violent” crimes.

In an interview last week, the governor argued that his ballot measure would add a dose of deliberative thought to a process too often driven by elected district attorneys playing to the white-hot politics of sensational crimes. “Do you want the hurly burly of candidates, running for office, being the decision makers in the face of horrible headlines?” Brown asked. “Or would you rather have a quiet parole board, not now but 10 years later, deciding what's right?”

The governor’s plan, which amends the state constitution, would only allow parole after a prisoner’s primary sentence had been served — applying only to the months or years tacked on for additional crimes or enhancements.  And like the current system, a governor could override any parole board decision to release a prisoner.

Critics, though, think the parole board is already too eager to approve releases. Greg Totten, district attorney of Ventura County, said he believes parole board members are judged by how many prisoners they release.  “We don't have confidence that the parole board will consider our concerns about public safety or the crime victims' concerns,” Totten said.  “Those hearings have become much more adversarial than they originally were.”  Totten and other prosecutors warn that an influx of new requests for early release would overload parole board commissioners and send too many cases to their deputy commissioners, state civil servants whose decisions are made outside of public hearings.

Prosecutors and Brown have sparred mightily over the assertion that Proposition 57 would only expand parole opportunities for “nonviolent” felons, a term used prominently in the ballot measure’s official title and summary. In truth, the description only means that new parole opportunities wouldn’t apply to prisoners sentenced for one of 23 defined violent crimes in California’s penal code. That list includes crimes most voters would expect to see there, such as murder, sexual abuse of a child and kidnapping.  But in many ways, the list is porous.  Not all rape crimes, for example, are designated as “violent.” Prosecutors insist prisoners serving time for as many as 125 serious and dangerous crimes would be eligible for parole under Brown’s ballot measure.  Not surprisingly, the campaign opposing Proposition 57 is replete with images of felons who prosecutors allege could be released if the measure becomes law....

Brown, whose effort is supported by probation officers and leads in most every recent statewide public poll, suggests two overarching motivations. One is the specter of potential federal court-ordered prison releases, less likely now that massive prison overcrowding has abated after efforts to reduce penalties for less serious crimes and divert low-level offenders to county jails.  Still, the governor insists that Proposition 57 is a more thoughtful way to reduce the prison population than what could some day be chosen by federal judges.

The other, to hear him tell it, is an effort to undo some of what he did in the 1970s in pushing California toward more fixed, inflexible sentences for a variety of crimes. Brown said he now believes that many convicted felons are best judged not at the time of sentencing, but once they have had a chance to change their lives. “It allows flexibility,” the governor said. “I think this case is irrefutable to anyone with an open mind.”

The sentences I have highlighted above provide some account for why I think the Prop 57 vote is potentially so important, and not just in California. If California voters strongly support this parole reform initiative (and do so, perhaps, will also supporting the preservation of the death penalty in the state), elected official in California and perhaps other states may start to feel ever more comfortable that significant non-capital sentencing reforms have significant public support even during a period in which a number of prominent folks are talking a lot about an uptick in crime.  It also strikes me as quite significant that Gov Brown is still talking about the impact of the Supreme Court's Plata ruling about California prison overcrowding and justifying his reform efforts on these terms.

I have previously highlighted in this post why I think an Oklahoma ballot initiative on sentencing reform is similarly worth watching very closely. (That post from September was titled "Why Oklahoma is having arguably the most important vote in Campaign 2016 for those concerned about criminal justice reforms.") I expect that next week's post-election coverage of criminal justice issues will focus particularly on the results of big death penalty and marijuana reform votes. But I believe folks distinctly concerned about modern mass incarceration should be sure to examine and reflect upon the outcomes of these two non-capital, non-marijuana reform ballot initiatives in California and Oklahoma.

November 1, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Famous "war on drugs" voice now voicing support for marijuana reform: any questions?

This new MarketWatch article, headlined "War on drugs spokesman now supports marijuana legalization," gives me an excuse to flag an iconic 1980s public service announcement while reporting on its new symbolic significance:

The voice behind one of the war on drugs’ most iconic ads has cast a vote to legalize marijuana. During the height of the ’80s war on drugs that gave rise to the “Just Say No” campaign, actor John Roselius stared in an antidrug TV ad for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The ad featured Roselius frying an egg in a skillet to portray what happens to the brain while using drugs.

Roselius, who is now 72, recently told Colorado-based Rooster Magazine he voted “yes” on California’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Prop 64, which would legalize and regulate the use and sale of the plant to adults. “I’m 100% behind legalizing it, are you kidding? It’s healthier than alcohol,” Roselius told the publication.

And he’s not alone. Just ahead of the Nov. 8 election — in which five states will vote on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and four will vote on legalizing medical marijuana—a Gallup poll shows that 60% of Americans support legal marijuana use. That’s the highest percentage of support recorded in the 47-year trend, with support rising among all age groups in the past decade.

That follows a separate poll by Pew Research earlier in the month which found 57% of Americans support legalization. “The topline number obviously bodes well for the marijuana measures on state ballots next month,” said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority, an organization tasked with educating people and fighting for marijuana legalization. “More politicians — presidential candidates included — would do themselves a big favor to take note of the clear trend and then vocally support legislation catering to the growing majority of Americans who support modernizing failed marijuana policies.”

Roselius told Rooster Magazine he’d smoked marijuana in the ’60s, and that when he made the ad, he knew it didn’t fry the brain like an egg.

The war on drugs has been one of the most scrutinized and debated policies to come out of the Reagan era. Drug dealers were cast as violent villains and were blamed for devastating some of America’s cities. Incarceration rates shot higher and disproportionately affected men of color.

The cannabis industry has since fought back against that portrayal, calling for an end to arrests for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses. Roselius’ vote to legalize marijuana in California could help push one of the most important states in the movement to the forefront.

Of course, if you do have question about these matter, my blog Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform has a lot more coverage.  And, with that intro and a good excuse now, here is a review of some recent posts there (many of which are the fine work of my relatively new co-blogger):

October 26, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Is the death penalty in the United States really "nearing Its end"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new New York Times editorial headlined "The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End."  Here is the full text of the editorial:

Although the death penalty is still considered constitutional by the Supreme Court, Americans’ appetite for this barbaric practice diminishes with each passing year.  The signs of capital punishment’s impending demise are all around.

For the first time in nearly half a century, less than half of Americans said they support the death penalty, according to a Pew Research poll released last month.  While that proportion has been going down for years, the loss of majority support is an important marker against state-sanctioned killing.

At the same time, executions and new death sentences are at historic lows, and each year they go lower. In 2015 only 49 new death sentences were handed down, the lowest one-year total since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Since there were about 14,000 murders around the country last year, it’s easy to imagine that the small number of newly condemned people shows that the justice system is focusing on the “worst of the worst.”  But that’s wrong. In fact the crimes of the people sentenced to death are no worse than those of many others who escape that fate. Rather, nearly all of last year’s death sentences came from a tiny fraction of counties with three common features: overzealous prosecutors; inadequate public defenders; and a pattern of racial bias and exclusion. This was the key finding of a two-part report recently issued by the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School.

Even in the most death-friendly counties, public support appears to be fading. In two of the worst — Duval County in Florida and Caddo Parish in Louisiana — local prosecutors lost elections at least partly due to voters’ concerns about their stance on the death penalty. In other counties around the country, prosecutors are finding that aggressive advocacy for death sentences isn’t the selling point with the public that it once was.

In some of the biggest states, death-penalty systems are defunct or collapsing. Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a terrible state law that allowed nonunanimous juries to impose death sentences — increasing the likelihood that innocent people and those with intellectual or mental disabilities would be condemned.  A large number of Florida’s 386 death-row inmates could now receive new sentencing trials, or have their sentences thrown out altogether.

In California, which hasn’t executed anyone since 2006 even though more than 740 inmates sit on death row, voters will decide in November whether to eliminate capital punishment for good. A similar ballot initiative in 2012 was narrowly defeated. In 2014, a federal judge ruled that the state’s decades-long delays in capital cases violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (The decision was overturned by an appeals court on technical grounds the following year.)

While capital punishment is used rarely and only in some places, only a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court will ensure its total elimination. How close is the court to such a ruling? In recent dissenting opinions, three of the justices — Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor — have expressed deep misgivings about the death penalty’s repeated failure to meet the requirements of due process and equal protection. Justice Breyer has said it is “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment,” and has called for the court to consider whether it is constitutional at all.

The death penalty has escaped abolition before, but there are no longer any excuses: The nation has evolved past it, and it is long past time for the court to send this morally abhorrent practice to its oblivion.

I wonder if anyone who is a strong supporter of capital punishment will write (and get published) a response to this editorial which might be headlined something like "The Death Penalty, Poised for a Big Comeback."  That response might highlight that, according to polls in deep blue California, voters there are seemingly going to provide "majority support" for making more efficient in California "state-sanctioned killing."  That response might highlight that, in swing state Ohio, executive officials have been working extra hard to get the state's machinery of death operative again and have execution dates scheduled for nearly two dozen condemned murderers in 2017 and 2018.  That response might highlight that, in swing state Florida, the state legislature has been quick and eager to retain and revise its death penalty statutes every time a court has found constitutional problems with its application.  That response might highlight that, in deep blue Massachusetts, a federal jury in 2015 wasted little time in deciding that “worst of the worst” capital defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be condemned to die for his crime.  And that response might highlight that, in the most liberal national criminal justice administration of my lifetime, federal prosecutors of the Obama Administration were seemingly eager to pursue capital charges against the Charleston Church shooter Dylann Roof.

I could go on and on (mentioning, inter alia, developments in Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska and elsewhere), but my main point here is highlight the critical reality that the description of "death-penalty systems [as] defunct or collapsing" is largely a product of effective litigation by abolitionists and the work of courts, not really a reflection of a sea-change in public opinion or radical changes in the work of most legislatures and prosecutors in key regions of the United States.  The NYTimes editorial board my be right that we may soon see litigation by abolitionists achieve the ultimate success in the courts by having the Justices of the Supreme Court declare the death penalty per se unconstitutional.  But, absent some surprising political and social developments over the next few years, would-be abolitionists ought to be careful about counting chickens too soon.

October 24, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Anyone eager to predict the exact results of Nebraska Referendum 426, the state's "Death Penalty Repeal Veto Referendum"?

Images (15)Practically and politically, the most important vote this fall concerning the present and future of the death penalty will be taking place in California where voters will weigh in on competing initiatives offering to end or to mend capital punishment in the state.  But as highlighted effectively by this recent Marshall Project article, there are notable death penalty ballot questions before voters in two other states.  This article, headlined "Three States to Watch if You Care About the Death Penalty: Nebraska, Oklahoma, and California will test the prospects of abolition," provides an astute review of all the measures and it ends this way:

Pew’s national poll numbers aside, the death penalty for years now has been a regional punishment, not a national one, largely confined to the South and West, where skirmishes over its application will continue to play out the way we see it this election.  A mixed verdict on the four measures won’t change the national narrative reflected in the latest polls. But if the death penalty is restored in Nebraska, protected in Oklahoma, and expedited in California, we’ll know there are clear popular limits to the abolitionist movement.  And if voters choose to keep the death penalty dead in Nebraska, kill it in California and leave it be in Oklahoma, the latest poll numbers will look more like a trend. Either way, these local battles, and not some grand pronouncement from the Supreme Court in Washington, are how the future of capital punishment will be decided.

There has been a good bit of (not-so-clear) recent polling on the death penalty issues in California, and Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequence unpacks the latest polling in this new post speculating that the "mend-the-death-penalty" initiative might win in a landslide.  Meanwhile, I cannot find any recent polling from Nebraska on its Referendum 426, the state's "Death Penalty Repeal Veto Referendum."  That reality has prompted the question in the title of this post, along with this notable new local article from the Cornhusker state headlined "Catholic Church intensifies effort to abolish Nebraska’s death penalty."

I am inclined to predict that Nebraska voters will end up reversing the repeal of the death penalty in the state.  This prediction is based not only on Nebraska's status as a solid "red state," but also on the reality that pro-capital-punishment forces in the state have significant resources and a high-profile leader thanks to Gov. Pete Ricketts. (This recent article discusses some recent campaign funding realities under the headlined "Gov. Ricketts gives another $100,000 — for a total of $300,000 — to pro-death penalty group.")  

For a variety of symbolic and practical reasons, I think the exact voting percentages on Referendum 426 could be nearly as important as which side prevails.  If the vote end up reasonably  close either way (e.g., if the winning side gets less than 60% of the vote), I suspect the losing side can and will suggest that it could have prevailed with more resources and more time to educate voters.  But if one side wins big after this issue has been garnering attention in the state, I think the vote will be (perhaps rightly) viewed by national advocates as a very  clear indication of what folks in the heartland think about the present and future of capital punishment.

Helpfully, some media in Nebraska are do their part seeking to educate voters as revealed by these links to special coverage:

October 23, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Terrific Marshall Project review of notable (but lower-profile) criminal justice initiatives going to voters in various states

18702169.548e53c77fc3cThe always great work done by the folks at The Marshall Project continues be especially helpful for election-season coverage through its "Crime On The Ballot" series which keeps tabs on the "ballot measures and races — beyond Washington — that could shape criminal justice."   And this week brought this new piece on state ballot initiatives headlined "It’s Not Just Pot and the Death Penalty: Four important ballot measures you probably haven’t heard of."  I recommend the extended piece in full, and here are excerpts:

High-profile state ballot measures on contentious issues like the death penalty, guns and pot are closely watched as indicators of the national mood.  But this election season also brings less-noticed proposals that may have more far-reaching effects.  Here are four ballot measures in six states that could serve as laboratories for other states.

Shortening Time Served for Nonviolent Felonies: California

California has a long history of putting criminal justice policy on the ballot: the state’s infamous “Three Strikes” law was strengthened by a ballot initiative in 1994; then, with voters’ appetite for mass incarceration on the wane, the law was partially repealed by another initiative in 2012.  In 2014, voters downgraded several major felonies to misdemeanors — most notably, possession of heroin and other illegal drugs. Now, with the state under a federal mandate to reduce its prison population, Californians will consider a constitutional amendment to make certain prisoners eligible for earlier release.

Under the current law, sentences for many felonies can be “enhanced” with additional prison time if the person committing the crime is classified as a gang member, for example, or has other felony convictions on his record. Under the state’s “determinate sentencing” provision, prisoners must serve their entire term, enhancements and all. Proposition 57 would undo that requirement for those whose crimes are classified as “nonviolent,” making prisoners eligible for parole after they’ve served the full term for their primary crime.  The proposition also creates a system of early-release credits that inmates can earn by participating in education and rehabilitation programs....

Bail Reform: New Mexico

When someone is accused of a crime in New Mexico, the law requires he or she be sent home under “the least restrictive conditions necessary to reasonably assure both the defendant’s appearance in court and the safety of the community.”  In other words, jail should be a last resort, reserved for the most dangerous defendants or those most likely to flee.  But that’s rarely what happens, says Charles Daniels, Chief Justice of the state’s Supreme Court. “Everybody has just grown so used to this notion that if you are accused of a crime, you have to pay somebody some money to get out of jail.  Our judges have just gotten so used to putting a price tag on your presumption of innocence,” he says.

Research from around the country shows that tens of thousands of people are routinely held in jail for low-level offenses because they don’t have small sums of money to make bail.  Daniels has spearheaded an effort to overhaul the state’s bail system; a ballot measure this November would amend the state constitution to include a rule that no one should be held in jail solely because they can’t afford bail — and would make it harder for defendants to get out if they are dangerous.  In almost every state, people accused of crimes have a “right to bail”: Regardless of how dangerous the defendant, or how serious a flight risk, a judge can’t hold anyone outright.  Instead, judges who want a defendant held set a too-high bail amount that they hope the defendant can’t afford. “It’s a shell game,” says Daniels.  The ballot measure would remove “right to bail”, and the constitution would be amended to say judges can deny bail if, after a hearing, they feel someone is too dangerous to be released....

Writing Victims' Rights Into the Constitution: North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana

Three states this November will vote on an almost identical ballot measure that would create sweeping new protections for crime victims.  Called “Marsy’s Law,” “this is an equal rights campaign to strengthen victims’ rights so they’re equal to rights that criminal offenders have,” according to Jason Glodt, a former prosecutor managing the campaign in South Dakota.  Marsy’s Law is named for Marsalee Nicholas, who was killed by her boyfriend in 1983.  A week after her murder, her mother “walked into a grocery store after visiting her daughter’s grave and was confronted by the accused murderer.  She had no idea that he had been released on bail,” according to the Marsy’s Law website.

The amendments would require that victims be notified at every major step of the criminal justice process, one of more than a dozen new rights, including the right to withhold records, the right to refuse to be deposed or interviewed, and the right to speak at hearings.  The amendments would also broaden the definition of “victim”; in some states, like North Dakota, current victim protection laws are only triggered in the case of a serious crime like assault or murder.  Under Marsy’s Law, “victim” would include those who had their purses snatched — and their “spouse, parent, grandparent, child, sibling, grandchild, or guardian, and any person with a relationship to the victim that is substantially similar to a listed relationship."...

De-Felonizing Drug Possession: Oklahoma

By its own count, Oklahoma has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country (after Louisiana), and the highest rate of incarcerated women.  Seventy-five percent of those behind bars are there for nonviolent offenses — most commonly, drug offenses.  Two ballot measures poised to pass this November aim to change that.  The first, SQ 780, would downgrade simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, and raise the “felony theft threshold” —the dollar value of a stolen item that triggers felony rather than misdemeanor charges — from $500 to $1000.  A corresponding measure, SQ 781, directs cost savings generated by SQ 780 into a special fund that would pay for mental health and substance abuse services.  The measures are backed by a coalition of both right- and left-leaning organizations, including the ACLU and the Family Policy Institute of Oklahoma.Local sheriffs and prosecutors warn that without the threat of felony charges, prosecutors lose the leverage they need to compel people to participate in drug court, accept plea deals, or to testify in other cases.  Sheriffs fear that all these new misdemeanor arrests will simply shift overcrowding in prisons to the jails.

The measures come at a time when Oklahoma has been contemplating criminal justice reform (spurred, in part, by a budget crunch caused by falling oil prices). In April, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a package of bills aimed at shrinking the prison population, including one that reduces mandatory minimums for drug possession and one that broadens the use of drug courts and community sentencing.  The state is also undergoing a Justice Reinvestment process; a task force researching the drivers of the state’s incarceration rate will submit an additional series of recommended bills next year.  The success of those bills is staked, to a certain extent, on these ballot initiatives.

October 19, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"Could Atticus Finch get elected?"

ToKillMockngbrd_150PyxurzThe question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Kevin Burke, who is a state trial judge in Minnesota and past president of the American Judges Association. Here are excerpts:

Atticus Finch, the fictional lawyer in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” passionately believed in justice. He didn't like criminal law, yet he accepted the appointment to represent Tom Robinson, an African-American man charged with raping a young white girl. The story, set in Maycomb County, Alabama, in the early 1930s, portrays a lawyer who felt that the justice system should be colorblind. Had Atticus Finch run for office after the trial, could he have been elected?

A web video from the Republican National Committee darkly portrays Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine as having “protected the worst kinds of people” on death row as a defense attorney.  The video features Lem Tuggle, whom Kaine defended on rape and murder charges. Tuggle was eventually executed. The video also focuses on Richard Lee Whitley, who was executed despite what the Richmond Times-Dispatch described as “about 1,000 hours of largely free legal work” on Kaine's part.  We admire Atticus Finch, so why is it that Kaine’s defense of death penalty defendants is treated differently?

Representing unpopular clients has a long tradition in the American legal system.  John Adams represented British soldiers accused of murder in the 1770 Boston Massacre. Before agreeing to represent the British soldiers (who were that era’s terrorists), Adams worried about his reputation.  Yet, he said of his experience, “The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.”  John Adams was elected president of the United States.  In an age of 24-hour cable, Willie Horton ads, and internet-driven misinformation, could Adams be elected president today?

Paul Clement was a superstar appellate lawyer in the Bush administration.  After resigning as solicitor general of the United States, he joined King & Spalding as a partner. Clement agreed to represent the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, the law that federally defined marriage as between one man and one woman.  Shortly thereafter, King & Spalding withdrew from the case, and Clement promptly resigned from the firm to continue his representation. He said, "Representation should not be abandoned because the client's legal position is extremely unpopular in certain quarters." Clement’s decision to leave his firm had a notable defender: Attorney General Eric Holder.  Holder said, “In ... representing Congress in connection with DOMA, I think he is doing that which lawyers do when we’re at our best ... [the] criticism, I think, was very misplaced.”

“Mr. Clement’s statement misses the point entirely,” Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters, wrote in The New York Times. “While it is sometimes appropriate for lawyers to represent unpopular clients when an important principle is at issue, here the only principle he wishes to defend is discrimination and second-class citizenship for gay Americans.”

Paul Clement will likely never run for public office, but there are those who speculate Clement may someday be nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court.  The confirmation process has become quite partisan.  Would it be fair to deny him confirmation because of his representation of a client and defense of a ban on gay marriage?

In 2014, the Senate rejected the nomination of Debo Adegbile to be chief of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Adegbile's nomination was rejected because as an executive of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he worked on a series of briefs made on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1991. Every Republican senator voted against Adegbile and several Democrats joined them.  “I made a conscientious decision [to vote against Adegbile] after talking to the wife of the victim,” Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin told reporters.  After talking with gay victims of discrimination would it be appropriate for a senator to vote against Paul Clement?...

Edward Bennett Williams was among the greatest trial lawyers of the last century. He represented a slew of unpopular clients, including Jimmy Hoffa, organized crime figures Sam Giancana and Frank Costello, as well as Sen. Joe McCarthy. In a speech given to the New York State Bar Association, Williams argued there was an epidemic of “guilt by client,” and warned of the “insidious identification” that would scare off lawyers from standing by the unpopular and degraded. Williams said, “When a doctor takes out Earl Browden's appendix, nobody suggests that the doctor is a Communist [Browden was the head of the American Communist Party]. When a lawyer represents Browden, everybody decides that lawyer must be a Communist, too.”...

Not every lawyer has the skill to represent a person facing the death penalty, nor the skill to argue before the Supreme Court. The video suggests you should not vote for Kaine because he had that skill, but should we embrace the demagoguery of the video used against him? This is not an issue about lawyers’ ethics; it is about what each of us wants from the American system of justice.

John Ferguson was executed after he tricked his way into a woman’s home and bound, blindfolded, and then shot eight people. Six of them died. While under indictment for those crimes, Ferguson murdered two teenagers on their way to church. What kind of lawyer would defend John Ferguson? The lawyer was Chief Justice John Roberts.

October 11, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Is supposedly "tough-on-crime" GOP Senator (and former federal prosecutor) Jeff Sessions actually not-so-tough on sexual assault?

The provocative question in the title of this post is my reaction to seeing these two new (right-leaning-source) stories about comments made last night by Alabama GOP Senator (and former US Attorney) Jeff Sessions:

From RedState here, "Senator Jeff Sessions Unsure Whether Grabbing Women by Their Genitals is Sexual Assault"

From the Weekly Standard here, "Jeff Sessions: Behavior Described by Trump in 'Grab Them by the P---y' Tape Isn't Sexual Assault"

One of many notable aspects of GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump's campaign has been the fact that his three most-prominent political surrogates are all former US Attorneys: Chris Christie was US Attorney for New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, Rudy Giuliani was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1983 to 1989, and Jeff Sessions was US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama from 1981 to 1993.  I have long assumed that this notable troika of US Attorneys advising Trump has played a significant role in Trump's effort to brand himself as the "law-and-order" candidate.

As regular readers surely know, I often have a number of different perspectives on a number of crime and punishment issues than do many current and former US Attorneys.  As I also hope readers also realize, I always have had a significant amount of respect for the professional honesty and personal integrity of current and former US Attorneys.  But Senator Sessions' statements reported above (as well as some other actions by Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani in recent weeks and months) has really dealt a significant blow to my continued ability to have continued respect for the professional honesty and personal integrity of at least some former US Attorneys.

UPDATE: This local article reports on Senator Sessions' effort to clarify his remarks under the headline, "Sen. Jeff Sessions denies dismissing Trump's lewd video comments: 'Crystal clear' sexual assault unacceptable."

October 10, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (94)

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Reviewing the nature and stakes for death penalty ballot initiatives in three states

This lengthy new AP article, headlined "Repeal or Reform? Death Penalty Voter Decisions for 3 States," provides a useful rundown of the capital punishment issues coming before voters next month in three states. Here is how the article gets started:

California's dysfunctional death penalty faces a fate in November that seems fitting: voters can put it out of its misery, or fix it so it does what it promises. The state is among three where voters will make decisions on capital punishment. California's ballot initiatives — one would repeal capital punishment, the other would speed up appeals so convicted murderers are actually executed — are fueled by those who agree only that the current system is broken, leaving murder victims' kin grieving and the condemned languishing on death row.

Meanwhile, voters in Nebraska will be asked whether they want to reinstate the death penalty and Oklahoma residents will decide whether to make it harder to abolish it.

In California, more than 900 convicted murderers have been sent to death row since 1978 — but only 13 have been executed in the state. Many more have died of natural causes and no one has been put to death in more than a decade after a judge ordered an overhaul to the state's lethal injection procedure.

The votes for the three states come amid an evolution for capital punishment in the U.S. Executions have mostly been in decline since the turn of the century and last year reached their lowest level in 25 years, with 28 prisoners killed. Capital punishment has been either legislatively or judicially repealed in eight states since 2000, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

October 8, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 07, 2016

Am I crazy to actually be expecting a marijuana (or drug war/opioid) question during Sunday's town-hall Prez debate?

Especially because neither marijuana reform nor the opioid epidemic came up during the the first Prez debate (or the VP debate), I am actually anticipating that these topics will be raised in some way during the town-hall debate scheduled for this coming Sunday.  As regular readers of my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog might guess, I think the very best question to ask the candidates could link these topics.  Specifically, here is the question I would love to see asked on Sunday:

"Given the evidence emerging from a number of early studies that opioid use and abuse has generally been reduced in those states that have reformed their marijuana laws, will you commit your Administration in its first 100 days to move federal law away from blanket marijuana prohibition?"

I welcome readers to suggest their own questions on these topics in the comments (and recent posts at my other blog provides plenty of ideas for all sorts of possible questions):

October 7, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, October 06, 2016

"6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016"

E6092bbb47a17ed3d778bf40f917-convicted-felons-votingThe title of this post is the title of this timely new study on felony disenfranchisement released today by The Sentencing Project and authored by researchers Christopher Uggen, Ryan Larson, and Sarah Shannon. Here is the start of the report's "Overview" section:  

The United States remains one of the world’s strictest nations when it comes to denying the right to vote to citizens convicted of crimes. An estimated 6.1 million Americans are forbidden to vote because of “felony disenfranchisement,” or laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felony-level crimes.

In this election year, the question of voting restrictions is once again receiving great public attention.  This report is intended to update and expand our previous work on the scope and distribution of felony disenfranchisement in the United States (see Uggen, Shannon, and Manza 2012; Uggen and Manza 2002; Manza and Uggen 2006). The numbers presented here represent our best assessment of the state of felony disenfranchisement as of the November 2016 election.

Our key findings include the following:

• As of 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a figure that has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased.  There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, and 5.85 million in 2010.

• Approximately 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population — 1 of every 40 adults — is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.

• Individuals who have completed their sentences in the twelve states that disenfranchise people post-sentence make up over 50 percent of the entire disenfranchised population, totaling almost 3.1 million people.

• Rates of disenfranchisement vary dramatically by state due to broad variations in voting prohibitions. In six states — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia — more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised.

• The state of Florida alone accounts for more than a quarter (27 percent) of the disenfranchised population nationally, and its nearly 1.5 million individuals disenfranchised post-sentence account for nearly half (48 percent) of the national total.

• One in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-African Americans.  Over 7.4 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population.

• African American disenfranchisement rates also vary significantly by state. In four states — Florida (21 percent), Kentucky (26 percent), Tennessee (21 percent), and Virginia (22 percent) — more than one in five African Americans is disenfranchised.

This report reinforces my view that Prez candidate Donald Trump is right about one thing: our election system is "rigged." But when he makes that claim, I am pretty sure he is not complaining about the facts detailed in this study documenting why and where about "2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population — 1 of every 40 adults — is disenfranchised."

October 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Leading VP candidates talk a bit (encouragingly?) about criminal justice reform their only debate

There was a little discussion of policing, sentencing and criminal justice reform at last night's vice presidential debate, and I found most notable the fact that the GOP's VP candidate Mike Pence at one point said plainly and without reservation "We need criminal justice reform."  (The Democrats' GOP VP candidate Tim Kaine also talked, somewhat unsurprisingly, about the death penalty when asked how his personal faith created challenges for him in make political decisions.)  Perhaps even more important than the Gov Pence's simple statement that we "need" criminal justice reform was this further explanation of what he meant in this Q&A with the debate moderator (with my emphasis added):

QUIJANO: Your fellow Republican, Governor Pence, Senator Tim Scott, who is African-American, recently spoke on the Senate floor. He said he was stopped seven times by law enforcement in one year.... He said, "I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness, and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you're being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself." What would you say to Senator Scott about his experiences?

PENCE: Well, I have the deepest respect for Senator Scott, and he's a close friend. And what I would say is that we -- we need to adopt criminal justice reform nationally. I -- I signed criminal justice reform in the state of Indiana, Senator, and we're very proud of it.

I worked when I was Congress on a second chance act. We have got to do a better job recognizing and correcting the errors in the system that do reflect on institutional bias in criminal justice.

These statements reinforces my belief that, once we get fully through this election cycle, there is a really good chance that the still-growing bipartisan consensus supporting some form of federal statutory sentencing reform will finally be able to get some form of some bill through both houses of Congress and to the desk of the new President.  Of course, who wins seats in Congress and who is the new Prez and VP will certainly significantly impact what ends up in a federal statutory sentencing reform bill that gets to the desk of the new Prez.  But now hearing GOP's VP candidate Pence talking up the "need" to adopt criminal justice reform "nationally" has me now distinctly (and foolishly?) optimistic that some kind of statutory reforms will be signed into law sometime during the next Congress.

For more background on what both leading VP candidates have said and done on the criminal justice reform front, I recommend this new Huffington Post article headlined "Here’s How Tim Kaine And Mike Pence Measure Up On Criminal Justice: The two vice presidential candidates have pushed for similar criminal justice policies at times." 

October 5, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

On eve of VP debate, a deep dive into "Tim Kaine’s Long, Conflicted History With The Death Penalty"

Tim_Kaine,_official_113th_Congress_photo_portraitBuzzFeed News reporter Chris Geidner (who just happens to be one of my favorite former students) did some important yeoman's work recently by looking closely at Democratic VP candidate's long professional engagement with capital punishment. The subheadline of BuzzFeed's lengthy report highlights its themes: "As a lawyer, the Democratic vice presidential nominee took cases defending death-row inmates, arguing that parts of Virginia’s death penalty process made the system 'shockingly unequal.' When he was governor, however, he allowed executions to proceed, even when some of those issues were raised again." I recommend the piece in full, and here is how it gets started:

In 2005, Tim Kaine faced a tight race for governor. He was running against Jerry Kilgore, then the state’s attorney general, and Kilgore was hitting him hard on the death penalty.

Two decades earlier, Kaine had arrived in Virginia a new lawyer who immediately called up the ACLU and asked how he could help. When he was asked to take over a death penalty appeal, he initially turned it down — but then changed his mind, believing that he had to put his principles to work. “The essence of human life is probably suffering and pain,” he would tell the Richmond Times-Dispatch, discussing the death penalty and his Catholicism. “The thing that redeems that is the presence of God in every person.”

Kaine took on representation of Richard Whitley — sentenced to death for a brutal murder in 1980 — and spent more than two years trying, ultimately unsuccessfully, to stop his execution. For Kaine, it wasn’t just about making sure an adversarial system worked properly — he called the death penalty in America “outrageous” in the extensive interview with the Times-Dispatch. Whitley was just the first of a handful of death row inmates that Kaine would try to keep from execution over the course of 15 years, working on behalf of the kind of convicted murderers whose stories do not make for sympathetic coverage.

And, in 2005, Kilgore reminded voters of just that. His campaign produced television ads that featured the family members of people killed in Virginia. In one, the wife of a police officer killed by “a drug dealer illegally in this country” who was on death row, expressed a concern that Kaine would put in place a death penalty moratorium. In another, the father of the man killed by one of the death row inmates who Kaine had represented said that Kaine’s death penalty opposition was so extreme that the would-be governor wouldn’t support the death penalty for Adolf Hitler.

Kaine had made a decision early on in his campaign that the response would be to reiterate his personal opposition to the death penalty, to explain that the position was informed by his Catholic faith, and then to say that he would follow the law and enforce the death penalty as governor. When the attack ads ran, the response ad had already been prepared. The attack didn’t appear to do any damage in the long run, and it may even have turned some voters against Kilgore because the ads were seen as unfair — or even as attacking Kaine’s faith. Kaine ultimately won the race on Election Day, 52%-46%, and took office on Jan. 14, 2006.

Less than three months later, Kaine would be faced with the convergence of two threads in his life — his work as a capital defense lawyer and his promise to enforce the death penalty — when he received a petition seeking executive clemency for Dexter Lee Vinson on April 13, 2006. Vinson was scheduled to be executed two weeks later, and his lawyers, including those from the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center, held out hope that the new governor would take action to halt the scheduled execution.

In the clemency petition, obtained by BuzzFeed News, the lawyers wrote, “If this execution is carried out as scheduled, troubling questions about whether Vinson is innocent of the crimes for which he will be put to death will remain unresolved.” Specifically, the lawyers wrote, “The unique combination of newly discovered evidence, undeveloped evidence, and singular circumstances of Vinson’s case rattle the confidence the Commonwealth must have before taking an irremediable action like execution.”

Kaine denied clemency to Vinson and his execution took place on April 27, 2006, the first of 11 executions that took place under Kaine’s governorship. In that time, Kaine only commuted one death sentence, that of Percy Walton, who faced the death penalty for three murders. In 2008, Kaine concluded Walton was not mentally competent to face execution and commuted his sentence to life in prison.

“What I told Virginians was, ‘I’m against the death penalty, but I’ll uphold the law,’ and I did that,” Kaine said this June in a C-SPAN interview about his life and career. Of considering, and ultimately rejecting, most of the clemency petitions that came before him, he said, “Very, very difficult — the hardest thing in public life I’ve had to do was that. … I grappled with the cases, but only gave relief to people who I felt had made a case that they were entitled to clemency.”

Over the course of the past three decades, Tim Kaine’s experience with the death penalty is far more complex and nuanced than that of any other major party candidate for the presidency or vice presidency in the modern era of the death penalty. Kaine has represented multiple people on death row, seeking to highlight what he has described as a “shockingly unequal” system, and he also has governed one of the few states that has continued to carry out executions regularly over the past decade.

The questions Kaine raised as a defense lawyer were mostly related to process — from the time given for federal court review of cases and the rules that Virginia state courts had for review of capital cases to the quality of the lawyers provided to criminal defendants in those cases and the way those lawyers carried out that defense — but that process, as Kaine said at the time, is sometimes the difference between life and death.  “If you had enough money to pay” for a top-tier criminal defense attorney at trial, he said at the time of Whitley’s execution, “you’re not going to get the death penalty.”

And yet, a decade later, in his four years as governor, Kaine found himself in the position of denying clemency requests in cases where those and other similar issues were being raised by people facing execution under his watch.

October 4, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 03, 2016

Prez Candidate Clinton promises “end to end reform in our criminal justice system — not half-measures, but full measures"

This new Politico article reports on the latest criminal justice reform promise by a vote-seeking politician under this full headline: "Clinton promises 'end to end' criminal justice reform in pitch to black voters: Visiting Charlotte less than two weeks after a controversial police shooting, the Democrat makes makes an appeal to the voters she needs to beat Donald Trump in North Carolina."  Here are excerpts from the piece:

In a humble church with a familiar name, Little Rock A.M.E. Zion, Hillary Clinton on Sunday made a passionate case for police reform and a direct appeal to the city's black voters, whose support she needs to win this swing state.

Less than two weeks after the death of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man killed by police, Clinton arrived here Sunday morning with a message of sympathy for a grieving community and political promises, including “end to end reform in our criminal justice system — not half-measures, but full measures.”

She acknowledged that when it comes to understanding the plight of black families in America, she will never be able to replicate the symbolic empathy of President Barack Obama. “I’m a grandmother, but my worries are not the same as black grandmothers who have different and deeper fears about the world that their grandchildren face,” Clinton said. “I wouldn’t be able to stand it if my grandchildren had to be scared and worried, the way too many children across our country feel right now."

Clinton’s visit to Charlotte was critical — she was so eager to visit that the campaign announced a trip last Sunday, when the city was still grappling with violent protests and looting. The trip was ultimately delayed by a week at the request of local lawmakers.  On Sunday, she was accompanied by her senior policy adviser Maya Harris, longtime aide Capricia Marshall and senior staffer Marlon Marshall, who is overseeing the campaign’s African-American outreach.

Clinton’s challenge in North Carolina, where current polls put her trailing Donald Trump by about 3 points, is boosting the African-American vote that landed Obama a victory in 2008, when he won a state that had gone to the Republican nominee in the previous seven presidential election cycles.  The key was Mecklenburg County, which includes the city of Charlotte, where Obama beat John McCain by more than 100,000 votes....

Clinton has spoken out on criminal justice reform and "systematic racism" consistently since she launched her campaign. But she is still struggling to inspire young black voters, who remain resistant to her message of reform and lack institutional loyalty to the Democratic Party....

In her remarks, Clinton was careful to couch her call for reforms with support for law and order. “We must not forget that violence has touched the lives of police officers,” she said.  “From Dallas to Baton Rouge to Philadelphia, the families of fallen officers have been dealt a great blow.”  But the focus of her address was to the hurting black community.  “We need to fix a system where too many black parents are taken from their kids and imprisoned for minor offenses,” she said.

October 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Sunday election season democracy/freedom fun: guess the political speaker, the party and the context for a potent quotable about "the degenerate vote"

I love reading books about American political and social history, especially in the midst of of an yet another overwrought election season, and the one I am reading now had this remarkable quote that I just could not resist sharing as early voting begins in many jurisdictions for just the very latest and greatest "most important election of our lifetime."   When thinking about how best to share this quote, I figured it might be fun on this Sunday to encourage readers to try to guess who said the following, representing what party, and in what context.  The source of the quote will appear after the break, but here is first the potent quote:

"It is the degenerate vote that has in the past overwhelmed the liberties of free people.  And it is the degenerate vote in our big cities that is a menace to our institutions." 

This quote's repeated reference to the "degenerate vote" especially struck a chord with me in the wake of Hillary Clinton's infamous recent statement about half of Donald Trump's supporters being a "basket of deplorables."

But I also could not help but think about the on-going fight in Virginia over trying to have former felons enfranchised or national fights over voting rights to reflect another set of view on the potential harms of "the degenerate vote."

And, for a real hint about the context for the quote, readers might also consider my own research interests in how marijuana reform initiatives might be helping to turn out certain voters.

So, dear readers, before clicking through, perhaps comment on or at least think about who you think might be the political speaker, the party and the context for this potent quotable concerning "the degenerate vote."

 

 

HobsonAnswer: this quote is attributed, in the book I am now reading, to Richmond Pearson Hobson who was a United States Navy Rear Admiral and who served from 1907–1915 as a Democratic U.S. Representative from Alabama.  Rep Hobson was a decorated veteran of the Spanish–American War, and he is famous in part because, after being denied renomination in the 1914 Democratic primary, he became the only Congressman from the Deep South to vote for the (failed) women's suffrage bill in the 1915 lame-duck session of Congress.

As his vote for women's suffrage bill suggests, Hobson was not referencing women voters back a century ago when decrying "the degenerate vote."  Rather, Hobson was fond of using the term "degenerate" to reference those men who consumed alcohol, and he did so because he believed quite strongly that science proved that alcohol turned men into degenerates.  This perspective is on full display in this lengthy speech in support of alcohol prohibition delivered by Hobson 102 years ago on the floor of the US House of Representatives, where he explained his views and built the argument for a Prohibition amendment to the US constitution:

The first finding of science that alcohol is a protoplasmic poison and the second finding that it is an insidious, habit-forming drug, though of great importance, are as unimportant when compared with the third finding, that alcohol degenerates the character of men and tears down their spiritual nature.... Alcohol tears down the top part of the brain in a man, attacks certain tissues in an animal, certain cells in a flower. It has been established that whatever the line of a creature's evolution alcohol will attack that line. Every type and every species is evolving in building from generation to generation along some particular line. Man is evolving in the top part of the brain, the seat of the will power, the seat of the moral senses, and of the spiritual nature, the recognition of right and wrong, the consciousness of God and of duty and of brotherly love and of self-sacrifice.....

Science has thus demonstrated that alcohol is a protoplasmic poison, poisoning all living things; that alcohol is a habit-forming drug that shackles millions of our citizens and maintains slavery in our midst; that it lowers in a fearful way the standard of efficiency of the Nation, reducing enormously the national wealth, entailing startling burdens of taxation, encumbering the public with the care of crime, pauperism, and insanity; that it corrupts politics and public servants, corrupts the Government, corrupts the public morals, lowers terrifically the average standard of character of the citizenship, and undermines the liberties and institutions of the Nation; that it undermines and blights the home and the family, checks education, attacks the young when they are entitled to protection, undermines the public health, slaughtering, killing, and wounding our citizens many fold times more than war, pestilence, and famine combined; that it blights the progeny of the Nation, flooding the land with a horde of degenerates; that it strikes deadly blows at the life of the Nation itself and at the very life of the race, reversing the great evolutionary principles of nature and the purposes of the Almighty.

There can be but one verdict, and that is this great destroyer must be destroyed. The time is ripe for fulfillment. The present generation, the generation to which we belong, must cut this millstone of degeneracy from the neck of humanity....

To cure this organic disease we must have recourse to the organic law. The people themselves must act upon this question. A generation must be prevailed upon to place prohibition in their own constitutional law, and such a generation could be counted upon to keep it in the Constitution during its lifetime. The Liquor Trust of necessity would disintegrate. The youth would grow up sober. The final, scientific conclusion is that we must have constitutional prohibition, prohibiting only the sale, the manufacture for sale, and everything that pertains to the sale, and invoke the power of both Federal and State Governments for enforcement. The resolution is drawn to fill these requirements.

October 2, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, September 30, 2016

Could major federal statutory sentencing reform happen ASAP if Democrats take back Senate this election cycle?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Politico article headlined "Ryan, McConnell split on prospects of criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts (with one line emphasized with my comments to follow):

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were on opposite pages Thursday on the prospects of passing criminal justice reform — another hurdle facing proponents hoping to get a bill to the president’s desk this fall.

Speaking at a news conference, Ryan (R-Wis.) doubled down on his commitment to advance legislation to reduce nonviolent drug sentencing requirements once lawmakers return to Washington in November.  The issue is a top priority for Ryan personally — though his House GOP conference is lukewarm at best, with some members concerned about looking soft on crime.  “I think it’s good legislation, I think the time has come, and we’re going to advance this issue as far as we can,” Ryan said.

Just a few minutes before that on the other side of the Capitol, though, McConnell offered a much different take. “It’s very divisive in my conference,” the majority leader from Kentucky said. “I’ve got very, very smart capable people, without regard to ideology, who have very different views on that issue. Whether we can take something up that controversial in that limited amount of time available, I doubt.”

Criminal justice reform has pitted big-name conservatives like the Koch brothers who back the idea against law-and-order Republicans like Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama. It's unclear whether the political risk and calculation for Republicans will change after the election. Democrats broadly favor reform.

Ryan was bullish about getting it done. “We do know we have more work to do to talk to our members about the merits of criminal justice reform,” he said. “It’s very bipartisan and it's conservatives leading the charge on this: [Rep.] Raúl Labrador, [Sen.] Mike Lee, [Rep.] Bob Goodlatte. But there are a lot of our members who haven’t looked into the issue enough, and it’s those undecided members who have not formed opinions yet that we’re going to be communicating with in the weeks ahead.”

As indicated by the question in the title of this post and the sentence emphasized, I think the "political risk and calculation for Republicans will change" dramatically if (and only if) Democrats succeed in their effort to take back control of the US Senate. Specifically, and especially because House Speaker Paul Ryan continues to press his support for reform, I think Republicans in both the House and the Senate will come to see that their best chance to get a sentencing reform bill completed with only the terms GOP advocates most fully support will be in the lame duck session before Senate leadership transitions in 2017. (Indeed, if Dems win both the White House and take back the Senate in November, I think some current Dem supports of current bills might become the ones to resist lame-duck passage in the hope of developing and passing even more progressive reform in the next Congress.)

In other words, for those most deeply concerned and interested in seeking federal statutory sentencing reform, the outcome of Senate elections may be nearly as important or even more important than the Prez election.

September 30, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Pew survey indicates "Support for death penalty lowest in more than four decades"

FT_16.09.29_deathpenaltyPartyThis new item from the Pew Research Center reports based on a new survey that "the share of Americans who support the death penalty for people convicted of murder is now at its lowest point in more than four decades."  Here is more:

Only about half of Americans (49%) now favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 42% oppose it. Support has dropped 7 percentage points since March 2015, from 56%. Public support for capital punishment peaked in the mid-1990s, when eight-in-ten Americans (80% in 1994) favored the death penalty and fewer than two-in-ten were opposed (16%). Opposition to the death penalty is now the highest it has been since 1972.

Though support for the death penalty has declined across most groups, a Pew Research Center survey conducted Aug. 23-Sept. 2 among 1,201 adults finds that most Republicans continue to largely favor its use in cases of murder, while most Democrats oppose it. By more than two-to-one, more Republicans (72%) than Democrats (34%) currently favor the death penalty.

Two decades ago, when majorities in both parties favored the death penalty, the partisan gap was only 16 percentage points (87% of Republicans vs. 71% of Democrats). And, for the first time in decades, independents are as likely to oppose the use of the death penalty (45%) as they are to favor it (44%). The share of independents who support capital punishment has fallen 13 points since last year (from 57%)....

Even as support for the death penalty has declined across nearly all groups, demographic differences remain: Men are more likely to back the use of the death penalty than women, white Americans are more supportive than blacks and Hispanics, and attitudes on the issue also differ by age, education and along religious lines. More than half of men (55%) say they are in favor of the death penalty and 38% are opposed. Women’s views are more divided: 43% favor the death penalty, 45% oppose it.

A 57% majority of whites favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder (down from 63% last year). But blacks and Hispanics support it at much lower rates: Just 29% of blacks and 36% of Hispanics favor capital punishment.

There are only modest difference by age and education in support for the death penalty, with 18- to 29-year-olds somewhat less likely to support it (42% favor) than those in older age groups (51% of those 30 and older). Those without a college degree are more likely than those with at least a college degree to favor the use of the death penalty in cases of murder (51% vs. 43%).

White evangelical Protestants continue to back the use of the death penalty by a wide margin (69% favor, 26% oppose). White mainline Protestants also are substantially more likely to support (60%) than oppose (31%) the death penalty. But among Catholics and the religiously unaffiliated, opinion is more divided: 43% of Catholics favor capital punishment, while 46% oppose it. And while 50% of those who are religiously unaffiliated oppose the death penalty, 40% support it.

September 30, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"Why Nobody's Talking About the Supreme Court"

The title of this post is the headline of this timely and interesting post-debate Bloomberg View piece by Noah Feldman. Here are excerpts:

The U.S. Supreme Court didn’t come up Monday in the first presidential debate, and so far, it hasn’t been an important campaign issue. Given the unprecedented vacancy during an election season, that seems weird. But there is an explanation: The election’s consequences for the court are asymmetrical for the two political parties.

If the Democrat, Hillary Clinton, is elected, it will change the court’s balance, either through the confirmation of President Barack Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, in the lame-duck session or with the appointment of Garland or another liberal after she takes office.  If the Republican, Donald Trump, is elected, all he can do is replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia with another conservative. That won’t change the court’s political balance.  For that to happen, Trump would need Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Justice Stephen Breyer to be unable to serve, which won’t happen voluntarily for either in the first four years of a Trump presidency.

The result of this asymmetry is that neither candidate has much reason to put the Supreme Court front and center.  Clinton can try to appeal to her base by promising to reshape the Supreme Court, which is an inspiring vision for some liberals, to be sure.  But it isn’t good politics for her to trumpet a liberal transformation of the court when she’s trying to win over the median voter, who may well be skeptical of more judicial activism.

What’s more, Clinton lacks a signature constitutional issue that would make liberals excited about a progressive majority.  That’s because much of the liberal constitutional agenda has been achieved in the last two years, courtesy of Justice Anthony Kennedy.  He wrote the gay-marriage decision in 2015. In 2016, he delivered an opinion protecting affirmative action in higher education. He also provided the deciding vote in the Texas abortion case, safeguarding the abortion right for another generation.  With these decisions, Kennedy effectively took away the sense of constitutional fear and desperation that might otherwise be haunting liberals alongside the possibility of a Trump presidency....

For Trump, the calculus is a little different.  He can’t credibly promise to be a change agent when it comes to Supreme Court appointments. All he can do is say he will hold the line by appointing a conservative -- and indeed he has by releasing the names of 21 possible nominees.  That might have been enough to win over Texas Senator Ted Cruz, if you take Cruz’s word for his flip-flop on endorsing Trump.  But Trump doesn’t really like to depict himself as a movement conservative trying to preserve the status quo. His message is all about how things are broken.  Even if he chose to say that the Supreme Court got it wrong on gay marriage, abortion rights and affirmative action, he can’t say that he would be able to appoint justices who would change those results.

Furthermore, diehard conservatives who care about the Supreme Court are sophisticated enough to understand that they’ve lost on the big-ticket issues that have mattered most to them over the last 20 years. They know the court won’t immediately reverse itself.  Activist legal conservatives are focused mostly on preserving religious liberty in the aftermath of the gay-marriage decision, a position that is essentially defensive and operates on the (correct) background assumption that the culture war has already been lost.

The upshot is that for Trump, making the Supreme Court an election issue doesn’t hold much appeal as a way to energize the right or to capture new voters from the center. He can certainly criticize the courts when it’s convenient, or dismiss their holdings as “anti-police” the way he did during the debate.  So don’t expect much more on the Supreme Court during this election season.  When the dust has settled, however, the Supreme Court will return to the front pages very quickly indeed, and the question of who will succeed Scalia will be one of the most pressing issues facing the new president, whoever it is.

As long-time readers know, and as this prior post explains, I would add to this analysis the important fact that Prez Obama picked a nominee that is a relative political "yawner" for both parties.  As I have explained before, I thought back in March and continue to think today that the current politics around SCOTUS would be much different if Prez Obama made a ground-breaking rather than just a moderate pick, and that would be especially so if he had selected the only woman of color who was seriously vetted for this open SCOTUS spot, US District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.  Though I dislike discussion that focus on "playing the race card" or "playing the gender card," I like to be honest when highlighting that it is the personnel and not just the politics at the heart of this "non-issue" reality. 

If the GOP Senate was blocking even a hearing for the first woman of color nominated to the Supreme Court, I am certain Clinton would now be seeking to appeal to her base (and also to moderates) by promising to not let the GOP Senate continue to push Judge Brown Jackson to the back of the bus.  Actually, I suspect Hillary Clinton may be much too cautious politically to actually try to play a race/gender card at the same time via a Rosa Parks reference, but I am certain some of her surrogates (as well as some Dems seeking to wins seats in the Senate) would not be afraid to make this kind of pitch.

Prior related posts on new SCOTUS nominee possibilities:

September 27, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, September 26, 2016

"Ask the Candidates if They Are Ready to Legalize Marijuana — and, if Not, Why?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Nation piece, from which comes these excerpts:

Presidential debates, as organized by the lamentable Commission on Presidential Debates, are deliberately boring. Most of the questions asked of the candidates are little more than invitations to repeat their most shopworn talking points. And, worse yet, there has been a recent trend toward asking candidates to critique their opponents — literally asking for more of the talking-head punditry that extinguishes whatever enthusiasm might be generated by a clash of ideas.

What to do?  Why not ask Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump some pointed questions about legalizing marijuana? Arizona will be voting this fall on whether to legalize the possession and consumption of marijuana by persons who are 21 years of age or older. If passed, Proposition 205 (The Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act) would establish a Department of Marijuana Licenses and Control to regulate the cultivation, manufacturing, testing, transportation, and sale of marijuana....

While manufacturers of synthetic painkillers and other corporate interests oppose the measure, it has earned support from educators, physicians, public-health advocates and supporters of criminal-justice reform. Among the statements filed in support of a “yes” vote with the Arizona secretary of state is a reflection from a pair of retired Drug Enforcement Agency agents, Michael Capasso and Finn Selander....

So how about these two questions for Clinton and Trump:

1. Both of you have campaigned in Arizona, where polls suggest the presidential race is close. On the same November 8 ballot where voters will be asked to choose between your candidacies, they will also be asked whether they would like to legalize marijuana and establish a strictly regulated system for its cultivation, manufacturing, testing, transportation and sale. By this point, both of you should be well aware of the arguments for and against legalizing marijuana. If you were voting in Arizona, how would you cast your ballots: “yes” for legalization or “no” for continued prohibition?

2. If either or both of the candidates answer “no,” or try to waffle on the issue, read the statement from the retired DEA agents, and then ask: How do you respond to the arguments of people with experience, such as Agents Capasso and Selander, who write that prohibition doesn’t keep marijuana off our streets or decrease use but that it does does result in billions of dollars in profits flowing to drug cartels? Aren’t there sound domestic and foreign-policy arguments for legalization?

Yes, of course, Donald Trump might still argue that a wall would somehow solve every problem. Hillary Clinton might still try to suggest that settled issues need more study. (And viewers might really start to wish that Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein were on the stage to present alternative views.) But the debate about legalizing marijuana, which has for too long been neglected at the highest levels of American politics, would finally be given the hearing it deserves.

I really like this proposed framing of a marijuana reform question, although first-debate moderator Lester Holt could also find lots of ideas for other sharp marijuana reform questions from a number of these recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

September 26, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Can and will California voters "save" the death penalty in the United States?

The quirky question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new press article and its provocative headline: "Death penalty is dying across America. Will California save it?". Here are excerpts:

The last inmate executed in California was 76-year-old Clarence Ray Allen, legally blind and suffering from diabetes, who had his heart stopped with a lethal chemical cocktail as punishment for a triple homicide in Fresno he’d ordered from a Folsom Prison cell a quarter century earlier. It was more than a decade ago when Allen spoke his last words – “Hoka Hey, it’s a good day to die” – and the poisons flowed into his veins at San Quentin State Prison.

Now, with the death penalty dying across America, the nation is watching California as its voters weigh competing initiatives meant to either revive executions or abolish capital punishment. Several states in recent years ended their death penalties through court decisions or legislation, but California is a test of whether voters think executions are worth trying to save....

Proposition 62 on the November ballot would end the death penalty and convert the sentences to life without parole. Proposition 66 aims to speed up executions with – among other things – limits on appeals and deadlines on court rulings. Should both measures pass, the one with the most votes becomes law. California’s decision comes as the death penalty withers in the rest of the nation. There were 28 executions in America last year, the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and a 70 percent decline from the peak in 1998.

Only six states had executions last year, most of them in the cotton belt. Even America’s execution capital of Texas is slowing down, with a 68 percent decline in inmates put to death over the past 15 years. A new Harvard University study found that just 16 counties in the U.S.’s 3,143 had imposed at least five death sentences since 2010. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer noted last year that “the number of active death penalty counties is small and getting smaller.”

Reasons include legal challenges to death sentences, botched executions – including a 2011 Oklahoma injection where the condemned man writhed and moaned as it took him more than 40 minutes to die – difficulty obtaining lethal drugs from pharmaceutical companies reluctant to play a role in ending lives, and wrongful convictions. More than 150 people on death row nationwide have been exonerated since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, including three in California. Wrongful convictions doomed the death penalty in Illinois, which passed legislation to abolish it in 2011.

States are also balking at costs of a death penalty case and appeals. Lawmakers in conservative Nebraska voted to join the states shedding the death penalty last year, citing expenses and religious objections. The issue will go to Nebraska’s voters in a November referendum.

The death penalty is on hold in California, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington state as a result of legal challenges or moratoriums imposed by governors. Capital punishment has been abolished in eight other states over the past decade and is in limbo in Florida, which has the nation’s second-most-populous death row after California, following a Supreme Court decision striking down the state’s death penalty statute....

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said that regardless of what was happening in the rest of the nation she saw the death penalty as appropriate justice for the “worst of the worst” killers in California. “It’s a policy that Californians continue to support but they want the system fixed,” Schubert said.

?California voters supported keeping the death penalty in 2012 with 53 percent of the vote. Recent polling suggests this year’s initiative campaign to end capital punishment is struggling to win majority support. No state has repealed the death penalty by public vote since Oregon in 1964 – and voters there reinstated it in 1978. While courts and legislatures around the nation are abolishing capital punishment, when it goes to a public vote the hard line tends to have the advantage, said Franklin Zimring, a criminal justice expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The question is what do you do with the worst criminals you have?” Zimring said. “And if that ever becomes a question of sentiment the answer is boil them in oil.” California has the largest death row population in the Western Hemisphere, with 746 inmates who are sentenced to die. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that eliminating California’s death penalty would save around $150 million a year, including reduced costs for trials and challenges to death sentences.

According to the study from Harvard’s Fair Punishment Project, five of the 16 U.S. counties in the U.S. that imposed at least five death sentences since 2010 are in Southern California – Kern, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino. Riverside County has become the nation’s leader in death sentences – with eight people sent to death row last year alone. Meanwhile, no one is actually being executed in California....

Cal-Berkeley’s Zimring predicts the initiative designed to speed executions in California will have minimal impact if it passes. The main result would be litigation and delay, he said, since the ballot measure has so many pieces open to challenge. That’s disputed by Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento. “The most important reforms of this carefully drafted initiative are virtually bulletproof,” he asserted.

September 25, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Eager to hear sharp suggestions for sharp Prez debate questions on criminal justice issues

Next week kicks off the Prez debate season, and I am certainly among the "yuge" number of folks really, really excited to see how Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will perform and engage with the issues and each other on the big debate state starting on Monday.  Among the reasons I am so excited this season, beyond the obvious and diversely distinctive entertainment value of both candidates, is because it seems quite likely that criminal-justice-related issues will be major topics of discussion (especially, of course, with respect to immigration policy/enforcement and police/citizen encounters).

As readers know, I am regularly rooting for sentencing-specific (and/or "war on drugs/marijuana") topics to take center stage at debates, and I am regularly disappointed that these topics either fail to get raised or get raised in ways that make it too easy for the candidates to respond with only fuzzy rhetoric.  But now because Trump has made "law and order" a focal point of his recent campaign, and especially because both candidates have through the years made notable statements on topics ranging from the death penalty to mass incarceration to drug policy, I am yet again hopeful (though still not really optimistic) that the issues that consume this blog could be end up being discussed at some length and with some real bite at one or more of the coming debates.

Ever eager to help those with the challenging task of planning and moderating the coming debates, I am now eager to hear from readers in the comments throughout the weekend about what criminal justice issues they hope to see raised in the debates.  I would be especially eager, as the title of this post highlights, to read in the comments actual suggested questions that are crafted in sharp ways to try to help ensure the candidates cannot get away with fuzzy answers.   I genuinely doubt that the first debate moderator, Lester Holt, is a regular reader of the comment section of this blog, but you never know.

So, dear readers, my weekend challenge is to urge comment with some sharp suggestions for sharp Prez debate questions on criminal justice issues.

September 23, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Latest polling suggests California voters could benefit from more information about state's competing death penalty initiatives

This news report on the latest polling concerning the competing death penalty initiatives before voters this fall reinforces my sense that Californians could benefit from a lot more public discussion and debate over the state and possible fate of capital punishment there.  The news piece is headlined "Is a plan to end the death penalty on the ropes in California?," and here are the details (with my emphasis added):

A plurality of likely voters backs the latest ballot effort to repeal the death penalty in California and shutter the nation’s largest death row, but support remains below the 50 percent threshold needed, a new poll shows. The survey, completed jointly by the Field Poll and the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, found Proposition 62 ahead 48 to 37 percent, with 15 percent of likely voters undecided.

Meanwhile, barely a third (35 percent) support Proposition 66, a competing initiative aimed at expediting the death-penalty process. With 42 percent undecided, it appears far less familiar to voters.  Twenty-three percent are opposed.

The see-saw measures come four years after voters narrowly rejected Proposition 34, an initiative that would have replaced capital punishment with life in prison without parole. The Field Poll’s last survey of that measure, taken a week before the 2012 election, found it leading 45 to 38 percent.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll, said there are signs of encouragement for death-penalty opponents this time, despite hovering below a majority seven weeks before the Nov. 8 election. “This is not a bad-news poll for Prop. 62,” DiCamillo added....

Proposition 62 would replace death sentences with life in prison without the possibility of parole and apply retroactively to existing death sentences. Proposition 66 endeavors to speed up the process by requiring that appeals conclude within five years of sentencing. DiCamillo said there is “much greater confusion” about Proposition 66, adding, “Voters don’t fully understand what the impact is.” If both measures pass, the one with the most votes will prevail....

California’s last execution was in January 2006, with the state effectively halting executions over challenges to its lethal injection protocol.

Some of many prior related posts:

September 23, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Notable opposition to initiative seeking to enshrine the death penalty in Oklahoma's state constitutions

Two big substantive fights via voter initiative concerning the death penalty this fall are taking place in California and Nebraska. But this AP article highlights that Oklahoma voters are being presented with an important kind of stylistic question concerning capital punishment.  And, as the article explains under the headline "Oklahoma death penalty question faces bipartisan opposition," there is some notable disaffinity for its proposition. Here are the basic details:

A proposal to ask Oklahoma voters to enshrine the death penalty in the state’s nearly 100-year-old constitution sailed easily through the Legislature, but now is facing opposition from groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  In addition to various faith and civil rights organizations that traditionally oppose capital punishment, several conservative groups and the newly recognized Oklahoma Libertarian Party also are joining the fight against State Question 776.

“The conservative position is against the death penalty because it costs more than life (in prison), more than life without parole,” said Marc Hyden, national advocacy coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, one of several organizations that helped kick off rallies in Oklahoma City and Tulsa opposing the question. “Beyond that … we believe the founding fathers had the foresight to institute checks and balances, and this aims to subvert those checks and balances.”

A group opposing the state question — Say No To SQ 776 — has raised about $4,000, according to its most recent report with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. There don’t appear to be any organized groups supporting the question.

The state question was sent to the voters through a resolution approved by the Legislature in 2015 following a botched execution and problems with the administration of lethal injection. Sponsored by two pro-death penalty lawmakers, it would ensure that death sentences would not be reduced if a method of execution is ever ruled invalid and gives the Legislature the explicit power to designate any method of execution not prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. It also states that the imposition of the death penalty will not be considered cruel and unusual punishment, which is currently prohibited under the Oklahoma Constitution.

Because the language would be added to the state constitution, it would also make it more difficult for the courts or future Oklahoma legislatures to eliminate the death penalty, said Rep. Mike Christian, a former highway patrolman who authored the bill. “It’s such a serious issue, we decided to put it in the Constitution,” said Christian, R-Oklahoma City. “I believe it will get overwhelming support. We thought we should put it in the constitution, just to send a message that we support it as a people.”

The measure passed 80-10 in the House and 44-0 in the Senate, receiving support from Democrats and Republicans. But since its passage, Oklahoma has continued to have problems administering lethal injections....

“If we cannot trust our state government to fund our schools, our hospitals, fund our infrastructure, how in the world can we continue to trust them to strap someone down on a table, put a needle in their arm and fill it full of poison until they’re dead,” said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. “We cannot continue to trust them to do that.”

September 17, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Why Oklahoma is having arguably the most important vote in Campaign 2016 for those concerned about criminal justice reforms

Logo Final (002)Though I am thoroughly depressed by my Presidential choices in Campaign 2016 (and remain distressing undecided about whether and how I will cast a top-of-the-ticket vote), I am thoroughly excited by all the interesting (and unpredictable) criminal justice reform initiatives that are going to voters in lots of states this November.  The highest-profile reform initiatives are probably those in five states seeking to legalize recreational marijuana and the handful of others seeking to legalize medical marijuana.  But also getting plenty of attention are the death penalty repeal/reform/retain votes that will take place in California and Nebraska.  But this new article from Fusion, headlined "Why Oklahoma activists are bringing criminal justice reforms directly to voters," helps spotlight why I think criminal justice reformers should really be paying extra attention to the Sooner State.  Here are excerpts:

Oklahomans will vote in November on two proposals that could significantly reduce the number of people sent to prison in one of the most incarcerating states in the country.  The measures, State Questions 780 and 781, would reclassify simple drug possession and property crimes under $1,000 from felonies to misdemeanors. Instead of prison time, people convicted of those crimes would receive drug treatment, mental health treatment, and rehabilitation programs that would be paid for by the savings from not locking them up.

Oklahoma has the second-highest incarceration rate in the country, after Louisiana, and its prisons are at 115% capacity. If the measures are approved by voters, they’re expected to reduce annual prison admissions by 25%, the rate of new inmates who are currently convicted of low-level property crimes and drug possession.  Because it costs Oklahoma $15,000 to incarcerate someone and only $6,000 to treat them while they’re on probation, the state could save between $30 and $40 million a year. Reducing the number of felonies would also mean less people would struggle to find employment, housing, and education because of a permanent criminal record. One in 12 state residents is a convicted felon, according to The Oklahoman newspaper.

Legislators and Governor Mary Fallin have already taken steps to reform the state’s criminal justice system, including lowering mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and raising the threshold for some property felonies to $1,000.  But Kris Steele, the former Republican Speaker of the State House and one of the referendums’ chief backers, said most legislators would be wary of being tarred as “soft on crime” if they passed broader reforms to drug laws.

“We want to sort of bypass the political gridlock that has set us back and give the people of Oklahoma a chance to weigh in on these issues,” he told me. “If we are successful in November, I truly believe the legislature will feel like the people have spoken and that it’s OK and probably even expected to take a smarter approach to criminal justice policy.” Of course, the opposite is also true.  “If these state questions do not pass in November, it’s likely that the legislature will interpret that result as the people have spoken and we’re probably done talking about this issue for the next 10 years,” he said. “That keeps me up at night.”

That makes it a high-risk, high-reward proposition for criminal justice activists, who so far have been mostly focused on lobbying legislators. The only other state with criminal justice reform on the ballot in November is California, where voters will decide whether to support a measure backed by Gov. Jerry Brown that would allow thousands of inmates serving time for nonviolent charges to get early parole. (Californians and Nebraskans will also vote on referendums over ending the death penalty.)...

Nationally, polls show that Americans support reforms to reduce sentences for low-level criminals, especially those convicted of drug crimes. Steele said internal polling has shown Oklahomans are also supportive of the measures.  The coalition of groups supporting the initiatives — known as Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform — includes the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative group Right on Crime, and several law enforcement leaders.  So far, supporters of the initiatives have collected 110,000 signatures to get each of the measures on the ballot and held a series of town hall meetings around the state promoting them. Now they’re planning direct mail and TV ads in the two months until election day....

There doesn’t seem to be any organized group opposing the measures, although some sheriffs and prosecutors have spoken out against them. The proposals’ supporters want “to let everybody out of prison, and that’s not what’s healthy for the communities,” Greg Mashburn, the DA for Cleveland County, told The Norman Transcript. Steele said he’d encourage activists in other states to take reform initiatives straight to the voters. “It’s resulted in a very healthy conversation happening in our state” about the costs of mass incarceration, he said—one that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

For so many reasons, I think this direct democracy vote in Oklahoma could have profound echoes throughout the nation, especially if "deep red" Oklahoma voters, while mostly voting for "law and order" Prez candidate Donald Trump, end up voting for significant sentencing reform in the state.  Not only will approval of sentencing reforms by direct democracy likely make Oklahoma elected officials feel more comfortable moving forward with legislative reforms, I think it will send a very strong message to lots of political observers and policy advocates nationwide that the "Right on Crime" movement has real majority support among even conservative-minded voters.

Based on developments in many states and especially at the federal level, it still seems the reality that many politicians, especially older ones on both sides of the aisle, continue to believe quite strongly that vocally supporting significant criminal justice reforms risks a kind of political suicide.  That said, the recent modern success that "deep red states like Texas and Georgia have experienced with "smart-on-crime" reforms has played a major role in giving the "Right on Crime" movement momentum, and that momentum has carried over in a number of other red and purple states.  But at the federal law, persistent "soft-on-crime" political fears, especially among "old-guard" Democratic leaders like the Clintons and Senators Reid and Representative Pelosi, in my view largely explains why significant statutory sentencing reforms (other than the middling Fair Sentencing Act) have not gotten done throughout the Obama era.

Many people for sensible reasons think the fate of federal sentencing reforms now will turn on who is the next occupant in the Oval Office and who controls the Senate.  But I really believe that if Oklahoma voters end up significantly supporting sentencing reform in their state (especially if Trump wins in OK by, say, a 55/40 vote but then sentencing reform is supported by a 60/40 vote), we all can and should become a lot more optimistic about even federal sentencing reforms over the next decade no matter who is in control in DC.  For this reason (and others), I strongly believe that criminal-justice-reform-minded "big donors" — yes, I am talking to you Koch brothers and Mr. Soros — should think very seriously about devoting resources to this initiative campaign where a little extra campaign investment could go a very long way in fostering reform in a lot more places than just Oklahoma.

September 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Highlighting polling reality that death penalty remains pretty popular on Left Coast

Ed Morrissey has this effective new commentary about the latest capital punishment polling under the heading "Hmmm: Blue California wants to keep its death penalty, 52/36." Here are excerpts (with a few links retained from the original):

California voters, among the most reliably liberal in the nation, have an opportunity to pass a repeal of the death penalty in November. Proposition 62 would commute the sentence of those on California’s Death Row to life without parole and require a higher percentage of inmate income to go to victim restitution.  With opposition to the death penalty a big progressive goal, and with California’s execution process among the slowest and most frustrating in the nation, one would expect overwhelming support for Proposition 62.

Not so, according to a new poll from Survey USA. In fact, opposition to repeal leads by sixteen points, 36/52, and leads among almost all demographics.  Majorities of both men (38/54) and women (33/50) oppose repeal.  Voters under the age of 35 oppose it in plurality (40/45), but all other age groups oppose it by majorities and double-digit gaps.  Black voters and Democrats support repeal, but not significantly enough to overcome overwhelming opposition among all other ethnic and partisan groups.  Perhaps most tellingly, the only ideological demo to support repeal are those who identify as “very liberal” — and even then unimpressively at 52/32.  Even the ultra-liberal Bay Area has a slight plurality opposed to repeal, 42/47....

The problem with the death penalty in California (besides the issues that form my general opposition to it) is that it’s almost purely academic.  California hasn’t executed anyone since 2006, and Clarence Ray Allen had been on Death Row for more than 23 years at that point.  That was the second-longest string for those who eventually got executed; Stanley “Tookie” Williams spent almost 25 years waiting for his execution, which finally came in December 2005.  They are two of only 13 inmates executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1978.

How many are actually on Death Row now? The state’s September 2016 lists 747 inmates, with sentencing dates from 1982 to this past May.  Eight times more inmates have died of other causes (104) than of executions (13).

Death penalty proponents will also have a referendum on the November ballot. Proposition 66 would offer several reforms to speed up the execution process, including expediting all appeals to the state Supreme Court and having attorneys assigned to death-penalty appeals immediately. Presumably this will find more support than Proposition 62, although SUSA didn’t poll on it.  Will Californians take steps to fix its capital-punishment system — or be satisfied with a Death Row that just waits inmates to death?

September 14, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Does anyone want to speculate about SCOTUS politics if Prez Obama had nominated, say, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson?

I am prompted to prompt the question in the title of this post after review of this interesting Washington Post article, headlined "Did Obama squander an opportunity by nominating Merrick Garland?". Here are a few notable excerpts from the lengthy piece:

No Democratic Senate candidates are talking about Garland in paid television ads.  No one mentioned Garland during the Democratic National Convention in July, including Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton has not committed to re-nominate Garland if she’s elected. While she talks about the Supreme Court, she almost never talks about him.

Some Democrats privately fear that Obama blew an opportunity to help re-activate the coalition that elected him twice by not picking a more progressive nominee — especially a minority candidate — to replace the late Antonin Scalia. Had Obama nominated someone who really ginned up the Democratic base, perhaps Clinton and the party would have more whole-heartedly embraced him or her....

The National Organization for Women signed onto an open letter urging Obama to appoint an African American woman to the court after Scalia died. When Garland was announced, the group expressed concern that he is “more or less a blank slate” on core women’s issues like reproductive rights.

NOW President Terry O'Neill wants the Senate to confirm Garland but she also thinks about how different the dynamic might be right now had the president gone with a more progressive black woman instead of a 63-year-old moderate white man. “I’m not going to say there wasn’t some disappointment,” she said in an interview last night. “I am very positive that the progressive community would be extremely active in promoting a more left-leaning appointment.”

O’Neill posited that an African American woman might have provided a clearer contrast. “Suppose he had nominated an African American woman,” she said. “No matter how moderate she might be, Republicans would say she’s way too out there and way too radical. The same way they talked about President Obama. … I don’t think you can eliminate race from understanding what these senators are doing. There’s no white president that’s ever been treated so disrespectfully.”

She lamented the paucity of media coverage about the vacancy. “Any African American woman who might have been nominated would have been viciously attacked,” O’Neill added. “It’s possible, if those vicious attacks would have happened, then the American public would have been much better informed of the outrageousness of what the Republicans are doing.”

Many of the same progressives who are not enthusiastic about Clinton are also not enthusiastic about Garland. Bernie Sanders said this spring as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination that he would ask Obama to withdraw Garland if he got elected so he could pick someone more liberal.

“We saw some of the highest grassroots energy in our eight year history in the run up to the president's Supreme Court nomination, and when the choice was Merrick Garland that energy completely plummeted,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Leaders in the African American community have called for a vote on Garland, but a lot of the key groups were also less than thrilled with his selection. Other liberal organizations like Democracy for America, which was founded by Howard Dean, said when Garland was nominated that it was “deeply disappointing that President Obama failed to use this opportunity to add the voice of another progressive woman of color to the Supreme Court.”

As readers may recall, the only woman of color who was seriously vetted for this open SCOTUS spot was US District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. I thought back in March and continue to think today that the politics around SCOTUS would be much different if Prez Obama made a ground-breaking rather than just a moderate pick. In addition, as I highlighted in this post in February, GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke in glowing terms abut Ketanji Brown Jackson at her confirmation hearing to become a US District Judge: as he put it, "she is clearly qualified. But it bears repeating just how qualified she is.... Now, our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji's intellect, for her character, for her integrity, it is unequivocal."

I think it quite likely that, had Prez Obama nominated Judge Brown Jackson, we would be seeing Democratic Senate candidates talking about her in TV ads. I am certain that a number of folks would have mentioned her during the Democratic National Convention in July, and I suspect Hillary Clinton would commit to re-nominate her if she’s elected. Speculating even further, I imagine lots of Democratic senators and House members would be pressing Speaker Ryan to voice support for giving Judge Brown Jackson at least a hearing. And, to really go for it, I could even imagine Colin Kaepernick saying, when asked when he will stand again for the National Anthem, that he will get off his knee if the US Senate moves forward on the SCOTUS nomination of Judge Brown Jackson.

Prior related posts on new SCOTUS nominee possibilities:

September 13, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Highlighting who is using money to highlight (and try to change) prosecutors' impact on criminal justice and its reform

This new Politico article highlights the role being a played by a notable political actor in funding efforts to charge via the polls some notable criminal justice articls. The article is headlined "George Soros' quiet overhaul of the U.S. justice system: Progressives have zeroed in on electing prosecutors as an avenue for criminal justice reform, and the billionaire financier is providing the cash to make it happen." Here is how it starts:

While America’s political kingmakers inject their millions into high-profile presidential and congressional contests, Democratic mega-donor George Soros has directed his wealth into an under-the-radar 2016 campaign to advance one of the progressive movement’s core goals — reshaping the American justice system.  The billionaire financier has channeled more than $3 million into seven local district-attorney campaigns in six states over the past year — a sum that exceeds the total spent on the 2016 presidential campaign by all but a handful of rival super-donors.

His money has supported African-American and Hispanic candidates for these powerful local roles, all of whom ran on platforms sharing major goals of Soros’, like reducing racial disparities in sentencing and directing some drug offenders to diversion programs instead of to trial.  It is by far the most tangible action in a progressive push to find, prepare and finance criminal justice reform-oriented candidates for jobs that have been held by longtime incumbents and serve as pipelines to the federal courts — and it has inspired fury among opponents angry about the outside influence in local elections.

“The prosecutor exercises the greatest discretion and power in the system. It is so important,” said Andrea Dew Steele, president of Emerge America, a candidate-training organization for Democratic women.  “There’s been a confluence of events in the past couple years and all of the sudden, the progressive community is waking up to this.”

Soros has spent on district attorney campaigns in Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas through a network of state-level super PACs and a national “527” unlimited-money group, each named a variation on “Safety and Justice.”  (Soros has also funded a federal super PAC with the same name.)  Each organization received most of its money directly from Soros, according to public state and federal financial records, though some groups also got donations from nonprofits like the Civic Participation Action Fund, which gave to the Safety and Justice group in Illinois.

UPDATE: Though this Politico article does not indicate if Soros spent money trying to take down Florida prosecutor Angela Corey, this local Florida article reports on her notable primary loss yesterday starting this way:

Melissa Nelson, an unknown corporate lawyer and former prosecutor three months ago, cleared her path to become one of the most powerful and influential figures in Northeast Florida on Tuesday night when she easily defeated incumbent 4th Judicial State Attorney Angela Corey.

The election caps a dizzying rise for Nelson and an equally shocking fall for Corey, one of the most polarizing political figures in Jacksonville history who generated national attention and enormous criticism for her prosecutions of George Zimmerman, Marissa Alexander, 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez and many others. Corey will depart office in the first week of January as the first incumbent state attorney in modern history to lose a contested election.

August 31, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 29, 2016

As Donald Trump falsely claims inner-city crime "is reaching record levels," will those truly concerned about public safety address new spike in roadway deaths?

GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump took to twitter this morning to propagate false information about modern crime rates by saying in this tweet that "Inner-city crime is reaching record levels."   This Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Trump Says Crime Near Records, but Data Show Murders Well Below ’90s Highs," details why this statement is patently false:

As part of Donald Trump’s declared outreach to black voters, the Republican presidential nominee has painted a dire picture of American “inner cities” rife with crime, and stated he can make them safe. While crime has indeed ticked up recently, it remains near historic lows, especially as compared to, say, the 1980s and 1990s when the streets of Mr. Trump’s hometown of New York City were far more dangerous than today.

Homicides for the first six months of the year hit 2,801 in 61 major cities surveyed by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, up 15% from the year previous. Thirty-six of the 61 departments reported increases in homicides so far this year with Chicago showing the largest jump. As of Sunday, there have been 455 murders in Chicago, up 47% from the same period last year, according to the police. There were 472 murders in all of 2015, about half the all-time high set 25 years ago....

It is hard to remember how violent the country was back then. One example is New York City. The nation’s largest city annually had 2,000 homicides during the violence-prone early 1990s.  This year, the city will likely have about one-sixth of that total.  The nation’s homicide record setting year was 1991, with 24,703 homicides, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The nation’s larger cities had numbers considerably higher than those recorded recently.

I highlight this data not only to provide, yet again, some needed context for concerns expressed about recent the uptick in homicide in a number of notable cities, but also to highlight that even the most violent year in modern American history --- 1991, with 24,703 homicides --- still experienced 10,000+ fewer death than accidents just last year on American roads. The latest data on US traffic deaths comes from this official press release which came out just today, titled "Traffic Fatalities Up Sharply in 2015," from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Here are some of these details:

The nation lost 35,092 people in traffic crashes in 2015, ending a 5-decade trend of declining fatalities with a 7.2% increase in deaths from 2014. The final data released today by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed traffic deaths rising across nearly every segment of the population. The last single-year increase of this magnitude was in 1966, when fatalities rose 8.1% from the previous year.

"Despite decades of safety improvements, far too many people are killed on our nation’s roads every year," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "Solving this problem will take teamwork, so we're issuing a call to action and asking researchers, safety experts, data scientists, and the public to analyze the fatality data and help find ways to prevent these tragedies.”

Ten years ago, the number of traffic deaths was nearly 25% higher, with 42,708 fatalities reported nationwide in 2005. Since then, safety programs have helped lower the number of deaths by increasing seat belt use and reducing impaired driving. Vehicle improvements, including air bags and electronic stability control, have also contributed to reducing traffic fatalities.  After a decade-long downward trend, traffic deaths in 2015 increased by nearly one-third compared to 2014....

Pedestrian and pedalcyclist fatalities increased to a level not seen in 20 years. Motorcyclist deaths increased over 8%. NHTSA also noted human factors continued to contribute to the majority of crashes. Almost half of passenger vehicle occupants killed were not wearing seat belts. Research shows almost one in three fatalities involved drunk drivers or speeding. One in 10 fatalities involved distraction. "The data tell us that people die when they drive drunk, distracted, or drowsy, or if they are speeding or unbuckled," said NHTSA Administrator, Dr. Mark Rosekind. "While there have been enormous improvements in many of these areas, we need to find new solutions to end traffic fatalities."

August 29, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Fourteen Years Later: The Capital Punishment System in California"

The title of this post is the title of this new and timely article authored by Robert Sanger and avaiable for download via Bepress.  Here is the abstract:

Fourteen years ago, the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment issued a Report recommending 85 reforms in the criminal justice system in that state to help minimize the possibility that an innocent person would be executed.  The following year, this author conducted an empirical study, later published in the Santa Clara Law Review, to determine if California’s system was in need of the same reforms.  The study concluded that over ninety-two percent of the same reforms were needed in California.  In addition, the study showed that the California system had additional weaknesses beyond those of Illinois that also could lead to the execution of the innocent.

This article is an effort, fourteen years later, to determine what has transpired in California during the last fourteen years.  It will survey of the major scholarly and judicial work that has been published in the last fourteen years on the death penalty nationally and specifically with regard to California as well as on the progress, if any, to meet the unmet recommendations of the Illinois Commission.  

This article concludes that there has been much additional criticism of the failures of the criminal justice and death penalty systems in the country and specifically in California. Nevertheless, the empirical study demonstrates that no additional Recommendations of the Illinois Commission have been met in California in the last fourteen years.  Illinois, itself, enacted significant reforms to meet at least some of the Illinois recommendations.  Nevertheless, Illinois repealed its death penalty.  California, despite no reforms, has not, as yet. The voters will have that option on November 8, 2016.  By voting “Yes“ on Proposition 62, the California death penalty would be repealed.

August 27, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Would the "the first liberal Supreme Court in a generation" really reshape the criminal justice system in the United States?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Vox article headlined "How the first liberal Supreme Court in a generation could reshape America." Interestingly (and appropriately?), the article talks a lot and at length about sentencing issues, and thus it is this week's first must-read. And here are excerpts:

Odds are that very soon, the Supreme Court will become something it hasn’t been in nearly 50 years: made up of a majority of Democratic-appointed justices.

Ever since Abe Fortas’s resignation in 1969, the Court has either been split down the middle or, more often, made up primarily of Republican appointees. Some of those Republican appointees nonetheless turned out to be liberals, but even taking that into account, the Court hasn’t been majority liberal since 1971, when William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell joined....

The unfilled vacancy of Antonin Scalia’s seat combined with a Hillary Clinton victory in November could set the Court on a new course. Merrick Garland, nominated by Barack Obama in March, has yet to face a vote. But though Senate Republicans have denied they’ll confirm him in the lame-duck session this winter, should Hillary Clinton win they might be tempted to confirm him lest she name a more liberal nominee. Either way, the result is a moderate to liberal justice in Scalia’s seat, moving the Court appreciably to the left.

Clinton also stands a good chance of replacing the moderate-to-conservative Anthony Kennedy (who recently turned 80) with a reliable liberal, and keeping Ruth Bader Ginsburg (83 and a two-time cancer survivor) and Stephen Breyer’s (78) seats in liberal hands. The result would be a solid 6-3 liberal majority of a kind not seen in many decades....

A liberal Court could end long-term solitary confinement. It could mandate better prison conditions in general, making it more costly to maintain mass incarceration. It could conceivably end the death penalty. It could uphold tough state campaign finance rules and start to move away from Citizens United. It could start to develop a robust right to vote and limit gerrymandering. It could strengthen abortion rights, moving toward viewing abortion rights as a matter of equal protection for women....

Let’s start with perhaps the biggest thing that could happen under a liberal Court, perhaps even a Court where another conservative replaces Scalia: the end of long-term solitary confinement. In 2015, Anthony Kennedy filed a concurring opinion in Davis v. Ayala, a death penalty case in which the Court (joined by Kennedy) sided against the defendant. Nevertheless, Kennedy used his concurrence to unleash a bracing jeremiad against the evils of solitary confinement, in which the defendant had been held for most of his more than 25 years in prison....

The implication was clear: Kennedy wanted advocates to bring a case challenging the constitutionality of long-term solitary confinement on the grounds that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. He basically dared them to, and suggested that if such a case reached the Court, he’d be inclined to limit the practice. With four reliable liberals already on the Court and likely to join him, it’s quite likely that such a case would end with solitary confinement sharply limited....

Solitary confinement is perhaps the most shockingly cruel condition of imprisonment in the United States, but the sheer scale of mass incarceration is also an issue in need of addressing. And because federal courts have the ability to affect policy at both the federal and state level, they can have considerable influence on the incarceration rate going forward.... "The new focus of prison conditions, which could be a real game changer in my view, is the intersection of overcrowding with mental and physical health burdens. The real game changer in terms of the current prison population is how disease-burdened it is," [Professor Jonathan] Simon says. "That could be pretty far-reaching because states have to contemplate the consequence of incarcerating so many aging prisoners."...

One way in which the courts could be more receptive to directly challenging sentences, she says, is by starting to take "collateral consequences" into account. That’s the technical term for the myriad ways that criminal convictions, and in particular sex crime convictions, can hamper defendants’ lives in the long term. That includes restrictions on where they can live after they’re released from prison, bans on government employment and benefits like public housing, inclusion on sex offender registries, bans on gun purchases and voting, and so forth....

Almost as explosive as Kennedy's 2015 concurrence was a dissent filed by Stephen Breyer and joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg that same year. The case, Glossip v. Gross, resulted in a 5-4 ruling affirming that the particular drug cocktail Oklahoma currently uses in executions doesn't violate the Eighth Amendment. One dissent, by Sonia Sotomayor and joined by the Court's other three liberals, narrowly argued against the specific drugs. Breyer's dissent took aim at capital punishment as a whole....

It’s telling that neither Sotomayor nor Elena Kagan, the two other liberals on the Court, joined Breyer’s opinion. And it’s hard to imagine Merrick Garland, who was one of the prosecutors who successfully sought to see Timothy McVeigh executed, declaring his own past actions categorically unconstitutional. But if Garland’s nomination fails and Clinton picks a less tough-on-crime nominee for Scalia’s seat, or if Kennedy leaves the Court during her presidency, it’s conceivable there would exist five votes for outright abolition of the death penalty.

"I would not be surprised to see Sotomayor and Kagan supportive of [abolishing the death penalty]," Simon says. "Kennedy is a harder call. The reason I'm somewhat optimistic about including Kennedy goes back to his interest in dignity. The strongest of the opinions in Furman" — the 1972 case that briefly abolished capital punishment — "was William Brennan's, and Brennan based it most directly on human dignity. He argued the Eighth Amendment bans any punishment you can't carry out without respecting the dignity of those being punished." Kennedy leaned heavily on the importance of dignity in Brown v. Plata, the California prison overcrowding case....

One other death penalty–related case Simon thinks the Court could amend or overturn, which could have widespread implication outside this specific issue area, is McCleskey v. Kemp, a 1987 case in which the Court ruled 5-4 that a death sentence for a black defendant could not be overturned due to the state of Georgia's hugely disproportionate imposition of capital punishment on African Americans. The effect of that was to foreclose challenges to the criminal justice system premised on its discriminatory effect — the Court required that plaintiffs show that discrimination was intended, not merely that the system was in effect discriminating against African Americans.

"It's been terrible for equal protection law generally. Criminal justice is run through with very disproportionate racial practices that are very difficult to prove as discrimination," Simon says. "Overturning McCleskey, and a companion case a few years later, could be a really important change agent both in unleashing the potential for trial court challenges to racially disproportionate criminal justice practices of all sorts, and perhaps ending the death penalty in those states where it seems most firmly rooted, like Texas and Florida."

August 22, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Is "tough-on-crime" talk really now a losing political strategy?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Hill commentary authored by Holly Harris and Andrew Howard. Here are excerpts:

House Speaker Paul Ryan’s primary opponent, Paul Nehlen, frequently attacked Ryan’s support for criminal justice reform. Nehlen accused Ryan of pushing Obama’s agenda on jailbreak criminal justice reform policies.  Not only was Nehlen’s narrative wrong, his political calculus was flawed.  Ryan clobbered him on Election Day, winning the primary with more than 80 percent of the vote.

This isn’t the first time justice reform opponents, clinging to the old school thought that “tough on crime” rhetoric still sells with voters, have attempted to use their opposition to these reforms for political benefit.  What they got was the opposite, and here’s why.

First and foremost, it is conservatives in big red states like Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina who have led the way on justice reform issues for a decade.  These efforts yielded great success in safely reducing the prison population, saving significant taxpayer resources, and most importantly lowering crime and recidivism rates.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin are just a few of the conservative leaders who are the most ardent champions of, and effective spokespersons for, criminal justice reform.  Given all the state successes, President Obama’s support is actually a bit late to the party.

Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter, vying for conservative Louisiana gubernatorial seat, learned the hard way that attempting to tie his opponent to Obama’s criminal justice reforms was unproductive.  With support from law enforcement, John Bel Edwards doubled down on his push for “bipartisan” criminal justice reforms.  Edwards is now the Governor of Louisiana.

Additionally, polling data from dozens of states across the country shows overwhelming support across the political and ideological spectrum for criminal justice reform.  Replacing one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences with penalties that reflect individual cases polls out the roof in battleground states like Michigan (91%) and Ohio (87%).

Surveys in states that will have hotly-contested Senate races such as Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Nevada, and Speaker Ryan’s home state of Wisconsin show support for reform issues ranging from the 60s to high 80s. The smart political play is to embrace these reforms.

Doing otherwise could backfire. Just ask Alaska’s then-incumbent Senator Mark Begich.  In the state’s 2014 U.S. Senate race, Begich attacked his Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan, alleging he was soft on crime.  Sullivan emerged victorious over Begich and is currently serving as the junior senator from Alaska.

In a time when one in three American adults has a criminal record and every single American family is impacted by our broken justice system, supporting reform not only makes for sound policy but also smart politics.  Which is why this irrational fear of supporting federal legislation similar to the aforementioned state reforms is all the more baffling....

Paul Ryan’s trouncing of his ill-advised primary opponent could be a game changer.  After all, in the new era of smart on crime policy, reform opponents are 0-3.

August 20, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Poll suggests Californians will vote in November 2016 to mend rather than end the death penalty in their state

This new press release from the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, which is titled "IGS Poll Finds Support for Retaining Death Penalty," suggests that California voters have some strong preferences regarding competing death penalty ballot initiatives.  Here are the interesting details via the main text of the press release:

California voters oppose an effort to abolish the death penalty and strongly support a competing measure that would streamline procedures in capital cases, according to a new poll released today by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Respondents opposed the abolition measure 55.1 percent to 44.9 percent, while three out of four respondents supported the streamlining proposition, the survey found. Since the two measures conflict, if both should pass, the measure receiving more votes would take effect.

The poll used online English-language questionnaires to survey respondents from June 29 to July 18. All respondents were registered California voters, and the responses were then weighted to reflect the statewide distribution of the California population by gender, race/ethnicity, education and age. The sample size for the questions on the two death penalty initiatives was 1,506 respondents for one question and 1,512 for the other.

A stark partisan difference emerged on Proposition 62, which would abolish capital punishment and replace it with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Democrats supported the measure, 55.1 percent to 44.9 percent. Republicans overwhelmingly opposed it, 70.2 percent to 29.8 percent. Independents were also opposed, though by only 60.6 percent to 39.4 percent. By contrast, there was support across partisan lines for Proposition 66, which would streamline procedures in capital cases to speed up the resolution of those cases. Even among Democrats there was strong support (69.7 percent) for the measure, and support was even higher among independents (81.1 percent) and Republicans (85 percent).

A majority (60 percent) of African-Americans favored abolishing the death penalty, but among all other ethnic groups, most respondents opposed that proposal. Support for the death penalty was stronger among older people.

Interestingly, religious differences were reflected in views about abolishing the death penalty, but mostly that difference was related to whether the respondent was or was not religious, rather than to differences among various religious denominations. Among all religious groups there was majority opposition to eliminating the death penalty; only among the self-identified atheists and agnostics did most voters support abolition of capital punishment.

Prior related posts:

August 18, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Noting that the 2016 major Prez candidates seem disinclined to say much about the death penalty

Donald-Trump-Hillary-ClintonThe Guardian has this lengthy new article providing an interesting take on the modern realities of presidential politics and capital punishment. The article is headlined "Politics and the death penalty: for Clinton and Trump, safest stance may be silence: Neither candidate seems keen to take on the controversial topic of capital punishment in the 2016 election, despite waning public support for it." Here are excerpts:

Donald J Trump phoned in to Fox & Friends in May 2015, shortly after two police officers were shot dead in Mississippi. Presenter Steve Doocy wanted to know what an appropriate punishment for the killers would be. “Well, it’s the death penalty,” Trump said airily.  “We have people who are, these two, animals who shot the cops … the death penalty, it should be brought back and it should be brought back strong.”

A month later, Trump announced he was running for president. He has barely said the words “death penalty” in public since, although a top adviser has called for Hillary Clinton’s execution, saying she “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason”.

Clinton only talks about capital punishment when pressed and then, clumsily. Unlike most of her own party — including running mate Tim Kaine — the Democrat supports death in the case of terrorists. She has said she would be happy if someone would outlaw execution. Someone else.

In campaign 2016, the safest stance on the ultimate punishment may be silence. Both candidates need to woo disaffected members of the other’s party.  Neither can afford to lose their own loyal base.  “Why bring it up if it’s going to stir the pot if you don’t have to?” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

For the first time since 1972, the Democratic party platform advocates repealing the death penalty. Mainstream Republican opinion has begun to turn away from it, too. Executions and death sentences are down nationwide, while the number of exonerated death row inmates creeps upward.

The percentage of Americans who support the death penalty has been steadily declining since its high of 80% in the mid-1990s, although a comfortable majority — 61% according to Gallup, and 56% according to the Pew Research Center — still favor the use of capital punishment for a person convicted of murder.  And California — with the biggest death row in the country — could become the sixth state in recent years to do away with executions as voters there face dueling ballot measures in November, one to repeal the death penalty, the other to streamline it.

Trump has increasingly positioned himself as a law and order candidate. He doubled down on fear of immigrant criminals in his speech to the Republican national convention and recently said he supported “extreme vetting” of people from other countries. Yet he has so far shied away from promising grisly execution for murderers.  The main exception was a December speech to the New England Police Benevolent Association, a police officers’ union, in which he promised an executive order mandating death sentences for cop-killers. (This would not work out, in any case; mandatory death sentences were rendered unconstitutional by a 1976 supreme court decision.)...

The Republican platform, recently ratified at the party’s convention in Cleveland, contains just two sentences on the subject of capital punishment.  “The constitutionality of the death penalty is firmly settled by its explicit mention in the Fifth Amendment,” it says.  “With the murder rate soaring in our great cities, we condemn the Supreme Court’s erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment in their states.”...

In the 1980s and 90s, opposition to the death penalty was “political poison in most elections”, said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “Now, you are seeing Republican legislators, many of them conservative Republicans, openly oppose the death penalty.”  Still, most of the decline in death penalty support comes from Democrats, according to a 2015 study by Pew Research Center.  Nearly 60% of Democrats oppose the death penalty, compared to just 25% in 1996.

Which may be part of the problem for Clinton, who was roundly criticized for her awkward responses to questions about the death penalty during the primary season. Both of her primary rivals — Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley — opposed capital punishment. Now that the general election is under way, a Clinton challenge will be getting Sanders’ fervent and progressive supporters to the polls.

August 17, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)