Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Notable sentencing and clemency comments from newly-confirmed Deputy Attorney General

I just came across this recent Washington Post profile of Sally Quillian Yates, the new number two at the Department of Justice.  The piece is headlined "New deputy attorney general: ‘We’re not the Department of Prosecutions’," and here are some notable excerpts:

The odds were stacked against lawyer Sally Quillian in her first trial in rural Barrow County, Ga. Before an all-white jury, she was representing the county’s first African American landowning family against a developer over a disputed title to six acres of land. The family was so distrustful of the court system back in the 1930s that they hadn’t recorded their deed.  Instead, the family’s matriarch kept the deed, written on cloth, folded inside her dress every day while she worked the fields.  Now, a developer was trying to take their property, and Quillian was arguing the case using an arcane legal theory.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Quillian — now Sally Quillian Yates — recalled. “I had never tried a case before.”  But the jury came back with a verdict in favor of her client. “These 12 white jurors, who knew and went to church with and socialized with everybody on the other side, did the right thing,” said Yates, who was then at a private firm.  “This court system that my client’s family had mistrusted so much that they wouldn’t even file their deed had worked for them as it’s supposed to and had given them back the property that had been so important to their family all of these years.”

That case some 30 years ago had a deep impact on Yates, who went on to become a prosecutor in Atlanta for 20 years.  In 2010, President Obama nominated Yates to be the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.  Last week, she was confirmed to be deputy attorney general , the second-highest-ranking position at the Justice Department.  A bottle of champagne still sits in her fourth-floor corner office, which overlooks Constitution Avenue and where senior officials celebrated her ­84-to-12 Senate vote....

One of Yates’s priorities will be to follow through with the criminal justice reform efforts begun by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., including the push to give clemency to “nonviolent drug ­offenders” who meet certain criteria set out by the department last year, she said in her first interview since taking the job.

Yates and other prosecutors enforced the harsh sentencing policies from the 1980s and ’90s.  “Those policies were enacted at a time of an exploding violent-crime rate and serious crack problems,” Yates said.  “They were based on the environment we were in. But things have changed now, and violent crime rates have dropped dramatically.”

More than 35,000 inmates are seeking clemency, but a complicated review process has slowed the Obama administration’s initiative.  In February, Obama commuted the sentences of 22 drug offenders, the largest batch of prisoners to be granted early release under his administration and the first group of inmates who applied after the new criteria were set.

“Certainly, there’s some growing pains at the beginning,” Yates said.  “There’s start-up time involved in this. I think all of us are frustrated that it’s taken longer than we would like for this to be operating as efficiently as possible.  But I think we are headed down that road now. There are going to be more recommendations from the department, and I would expect more commutations that the president will be issuing.”...

Yates commutes every other weekend to Atlanta to be with her husband, who is the director of a school for children with learning disabilities, and to plan the wedding of her 24-year-old daughter, the older of two children.  She said the back-and-forth is worth the opportunity to influence criminal justice issues, including civil rights and sentencing reform, at the highest level.

She plans to urge lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass legislation to change sentencing policies. “Certainly, I don’t think I can ever be accused of being soft on crime,” Yates said. “But we need to be using the limited resources we have to ensure that we are truly doing justice and that the sentences we’re meting out are just and proportional to the crimes that we’re charging.”

“We’re not the Department of Prosecutions or even the Department of Public Safety,” Yates said. “We are the Department of Justice.”

May 19, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Considering clemency for federal marijuana offenders and other posts of note at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

This new post about a new commentary headlined "Do marijuana prisoners deserve amnesty?" reminded me that I have not recently done in this space a round-up of posts of note from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.  Here is an abridged list of April MLP&R posts that might be of special interest to sentencing fans:

May 2, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, April 10, 2015

Highlighting and assailing Prez Obama's "weak approach to pardons" and Clemency Project 2014

Today's Washington Post has this potent new commentary authored by George Lardner Jr. and P.S. Ruckman Jr. headlined "Obama’s weak approach to pardons." Here are extended excerpts:

When it comes to the pardon power, President Obama is still more talk than action. According to the most recent Justice Department data, he has granted only one pardon for every 29 petitions that have come before him, fewer than any of the past seven presidents.  Last week, he signed 22 commutations, but his record on those is even more dismal because he has such a staggering backlog, the biggest of any president in U.S. history.  It is a backlog that he and his administration invited.

But you wouldn’t know that from his rhetoric.  In a recent interview with Buzzfeed, the president said, “We’ve revamped the pardoning office in the Justice Department because, traditionally, we weren’t reaching a lot of nonviolent offenders who, if they received a pardon, perhaps would be in a better position to get employed.”...  What he didn’t say is that he has let those applications pile higher and higher.

The Justice Department named a new pardon attorney in November, and her overburdened office now has more lawyers than before — but if that was the “revamping,” it has yet to produce significant results.  Despite receiving unprecedented numbers of petitions, Obama has granted only 64 pardons and 43 commutations.  Only six other presidents have been less merciful, and most of those served a single term or less.

Without counting a program called Clemency Project 2014, which makes his record worse, Obama has granted just one of every 779 commutation petitions addressed to him.  Every president since Richard Nixon (who approved one of every 15 commutation petitions) did better....

Obama’s “new approach” to pardons remains just a promise.  More than a year ago, the Justice Department announced that Clemency Project 2014 would aim to find federal prisoners who deserved a commutation, which reduces the severity of a sentence.  But pardons, which forgive applicants for their crimes and restore their civil rights, were excluded.

This drive for more commutations has become a disaster, notwithstanding last week’s action.  When the project was announced in early 2014, then-Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole asked the legal profession for help in composing “effective and appropriate” petitions for inmates serving harsher sentences than they would have received “if convicted of precisely the same offenses today.”  Since then, The Post reports, more than 35,000 inmates — some 16 percent of the federal prison population — have asked for commutations under the initiative. And since then, Obama has commuted just 34 sentences.

More than 1,000 lawyers at more than 300 law firms have offered to participate in Clemency Project 2014. Yet little more than 5,000 of the 35,000 applications have been assigned to a lawyer....

The unduly restrictive rules spelled out by Cole last spring are an even larger problem. It should not be too difficult for prisoners to show they got a stiffer sentence than they would have received today, but that’s not enough.  Under the criteria, a prisoner must have served at least 10 years, have no significant criminal history and have had no involvement with gangs, cartels or organized crime.  The program also penalizes prisoners who previously asked for commutations by placing Clemency Project 2014 petitioners in line ahead of them.

Just as troublesome is the fact that the critical decisions about whether the rules have been met have been farmed out to private organizations — the ACLU, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  These are fine groups, but the pardon power is supposed to be reserved for the president, and saying no, which these private agencies can do, is as much an exercise of that power as saying yes.

To Obama’s credit, he wrote a letter to the 22 inmates whose sentences he commuted. All of them had been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, in many cases under punitive rules no longer in effect.  But there must be hundreds if not thousands more who are just as qualified. It was a nice try by the White House to say last week that Obama’s commutation record was now better, numerically, than George W. Bush’s. What it didn’t say was that Bush’s record on commutations (11) was one of the worst in history and that he granted almost three times as many pardons as Obama has (188 to 64).

President Obama keeps referring to the Justice Department as though it were in charge of the process while he remains a frustrated bystander.  He conceded in South Carolina that “we have a pretty strict set of criteria” for grants of clemency, but he spoke as though he was handcuffed by those criteria (when, in fact, he isn’t).  Criticisms of the pardon process usually focus on the prosecutorial mindset of officials at Justice and blame them for rejecting too many deserving applications.  It’s time for the president to take the heat and stop letting Justice be the scapegoat.

April 10, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

More reflections on Prez Obama's recent commutations

Writing in Forbes, Jacob Sullum has this new commentary about last week's notable clemency news headlined "Obama Steps Up Commutations, Feeding Drug War Prisoners' Hopes."  Here are excerpts: 

Obama’s latest batch of commutations, which doubled his total in a single day, suggests that the president, whose clemency record during his first term was remarkably stingy, is beginning to make up for lost time. Last year the Justice Department signaled a new openness to clemency petitions, laying out criteria for the sort of applications the president wanted to see. An unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the new guidelines could result in commutations for “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of federal prisoners by the end of Obama’s second term. The president will have to pick up the pace to reach that goal. But his avowed interest in ameliorating the egregious injustices inflicted by federal drug laws seems to be more than rhetorical.

Most of the drug offenders whose sentences Obama has shortened so far, including 13 of the 22 prisoners whose petitions he granted on Tuesday, were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. There is a good reason for that: Crack sentences are especially harsh, and although Congress reduced them in 2010, it did not make the changes retroactive. That means thousands of crack offenders are still serving terms that almost everyone now agrees are too long.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year but never got a floor vote, would address that problem by making the 2010 changes retroactive. The bill was reintroduced in February, but its prospects are uncertain. In the meantime, Obama has the power to bring crack sentences in line with what the law currently deems appropriate.

With an estimated 8,800 prisoners who could benefit from retroactive application of shorter crack sentences, there is plenty of room for more acts of mercy like these. But the conventional wisdom is that commutations cannot help more than a tiny percentage of those prisoners. “While Mr. Obama has pledged to make greater use of his clemency power,” The New York Times reported on Tuesday, “the White House is unlikely to make a sizable dent in the prison population. Thousands of prisoners are serving time for drug sentences under the old, stricter rules.”

It’s true that commuting thousands of sentences, as that anonymous administration official quoted by Yahoo News envisioned, would be historically unprecedented. Yet it is clearly within the president’s constitutional authority, and there is less need for a careful, case-by-case weighing of each applicant’s merits when there is already a consensus that the mandatory minimums imposed on crack offenders between 1986 and 2010 were inappropriately harsh.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Despite the concerns he expressed about our excessively punitive criminal justice system while running for president, Obama issued a grand total of one commutation during his first four years in office and finished his first term with a good shot at leaving behind one of the worst clemency records in U.S. history.

Prior related posts:

April 7, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

"For principle to be served, 22 worthy, long-term narcotics prisoners granted release needs to become 2,200 or more."

The title of this post is a provocative line from this commentary piece by Mark Osler in reaction to President Obama's grants of clemency yesterday (basics here).   Here are more of his sentiments:

In one day, Obama commuted almost as many sentences as Reagan and George W. Bush did in 16 years.

What we are glimpsing like a gorilla in the mist might be something so rare it has not been spotted in four decades: the principled use of the pardon power in a systemic way to address injustice.  It could even be the reclaiming of a core Constitutional imperative that was squandered by President Clinton in his last days in office, and largely ignored by President Reagan and both Bushes.  Or maybe not; it all depends on what comes next....

The president has most of the work ahead of him if he is really to reclaim the pardon power from its long period of disrepute.  Tuesday’s 22 men and women are largely symbolic, representing the thousands like them who remain in prison.

Perhaps most importantly, the president should reform the pardon process so that it doesn’t need special initiatives like the Clemency Project 2014.  Like Presidents Bush and Clinton before him, Obama complained of not getting good cases.  The problem is the system that delivers those cases to his desk, which winds its way through the Department of Justice and the White House, navigating as many as seven levels of review....

[M]any of the most efficient [state] systems use a clemency board to make recommendations directly to the executive.  Establishing such a board cuts the levels of review down to just a few and opens up other opportunities.  For example, such a board could compile and analyze data on those released and their success, providing guidance for future cases.

The fact that 22 clemencies is historic says more about the state of federal clemency than it does about this toe-in-the-water action, given that there are over 200,000 people in federal prisons across the United States.  At best, it is a symbolic gesture, and the coming reality will be good for the prisoners released, good for the communities they return to, and good for a living Constitution in need of balance.

Prior related post:

April 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Prez Obama starts to "walk the walk" on clemency by granting 22 new drug offense commutations

Long-time readers know I have long complained about Prez Obama's failure to make regular use of his clemency power, and I have been especially critical over the last year when we have heard the President and his agents "talk the talk" a lot about a new clemency initiative, but not actually "walk the walk" by granting relief in a significant number of cases.  But today, as reported in this USA Today article, may finally mark the start of a truly new clemency era:

President Obama commuted the sentences of 22 convicted federal prisoners Tuesday, shortening their sentences for drug-related crimes. Eight of the prisoners who will have their sentences reduced were serving life sentences. All but one of the 22 will be released on July 28.

The White House said Obama made the move in order to grant to older prisoners the same leniency that would be given to people convicted of the same crimes today. "Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. "Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years—in some cases more than a decade—longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."

In issuing the commutations Tuesday, Obama has more than doubled the number he's granted in his presidency. Before Tuesday, he had issued just 21 and denied 782 commutations in his more than six years. It was the most commutations issued by a president in a single day since President Clinton issued 150 pardons and 40 commutations on his last day in office.

And it could represent the crest of a new wave of commutations that could come in Obama's last two years in office. Last year, the Justice Department announced a new clemency initiative to try to encourage more low-level drug offenders to apply to have their sentences reduced. That resulted in a record 6,561 applications in the last fiscal year, at least two of which were granted commutations Tuesday, according to the Justice Department....

Obama wrote each of the 22 Tuesday, saying they had demonstrated the potential to turn their lives around. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will encounter many who doubt people with criminal records can change," Obama wrote. "I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong."

Of the 22 commutations granted Tuesday, 17 were for possession or trafficking in cocaine. The others were for methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana. One was also convicted of a gun charge in addition to cocaine possession. Their convictions cover a 14-year span from 1992 to 2006.

A list of the 22 individuals receiving commutations today is available via this official White House press release, and the White House blog has this new entry by Neil Eggleston titled "Upholding the Principle of Fairness in Our Criminal Justice System Through Clemency." Here is an excerpt from that entry:

Building on his commitment to address instances of unfairness in sentencing, President Obama granted 22 commutations today to individuals serving time in federal prison. Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.

In total, the 22 commutations granted today underscore the President’s commitment to using all the tools at his disposal to bring greater fairness and equity to our justice system. Further, they demonstrate how exercising this important authority can remedy imbalances and rectify errors in sentencing. Added to his prior 21 commutations, the President has now granted 43 commutations total. To put President Obama’s actions in context, President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences in his eight years in office....

While today’s announcement represents important progress, there’s more work ahead. The Administration will continue to work to review thoroughly all petitions for clemency. And, while commutation is an important tool for those seeking justice and fairness in our penal system, it is nearly always an option of last resort, coming after a lengthy court process and many years behind bars. That is why President Obama is committed to working with Democrats and Republicans on sensible reforms to our criminal justice system that aim to give judges more discretion over mandatory minimum sentencing. As the Department of Justice has noted, mandatory minimum sentences have at times resulted in harsher penalties for non-violent drug offenders than many violent offenders and are not necessary for prosecutions at this level.

Already, one significant reform has become law. In 2010, the President signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum penalties. The President is encouraged by the bipartisan support for improving our criminal justice system, including promising legislation that would implement front-end changes in sentencing. In addition, he supports bipartisan efforts to provide back-end support through better education and job training for those currently incarcerated and to reform of our juvenile justice system to build on the significant reductions in the number of youth being held in secure facilities.

March 31, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Prez Obama promising to exercise "pardon power and clemency power more aggressively"

This new Huffington Post article reports on an interview with President Barack Obama in which his clemency efforts past and present were discussed. Here are highlights:

President Barack Obama plans to grant clemency to federal offenders "more aggressively" during the remainder of his presidency, he said in a sit-down interview with The Huffington Post on Friday.

Obama has faced criticism for rarely using his power to grant pardons and commutations. In December, he commuted the sentences of eight federal drug offenders, including four who had been sentenced to life. That brought his total number of commutations to 18.

Obama said he had granted clemency so infrequently because of problems in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney. The former head of that office, who was appointed during the George W. Bush administration, resigned in April amid criticism from criminal justice advocates. "I noticed that what I was getting was mostly small-time crimes from very long ago," Obama said. "It'd be a 65-year-old who wanted a pardon to get his gun rights back. Most of them were legitimate, but they didn't address the broader issues that we face, particularly around nonviolent drug offenses. So we've revamped now the DOJ office. We're now getting much more representative applicants."

Many of those new applications came from what's known as the Clemency Project 2014, announced when the Office of the Pardon Attorney head resigned. That project, which operates independently of the government, is intended to help DOJ sort through a huge number of applicants to figure out who meets specific criteria laid out by the administration.  But the process has been slow, and some criminal justice advocates are growing frustrated. Since the project was announced, more than 35,000 inmates -- roughly 16 percent of the total federal prison population -- have submitted applications....

Obama said Friday that the public could see the results of the project soon. "I think what you'll see is not only me exercising that pardon power and clemency power more aggressively for people who meet the criteria -- nonviolent crimes, have served already a long period of time, have shown that they're rehabilitated -- but also we're working with Democrats and Republicans around criminal justice reform issues," Obama said.

The president said it was "encouraging" to see criminal justice reform and support for the elimination of some mandatory minimum sentences as a "rare area where we're actually seeing significant bipartisan interest," with some libertarians and conservatives concerned about costs joining with Democrats. "If we can get some action done at the federal level, that will make a difference in terms of how, I think, more and more states recognize it doesn't make sense for us to treat nonviolent drug offenses the way we do," Obama said.

As I have said many times before, the Obama Administration has generally be much better at talking the talk than at walking the walk on these sorts of sentencing matters. Nevertheless, I view these comments as additional reason to believe there will be many more clemency grants by President Obama in the coming year or two than in the previous five or six.

March 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, March 16, 2015

Interesting review of Ohio Gov John Kasich's clemency record

In part because seemingly so few modern executives make regular use of their clemency powers, and in part because Ohio Gov John Kasich has granted clemency in a number of high-profile capital cases, I had come to think my own governor's clemency record was pretty good.   But this new Columbus Dispatch story, headlined "Kasich rarely uses clemency to pardon, commute sentences," details that Kasich's clemency record compares poorly to prior Ohio governors:

In his first four years in office, Gov. John Kasich used his executive clemency power more sparingly than any other Ohio governor in the past three decades.

He granted 66 of 1,521 requests, about 4.4 percent of 1,521 non-death-penalty cases he received and acted upon from 2011 to 2014, according to information obtained by The Dispatch under a public-records request. That makes him the most conservative with clemency of any Ohio governor going back to the 1980s, when the state began tracking gubernatorial clemency.

Last year, Kasich, a Republican who began his second term in January, approved 17 of 433 clemency requests he reviewed, about 4 percent. All of the cases approved were pardons, some going back to crimes committed more than 25 years ago. A pardon wipes out a past criminal record.

Kasich commuted the death sentences of five killers during his first term, but allowed 12 to be executed. He recently used his executive authority to push back the entire execution schedule for a year, to January 2016, to allow time for the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction to obtain sufficient quantities of new execution drugs as permitted by a change in state law....

In the past 30 years, Ohio governors have used clemency in different ways, sometimes reflecting personal ideological persuasions. Former Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, approved 20 percent of 1,615 clemency requests he handled between 2007 and 2011. Most involved low-level, nonviolent offenses, but he did commute five death-penalty sentences to life without parole.

No Ohio governor in modern history has commuted a death sentence and set a prisoner free. Republican governors George V. Voinovich (1991-98) and Bob Taft (1999-2007) each approved less than 10 percent of the clemency requests they received. Gov. James A. Rhodes, a Republican, approved 17.5 percent of clemencies in 1982, his last year in office.

Democrat Richard F. Celeste, governor from 1983 to 1991, used his clemency power most liberally, commuting the death sentences of eight killers on Death Row in his next to last day in office. He also granted clemency to 25 female prisoners, reasoning they were victims of “battered-woman syndrome” and deserved mercy.

Celeste’s actions caused an uproar, and the clemency process was legally challenged. The General Assembly changed the law to require governors to have a recommendation from the Ohio Parole Board before making any clemency decision. The governor doesn’t have to agree with the parole board, but merely have a board recommendation in hand. In fact, Kasich differed with the board in 23 cases last year, each time rejecting clemency for inmates who had been favorably recommended.

March 16, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Victims and law enforcement assail Gov Wolf's execution moratorium in Pennsylvania

As reported in this local article, folks in Pennsylvania unhappy with "Gov. Tom Wolf's moratorium on the death penalty gathered at the state Capitol on Wednesday to criticize that decision that they say was reached without input from crime victims or law enforcement officers." Here is more:

They came together on the day that death row inmate Terrence Williams was scheduled to be executed; his being the first death sentence to be reprieved as a result of the moratorium.

"Pennsylvania crime victims deserve justice. What they are receiving from the governor is politics," said Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, at the news conference. "He could approach the Legislature to try to get the law changed or he could have filed a lawsuit in court and seek an injunction in death penalty cases. The governor chose to pursue neither of those options."

Instead, with the stroke of his pen on Feb. 13, he signed an executive order to put capital punishment in Pennsylvania on hold until he reviews a Senate-ordered study of the issue that is due later this year....

Many are awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit filed by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams challenging Wolf's authority to impose the moratorium. The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to hear the case.

In the meantime, Vereb has introduced a resolution calling on the governor to reverse his decision and obey the law that now exists in Pennsylvania allowing for capital punishment. While he admits that won't carry the force of law, Vereb said it at least sends a message to the governor.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico, R-Lower Paxton Twp., said he plans to have at least two committee hearings on the issue of capital punishment, starting with one in Philadelphia on March 26 and the other scheduled for June. This month's hearing will focus on testimony from family members of murder victims.

Throughout the news conference, legislators along with the crime victims and district attorneys standing in front of a line of photos of murder victims criticized Wolf for failing to seek their input....

York County District Attorney Tom Kearney said victims are best suited to explain the impact of Wolf's actions. He then proceeded to read a letter from Pauline Smith, whose mother June Rose Ohlinger, was murdered in 1995 in Schuylkill County by serial killer Mark Spotz who is among the 186 inmates now on death row. In her letter, Smith described the governor's decision as "a slap in the face to all of the victims of heinous crimes."

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review, slowly, Gov Wolf's execution moratorium

As reported in this local article, headlined "Pennsylvania Supreme Court to take death penalty moratorium case: Philadelphia DA calls governor’s actions lawless and unconstitutional," a fascinating case concerning state executive powers in the Keystone State is officially to be considered by the state Supreme Court. Here are the details:

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to take a case filed by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office challenging Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium implemented last month on capital punishment in the state. District Attorney R. Seth Williams asked the court to take up the matter involving a defendant named Terrance Williams, who was scheduled for lethal injection today.

Although Seth Williams asked that the court take the case on an expedited basis, the court refused, and it will be heard on a standard calendar, which means that both sides will file briefs and replies over the next several months, and oral argument will be scheduled at a date in the future.

It will probably be more than a year before any decision is reached, and University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said it could be even longer if the court decides it wants two new justices, who will be elected later this year, to consider the case as well.

Mr. Wolf announced on Feb. 13 that he was instituting a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, saying that it was not an “expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes.” Instead, he continued, it was “based on a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive.” He cited nationwide statistics that show 150 people have been exonerated from death row, including six in Pennsylvania....

But in his filing, Seth Williams argues that Mr. Wolf’s action was lawless and unconstitutional. “Merely characterizing conduct by the governor as a reprieve does not make it so,” the prosecutor’s filing said.

Instead, it continued, “At all times in Pennsylvania history a reprieve has meant one thing and only one thing: a temporary stay of a criminal judgment for a defined period of time, for the purpose of allowing the defendant to pursue an available legal remedy. The current act of the governor is not a reprieve. Nor, indeed, could it be. There is no remaining legal remedy available to defendant. He received exhaustive state and federal review. He sought pardon or commutation and it was denied. There is nothing legitimate left to pursue and no remedy to wait for.”

To halt the imposition of the death penalty on a defendant, the district attorney’s office continued, the sentence must be commuted, which can be done only with unanimous agreement by the state Board of Pardons. Seth Williams accused the governor of usurping judicial function.

But in the governor’s response, his attorneys said what he was doing is temporary — a reprieve — and requires no input from the Board of Pardons. “The governor has ‘exclusive authority’ and ‘unfettered discretion to grant a reprieve after imposition of sentence and on a case by case basis,’ ” they wrote, quoting an earlier court case.

Prior related posts:

March 4, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2015

AG Holder provides Congress a sentencing reform to-do list

This new Politico story indicates that a confirmation vote for Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as Attorney General may still be week away. But AG Holder is still in the midst of some parting shots as he prepares to leave his position, and this Washington Post commentary finds the AG making a full-throated pitch for more congressional sentencing reforms.  Here are excerpts from a piece headlined "Time to tackle unfinished business in criminal justice reform":

Today, a rare consensus has emerged in favor of reforming our federal drug sentencing laws.  This presents a historic opportunity to improve the fairness of our criminal justice system.  But unless we act quickly, we risk letting the moment pass.

The Justice Department has sought to be an early innovator on this front.  A year and a half ago, I launched the Smart on Crime initiative — a comprehensive effort to reorient the federal government’s approach to criminal justice....  Preliminary results from this effort are extremely encouraging....

Last year also witnessed the first overall reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years.  Most impressive of all, we achieved this drop in incarceration at the same time we cut the crime rate, marking the first simultaneous reduction in both crime and incarceration rates in more than four decades.

But while it is indisputable that we are moving in the right direction, there is a limit to what the Justice Department can accomplish on its own.  Moving forward, we need to build upon, and make permanent, these gains through action in Congress.... [A] few specific items of unfinished business should command our immediate attention.

First, although Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate a discriminatory 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, thousands of individuals who committed crimes before 2010 are still serving sentences based on the old ratio. This is unfair.  Congress should pass legislation to apply that statute retroactively so that no one is sitting in prison serving a sentence that Congress, the president and the attorney general have all declared unjust.

Second, while the Justice Department has declined to seek harsh mandatory minimum sentences in cases where they are not warranted, we need to codify this approach. Congress should pass one of the multiple bipartisan bills aimed at restricting and refining those crimes to which mandatory minimums apply.

Third, in individual states, legislatures should eliminate statutes that prevent an estimated 5.8 million U.S. citizens from exercising their right to vote because of felony convictions.  These unfair restrictions only serve to impede the work of transitioning formerly incarcerated people back into society.

Finally, we should seek to expand the use of federal drug courts throughout the country for low-level drug offenses.  These programs provide proven alternatives to incarceration for men and women who are willing to do the hard work of recovery, and it is my hope that, in the next five years, there will be an operational drug court in every federal district — with individual states following suit.

While I will depart the Obama administration in the coming weeks — and my own formal career in law enforcement will soon draw to a close — I intend to continue this work, to promote this mission and to advance this cause.  And I hope that, in the days ahead, leaders in Congress and around the country will come together to help build the fairer, more efficient and more effective criminal justice system that all Americans deserve.

In this post over at The Volokh Conspiracy, titled "The President doesn’t need Congress’s help to fix unjust sentences," Will Baude properly notes that Prez Obama could take care of the first item on the AG's action list without any action by Congress.  As Will notes, the "Constitution gives the President 'Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States.' If the President indeed shares the Attorney General’s views, he can eliminate the thousands of unfair sentences at a few strokes of a pen."  Will speculates that "the President is unwilling to exercise his constitutional pardon power [this way] because he wants political cover if somebody who is pardoned later goes on to do something wrong." 

I am glad Will highlights the president could through commutations (or pardons) readily fix on his own problems and unfairness presented by the non-retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act.  Those problems persist because of President Obama's failure of resolve, not a failure of power, on this front.  In addition, I think the President could (and should) be using a lot more of his political time and energy trying to move Congress forward on other fronts as well (e.g., he could have, but failed to, talk at lengthy about these issues during his State of the Union address not long ago).

March 2, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Another account of the massiveness and messy process behind Prez clemency initiative

This lengthy new Washington Post article, headlined "U.S. clemency effort, slow to start, will rely on an army of pro bono lawyers," reports on the extraordinary scope and process behind the clemency initiative started seemingly long ago and still awaiting major action by Prez Obama. Here are excerpts:

A massive influx of applications from prisoners and a complicated review process have slowed the Obama administration’s highly touted initiative to grant clemency to nonviolent offenders, shifting the burden to an army of pro bono lawyers and specialists willing to help.

Just over a year after the administration unveiled its initiative, President Obama has commuted the sentences of eight prisoners, all of whose applications had already been submitted at the time of the announcement.  In the meantime, more than 35,000 inmates — about 16 percent of the federal prison population — have applied to have their sentences shortened under the Justice Department-led initiative.

In an unusual arrangement, the department has sought to deal with the deluge by encouraging outside lawyers to help identify candidates for earlier release and to represent them. Prisoner applications are being reviewed by more than 1,000 attorneys at 323 law firms and organizations nationwide.

“We have created what very well may be the largest, most ambitious pro-bono effort in the history of the legal profession,” said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, one of the four groups that make up what is known as the Clemency Project 2014.  Reimer, detailing the group’s efforts for the first time, said it spent all of 2014 “gearing up” and was hopeful the process would be accelerated soon....

Candidates for clemency under the new Justice Department criteria, released in the spring, must have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime.  Applicants also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.

Even given those criteria, however, the universe of inmates who might qualify is huge, lawyers say.  “We had decades of harsh sentencing,” said Marjorie J. Peerce, a partner at Ballard Spahr in New York, whose lawyers have been screening clemency applications. “People were going to jail for decades because they were drug addicts selling a little bit of crack. There was such a disparity, and it was disproportionately affecting minorities.”...

[T]he Clemency Project — which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and Reimer’s association of criminal defense attorneys — has sent the petitions of only 14 inmates to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to be considered for clemency....

Lawyers with the Clemency Project say the pace is partly a symptom of dealing with clients whose cases are complex and whose ability to communicate is limited because they’re incarcerated.  Every lawyer participating in the project had to be trained to sift through the applications to identify candidates who met the Justice Department criteria.  In many cases, they had to try to locate old legal documents and contact prosecutors and judges who imposed the sentences for answers.

Most of the inmates who requested assistance from the lawyers sent applications electronically through the Bureau of Prisons computers, but several thousand who didn’t have access to computers sent paper applications that had to be manually entered into an enormous database the attorneys have built.  Prisoner applications are still trickling in. “Some of these inmates have been in 20 to 25 years. Lawyers have to try to get pre-sentencing reports and sentencing transcripts, and, in some cases, the sentencing proceeding might not have been transcribed. It’s a cumbersome process, and you want to get it right,” Peerce said.

Although the Clemency Project is facilitating the process for inmates, it is not working directly with the Justice Department.  Inmates can contact the Clemency Project, which will research and prepare petitions for qualified candidates and send them to the Office of the Pardon Attorney, or, as 5,333 inmates have done since the spring, apply directly to that office. From there, petitions with recommendations go to the office of acting Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates.

Yates then sends the petitions with her recommendations to the White House counsel, Neil Eggleston, who sends them with his recommendations to Obama. Some advocates view that process as overly cumbersome. Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said that the agency “remains committed to the President’s Clemency Initiative, consistent with our overall efforts to modernize outdated sentencing laws.”

“The Clemency Initiative is just one prong of the tools we are using to accomplish that goal, including pushing sentencing reform in Congress and through the Sentencing Commission,” Pierce said. “We also are committed to ensuring that each individual who applies is treated fairly and equally and that public safety is a consideration in each and every petition under consideration.”

Reimer, of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that now that the Clemency Project has put in place a process for sorting out clemency applications, it plans to review and submit them to the Justice Department more quickly. “We’ve got a lot of work this year, but we’re determined to do it,” he said. “We will find everyone who may qualify and complete that by sometime early next year.”

Some prior related posts:

March 1, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

More notable new posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center

As regular readers know, I have made a habit of noting here notable posts from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center because the topics covered there are so interesting and get so little attention in the mainstream media (or many other places in the blogoshere). Here are a bunch of new posts from CCRC from recent weeks:

February 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 21, 2015

New Oregon Gov pledges to continue curious capital moratorium created by her corrupt predecessor

Images (2)As reported in this new Reuters piece, headlined "New Oregon Governor Kate Brown to extend death penalty moratorium," a change in leadership at the top of the executive branch in the Beaver State is apparently not going to bring any change to the state's current peculiar death penalty practices. Here are the details:

Oregon's new Democratic Governor Kate Brown said on Friday she planned to extend a moratorium on executions that her predecessor enacted in 2011, well before an influence-peddling scandal forced him from office earlier this week.

But like fellow Democrat John Kitzhaber, Brown stopped short of formally commuting death sentences for the 34 inmates currently awaiting execution in the state, which has executed only two people in the past half century, both in the 1990s.  “There needs to be a broader discussion about fixing the system," Brown said in her first press briefing since she took Oregon's helm on Wednesday.  "Until that discussion, I'm upholding the moratorium imposed by Kitzhaber.” 

In a major salvo in the nation's long-running battle over capital punishment, Kitzhaber imposed a blanket reprieve on all Oregon death row inmates in 2011, saying he believed the death penalty was morally wrong.  He had faced growing calls in the waning days of his administration to commute all Oregon death sentences to life in prison before leaving office following an ethics scandal over accusations his fiancée used her role in his office for personal gain.

But Kitzhaber, who has not been seen publicly since announcing his resignation last week, remained silent on that issue, although he did commute the prison sentence of a young man serving time for attempted murder in a non-capital case.

Brown, who had been Oregon's secretary of state before this week, said she met with Kitzhaber on Monday and he advised her of his legislative priorities and recommendations. In addition to her death penalty plans, Brown told reporters she supports raising the minimum wage, increasing transparency and improving access to public records. 

Four years seems to me like plenty of time for the policy-makers and the public in Oregon to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state. Notably, since Kitzhaber put the moratorium in place, I believe the Oregon legislature has enacted other forms of sentencing reform dealing with prison sentences as well as significant state health-care reforms.  In addition, Oregon public policy groups placed on the ballot in both 2012 and 2014 significant legal reform intended to "fix" perceived problems with marijuana laws and policies in the state.  If the last four years (and a number of election cycles) have not provided sufficient time for Oregonians to have a "broader discussion about fixing the system," I have a hard time imagining that the next few years are likely to engender such a discussion.

In the end, I seriously doubt that the new Oregon governor (or many others in the state) are really looking forward to having a "broader discussion about fixing the system" used for administering the death penalty in the state.  Rather, I think this phrase was the one that the new gov thought would best allow her to duck a controversial, high-profile issue for the time being (and maybe even for the full duration of her term).  For a handful of advocates, death penalty policy and practices in any state are very important, but for most citizens and voters the death penalty is a high-salience but low-significance concern.  Keeping Kitzhaber's execution moratorium in place allows the new gov to focus on other issues without the distorting distractions that death penalty politics can often create.

Some recent related posts:

February 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2015

Philadelphia DA sues Pennsylvania Gov asserting execution moratorium is "lawless" and "flagrantly unconstitutional"

Images (1)As reported in this local article, "Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has sued Gov. Tom Wolf over the death penalty moratorium he imposed last week." Here the basics:

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Williams asks the state Supreme Court to rule Wolf's move a "lawless act," claiming the governor had no legal right to grant a reprieve to convicted murderer Terrance Williams....

The lawsuit filed by the city's Democratic district attorney is the second one the Democratic governor has faced since he was sworn in to office Jan. 20. The Republican-controlled Senate sued Wolf in Commonwealth Court over his decision to fire the executive director of the Open Records Office, which the Legislature created when it updated the state's Right-to-Know Law in 2008.

Wolf's death penalty moratorium, announced Friday, fulfilled a campaign promise. It was criticized by district attorneys, law enforcement and some lawmakers. Some religious leaders and other lawmakers praised it....

Wolf said he will grant a reprieve each time a death row inmate is scheduled for execution but keep the inmates' death sentences intact, which was what he did in the case of Terrance Williams. Williams was scheduled to be executed March 4 for the 1984 robbing and fatal tire-iron beating of another man in Philadelphia.

"The governor took the action to place a moratorium on the death penalty because Pennsylvania's capital punishment system is flawed — it's ineffective, expensive, and many times unjust," Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan said Wednesday. "As he stated Friday, the governor will wait for the report being produced by the bipartisan Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment, established by the state Senate, and the recommendations within the report are addressed satisfactorily."

Wolf was within his legal right to grant a reprieve under Article 4, Section 9 of the state constitution, Sheridan added. That section also gives the governor the power to commute sentences and issue pardons.

In his lawsuit, Williams says the governor can grant reprieves only as a temporary measure to allow a defendant to pursue "an available legal remedy." The governor cannot grant open-ended reprieves in cases where there are no legal questions surrounding guilt, the suit states. "Merely characterizing conduct by the governor as a reprieve does not make it so," Williams wrote, citing a successful 1994 lawsuit Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli filed against Gov. Robert P. Casey to enforce the death penalty against Martin D. Appel and Josoph Henry....

"The scope of the reprieve power is not mysterious or vague, and it is limited," Williams' lawsuit states. "Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not grant the governor an unlimited at-will power of clemency, without which it is not even possible to posit an arguable ability to impose a moratorium."

The filing by Philadelphia DA Williams, which is styled an&"Emergency Commonwealth Petition For Extraordinary Relief Under King's Bench Jurisdiction," was filed in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and is available at this link.  I find the filing quite effective and compelling, and I thought these passages were especially notable:

On February 13, 2015, the Governor issued a purported reprieve in connection with his publicly-announced assumption of a constitutionally-nonexistent power to declare a “moratorium” on death sentences in Pennsylvania.

This lawless act by the Governor, improperly and inaccurately characterized as a reprieve — for the act issued in this case is not, in fact, a reprieve — is not within the constitutional powers of the Governor, usurps judicial review of criminal judgments, and is in direct violation of his duty to faithfully execute Pennsylvania law under Article IV, § 2. It is unconstitutional, illegal, and should be declared null and void by this Court....

The alleged reprieve, which is not a reprieve at all, violates the constitutional separation of powers.  The constitution requires due process, not the Governor’s personal standard of absolute perfection; and the task of assuring that criminal judgments meet that correct standard is assigned to the judiciary, not the executive.Exercise, by another branch, of an extra-constitutional attempt to disturb settled judgments in criminal cases is an impermissible usurpation of the exclusive function of the judiciary....

In law and in reality, therefore, the Governor seeks to nullify valid, final judgments of sentence in usurpation of the judicial function, and seeks to subject the law governing capital sentencing to the test of his personal standard of satisfaction,which in this instance happens to be a test of infallibility that is impossible for mere mortals to satisfy. This is not permissible in a government that is founded on the principle that the people are to be ruled by laws enacted by their representatives in the legislative process, and not the personal whims of a king or dictator. The constitutional role of the Governor is to execute the law, not sabotage it.

February 20, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Would you urge out-going (and apparently corrupt) Oregon Gov Kitzhaber to commute all death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new commentary authored by Frank Thompson, a retired assistant director of institutions and superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary.  Here are excerpts:

I know what it is like to execute someone. I am a retired prison superintendent who conducted the only two executions that have taken place in Oregon in the past 53 years.

The death penalty in Oregon comes at a high cost to our state in both human and fiscal resources.  I call on Gov. Kitzhaber to convert 35 death sentences to life without the possibility of release before he leaves office at mid-morning on Wednesday.

Based on my experiences as a correctional professional, capital punishment is a failed public policy — especially in Oregon where we have funded a death penalty system for over 30 years, yet only put to death two inmates who volunteered themselves for execution by abandoning their appeals. No other corrections program exemplifies such a complete failure rate.

During my more than two decades of running correctional facilities, I saw the population of those who are capable of extreme violence up close. I have no doubts at all that these offenders did not think about the death penalty for one second before committing their violent acts. Instead, research has been shown that public safety is greatly improved when our limited tax dollars are redirected to law enforcement agencies to solve cases and prevent crimes.

I understand exactly what is being asked of public employees whose jobs include carrying out the lawful orders of the judiciary to end another person's life.  The burden weighs especially heavily on my conscience because I know firsthand that the death penalty is not applied fairly or equally in Oregon.  I have known hundreds of inmates who are guilty of similar crimes yet did not get the death penalty because they reached a plea bargain of life without parole simply because they had the means for professional legal assistance.

I also understand, from my experiences in corrections, the potential awful and lifelong repercussions that can come from participating in the execution of prisoners.  Living with the nightmares is something that some of us experience.  This is particularly the case with those of us who have had more hands-on experience with the flawed capital punishment process, and/or where an execution under our supervision did not go smoothly.

I am never troubled when people make a forceful argument that "capital punishment is a failed public policy."  But I find it troubling that this argument is being made now to a disgraced (apparently corrupt) out-going governor rather than to the new incoming governor and other public-policy officials who are going to be staying in their jobs and would need to deal with the administrative and political implications and consequences of their actions.

Notably, it is not just Oregonians urging out-going Gov Kitzhaber to clear the state's death row.  Professors Charles Ogletree and Rob Smith have this new Huffington Post commentary headlined "Gov. Kitzhaber: Your Job Is Not Yet Done." here is how it concludes:

Governor Kitzhaber declared a moratorium on the death penalty back in 2011. He labeled the State's practice of imposing death sentences "neither fair nor just" and concluded that a "compromised and inequitable" capital punishment system is not befitting of Oregon. Nothing has changed and nothing will: the death penalty in Oregon is too broken to fix.

In his resignation letter, Governor Kitzhaber told us that he was proud to not have presided over any executions. Yet, as Governor, he presided over a state that has sentenced people to death under the same unjust system that led him to impose the moratorium. The Governor has the power to leave the troubled history of this disreputable death penalty system in Oregon's rearview mirror; and doing so would enhance the integrity of the criminal justice system without compromising public safety.

Governor Kitzhaber: You lit the torch in 2011; and now, in these few remaining hours, please carry that torch across the finish line.

February 17, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, February 13, 2015

Pennsylvania Gov declares moratorium on state death penalty

As reported in this local piece, headlined "Gov. Tom Wolf declares moratorium on death penalty in Pa.," there is some headline-making news about capital punishment administration emerging from the Keystone State: 

Gov. Tom Wolf declared a moratorium Friday on the death penalty in Pennsylvania, potentially halting the process for 186 prisoners who've received a death sentence. Since 1693, the commonwealth has executed 1,043 prisoners, the last of which was Philadelphia torture killer Gary Heidnik in 1999. That execution took place, in large part, because Heidnik gave up his right to appeal.

In a statement released Friday, Wolf said the state's current death penalty is "a flawed system that has been proven to be an endless cycle of court proceedings as well as ineffective, unjust and expensive."...

Wolf's first action was a temporary reprieve to Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to be executed on March 4. Williams was convicted of two murders he committed as a teenager in 1984. "Today's action comes after significant consideration and reflection," Wolf said. "This moratorium is in no way an expression of sympathy for the guilty on death row, all of whom have been convicted of committing heinous crimes."

Shortly after Wolf's announcement, Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, said he reintroduced his bill Friday to abolish the death penalty altogether. "I am extremely grateful that our governor will stop spending our tax dollars to, in the words of former US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, tinker with the machinery of death," he said, in a written statement.

Gov. Wolf's detailed four-page statement justifying his decision today is a fascinating read (which I am going to make my sentencing students read and re-read). The full statement is available at this link, and here are excerpts:

Pursuant to authority granted in Article IV, § 9 of the Constitution of Pennsylvania, I am today exercising my power as Governor to grant a temporary reprieve to inmate Terrence Williams. A death warrant for this case was signed on January 13, 2015 by my predecessor, acting pursuant to Section 4302 of the Pennsylvania Prisons and Parole Code. The execution was scheduled for March 4, 2015.

The reprieve announced today shall remain in effect until I have received and reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment (established under Senate Resolution 6 of 2011), and any recommendations contained therein are satisfactorily addressed. In addition, it is my intention to grant a reprieve in each future instance in which an execution is scheduled, until this condition is met....

There are currently 186 individuals on Pennsylvania’s death row. Despite having the fifth largest death row in the nation, the death penalty has rarely been imposed in modern times. In the nearly forty years since the Pennsylvania General Assembly reinstated the death penalty, the Commonwealth has executed three people, all of whom voluntarily abandoned their right to further due process.

In that same period, Governors have signed 434 death warrants. All but the three noted above have subsequently been stayed by a court. One inmate has been scheduled for execution six times, each of which has been cancelled due to a state or federal appeal. Two inmates have remained on death row for more than three decades. This unending cycle of death warrants and appeals diverts resources from the judicial system and forces the families and loved ones of victims to relive their tragedies each time a new round of warrants and appeals commences. The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved.

While the pace of the process frustrates some, the fail-safes of appellate review are essential in avoiding a catastrophic miscarriage of justice. Since reinstatement of the death penalty, 150 people have been exonerated from death row nationwide, including six men in Pennsylvania....

If the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible. Pennsylvania’s sy stem is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive, and anything but infallible....

[A]administering the death penalty, with all the necessary legal appeals and safeguards as well as extra security and individual cells on death row, is extremely expensive. A recent analysis conducted by the Reading Eagle estimates that the capital justice apparatus has cost taxpayers at least $315 million, but noted that this figure was very likely low. Other estimates have suggested the cost to be $600 million or more. The Commonwealth has received very little, if any, benefit from this massive expenditure.

February 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, February 06, 2015

Highlighting President Obama's pitiful pardon record

ZZoTyPLThis lengthy USA Today piece, headlined "The 50-year-old pardon: Obama picks safe clemency cases," provides yet another review of the now-too-familiar story of President Obama awful record on his use of his clemency authority. Here are excerpts:

Of the 64 pardons President Obama has granted over six years, half are for offenses that happened before 1989. Six are from the 1960s. On average, 23 years have elapsed between the sentencing date and the day Obama has granted a pardon or commutation — an all-time high. A century ago, three or four years was the norm.

It's part of a decades-long trend toward presidents being more cautious in their pardon power, picking older and safer cases for clemency. But Obama has been the most cautious of all, and some critics say he is shirking his constitutional power — some say duty — to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States."

"'Safe' is being nice. I would almost say irrelevant. The people who are being pardoned are people on Social Security," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who studies pardons. "The people who need pardons are young and need to establish themselves and get a job, get a Pell grant and go to college."...

Many of Obama's pardons are for old, obscure and sometimes trivial crimes:

• Ronald Lee Foster, of Beaver Falls, Pa., was convicted of mutilating coins in 1963. He had shaved the edges off pennies to fool vending machines into thinking they were dimes. He was pardoned in 2010 at the age of 66.

• David Neil Mercer of Grand Junction, Colo., was convicted in 1997 of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act by disturbing Indian artifacts in Utah. He now owns an automotive business and was pardoned last year at the age of 56.

• Bobby Gerald Wilson, of Summerton, S.C., was convicted in 1985 of aiding and abetting in the possession and sale of illegal American alligator hides. He was pardoned in 2011 at the age of 61.

Obama has issued fewer pardons than any president since James Garfield, who served just 199 days in office, and fewer than any two-term president since George Washington, according to Ruckman, a Rock Valley College professor who tracks clemency trends on the blog Pardon Power.

The few pardons Obama is granting often come late in life — sometimes to people on their deathbeds. Albert Byron Stork, a defense attorney from Delta, Colo., was convicted of tax evasion in 1987, when he took money from his fugitive brother for the down payment of a house. He received a pardon the same day as Auvil — and died of brain cancer two weeks later.

The White House said the president has an "ongoing commitment" to granting clemency. "The president believes strongly that a critical component of our criminal justice system is for deserving and qualified applicants to have the ability to petition for clemency," said White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine. She said Obama "looks forward to reviewing additional requests for clemency in the coming months."

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, in the Justice Department, is responsible for sifting through the hundreds of applications received each year.... Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff's recommendations go to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, then to White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, and ultimately to the president. That's how it works in principle. But in practice, the Justice Department is run by career prosecutors who are often hostile to those seeking pardons, defense attorneys say.

"They churn out a steady stream of no," said Sam Morison, a lawyer specializing in pardon cases who worked in the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Clinton, Bush and early Obama administrations. "That doesn't mean that the president has to do what they say. But the president almost always does what the Justice Department recommends, even when he doesn't agree with what the Justice Department recommends." But the Justice Department has to recommend some favorable applications, and they tend to be older, easier cases, he said....

Delegating the decisions to the Justice Department helps to depoliticize the pardon power, but it's also led to its own problems. An internal Justice Department investigation found that President George W. Bush's pardon attorney withheld information from the White House about a commutation he opposed. And in 2010, the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica published an investigation in the Washington Post revealing that, under Bush and Obama, white criminals were four times more likely to get a pardon than black offenders.

Last year, the Justice Department announced a clemency initiative in an attempt to rectify some of the inequities in the system. Inmates who would have gotten lighter sentences under current federal guidelines were encouraged to apply to have their sentences commuted, or reduced.  But the Justice Department says that's a separate issue from pardons. 

Just a few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

February 6, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A test for the Kochs' influence: seeking justice and freedom for Weldon Angelos

Download (1)If the wealthy truly have extraordinary influence on modern federal politics and policies, a notable defendant serving a mandatory 55-year sentence as a result of a few small marijuana sales ought to be getting out of prison before too long.  I say this because, according to this Daily Beast piece, my former client Weldon Angelos is now a "poster boy" for the latest Koch-brothers-backed political effort.  This piece is headlined "The New Face of the Koch Campaign" and here is its subheading: "A father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot. The Koch brothers want to help set him free and make him the face of their new campaign for criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

Weldon Angelos could have hijacked a plane and spent less time in jail.  But due to mandatory sentencing laws, the father of two was sentenced to 55 years in jail for selling pot — a term so long even the judge who gave it to him protested its injustice.  A group backed by the Koch brothers agrees, and is now fighting to get him out of prison.

Angelos is an extreme case: even though the crime was considered non-violent, Angelos carried a firearm during a series of marijuana sales to a Salt Lake City police informant —  so federal mandatory minimums required that he be put in jail until he’s 80 years old. Judge Paul Cassell protested the sentence when he was forced to make it in 2004, a move he told The Daily Beast he considers “the most unjust, lengthy sentence that I had to hand down.”...

Angelos is now 35 years old and has spent some 11 years behind bars.  He has more than 40 years left to go.  Even though his crime was non-violent, parole is not an option at the federal level.  His only hope for relief from his sentence is an order by the president.

“If we’re going to deprive someone of liberty, and deal with the high cost of incarceration, it better solve a problem.  And in this case, it doesn’t solve any problem,” argued Mark Osler, Angelos’ lawyer, who filed a clemency petition on his behalf in 2012.

This is where the Koch brothers come in.  The case is being highlighted by Koch-backed group Generation Opportunity, which targets millenials, in a broader campaign to press for criminal justice reforms this year.  They will kick off the campaign with a documentary highlighting Angelos’ predicament, premiering at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum next week. “[This year] offers a unique moment in history in which people of different backgrounds and political leanings are coming together to facilitate a substantive dialogue on how to fix [the criminal justice system],” said Evan Feinberg, the group’s president. “We can work towards a more just system that reflects the rule of law without overcriminalizing non-violent offenses.”

The new campaign will target the overcriminalization of non-violent crime, mandatory minimum laws, and helping criminals who have served their sentences reintegrate into society.  The demilitarization of police and the excesses of civil asset forfeiture will also be addressed.

Generation Opportunity worked with Families Against Mandatory Minimums on the documentary.  FAMM founder Julie Stewart was in the room during Angelos’ first sentencing hearing.  It was, she said, a severe example of a worrisome trend in the criminal justice system....

“A lot of people just thought that because of the amount of time my brother was [sentenced to], he had done something terrible, just because of the ignorance that is out there about mandatory sentencing,” said Lisa Angelos, Weldon’s older sister and advocate. “Before the case, I had no idea that this was possible in America.”  The judge who was forced to hand down the sentence, Paul Cassell, said the Angelos case is an example of “clear injustice marring the public perception” of the federal courts — and victimizing taxpayers who have to pay to keep him locked up.

“We have in place in our country today some very draconian penalties that distort our whole federal sentencing scheme,” Cassell said.  “When people look at a case like Weldon Angelos and see that he got 55 years, and they see other cases where victims have gotten direct physical or psychological injuries and don’t see a similar [result] from the system, they start to wonder if the system is irrational.”

When he was sent to prison, Angelos’ children were small, now both are in their teens. Without their father, the family fell on hard financial times.  His children rarely talk to him, Weldon’s sister says, because they can’t afford a cell phone on which they can be reached.  “When I tell him stories about his kids, you can tell how very hard it is for him to hear it… to know that he can’t be here,” Lisa Angelos said. “It’s destroyed him in many ways.”

The Angelos’ have waited for more than two years for word on their executive clemency request.  The average successful clemency request takes approximately four years, according to his lawyer.  Weldon Angelos deserves clemency, Osler said, because his sentencing “doesn’t correlate in this country with what’s wrong, and what those wrongs deserve.”

Long-time readers are likely familiar with the Angelos case, which came to my attention on a few months after I started this blog 11 years ago. I litigated pro bono, unsuccessfully, Weldon's 2255 motion with claims (that I still find compelling) that his prosecution and sentencing involved violations of the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. I continue to hope Weldon will receive clemency or some other form of relief soon not merely to remedy the injustice of his extreme prosecution and sentencing, but to vindicate critical constitutional principles.

Related prior posts providing some Angelos case history:

February 3, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Politics of Mercy: Is clemency still the third rail? We may find out."

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece by Ken Armstrong at The Marshall Project. Here are excerpts:

For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that clemency equals danger. Any governor who grants pardons or commutations to convicted felons invites political risk – with no potential benefit. In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney signed not a single pardon, a record he later touted.

But when [Robert] Ehrlich was governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, he made clemency a priority, dedicating lawyers to screen requests and meeting monthly with senior aides to review applications.  In the end, Ehrlich granted clemency more than 200 times. And should he run for president, he plans to hold up that record as a signature achievement, arguing that it shows he is someone who leads instead of cowers.... The GOP field could also include other candidates who have resisted convention, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has commuted the death sentences of five condemned inmates since 2011.

Is it possible that a willingness to grant clemency might now offer some political benefit? “I would give it a qualified yes,” says P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., and editor of the Pardon Power blog. “I think increasingly there’s a sense that it’s a nebulous plus if you at least appear to be someone who takes the Constitution seriously and isn’t stuck in the 1980s, pushing the Willie Horton button.”...

Ehrlich says there has since been a cultural shift, with growing concern about harsh sentencing laws — for example, mandatory minimums — and a realization that “the drug epidemic is more appropriately viewed as a health issue than as a criminal justice issue.” The country’s booming prison population “is impacting so many people, so many families, so many careers, so many parents,” Ehrlich says.  “It crosses every line.”...

Margaret Love, who served as U.S. Pardon Attorney under presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush, says,  “This is a function of the justice system that should not be subject to these political whims.  I get sort of annoyed whenever I see it treated as a sort of holiday gift-giving. That’s not what it is. It’s part of the system, or at least ought to be.”

On Thursday, Love wrote a post on the website for the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, noting the symbolism of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s recent summoning of the media to watch him sign a conditional pardon for an autistic inmate.  “There may be no more telling sign that the ‘soft on crime’ label is losing its power over elected officials than McAuliffe’s decision to publicize this bedside act of mercy,” she wrote.

In the next campaign, no candidate would test the power of that label more than Mike Huckabee, who this month left his Fox News show to consider running.  In his decade as Arkansas governor, Huckabee granted clemency more than 1,000 times.  On Thursday, BuzzFeed published an unaired ad that Mitt Romney’s campaign had prepared during the 2008 race, tying Huckabee to the early release of a serial rapist who, once freed, committed murder.  Romney’s campaign ultimately balked at using the ad.

Since then, Huckabee has become an even more inviting target.  In 2009, in Washington state, a former Arkansas inmate named Maurice Clemmons shot and killed four police officers in a coffee shop.  Nine years before, Huckabee had commuted Clemmons’s prison sentence, making him eligible for parole.

It might seem that advocates for clemency would cringe at the prospect of a Huckabee candidacy in 2016, given his vulnerability to Willie Horton-type attacks.  But Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, says, “I’ve told people for the last few years that one of the best things for clemency would be for Huckabee to run.”

What Osler and others see in Huckabee is an opportunity for an open discussion of what clemency is – and is not. “It does not lead to perfection, in the same way the jury system does not lead to perfection,” Osler says.  “With clemency you have an independent moral actor who is unpredictable — and that’s the person receiving clemency.  You can never guarantee that that person will not commit another crime.”

Clemency advocates believe Huckabee, an ordained minister, can make a persuasive case for mercy, particularly given how he links clemency to his Christian faith and to his belief in what he calls “restorative justice.”...

Ehrlich, unlike Huckabee, has not had any grants of mercy come back to haunt. And when talking about his embrace of clemency, he’s found support among dramatically different audiences, from a dinner co-hosted by the Charles Koch Foundation to a forum sponsored by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.  “So it’s hard right and hard left, but the audiences have generally the same view on this issue,” he says.  In a speech three years ago, Ehrlich boiled his motives for making clemency a priority down to this: “Because it's the right thing to do. It's really not that complicated.”...

The field of potential presidential candidates also includes governors at the opposite end of this spectrum.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has refused to grant any pardons, portraying them as an undermining of the criminal justice system, rather than as a way to recognize someone’s rehabilitation or help check an unduly harsh law or ill-conceived prosecution.  To Ruckman, Walker is “on the wrong side of history. He’s a dinosaur on this one.”

January 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack