Thursday, October 02, 2008

Rooting for crime and punishment to come up in VP debate

As regular readers know, I have been hoping that crime and punishment issues would get more attention during the 2008 campaign.  Perhaps because I am an eternal optimist, I have a inkling that tonight's VP debate might get into some crime and justice issues.  Senator Biden has a long record on criminal justice issues at the federal level, and Governor Palin likewise has a record on these issues at the local and state level. 

Needless to say, I will be rooting hard that Gwen Ifill will ask at least a few crime and justice questions tonight.  If she is looking for ideas about what she might ask, lots of possibilities can be found in some of the posts linked below.  And, of course, readers are welcome to add their own suggested questions through the comments.

Some related posts:

UPDATE:  Bummer, no real discussion of crime and punishment issues.  Oh well, maybe in one of the next two Presidential debates between Senators McCain and Obama.

October 2, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, September 29, 2008

FSR publishes issue on "American Criminal Justice Policy in a 'Change' Election"

I am pleased to report that, just in time for the election stretch-run, the latest issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter focused on American criminal justice is now available here on-line.  The issue is titled, simply enough, "American Criminal Justice Policy in a 'Change' Election."  The full contents of this FSR issue are listed on-line here, and here is just a small sample of what readers can find in the issue:



Download bowman_205_ed_obs.pdf

September 29, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

New FAMM report and poll data on reforming mandatory minimums

Boggs20coversml This press release discussing a new report and interesting polling data from the folks at Families Against Mandatory Minimums provides interesting sentencing grist for the political mill.  Here are excerpts from the press release:

A new poll released today by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) shows widespread support for ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses and that Americans will vote for candidates who feel the same way.... 

“Politicians have voted for mandatory minimum sentences so they could appear ‘tough on crime’ to their constituents. They insist that their voters support these laws, but it’s just not true,” says Julie Stewart, president and founder of FAMM.  “Republicans and Democrats support change and that should encourage members of Congress to reach across the aisle next year and work together to reform mandatory minimums.  Mandatory sentencing reform is not a partisan issue, but an issue about fairness and justice that transcends party lines.”...

The poll bolsters the findings of FAMM’s comprehensive new report, Correcting Course: Lessons from the 1970 Repeal of Mandatory Minimums, which describes how Congress repealed mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in 1970 — and had no trouble getting reelected. 

“Our report and poll show that lawmakers can vote to reform mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses and live to tell the story.  Republicans and Democrats alike don’t want these laws.  They don’t work, they cost taxpayers a fortune, and people believe Courts can sentence better than Congress can.  Another repeal of mandatory drug sentences isn’t just doable, it’s doable right now,” says Molly Gill, author of Correcting Course.

Both the Correcting Course report and the poll result are worth checking out in full.  Here are links from the FAMM website:

September 24, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"The Candidates and the Court"

The title of this post is the headline of this editorial today in the New York Times.  Here are snippets:

Among the many issues voters need to consider in this campaign is this vital fact: The next president is likely to appoint several Supreme Court justices. Those choices will determine the future of the law, and of some of Americans’ most cherished rights.

John McCain and Barack Obama have made it clear that they would pick very different kinds of justices. The results could be particularly dramatic under Mr. McCain, who is likely to complete President Bush’s campaign to make the court an aggressive right-wing force....

Mr. McCain has promised the right wing of the Republican Party that he would put only archconservatives on the Supreme Court. Even moderate conservatives like Anthony Kennedy, the court’s current swing justice, would not have a chance....

Mr. Obama has put distance between himself and legal liberals on issues like the death penalty for child rapists and the constitutionality of gun control.  As president, Mr. Obama would probably be more inclined to appoint centrist liberals, like Justice Stephen Breyer, than all-out liberals, like William Brennan or Thurgood Marshall.

Though I fully agree more that the 2008 election is very important for the future of the Supreme Court, the spin is in with this Times editorial.  As constitutional lawyers know, Justice Breyer has typically voted like Justices Brennan and Marshall on the death penalty.  And, I like to think a true "legal liberal" committed to individual rights would have voted with the purportedly "conservative" Second Amendment decision in Heller.  And, of course, these labels lack any real content when we look at rulings like Blakely and Booker and Rita and Kimbrough.

Of course, I do not really expect the New York Times editorial page to be as legally accurate as it is politically astute.  And the editorial certainly does set out the kinds of SCOTUS political talking points we may see if these issues ever become the focal point of serious discussion on the campaign trail.

UPDATE: Orin Kerr has this interesting new post at Volokh responding to the NY Times piece asking "Would Obama Nominate A Breyer or a Brennan?".

September 21, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Libertarian Bob Barr speaks out against federal "war on drugs"

Providing exactly the politicial tonic to the usual tough-on-crime bromides, Libertarian Patry Presidential candidate Bob Barr has this new commentary at the Huffington posty speaking out against the federal war on drugs.  Here are extended excerpts from today's must-read:

As both a U.S. Attorney and Member of Congress, I defended drug prohibition. But it has become increasingly clear to me, after much study, that our current strategy has not worked and will not work. The other candidates for president prefer not to address this issue, but ignoring the failure of existing policy exhibits both a poverty of thought and an absence of political courage. The federal government must turn the decision on drug policy back to the states and the citizens themselves.

My change in perspective might shock some people, but leadership requires a willingness to assess evidence and recognize when a strategy is not working. We are paying far too high a price for today's failed policy to continue it simply because it has always been done that way....

Whether we like it or not, tens of millions of Americans have used and will continue to use drugs. Yet in 2005 we spent more than $12 billion on federal drug enforcement efforts.  Another $30 billion went to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders....

We simply must bring our system back into balance.  First, the federal government should get out of the "drug war" and allow states to determine their own drug policies. Rather than continuing to arrest and imprison people for offenses that do not directly harm other people, we should focus federal law enforcement on crimes involving serious fraud or violence, with identifiable victims.  Even then, only where there is a clear and specific federal interest, should the federal government be involved....

I also would review my presidential pardon and commutation powers as a possible means to reduce the number of people in federal prison for non-violent drug offenses.  We can no longer afford the human and economic costs of imprisoning so many thousands of people for drug possession. This is the most destructive impact of drug prohibition....

None of this means that I believe drug use to be harmless, or appropriate for minors. For that reason I would encourage people and institutions throughout America, from churches to social agencies to sports leagues, to work together to address drug abuse. One of our nation's greatest strengths is the willingness of people to organize outside of government to solve human problems.

But treating what is, at base, a moral, spiritual, and health problem as a matter of federal criminal law has solved nothing. The next president must put politics aside and take a long, hard look at the failure of the federal war on drugs.  We must reestablish the primacy of individual choice and state's rights in deciding these issues.  This always has been the greatest strength of America, and should be again.

Wow!  Great stuff on a topic that should be a much bigger part of the national political conversation.  Kudos to Bob Barr for this potent commentary.  I am now hoping Barr gets to participate in some way in some of the Presidential debates.

Some related posts:

September 11, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Is Governor Palin is a real fan of jury nullification and pot decriminalization?

Writing here in Reason, Radley Balko has a very interesting take on Governor Sarah Palin. The piece is titled, "A Decent Pick: Libertarians could do worse than Sarah Palin," and here are snippets:

Palin was also one of just three governors in the country to issue a proclamation in support of "Jurors' Rights" day, an event sponsored by the Fully Informed Jury Association, which encourages the doctrine of jury nullification.  Nullification is an idea abhorred by tough-on-crime conservatives.

Palin also comes from a state whose constitution has one of the strongest privacy provisions in the country.  Alaska's traditional reverence for privacy and personal autonomy is reflected in a number of issues that would likely be at odds with the national Republican Party — or at least the Bush administration — including a rejection of the Real ID Act, and the de facto decriminalization of marijuana.

Some recent related posts:

September 10, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, September 08, 2008

"Real commander needed for the war on drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this effective column in the Seattle Times by Neal Pierce.  Here are a few excerpts:

Will America's ill-starred "war on drugs" and its expanding prison culture make it into the presidential campaign? Standard wisdom says "no way."

We may have the world's highest rate of incarceration — with only 5 percent of global population, 25 percent of prisoners worldwide.  We may be throwing hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, many barely of age, behind bars — one reason a stunning one out of every 100 Americans is now imprisoned.  We may have created a huge "prison-industrial complex" of prison builders, contractors and swollen criminal justice bureaucracies.

Federal, state and local outlays for law enforcement and incarceration are costing, according to a Senate committee estimate, a stunning $200 billion annually, siphoning off funds from enterprises that actually build our future: universities, schools, health, infrastructure....

A serious set of problems, a shadow over our national future?  No doubt.  But do our politicians talk much about alternatives?  No way — they typically find it too risky to be attacked as "soft on crime."...

Talk about a serious national issue on which we could use some presidential leadership — not dictating precise answers, but moving us to debate alternatives.  It's been 20 years since drugs and prisons have even been mentioned in the televised presidential debates.  Maybe not just Obama but McCain too could surprise us with some fresh ideas and promise of leadership as president.  But we probably won't hear this unless reporters press the issue.

Some related posts:

September 8, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Important (though incomplete) op-ed on mass incarceration and mercy

Professor Carol Steiker has this interesting column in the Sunday Washington Post, headlined "Passing the Buck on Mercy."  The piece begins by discussing the debate over the sentencing of long-time fugitive Susan LeFevre (background here), and then turns to making broader points about mass incarceration and mercy.  Here are some excerpts:

Sitting in her cell in Plymouth, Mich., LeFevre is one of 2 million Americans behind bars. Many of them, like LeFevre, are nonviolent drug offenders.  The staggering number of American prisoners has made the United States the world's leading incarcerator; this nation locks up a greater number of offenders for longer periods than any other nation. In 1960, approximately 330,000 people were behind bars in the United States.  Today the number is 2.3 million.  Moreover, largely because of the "war on drugs," the increase in women's incarceration in recent years has far outstripped the increase in men's, devastating many families and communities.

How did we scale the soaring peaks of mass incarceration?  The decline of mercy has played a leading role.  With the noble intent of bringing rationality and order to what had often been a chaotic and even discriminatory system of criminal justice, reformers at every stage of the justice system have sought to limit the power of discretionary actors to say no to punitive policies.

Consider: Police departments have instituted mandatory arrest and "zero tolerance" policies that have swept up many low-level offenders.  Prosecutors' offices have given instructions, such as those issued by a series of Republican attorneys general, to charge only the most serious provable offenses, no matter what the circumstances.  Juries have convicted defendants on charges without any inkling of the sentencing consequences.  The ability of sentencing judges to respond to cases on their individual merits has been sharply curtailed or destroyed by sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences. And the granting of executive clemency has radically declined, not just in the Bush administration but also in governors' offices around the country....

An exit strategy from this upward spiral of incarceration lies in revitalizing the exercise of mercy.  Yes, mercy carries the risk of arbitrariness and discrimination.  Soccer moms such as LeFevre may seem to be more appealing defendants than many others who have committed nonviolent crimes.  But mass incarceration has had an enormous impact on poor and minority communities.  Only by reconsidering individual cases and questioning the necessity and desirability of punishment can we turn back from the prison state that we have become.

Our Founding Fathers understood the importance of checks and balances, but no one is checking or balancing the decisions that are causing our prisons to overflow.  By reinvigorating the veto power of actors all along the justice system, we may save individuals from unnecessarily destroyed lives.  We may save money in these economically trying times.  But most important, we may save ourselves -- by preserving the value of mercy.

The remarkable LeFevre provides an effective setting for considering the place of mercy in our criminal justice system.  But I think mercy and other concepts can only be an effective theme for reforming punitive laws and policies if effectively linked to American values.  Professor Steiker does this a bit in her final paragraph, but the link between checks and balances and acts of mercy feels a bit strained.

Of course, what the Framers were clearly trying to promote and safeguard through check and balances was the "blessings of liberty" (to use words from the Constitution's preamble) through the creation of a government that would help secure citizen's rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (to use words from the Declaration of Independence's preamble).  In may view, the problem with mass incarceration and punitive policy lies not so much in the diminished value of mercy, but more fundamentally to the diminished commitment to human liberty within the United States.

But what is really missing in Professor Steiker's discussion is a failure to call national politicians to account for mass incarceration and continued acceptance of expensive punitive policies.  Especially with this piece appearing in the Washington Post, I would have like a few sentences noting and criticizing the failure of either presidential candidate to address these issues.  Indeed, linking this political point to the Framers' concerns, I keep hoping someone would ask the candidates whether they think the Framers would be proud to know that the United States is now the world's leader in incarceration rates. 

Some related posts:

September 7, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Some information about Governor Palin's criminal justice record

Over at TalkLeft, Jeralyn has this long and details post headlined "Palin , Prisoners and the Alaska Prison System."  Here is one snippet:

Joe Schmidt heads up the Alaska Department of Corrections in her administration.  The previous Governor, Frank Murkowski, cut off almost all funds for treatment in prison, including for sex offenders, obviously a terrible idea.  Instead he decided to focus on post-release monitoring. The ACLU sued on behalf of three sex offenders.

Joe Schmidt admitted that cutting off treatment programs (which a court had ordered for sex-offenders) was the wrong approach.  Gov. Palin tried to restore some funds for treatment programs in her budget this year.  The legislature refused her funding request for sex offender treatment in prisons.

I am glad to learn that Gov. Palin supported providing some treatment programs for sex offenders, and I hope to hear more good news about her on the Alaska criminal justice front. 

Some recent related posts:

September 3, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, August 29, 2008

Governor Palin, crime and punishment

Last week I had this post reflecting on, and seeking comments concerning, what Senator Obama's selection of Senator Biden meant for how the Democrats would approach crime and punishment issues this fall.  Now that John McCain has now made his surprising VP choice, I am starting to wonder about what this decision could mean for the Republican approach on these issues might be. 

Like most everyone else in the continental 48, I knew very little about Governor Sarah Palin before this morning.  But the fact that she, as noted here, is a "lifetime member of the NRA" could prompt more interesting post-Heller debate about the reach and application of the Second Amendment.  (I am already curious whether Governor Palin has a view about whether a person previously convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor should be federally prosecuted simply for possessing a hunting rifle as in this federal case from Wisconsin.)

Notably, this Denver Post blog is calling Palin the "libertarian VP candidate."  I am not sure this label really fits, but I genuinely hope Palin might have a libertarian streak when in comes to the so-called "war on drugs" and similar criminal justice issues.  I hope we will find out this fall (although I continue to expect the MSM will continue to ignore important crime and punishment issues).

Some related posts on Campaign 2008:

August 29, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Monday, August 25, 2008

Will crime and punishment get any attention at the Democratic Convention?

As national thoughts turn from Olympian achievements to political conventions, I continue to keep an eye on matters of crime and punishment.  As noted in this weekend post and by some bloggers, the Biden VP choice has some criminal justice angles.  Moreover, as this WSJ blog post notes, some Obama surrogates on the Sunday morning shows were talking up Joe Biden's purported crime-fighting achievements.  These developments have me now thinking that crime and punishment could get some play in Denver, though I am not sure I will be too keen on the themes that may be stressed.

As regular readers know from a bunch of posts linked below, I am troubled that many issues related to prison nation have gotten no serious attention throughout our seemingly endless 2008 election season.  Though I doubt that either party's convention will change this reality, I will be watching the activities this week in Denver (and next week in Minneapolis) just to see what might be said and what goes unsaid.

Some related posts on Campaign 2008:

August 25, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Senator Biden, crime and punishment

Now that Barack Obama has finally made his VP choice official, I am starting to think about what this decision might mean for what a President Obama would do on the crime and punishment front.  Jeralyn at TalkLeft is all over this topic already with this post that is both sharp and discouraging:

Obama and Biden are going to run a tired, decades-old but tried and true "tough on crime" campaign. I expected it with Obama, as his views on crime were never particularly progressive, but now with Biden, it's enshrined in cement.

I understand and appreciate that not all voters -- and not even all readers of this site -- agree with me that America, Prison Nation, is one of the worst failures of our Government and our democracy. It's regressive and an embarrassment.

I found these comments from Jeralyn a bit jarring now because Jeralyn has not consistently criticized the Clintons on this front, and because Senator Biden strikes me as just playing the old Clintonian "let's not be accused of being soft" game in the arena of crime and punishment.  Still, I think Jeralyn is right to lament that the crime and punishment arena is just another in which Senator Biden does not represent a new kind of politics.

Still, as detailed in prior posts listed below, Senator Biden has been ahead of the curve a bit on some important sentencing discussions in recent times:

I am interested to hear from the informed and insightful readers of this blog what they think of the Biden pick.

UPDATE:  Scott has some important and effective insights over at Simple Justice in this post, titled "Will "Tough on Crime" Still be the Only Choice?"

August 23, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Is education the best way to fight crime? And why aren't these topics linked more in political discourse?

Over at The Faculty Lounge, Dan Filler has this great new post titled "Education In A Crime Control Frame."  Here are snippets:

A national organization called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is pushing a new study showing that a ten percent increase in the number of high schoolers earning their degrees will cut 3,000 murders and 175,000 murders in the United States. And how do we spike those graduation rates? Bigger investments in pre-K programs, of course....

What's worth a closer look, however, is both the framing strategy, and the organization's success in enlisting law enforcement officials as advocates for preschool education funding. The framing of crime as a education issue, and education as a crime issue, are both intriguing.

Too frequently we see crime framed as a matter of individual flaws and failures. Admittedly, progressives are less inclined to view matters this way, but law enforcement officials — who are often battling for tougher criminal laws — often invoke this individualistic rhetoric to justify their support for harsh punishments.  Whatever the empirical basis for believing that harsh punishment will deter crime, it's clear that the public cottons to more retributive explanations for tougher criminal law.  And retributive explanations are grounded in some notion that crime is caused by moral depravity — rather than a lack of school funding.

On the flip side, we usually see education funding justified either as a fairness issue ("no child left behind") or a macroeconomic concern (we need educated citizens to compete in the world market). Framing education as a crime issue is savvy, because it does a better job of tapping into voter self interest....

This crime control frame ... suggests that education money will pay off for us.  Pay for a poor kid to go to pre-K and you can avoid being assaulted! 

I have long believed that folks from all political perspectives should see not just the policy justification for, but also the political virtues of, linking education policy/funding to crime policy/costs.  Nevertheless, but for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids and a few other public-policy groups, I have seen precious few efforts by politicians to talk smartly about education/crime links and related funding realities.  Indeed, as I noted in this recent post, when Reverend Rick Warren this past weekend asked both presidential candidates about the contrast between America's investment in education and in its prisons, apparently neither candidate siezed the opportunity to talk smartly about these issues.

Some related posts on Campaign 2008:

August 21, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A good question about prison nation ... dodged

Though I did not have a chance to watch the forum at Saddleback Church put together last night by Reverend Rick Warren (which sounds as if it was quite interesting), I am pleased to learn that someone has finally asked the candidates about US incarceration rates.  According to this post at TalkLeft, Rev. Warren "asked about the contrast between the investment America makes in its educational system and the investment it makes in its 'we're number one!' prison system."

According to the TalkLeft post, both candidates talked about education policy and avoided the "prison nation" part of the question.  I suppose I am not surprised, but I am deeply disappointed.  Especially with a religion-oriented crowd, this question presented a great opportunity for one or both of the candidates to discuss the need for our criminal justice system to put more faith in the possibility of human redemption.  In addition, the question's justifiable suggestion of a zero-sum game in the local funding of prisons and schools, one or both of the candidates could and should have used this question to stress the need to shift tough-on-crime political attitudes toward smart-on-crime policy solutions.

Because I did not see the Saddleback forum, I cannot comment further on the specifics of the question and the (non) answers.  But I do want to complement Rev. Warren for asking the right kind of public policy question and question the failure of either candidate to provide the right kind of "straight talk" answer.

Some related posts on Campaign 2008:

August 17, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Persistent confusion over ex-felon voting rights

This local Alabama piece, headlined "State's felon voting law still unclear," tells a story that seems too common: even when states make efforts to restore the voting rights of former felons, legal confusion and uncertainty often reigns.  Here is the start of an interesting piece:

When Alabama made it easier for certain felons to regain the right to vote, it was hailed as a victory. But the law designed to make it easier for them to regain their voting rights has caused confusion and lawsuits -- because only crimes involving "moral turpitude" include disenfranchisement as part of the penalty.  The state has no definitive list of which specific crimes cost a person their voting rights and which don't, and it's not likely to get one before the November elections. 

Like most states, Alabama restricts the rights of felons to vote.  The Sentencing Project estimates some 250,000 people in the state are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction. 

The new law was supposed to make it easier for felons who had done their time to regain their voting rights. Though an advocate for felon voting rights said the situation has improved since the law went into effect in 1993, the phone still rings off the hook every election year at the pardons and parole board with people asking questions.

As the piece suggests, The Sentencing Project is the place to go for information and resources about felon voting rights.  This March 2008 document from The Sentencing Project, titled "Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in The United States," documents some of the basics.  Unfortunately, in Alabama and many other states, the basic laws do not provide easy or complete answer to exactly who is and who is not eligible to vote.

August 17, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Three more uneventful(?) lethal injections, including one with a political spin

As detailed in this DPIC list, Mississippi and Texas and Virginia all completed executions over the last few days, and I have not seen any reported problems with the lethal injection protocols used in these executions.  Perhaps all the Baze litigation has helped motivate state official to make extra sure that the lethal injection process is conducted in as carefully as possible.  I cannot recall reports of any serious problems with any of the 15 executions that have now taken place over the last three months since the Baze de facto moratorium was lifted after the Supreme Court's ruling.

Though technologically uneventful, this local report from Mississippi highlights that its execution had an interesting political spin as a result of the condemn's last words:

Before he died Wednesday evening, death row inmate Dale Leo Bishop apologized to his victim's family, thanked America and urged people to vote for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. "For those who oppose the death penalty and want to see it end, our best bet is to vote for Barack Obama because his supporters have been working behind the scenes to end this practice," Bishop said....

A Lee County jury convicted Bishop in 2000 of participating in the murder of Marcus Gentry, who was beaten to death in December 1998 with a claw hammer. His body was found along a logging road near Saltillo.  Bishop did not deliver the fatal blows. He became only the eighth person put to death who did not directly kill his victim among the more than 1,100 executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 -- not including contract killings.

Bishop's final words were: "God bless America.  It has been great living here.  That's all."  Bishop called Gentry's beating death on Dec. 10, 1998, a "senseless and needless act."  Earlier in the day, Bishop described the fatal beating as "a fight that had gone too far," state Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps said....

Bishop, who was mentally ill, asked a judge for the death penalty after he was convicted.... The other man convicted of Gentry's murder, Jessie Johnson, who was tried separately, is serving a life sentence. Protesters have used the disparity in the two sentences to illustrate the injustice they say is inherent in the death penalty.  Under Mississippi law, an accessory before the fact can be convicted of the same crime someone else commits.

I doubt the Obama campaign will be eager to embrace the endorsement of a mentally ill, now-executed defendant.  Nevertheless, the fact that Bishop coupled his political advocacy with a set of patriotic last words ("God bless America.  It has been great living here.") provides yet another example of intriguing realities that attend the final moments before a state imposes the ultimate punishment.

July 26, 2008 in Baze lethal injection case, Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Senator Obama endorses death penalty for Osama Bin Laden

The CNN political ticker has this new report on the death penalty becoming a point of conversation on the campaign trail:

Barack Obama again said Friday he favors the death penalty for Osama bin Laden should the 9/11 mastermind be captured. In an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said bin Laden's actions have justified capital punishment. "If he was captured alive, then we would make a decision to bring the full weight of not only U.S. justice, but world justice down on him," Obama said during the interview, the entirety of which is set to air Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

"I am not a cheerleader for the death penalty — I think it has to be reserved for only the most heinous crimes," Obama also said. "But I certainly think plotting and engineering the death of 3,000 Americans justifies such an approach."

July 12, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A new web pitch for Webb: (ex officio) US Sentencing Commissioner

I was disappointed to learn that Senator Jim Webb, the only national political figure who has shown a real commitment to questioning the efficacy of modern mass incarceration, has taken himself out of the VP sweepstakes.  So, I must now morph my web pitch for Webb as VP into a web pitch for Webb to become a member of the US Sentencing Commission.

Notably, many state sentencing commissions formally or informally include members of the state legislature, and research by Rachel Barkow and others suggests that the most successful commissions are those with active involvement by legislators.  Though the US Sentencing Commission is technically located in the judicial branch, I do not think there are strong constitutional or practical reasons why Senator Webb (or another elected politician) could not serve on the Commission (though perhaps there is a provision in federal law precluding this kind of dual service).

Notably, the members of the US Sentencing Commission have to be divided in their party affiliation and so Senator Webb would be a sound and plausible pick no matter who takes the White House this fall. 

Some related posts:

UPDATE:  Helpful commentors have noted that the Constitution would seem to get in the way of Senator Webb wearing two hats, so maybe he should just get an honorary or ex officio appointment to the USSC.

July 8, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A Reagan era irony in Senator McCain's recent judge-bashing

Reflecting more on Senator John McCain's notable crime speech yesterday (first blogged here), I realized there was an interesting irony as a result of his praise for Ronald Reagan and his critique of the federal judiciary.  Let me explain.

McCain asserted that, because "President Reagan offered a different approach to criminal justice, ... over time America became a better, safer, and more just country."  Later, Senator McCain said that "nowhere is the influence of a president more critical to law enforcement than in the power of judicial nominations."  Then he lamented how "one badly reasoned opinion, by one overreaching judge, can undo [a conviction]....  Even worse, when such opinions issue from the highest court, they set a precedent for many more injustices, and they add one more obstacle to the work of law enforcement."

Though one can debate these assertions, what seems ironic and noteworthy is that the vast majority of the most significant and controversial pro-criminal-defendant rulings have comes from the pen of the two Justices now on the Court who were appointed by President Ronald Reagan: Justice Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.  Specifically, just this past Term, Justice Kennedy authored big wins for defendants in Kennedy and Boumediene, and Justice Scalia wrote broadly for defendants in Giles and Santos (and Heller).

Of course, two of the very biggest criminal defense SCOTUS wins in recent years — Blakely and Crawford — were both authored by Justice Scalia.  And a large number of recent rulings striking down death sentences (from Roper to Panetti to a bunch of Texas cases) were authored by Justice Kennedy.

Given that seven of the nine current Justices were appointed by Republican presidents and that 60% of lower federal court judges are also Republican appointments, it is especially sad and telling that Senator McCain still cannot resist bashing supposedly "soft-on-crime" federal judges.  Anyone working in the federal system knows that most federal judges are anything but "soft," and yet still their daily thankless work in defense of constitutional principles for criminal defendants gets attacked by the Republican presidential candidate.

July 2, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Hey, big spender: John McCain's ambitious (and expensive?) crime-fighting agenda

The headline of this news report effective summarizes a big crime speech that Senator John McCain gave today: "McCain Talks Tough on Crime at Sheriffs' Convention."  The full text of McCain's speech is available here, and it has lots and lots of interesting aspects.  There some love for President Reagan's "focus[] on vigorous enforcement and stricter sentencing," and some hate for the Supreme Court's opinion in the Kennedy child rape decision in which, according to McCain, the Justices "substituted their judgment for that of the people of Louisiana."  (Notably, while bashing the Supreme Court for this opinion, Senator McCain leaves out the fact that a Reagan appointee wrote the Kennedy opinion, and that 3 of the 5 Justices in the Kennedy majority were Republican appointees.)

Though I could say a lot about all the intriguing aspects of Senator McCain's crime speech, I find most interesting his willingness to pledge federal dollars for ambitious crime-fighting programs.  Here are just a few snippets of the speech that suggest a President McCain is ready and willing to spend federal tax dollars on various crime-fighting initiatives:

To meet all of these [new crime] challenges, and others, you will need assistance, critical resources, and new technologies that often only the federal government can provide....

To protect our energy supply, air and rail transport, banking and financial services, we need to invest far more in the federal task of cyber security....

[A]s president, I will expand the Criminal Alien Program. We will require that the federal government assume more of the costs to deport and detain criminal aliens -- because this is a problem of the federal government's own making....

Ex-convicts need more than a few bucks and a bus ticket out of town.  Many will need job training, a place to live, mentors, family counseling, and much more. Beyond government, there are churches and community groups all across our country that stand ready to help even more. And these groups will have the committed support of my administration.

There is a lot more to the speech than just these pledges of federal support, and I encourage everyone to read the full text of the interesting speech and provide other reactions in the comments.

July 1, 2008 in Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack