Thursday, December 03, 2009

"No Decrease In Death Penalty Approval Rate"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new NPR piece discussing the absence of significant change in the handling of the federal death penalty under the new Obama Administration.  Here are excerpts:

During the Bush administration, opponents of capital punishment criticized the Justice Department for bringing federal death penalty cases too often and in states that have outlawed execution as a form of punishment.

With Attorney General Eric Holder running the department, many people expected to see a more limited use of the tactic. But so far, Holder is instructing prosecutors to seek the death penalty at roughly the same rate as President Bush's last attorney general.... Holder has authorized death penalty prosecutions at a pace comparable to that of his immediate predecessor, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Center. The center helps defense lawyers in capital cases, and it also tracks how often an attorney general authorizes prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

According to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Center, President Bush's first attorney general, John Ashcroft, greenlighted 139 federal death penalty prosecutions out of 641 cases that might have been eligible for capital punishment. That's a 22 percent approval rate. Ashcroft's successor, Alberto Gonzales, authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty in 81 out of 423 possible cases, for a 19 percent approval rate.

Michael Mukasey approved 21 out of 159 cases, so his approval rate was 13 percent. Holder's approval rate is almost identical to Mukasey's. As of Oct. 3, capital defense lawyers say, Holder had authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty in 7 cases out of 61 that might have been eligible for capital punishment. That's an 11 percent approval rate.

If you include the five alleged Sept. 11 conspirators headed to New York from Guantanamo for a federal death penalty trial, the rate climbs higher. And Thanksgiving week, Holder instructed prosecutors to seek the death penalty in another four cases....

There is also a question of local standards in death penalty enforcement. Many states have outlawed the death penalty, but even in those states, federal prosecutors can still bring capital charges....

Ashcroft brought federal death penalty cases in states that have outlawed capital punishment. When asked for his view on bringing federal death penalty cases in states that have outlawed capital punishment, Holder said, "I wouldn't say that there's a policy where we're doing it on a state-by-state basis. It really is a case-by-case basis."

December 3, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Obama suggests 9/11 suspect will get death penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Reuters piece. Here is how the piece starts:

U.S. President Barack Obama suggested on Wednesday the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks would be convicted and put to death, but later said he was not trying to prejudge the trial.

I am bumming that President Obama did not also predict just when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would be executed, especially since the administration of the federal death penalty remains in a virtual legal black hole since some scheduled federal executions were stayed way back in 2006 based on pre-Baze concerns about lethal injection protocols. 

Some related posts:

November 18, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Monday, November 09, 2009

"President Barack Obama proving stingy with his pardon power"

The title of this post is the headline of this little piece today in the Chicago Tribune.  These basics about President Obama's poor clemency track record to date should be familiar to regular readers of this blog:

A lot of things have moved pretty quickly in the Obama administration. Presidential pardons are not among them.  In two and a quarter centuries, only four presidents have been slower than President Barack Obama in exercising their authority of executive clemency -- granting either pardons or commutations of sentences to the convicted -- with thousands of applications pending at the Justice Department.

Some related posts on federal clemency:

November 9, 2009 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 11, 2009

DOJ reviewing some DNA testing waivers in federal plea agreements

This new article in today's Washington Post, which is headlined "Justice Dept. to Review Bush Policy on DNA Test Waivers," spotlights an interesting issues concerning the use of rights waivers in some federal plea agreements. Here are some of the basics:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has ordered a review of a little-known Bush administration policy requiring some defendants to waive their right to DNA testing even though that right is guaranteed in a landmark federal law, officials said.

The practice of using DNA waivers began several years ago as a response to the Innocence Protection Act of 2004, which allowed federal inmates to seek post-conviction DNA tests to prove their innocence.  More than 240 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated by such tests, including 17 on death row.

The waivers are filed only in guilty pleas and bar defendants from ever requesting DNA testing, even if new evidence emerges. Prosecutors who use them, including some of the nation's most prominent U.S. attorneys, say people who have admitted guilt should not be able to file frivolous petitions for testing.  They say the wave of DNA exonerations has little impact in federal court because all those found to be innocent were state prisoners, and the waivers apply only to federal charges. DNA evidence is used far more frequently in state courts.

But DNA experts say that's about to change because more sophisticated testing will soon bring biological evidence into federal courtrooms for a wider variety of crimes.  Defense lawyers who have worked on DNA appeals strongly oppose the waivers, saying that innocent people sometimes plead guilty -- mainly to get lighter sentences -- and that denying them the ability to prove their innocence violates a fundamental right.  One quarter of the 243 people exonerated by DNA had falsely confessed to crimes they didn't commit, and 16 of them pleaded guilty....

Interviews and documents show that language allowing for DNA waivers was inserted into the law at the behest of Republican senators and that the Bush Justice Department lobbied against the measure even with the waiver provision.  Soon after the law passed with bipartisan support, the department sent a secret memo to the nation's 94 U.S. attorney's offices urging them to use the waivers, several federal officials familiar with the memo said.

Holder, a former U.S. attorney in the District, has called for expanded DNA testing in federal courts. After inquiries by The Washington Post, his spokesman, Matthew Miller, said Holder "has ordered that the department review its DNA waiver policy."...  Oregon prosecutor Joshua Marquis, who sits on the executive committee of the National District Attorneys Association, said he's never heard of DNA waivers in state court and that the organization opposes the concept. "I think it's important to always leave the door open for actual proof of innocence," he said.

In federal court, the waivers are part of the standard plea agreement filed by prosecutors in the District, Alexandria and Manhattan, which are among the nation's highest-profile U.S. attorney's offices.  Waivers are used in some or all pleas by at least 16 other offices, including such large ones as Chicago and Los Angeles and such smaller ones as Arkansas and West Virginia. Prosecutors in Maryland rarely use the waivers. "It saves us a lot of spurious litigation down the pike," said G.F. Peterman III, acting U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Georgia. "All they have to do is say I'm not guilty, go to trial and they've waived nothing. It's their decision."

Defense attorneys disagree, saying prosecutors give defendants the choice of signing the waiver or not getting the benefits of a plea agreement, which usually include a lighter sentence. "It's a horrendous provision, and I can never get them to take it out," said Christopher Amolsch, a lawyer whose client recently waived DNA testing rights in a cigarette smuggling case in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Other lawyers said they don't usually fight the waivers, considering it a losing battle....

At least 24 U.S. attorneys don't use the waivers. It could not be determined how many inmates have been affected by the policy, because the remaining 50 U.S. attorney's offices did not respond to inquiries or declined to comment.  It is also unclear how many federal prisoners have filed petitions seeking post-conviction DNA testing since 2004.  Justice Department officials said the number is small but have also said they expect more petitions over time.

Though this Postarticle is focused on waiver of the right to DNA testing, I am hopeful that the Justice Department is examining critically all the disparate and disturbing use of broad waivers in federal plea agreements.  I am glad to see the Post focusing on one part of this issue, but I hope the inquiry into waivers of rights in plea deals extend beyond DNA concerns.

As this article highlights, though the Justice Department and federal prosecutors are often raising concerns about disparate sentencing practices, the reality of federal criminal practice is that plea bargaining practices and plea agreement terms are often wildly disparate from district to district.  The different and disparate fast-track sentencing programs (discussed in the most recent FSR issue) are the most tangible example of prosecutor-produced disparity, but use of different types of waivers is also profound and pervasive, too. 

The most pervasive and pernicious plea agreement waiver involves waivers of the right to appeal.  Though statistics are hard to come by, I suspect that some (if not most or even all) federal districts include appeal waiver in some (if not most or even all) plea agreement.  As I explained in long ago posts here and here right after Booker, I think a strong argument could and should be made that appeal waivers are void as against public policy as enshrined in the Sentencing Reform Act and Booker.  But, to my knowledge, only a very few federal judges and courts refuse to endorse and uphold appeal waivers.

October 11, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, October 05, 2009

Some interesting snippets from the latest crime speech by Attorney General Holder

At the new Department of Justice website (which, personally, I do not find very aesthetically pleasing), one can now find the text of this new speech by Attorney General Eric Holder on crime issues.  This speech was today delivered to the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in Denver, and I found these passages especially notable:

But as important as it is to foster a stronger national dialogue between federal, state, and local law enforcement, talk alone is not enough.  Talk alone isn’t going to keep crime rates down.  Talk alone isn’t going to protect innocent victims.  Talk alone isn’t going to stop rival gangs from shooting up our streets, or drug dealers from peddling dope in our schools, or terrorists from attacking our cities.  Indeed, we all know that the best ideas in the world are worth little without the resources to implement them....

I want the Justice Department to be a partner with you as we develop the most up-to-date thinking about law enforcement strategies.  Therefore, I have directed our Office of Justice Programs to transform itself into an evidence-based agency that supports strong research, that shares scientifically-reliable findings that will ultimately help you do your jobs better and then provides the funds necessary to make sound theory into viable reality.  I am confident that this new direction will ultimately help you take advantage of new approaches that will greatly assist you in your efforts to further the cause of justice.

October 5, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Important new NACDL report critical of modern drug court movement

As detailed in this news release, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has today released an important new report on drug courts.  The title of the press release. "Drug Courts Endanger Rights, Block Access To Needed Treatment for Drug Users: Defense Lawyers Call for Major Overhaul," highlights that the NACDL is not in favor of extant drug court models.  Here is the start of the press release, which provides a partial summary of the report:

Drug courts – first created 20 years ago as an emergency response to an epidemic of drug-related criminal cases that clogged courts and prisons – have in many places become an obstacle to making cost-efficient drug abuse therapy available to addicts and reducing criminal case loads, the nation’s largest association of criminal defense attorneys said today.

In too many places, access to treatment comes at the cost of a guilty plea for low-level drug offenses while hard cases are denied and offenders wind up in jail at great expense to taxpayers, a report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found. The report flowed out of a two-year task force study of problem-solving courts.

Well-intended prosecutors and judges, generally with little input from the defense bar, often limit entry to treatment to offenders most likely to solve their own problems while insisting that “harder cases” go to jail, at considerable taxpayer expense, the study found. Minorities, immigrants and those with few financial resources are often under-represented in drug court programs.

The full report, which is titled "“America’s Problem-Solving Courts: The Criminal Costs of Treatment and the Case for Reform,” is available at this link.  This report strikes me as quite an important development in the drug court movement, and thus it is today's must-read for any and everyone who has tended to view drug courts and other problem-solving courts as a positive development and part of a healthy evolution away from unduly punitive tough-on-crime approaches.

This report also seems especially timely in light of President Obama's and Attorney General Holder's apparent affinity for drug courts (as noted in prior posts here and here and here).  Indeed, as evidence by many links below, there have been very few loud voices speaking up against modern drug courts until this new report by NACDL.

Some related posts about drug court programs and research:

September 29, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Immigration Prosecutions at Record Levels in FY 2009"

The title of this post is the headline of this new data item from the folks at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Here is how the report starts:

The latest available data from the Justice Department show that during the first nine months of FY 2009 the government reported 67,994 new immigration prosecutions. If this activity continues at the same pace, the annual total of prosecutions will be 90,659 for this fiscal year.  According to the case-by-case information analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), this estimate is up 14.1 percent over the past fiscal year when the number of prosecutions totaled 79,431.

The comparisons of the number of defendants charged with immigration-related offenses are based on case-by-case information obtained by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys.

These numbers ought to bring a smile to Lou Dobbs and others who are often calling for tougher enforcement of immigration laws.  Whether it amounts to change we can believe in is, of course, a distinct question.   

September 22, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Will new US Attorneys have a big impact on federal sentencing law and policy?

The new Administration's approach to crack sentencing shows how new personnel in Main Justice is already impact some parts of federal sentencing law and policy.  But, on a case-by-case basis, who serves in local US Attorney offices may have an even bigger long-term impact on the shape and direction of the federal criminal justice system.  Thus, sentencing fans should be very interested in this new article from The National Law Journal, which is headlined the "U.S. Attorney Picks Are Under Way: Some Senate Republicans want a say in who gets selected."  Here are a few of the basics:

President Barack Obama began filling the nation's 93 U.S. Attorney positions on May 15, announcing his first wave of six nominees. The move touched off a closely guarded process freighted with symbolism in the wake of the Bush administration firings scandal.

President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton made their first U.S. Attorney nominations days before Congress' summer recess in August. Each nominated more than two dozen in the first round.

U.S. Attorney nominations pose a potential hurdle for Obama, as he reconciles the nature of these plum political posts with his pledge of bipartisanship and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.'s promise to rid the department of partisan meddling. Some Republicans have already signaled their intention to block candidates if they're left out of the process, including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, whose membership on the Senate Judiciary Committee gives him an outsized role in nominations....

On May 15, Obama said he intended to nominate Preet Bharara for the Southern District of New York, Tristram Coffin for Vermont, Jenny Durkan for the Western District of Washington, Paul Fishman for New Jersey, John Kacavas for New Hampshire and Joyce Vance for the Northern District of Alabama.

Though just six have been named so far, about 20 candidates have come to Washington for interviews at the Justice Department in the past two months, according to a source familiar with the process. The meetings are one of the final steps before nomination.

Obama is announcing his picks for U.S. Attorneys in waves, replacing holdover Bush prosecutors once his nominees are confirmed or appointed on an interim basis while awaiting confirmation, Justice Department officials said. That breaks sharply with the system adopted by President Bill Clinton, who sacked nearly all holdover U.S. Attorneys at the start of his first term. The move angered many career Justice Department lawyers who say the turnover disrupted their work and left some prosecutors out on the street.

Some related posts:

May 20, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Revised discussion of criminal justice plans on White House website

Though perhaps this is old news, I just noticed that the discussion of criminal justice issues has changed over at the Civil Rights webpage on WhiteHouse.gov.  As detailed in this old post, this webpage used to take a bullet-point approach to describing agenda items, and the key bullet points were "Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Support"; "Eliminate Sentencing Disparities"; "Expand Use of Drug Courts."  Now this page has just this paragraph with a single heading:

Lead Criminal Justice Reform

The President will lead the fight to build a more fair and equitable criminal justice system.  He will seek to strengthen federal hate crime legislation and will work to ensure that federal law enforcement agencies do not resort to racial profiling.  He supports funding for drug courts, giving first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, if appropriate, in drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than prison terms in changing behavior. President Obama will also improve ex-offender employment and job retention strategies, substance abuse treatment, and mental health counseling so ex-offenders can successfully re-join society.

I am not sure the changed text suggests any formal changes in policy plans.  However, the prior text stated expressly that President Obama and VP Biden favored completely eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity.  It is somewhat peculiar that the crack/powder discussion has now itself been completely eliminated from WhiteHouse.gov even though Obama's Justice Department has now urged Congress to completely eliminate the crack/powder disparity.

Meanwhile, I cannot help but use this opportunity to spotlight, yet again, that President Obama has completely failed to make any use of his clemency power, even though a few strategic clemency grants would present an especially effective means to show he was genuinely committed to "lead[ing] the fight to build a more fair and equitable criminal justice system" and to "giving first-time, non-violent offenders a chance" to avoid excessive and ineffectual prison terms.  I stress this point again and again because, though President Obama has been very active in his first 100+ days on so many other issues, when it comes to hope and change for the federal criminal justice system, he can and should be assailed for being all talk and little action.

Some old and new related posts:

May 12, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Monday, April 20, 2009

How about some targeted clemency grants to save $100 million of federal tax dollars?

This new Politico piece, headlined "Obama to order $100 million in cuts," spotlights this latest news from the White House:

At the first Cabinet meeting of his presidency, President Obama on Monday will challenge the departments to collectively cut $100 million over the next three months, a senior administration official said.  The official said the exercise is “part of his commitment to go line by line through the budget to cut spending and reform government.”

“Agencies will be required to report back with their savings at the end of 90 days,” the official said.

Here is my suggestion for a simple way to cut $100 million of wasteful federal spending ASAP: commute the final year(s) of the prison sentences for a few non-violent offenders serving overly long federal prison terms due to mandatory sentencing statutes/guidelines.  There are now well over 200,000 federal inmates costing US taxpayers around $50,000 per year to keep incarcerated.  Commuting just the final year of the prison sentence for just the most deserving 1% of this population would, in one quick and easy step, cut $100 million in wasteful federal government spending.

Consider in this context that the retroactive application of the new reduced crack guidelines, according to the latest official USSC data, has cut over 25,000 years of scheduled federal imprisonment (over 12,500 crack offenders have received sentence reductions that have averaged 2 years in length) and thus saved federal taxpayers over $1 billion in scheduled federal incarceration costs.  I think we could and should try to save an addition $100 million by cutting some breaks to a few other federal offenders).

Some related (old and new) posts:

April 20, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2009

Change comes to medical marijuana raids and to the federal death penalty

I have been awaiting not too patiently for all the hope and change that was promised by the new administration to find its way to the federal criminal justice system.  In recent days, Attorney General Eric Holder has started walking the walk rather than just talking the talk:

1.  As detailed in this MSNBC piece, late last week AG Holder officially stated that the Drug Enforcement Administration would end federal raids on state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries.  This is big news for supporters of medical marijuana, and could be the first step toward a strategic withdrawl from the worst battlefields in the war on drugs.

2.  As detailed in this new piece from The Recorder, just today AG Holder "has authorized a deal that could abruptly end a rare San Francisco death penalty trial only days after it began."  The piece rights notes the broad implications of this decision: "Not only does Holder's reversal likely spare defendant Emile Fort his life, but it may signal a less aggressive approach to the death penalty in federal court."

March 2, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2009

Will AG Holder really lead a "new birth of freedom" in prison nation?

In addition to all the interesting advocacy for frank conversations about racial issues (details here), Attorney General Eric Holder articulated this potent commitment to freedom in his first major speech:

Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must — and will — lead the nation to the "new birth of freedom" so long ago promised by our greatest President. This is our duty and our solemn obligation.

I am pleased to hear the new AG talking the talk of freedom.  But, especially with United States as the world's leader in incarceration, the big question with whether he will really walk the walk.  There are many ways that AG Holder could and should fulfill this duty and solemn obligation to usher in a new birth of freedom in prison nation, and I hope he will start trying to make criminal justice realities live up to his rhetoric.

Some recent related posts:

February 20, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The US Department of Justice's take of ARRA stimulus

This new press release from the US Department of Justice details the monies that will be going to crime-fighting programs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Here is how the press release starts:

Today President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (H.R.1), which includes $4 billion in Department of Justice grant funding to enhance state, local, and tribal law enforcement efforts, including the hiring of new police officers, to combat violence against women, and to fight internet crimes against children, the Department of Justice announced.

“This funding is vital to keeping our communities strong,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “As governors, mayors, and local law enforcement professionals struggle with the current economic crisis, we can’t afford to decrease our commitment to fighting crime and keeping our communities safe. These grants will help ensure states and localities can make the concerted efforts necessary to protect our most vulnerable communities and populations.”

Some recent related posts:

February 18, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What does Prez Obama's pick for drug czar suggest for possible drug policy reform?

As detailed in this Seattle Times article, "Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has accepted a job as the nation's drug czar in the Obama administration, according to a source in Washington, D.C., who is familiar with the administration's plans."  This Seattle Post Intelligencer article, which is headlined "Kerlikowske seen as a progressive," suggests advocates for drug policy reform are relatively pleased with the decision: 

Many people, including those traditionally at odds with government policies, were "cautiously optimistic" about Kerlikowske, who became police chief in 2000.

"He's likely to be the best drug czar we've seen, but that's not saying much," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit group focused on changing drug policies.

Nadelmann called Kerlikowske, 59, a "blank slate" because of his notable absence in drug-policy debates. But he was encouraged by the chief's ability to thrive in a city famous for its drug courts, needle exchanges, methadone vans and annual Hempfest celebration. "At least we know that when we talk about needle exchanges and decriminalizing marijuana arrests, it's not going to be the first time he's heard about them," he said.

Over at TalkLeft, Jeralyn in this post quotes some other reactions to the pick and expresses some faint praise.

Some recent related posts:

February 12, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, February 09, 2009

Hoping someone in a town hall might ask Prez Obama about government spending for the drug war in prison nation

This new entry at the White House blog reports that President Obama "is on his way to Elkhart, Indiana, for a town hall about the economic recovery plan. He'll talk for a bit, then take questions from the audience of about 1,700 people."

Though I seriously doubt any crime and justice issues will arise in this event or other such town halls, I am hoping someone in Indiana or elsewhere might have the courage to ask about the costs of the drug war and mass incarceration.  Specifically, I want President Obama pressed on whether his team, in its development of an "American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan," has given any attention at all to the apparent harms and ineffectiveness of investing so much federal and state taxpayer money in the never-ending war on drugs and in the still-growing US prison population.

Some recent related posts:

February 9, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

After fast work on excessive pay, now how about similar work on excessive sentences?

As detailed in this CNN piece, President Obama and his administration is responding quickly to last week's news that corporate executives handed out $18 billion in bonuses in 2008.  While I am disinclined to opine on the specifics of such matters, I am pleased the new folks in DC are concerned about how my tax dollars are being spent on Wall Street.  Now, with the new Attorney General in place, the new administration should start showing similar concern for how taxpayer dollars are being spent on Main Street.

Specifically, as highlighted in many prior posts (examples here and here), states are struggling with tight budgets and are having to make hard choices about the prison economy.  Along the way, many states are asking for taxpayer dollars from the federal government (here is a piece about Ohio's eagerness for stimulus dollars).  Just as President Obama is seeking to limit excessive corporate pay for any company requesting monies from the feds, how about also seeking limits on excessive and costly imprisonment terms for any state requesting monies from the feds?

There is significant precedent for tying federal aid to state sentencing reform efforts: during the Clinton years, the feds required states to eliminate parole in order to get certain funds; during the Bush years, the feds required states to change sex offender registration laws to get certain funds.  For so many reasons, the feds ought to try this method again, but do so in ways that encourage states to make more sensible choices concerning short and long-term corrections spending. 

Sadly, other than perhaps Senator Jim Webb, I doubt any other politician inside DC has the insight and the courage to even consider such a bold idea to these festering prison economy problems.  Still, this kind of prison economy reform would not have to have a legislative push to get started.  President Obama could jump-start cost-oriented sentencing reforms by just granting a few clemencies to non-violent first offenders while stressing the savings from no longer having to use federal tax-payer dollars to continue housing and feeding offenders who clearly pose no threat to public safety.

Some recent related posts:

February 4, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, February 02, 2009

Eric Holder confirmed as Attorney General

This AP article has the news about the confirmation of the nation's new top cop:

Eric Holder won Senate confirmation Monday as the nation's first African-American attorney general, after supporters from both parties touted his dream resume and easily overcame Republican concerns over his commitment to fight terrorism and his willingness to back the right to keep and bear arms. The vote was 75-21.

Some posts on the Holder pick for Attorney General and related issues:

February 2, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Why I fear change will not come quickly to federal sentencing policy and practice

The headline of this new article in the New York Times, "Justice Dept. Under Obama Is Preparing for Doctrinal Shift in Policies of Bush Years," might make sentencing fans hopeful that change may be coming soon to federal sentencing policy and practice as new personnel and new philosophies take over the top positions at the Justice Department.  But, as these snippets highlight, issues other than traditional federal criminal justice enforcement top the new DOJ's agenda:

Eric H. Holder Jr., whom the Senate is expected to confirm on Monday as the nation’s 82nd attorney general, plans to take the oath of office that evening to demonstrate a quick start, which will include overseeing the creation of a new detention policy for terrorism suspects.

Mr. Holder will have to contend with that and other issues rapidly. Lawyers inside and outside the department say he will face crushing time constraints. Chief among them is a pledge by President Obama to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. Mr. Holder and a department task force must find a solution to the question of what to do with the remaining prisoners there and any apprehended in the future....

“I can’t imagine a more challenging time to come in as attorney general,” said Walter Dellinger, a legal scholar who was an acting solicitor general in the Clinton administration. “The number of legal issues left behind to be resolved is really staggering.”

In the Justice Department, there is considerable restiveness as employees await new direction. The civil rights division, which had been reshaped in a conservative direction under President George W. Bush, is ripe for sharp change, administration officials said. “Many of us cannot wait for the changes,” said one career lawyer in the division, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the atmosphere.

As this article documents, the triage plan for change at DOJ starts with terrorism policies and then turns to civil rights issues.  And though I view many ugly aspects of federal criminal justice law and policy to be the most pressing of civil rights issues, I doubt that the new personnel making key decision in the Obama Administration are focused first and foremost on acquitted conduct enhancements or inconsistent application of mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.

In other words, with so much else to do under extraordinary conditions, I fear that the status quo of federal sentencing policy and practice will seem good enough for the time being even to the most change-oriented of the new DOJ decison-makers.  And, even if new DOJ appointees might be eager to change course on various federal criminal justice policies, I fear that advisors will formally assert or informally suggest that the Obama Administration ought not risk spending political capital on any potentially hot-button criminal justice reforms when so many other issues are vying for attention.

The fact that we have not seen any clemency action in the first two weeks of the Obama presidency (which, as noted here, puts him behind the historical pace of presidential pardoning) confirms my instinct that change will not come quickly to federal sentencing policy and practice.  Though this comes as no surprise, my deeper concern is whether change will come at all in this arene of justice.

Some recent related posts:

February 2, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Eric Holder on track to be next U.S. Attorney General

This AP story provides the latest news on the path toward a new U.S. Attorney General:

Senate Republicans, who acted like lions in challenging Eric Holder, turned into lambs Wednesday as they joined Democrats in recommending President Barack Obama's choice for attorney general.

The Judiciary Committee voted 17-2 to endorse Holder, with two Republicans opposing the nomination — John Cornyn of Texas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.  The Senate could vote as early as Thursday to confirm Holder as the first African-American to lead the Justice Department.

Some posts on the Holder pick for Attorney General:

January 28, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, January 23, 2009

What do "our ideals" say about mass incarceration or LWOP for juves or acquitted conduct or the death penalty or GPS tracking or....

lots of other distinctive aspects of the modern American criminal justice system?  I ask this question because I keep thinking about these two sections of President Obama's Inaugural Address:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.  On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.  We remain a young nation.  But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.  The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness....

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.  Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man -- a charter expanded by the blood of generations.  Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience sake. 

I strongly believe that the most disturbing aspects of modern criminal justice systems reflect choices by many in government to choose fear over hope and to readily give up "our ideals" concerning freedom and liberty because doing so seems expedient in light of "false promises" and "worn-out dogmas" of purported perils that threaten "our safety." 

Ironically, some of our ideals concerning freedom and liberty still light the world even though they have been given up at home.  No other country in the world incarcerates nearly as many people as does the US, and many nations in Western Europe take pride in their low imprisonment rates.  Many countries reject as inhumane the punishment of life without parole for any offender, while the US continues to condemn even juvenile offenders to never having a chance to live outside a cage.  Sadly, I could go on and on, but let me here just encourage readers to add more examples of criminal justice choices that seem to sacrifice our ideals in the name of safety.

Valuably, we have already seen President Obama's commitment to give meaning to his words through his executive orders that, as described in this article, will "close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within a year, permanently shut the CIA's network of secret overseas prisons and end the agency's use of interrogation techniques that critics describe as torture."  But, now that the President and his Administration have showcased a commitment to our ideals in the face of foreign threats, I hope he will turn at least some attention toward what our ideals and "our better history" means for domestic crime and punishment.

As I have suggested before, President Obama could give effect and impact to his inspiring words about "out ideals" through a few clemency grants or an executive order calling for a review of the massive increase in the size and costs of the federal criminal caseload (which, as discussed here, was recently documented by the US Sentencing Commission).  A little action to back up his rhetoric on the home front would go a long way toward giving me hope that false promises,  worn-out dogmas and fear are among the childish things that the new President is truly prepared to put away.

Some related recent posts:

January 23, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Republicans force delay of confirmation of Eric Holder to be Attorney General

CNN has this new report on the political wrangling that surrounds the now-delayed confirmation of Eric Holder as the next Attorney General:

The initial confirmation vote for Eric Holder, President Barack Obama's pick for attorney general, was postponed for a week Wednesday after a rancorous meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Republicans, who want to question Holder about his role in a controversial presidential pardon when he worked in the Clinton administration, used a procedure that allows them to put off the vote. Senate rules allow for a one-week delay if a panel member requests it.  In this case, all the Republicans wanted the delay, according to their ranking member.

A clearly agitated Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat and chairman of the committee, slammed his gavel and walked out after acknowledging that Republicans had the right to ask for the delay.... 

The balking Republican lawmakers indicated that they want additional answers from Holder, who appeared before the panel Thursday. That prompted a strong reaction from Leahy. "It would look like a horrible double standard for those who enthusiastically voted unanimously for Alberto Gonzales to turn down the first African-American or hold up the first African-American to be attorney general," he said....

Meanwhile, acting Attorney General Mark Filip, who served as deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush, has taken the reins at the Justice Department pending Holder's confirmation. Filip and a cadre of career lawyers kept a low profile as they ran the wide-ranging functions of the dozens of Justice Department divisions and offices Wednesday.

January 21, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Obama Administration moves forward (on-line) with its "change" agenda for criminal justice

A helpful reader suggested I take note of the fact that the criminal justice issues previously identified as part of the Obama-Biden agenda on the old change.gov website (noted here in November 2008 with what are now "dead" links) has now migrated to the new WhiteHouse.gov website.  Specifically, under the Agenda section and in this civil rights subdivision of WhiteHouse.gov, one now finds these commitments:

Since it is now only four hours since he took office, I suppose I cannot and should not yet expect action on all these fronts today.  But these (relatively tepid) promises really can and should become priorities in the first 100 days of the new Administration (and just a few symbolic and strategic clemencies in the next few days might go a long way toward energizing all the public policy groups working these important areas).

January 20, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Is it too early to start demanding President Obama use his clemency power?

Barack Obama has been President of the United States for barely an hour, but he has already issued his first official proclamation.  Here are some notable snippets:

On this Inauguration Day, we are reminded that we are heirs to over two centuries of American democracy, and that this legacy is not simply a birthright -- it is a glorious burden. Now it falls to us to come together as a people to carry it forward once more.

So in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, let us remember that: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 20, 2009, a National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation, and call upon all of our citizens to serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this Nation for our new century.

Sounds good to me.  And if the new President really is committed to renewal and reconciliation, if he is really committed to the belief in the ability of everyone, even those who have committed crimes in the past, to be "again touched ... by the better angels of our nature," he ought to celebrate today by using his clemency power aggressively to help many of the offenders who got an undeserved cold shoulder from former President George W. Bush.

January 20, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Katyal Tapped as Principal Deputy in SG's Office"

The BLT Blog has this report on the significant news concerning who will be second banana in the Office of the Solicitor General.  Here are the details:

Legal Times has confirmed that Georgetown law professor Neal Katyal, who successfully argued the landmark detainee rights case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld before the Supreme Court, will serve as principal deputy solicitor general, the office’s No. 2 spot, starting Tuesday.

Katyal's appointment is another strong signal of President-elect Barack Obama's intentions to depart sharply from the terrorist detention and interrogation policies of the Bush administration....

The pick also means the Justice Department's Office of the Solicitor General could be led by two lawyers who have argued a combined two cases before the Supreme Court. Earlier this month, Obama announced the nomination of Elena Kagan, the dean of Harvard law School, to be solicitor general. Kagan, who has never argued before the high court, has received broad support in the legal community. A date for Kagan's confirmation hearings has not been set....

The principal deputy is also known as the the "political deputy," though, as Legal Times pointed out in this 2005 story, the exact nature of the job is a matter of dispute.  Some principal deputies have been pegged for White House moles, while others have defended the office's positions when they were at odds with the administration's.

So, if it is now clear that the new Administration through the SG's office  is going to depart sharply from the Bush Administration terrorism policies, can or should I be hopeful that they might also depart sharply from the Bush Administration on other criminal justice policies with constitutional dimensions?  Might there be a real chance that the SG's views on acquitted conduct enhancements or the application of Booker or mandatory minimums might change in the months and years ahead?  One can only hope, though one also should fear the impact of status quo biases even as a new set of lawyers take over the reins of power.

UPDATE:  Over here at LSI, I suggest that this appointment of another prominent academic in a key SG position provides yet another indication that the disjunction between the legal academy and the practicing bar is likely to shrink in the new Obama Administration.  (Regular readers may recall that, in the wake of his work in Hamdan, Neal wrote a terrifically interesting Harvard Law Review comment encouraging the legal academy to go practice.)

Some recent related posts:

January 18, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Did anything truly notable (or worth discussing) happen during the Holder hearings?

I was on the road for the last two days and thus had no opportunity to watch or even follow indirectly the Senate hearings for AG-nominee Eric Holder.  Based on press reports (collected here by How Appealing), it seems there was not much of great interest for sentencing fans beyond all the pedantic pardon talk.  But I would be eager and grateful if readers would use the comments to spotlight if anything really notable or worth discussing came up during the hearings.

Some posts on the Holder pick for Attorney General:

January 17, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Will there be any federal sentencing or mass incarceration talk at the Holder hearings?

I will be on the road and off-line for much of today, but the President-elect and the Senate were kind enough to ensure sentencing fans will have something else to follow while this blog is quiet.  Specifically, the Senate confirmation hearings for Eric Holder, whom Barack Obama has nominated to be the next Attorney General of the United States, are scheduled to begin this morning at 9:30 am.  The hearings can be followed via webcast through this official webpage of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where one can also find lots and lots of documents and letters concerning AG-nominee Holder's background and professional history.

As regular readers know, I have done a lot of Holder-related posts in recent weeks (some of which are linked below).  These posts spotlight some of the sentencing-related issues that may (or may not) arise during the confirmation hearings.  I will be grateful to any readers who use the comments to note and discuss any sentencing topics that arise during the Holder hearings.

Some posts on the Holder pick for Attorney General:

January 15, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How much will guns and drugs come up during the Holder hearings?

Confirmation hearings for Attorney-General nominee Eric Holder are scheduled to start this Thursday, and there is reason to believe these hearings will be worth watching.  This new Politico piece, headined "GOP setting up roadblocks for Holder," indicates that topics other than the ugly Clinton clemencies will be on the agenda:

Senate Republicans have invited the son of man killed in a 1975 Puerto Rican nationalist bombing as well as a former FBI agent who investigated two violent groups supporting Puerto Rican independence to appear at Eric Holder’s confirmation hearings. A third GOP witness is a pro-gun rights attorney from Virginia....

Holder’s commitment -- or lack thereof -- to the rights of gun owners and the Second Amendment has also become a talking point for Republicans opposing his confirmation. On that issue, they’ve arranged for the committee to hear from Stephen P. Halbrook, an attorney in Alexandria who specializes in gun-rights cases. He has made numerous appearances before congressional panels to argue an expansive view of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

In addition to the interesting possibility of post-Heller gun talk, this TalkLeft post also highlights that some groups are eager to have Holder questioned on drug policy issues, including medical marijuana.  But, Holder fans should not fret: as this CNN entry details, the Senator Patrick Leahy, who will preside over the Holder hearings, is continuing "his public campaign on Holder's behalf Tuesday by producing two prominent Republicans who back his confirmation."

Some prior posts on the Obama transition and the Holder pick:

January 13, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Does Cass Sunstein really think capital punishment may be morally required?

The Washington Post reports here on another prominent law professor about to go from a faculty salary to a government salary:

President-elect Barack Obama will name Cass R. Sunstein, a close friend and one of the nation's top constitutional lawyers, to a senior-level post in charge of government regulation, a transition official said. Sunstein, a Harvard University law professor who grew close to Obama during their years at the University of Chicago, will become the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Obama talked on the campaign trail about the need to revamp the nation's regulatory structure, especially in housing and finance, areas in which lapses contributed to the current economic crisis. In his new position, Sunstein will oversee reform of regulations, seeking to find smarter approaches and better results in health, environment and other domestic areas, a transition source said.

The office Sunstein will head is part of the Office of Management and Budget and is responsible for reviewing draft regulations and overseeing the implementation of government-wide policies aimed at making federal agencies more efficient, according to the mission statement on its Web site.

As first noted here, Sunstein has recently argued (along with Adrian Vermeule), in an article entitled "Is Capital Punishment Morally Required? The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs," that governments may have an obligationto use the death penalty if it can deter killings and save innocent lives.  I have a feeling that Sunstein considered this article to be academic musings not a policy paper for the management of the federal criminal justice system.  Nevertheless, since I would like to see the feds take over the administration of capital punishment (and take it away from the states), I am strangely hopeful that Sunstein might be seriously committed to trying to do something new and bold in the arena of capital punishment.

Some related posts on Sunstein's paper and death penalty deterrence:

January 8, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Senator Specter refines the case against AG-nominee Holder

As detailed in this New York Times article and this BLT post, Senator Arlen Specter has started to define the terms of the debate for next week's confirmation hearing for Attorney General Nominee Eric Holder.  Here are the basics from The BLT:

Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has begun laying out the questions he plans to ask Eric Holder Jr. next week during Holder’s confirmation hearing to be attorney general.

In a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Specter (R-Pa.) said he plans to focus his inquiry on three areas: the pardon of fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich; the decision by Holder’s then-boss Attorney General Janet Reno not to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Vice President Al Gore’s 1996 fundraising activities; and the clemency granted to a group of Puerto Rican nationalists.

“All of these matters relate to judgment,” Specter said. “They relate to whether Mr. Holder had the kind of resoluteness displayed by Attorney General Griffin Bell, by Attorney General Elliot Richardson, to say ‘no’ to their superiors.” Specter also said he plans to ask Holder his views on journalists’ privilege, the Bush administration’s surveillance policies, and the Justice Department’s evolving view of corporations’ attorney-client privilege.

The fact that two of the three top-shelf concerns involve clemency issues perhaps provides more support for my view that the entire US Pardon Office ought to be completely removed from the Department of Justice.  (Specifically, I would like to see the Pardon Office relocated as a department in the US Sentencing Commission.) 

Also, it is telling and disappointing that Senator Specter does not have on his question list a number of other critical practical questions about the federal criminal justices system.  Indeed, I wonder if Holder will get any questions on, e.g., the post-Booker sentencing system or sex offender prosecutions in light of the new federal Adam Walsh Act or crime victims rights in light of the new federal Crime Victims Rights orfederal habeas a decade after the AEDPA or the federal death penalty in light of increased capital prosecutions during the Bush Administration or federal reentry efforts in light of the new Second Chance Act.

Some prior posts on the Obama transition and the Holder pick:

January 7, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2009

What might 2009 have in store for . . . drug sentencing law and policy?

Continuing the 2009 "what's in store" series, let's turn to drug sentencing law and policy.  In this area, the social attitudes and legal approaches adopted by the new Obama Administration are likely to be critical.  Even though the majority of drug crimes are handled at the state level, how federal authorities set priorities and fund initiatives will set the tone.  Notably, the Obama transition site has these statements about the new Administration's priorities in this arena: 

Despite these seemingly progressive sentiments, as noted in this post, drug policy reformers we not too excited about the nomination of Eric Holder for Attorney General.  In addition, as noted in this post, there are reasons to be concerned that the Obama Administration is unlikely to change swiftly or radically the nation's commitment to the "war on drugs."   And yet, with today's news that academics have been nominated to be the next Solicitor General and to head the Office of Legal Counsel, maybe we could see some notable developments in this arena.

Some related posts on drug reform and the new Administration:

Other posts so far in the 2009 "what's in store" series:

January 5, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Any new thoughts about criminal justice as Prez-elect Obama fills out his Justice league?

As noted in this recent post, President-elect Obama today officially tapped Harvard Law Dean Elena Kagan to be the next Solicitor General.  In addition, as detailed in this official press release, the Obama team has also today named a number of other persons to fill key spots in the Justice Department:

Today, President-elect Barack Obama announced that he intends to nominate the following individuals for key posts at the United States Department of Justice: David Ogden, Deputy Attorney General; Elena Kagan, Solicitor General; Tom Perrelli, Associate Attorney General; and Dawn Johnsen, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel.

President-elect Obama said, “These individuals bring the integrity, depth of experience and tenacity that the Department of Justice demands in these uncertain times. I have the fullest confidence that they will ensure that the Department of Justice once again fulfills its highest purpose: to uphold the Constitution and protect the American people. I look forward to working with them in the months and years ahead.”

I know these impressive folks only by reputation, but those reputations bode well for anyone (like me) hoping that the "change" mantra becomes a serious reality in the federal administration of justice.  Relatedly, regular readers may recall the name Dawn Johnsen from this post, which noted that she authored this terrific chapter from a publication by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, entitled "Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President."  That chapter included these important sentiments:

Although crime is largely a state and local responsibility, federal leadership can be enormously influential beyond the federal system through assistance that fosters innovation, supports research, and shares information about “what works” in combating crime....

Incarceration in the United States is an issue crying out for DOJ attention.  After holding steady for most of the 20th century, the federal prison population increased 10-fold in the last 25 years. The United States at all levels of government incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world, both in terms of the incarceration rate and in absolute numbers....

The costs, both financial and social, are astronomical.  DOJ should undertake affirmative efforts to decrease prison populations without endangering public safety.  Again, states can provide useful models for each other and for the federal government.  In response especially to budget crises, some states have successfully reduced incarceration rates without increasing crime.  DOJ should study, disseminate, and implement best practices, which include increased and improved use of drug courts and treatment alternatives to incarceration....

I sincerely hope that AAG-nominee Johnsen sustains a fierce commitment to deal with mass incarceration in the new Administration, and I also hope these other nominees share this perspective. 

With these appointments and modern economic realities and various notable jurisprudential doings, I am starting to become (dangerously?) optimistic that we could be on the verge of a new criminal justice era in the United States.  Perhaps readers can/should try to burst my optimism bubble so that I do not start expecting too much.

Some recent related posts:

January 5, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, December 29, 2008

Real headaches or just hiccups on nominee Holder's path to AG?

The Boston Globe has this long pieceon coming Senate confirmation issues surrounding President-elect Obama's nominees.  The piece is headlined "Holder's hearing might be rocky: GOP could grill Cabinet nominee," and here is how it starts:

With Barack Obama anxious to take office, the public eager for fresh leadership, and the economy demanding urgent attention, the Senate is likely to defer to the president-elect and swiftly approve his Cabinet nominees, congressional aides and political analysts say.

But there will be one prominent exception: The confirmation hearing for Eric Holder, Obama's pick for attorney general, promises to be bruising, with Republicans determined to explore Holder's role in controversial pardons under President Clinton, his views on gun rights, and his involvement in the case of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Cuban boy returned to his homeland by Clinton's Justice Department.

"You're probably only going to have one truly horrendous confirmation; that's always the case," said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, who served on the White House staffs of presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. "In this case, it is clearly the attorney general-designate, Eric Holder."

Meanwhile, yesterday the Hartford Courant had this long article full of new information about Eric Holder's role in some controversial commutations granted by President Clinton in 1999 that have always struck me as more troublesome than even the Marc Rich pardon.  This piece is headlined "Clinton-Era Sentence Reductions Could Trip Holder's Confirmation," and here is a section that really caught my eye:

[Q]uestions about Holder's appointment have been building over his role as a former deputy attorney general in a number of controversial Clinton-era legal decisions. High on the list are the dramatic sentence reductions he recommended in 1999 for members of two groups responsible for a years-long terror campaign aimed at Puerto Rican independence....

A total of 16 radical Independentistas, either Macheteros or members of the affiliated Armed Forces of National Liberation, ultimately won sentence reductions or remissions of fines — although none of them had applied personally for clemency.

Together, the groups are linked to 130 bombings, several murders and as many as a dozen robberies. When President Bill Clinton issued the clemency, the FBI said the two groups were the driving force behind the violent wing of the Puerto Rican independence movement and represented one of the nation's foremost domestic terror threats....

Senate staffers said the Puerto Rico clemency is expected to be the subject of considerable questioning. A senior Justice official, while generally supportive of Holder, called the lesser-known Puerto Rico commutations "far more egregious" because they involved terror and appear to have deviated widely from federal regulations and past practices in clemency matters.

Interviews and a review of congressional records show that Holder's recommendation for clemency was at odds with a report by the Office of the Pardon Attorney. The pardon attorney issued a second report to Holder about two years later that took no position on clemency. Critics say the second report violated rules requiring the pardons attorney to recommend either for or against clemency.

Despite all the reasons to expect an interesting show during his confirmation hearings, I still think the smart money has to be on Holder being easily confirmed as the next Attorney General.  But, one can never fully predict how these matter will play out, especially when there is reason to suspect that folks with scores to settle with either the Clintons or the President-elect might view the Holder hearings as the best opportunity to vent.

Some prior posts on the Obama transition, the Holder pick and federal criminal justice issues:

Election season 2008 posts about Clinton commutations to Puerto Rican terrorists:

December 29, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Should we be worried or hopeful about the Obama Administration and the drug war?

A couple of new commentaries about the incoming Obama Administration and marijuana policies can give those interested in this aspect of the drug war either new hopes or new fears.  First, over at Esquire, John Richardson has this piece headlined "Why Obama Really Might Decriminalize Marijuana."  But, Jacob Sollum at Reason has this response that explains why he fears that the most anyone should expect is "A Blue-Ribbon Panel, If We're Lucky."

Ever the moderate and sentencing fanatic, I think (or at least hope) that the Obama Administration will see the virtues of a sensible casualty assessment and than a slow and steady troop withdrawal in this area of the drug war.  I believe that a sober cost/benefit analysis of modern marijuana policy would lead to the conclusion that we right now spend too much taxpayer money in order to punish unequally a small percentage of those folks involved in distribution and use of a drug that few consider very serious.  If the Obama Administration is seriously committed to reviewing all federal programs to assess their efficacy, the federal investment to the pot portion of the drug war ought to be reduced in the years to come.

Some related posts:

December 28, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, December 22, 2008

Why we need a re-entry czar and a task force on the prison economy

Now that the Obama transition team has filled the cabinet and is busy creating new task forces to deal with modern new concerns, it is time for those concerned about modern criminal justice problems to step up pitches for the incoming Obama administration as to how to improve modern criminal justice systems.  I have already done a some of this pitching thanks to the kind editors of the Harvard Law & Policy Review who helped me publish this piece, titled, "Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities."  But I have a lot more ideas, particularly concerning czars and task forces that the new administration should create.

Specifically, in light of the urgent importance of re-entry programming with 700,000 persons getting released from prison every year, we need a national re-entry czar who can help state and localities with re-entry programming.  The passage of the federal Second Chance Act last year (which Senators Biden, McCain and Obama all supported) highlights the congressional interest in re-entry efforts.  But the Second Chance Act has not yet been adequately funded and national coordination of effective re-entry programs could and should greatly improve the reintegration of ex-offenders into communities.

In addition, in light of the extraordinary budget pressures states are feeling and the high costs of mass incarceration, we need a national task force on the prison economy.  Senator Jim Webb has already held two important hearings through Congress's Joint Economic Conference to highlight the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of mass incarceration, especially as the war on drugs continues to fill our prisons without seeming to do much to diminsh illegal drug use.  Senator Webb could and should head a prison economy task force, which could and should include attorneys general and governors in states being forced to consider prison releases to deal with budget deficits.

I am sure readers have other ideas for the incoming Obama administration as to how to improve modern criminal justice systems, and I hope everyone will use the comments to express these ideas (or to critique my ideas).

Some recent related posts:

December 22, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Notable names for number two at DOJ

Now available at law.com is this article from Legal Times discussing the names making the rounds for the second spot at the Justice Department in the Obama Administration.  Here are snippets from the article:

With congressional pressure mounting, the short list for the Department of Justice's No. 2. position appears to be getting shorter all the time.

President-elect Barack Obama's transition staff has declined to discuss potential Justice nominees, or even reveal who on the transition team is mustering names. But Washington lawyers have been speculating for weeks that Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr's David Ogden, who is heading the Justice Department transition team, is the likely pick for deputy attorney general. One Washington lawyer close to the transition says his nomination is all but assured.

Elena Kagan, dean of Harvard Law School, has also been named as a possibility, though many say the position would be an odd fit. Denied a hearing by Republicans after President Bill Clinton nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1999, Kagan has re-emerged as a potential Supreme Court pick for Obama....

The deputy attorney general, who oversees the day-to-day operation of the department, typically comes to the job with a criminal law background, but [Ogden's law parter Randolf] Moss says Ogden and Holder would complement each other.

"The fact that Eric brings enormous expertise on criminal matters creates a nice balance," Moss says. And he adds that Ogden was associate deputy attorney general under then-Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, a job that required his involvement in numerous criminal investigations. Gorelick is now Ogden's colleague at Wilmer.

December 20, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Will the Obama Administration embrace and promote the faith-based prison movement?

One of the few positive sentencing and corrections stories these days involves the apparent successes of faith-based prisons.  A helpful reader sent me this news story from Oklahoma, headlined "Faith builds character: Inmates learn new ways to rebuild their lives," on this topic. Here are snippets

Behind the iron bars and razor wire of Oklahoma's largest prison for women, a quiet miracle is taking place. Nearly 200 inmates at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center are living in separate pods from the general population where they are finding hope for themselves and their families through character development and spiritual renewal.

"This is an incredible program," said Ilinda Jackson, director. "It instills character in these women, teaches them how to deal with the behaviors that got them here, and addresses how to change." She said the voluntary program is changing the atmosphere at the prison.

Misconduct is way down among participants. "There's less violence, a higher level of accountability. The women are taking responsibility for their lives," she said.  The Faith and Character Community Program, now in its second year, is divided into two groups, women pursuing a faith-based solution to their problems, and those seeking character development without the faith element.

Millicent Newton-Embry, warden at Mabel Bassett, said the program has changed the environment of the entire prison, not just the faith and character pods, as women in those pods have influenced inmates in the general population.  Misconduct reports are down 18 percent prison-wide since the programs were initiated. "We have less people fighting over things like curling irons," she said. "The staff has more time to do important case management work because they're spending less time mediating conflict.  The inmates are resolving these things themselves.

"Studies have shown that religion, when it's voluntary, can be foremost in changing criminal thinking, and criminal attitudes, for the long term," she said.  Outside volunteers teach the religious elements of the faith pod to avoid any church-state issues.

I have long been disappointed that academics and researchers have not yet paid sufficient attention to the faith-based prison movement.  But the Bush Administration was an avowed supporter of the movement, though I think the administration could and should have done even more to facilitate the movement's growth and development at both the federal and state level.

President-elect Obama has expressed some support for some Bush Administration faith-based programming, but I have not seen any explicit discussion from the Obama team about faith-based prison.  I am hopeful that the new administration will openly embrace and actively promote the faith-based prison movement if and when there is continuing reason to believe that the movement is having a positive impact on both offenders and public safety.

Some related posts on faith-based prison programs:

December 18, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

ABA criminal justice transition recommendations

I just tripped across this ABA webpagetitled "Transition 2008" through which the ABA sets out its recommended "legislative and executive branch actions and initiatives that will improve the justice system, promote the rule of law, ensure the nation's security, and protect civil liberties." Specifically, this ABA page has "four separate policy papers summarizing some of the Association's most significant recommendations for the new administration and the new Congress."

The transition paper on "Criminal Justice System Improvements " is available at this link.  Here is how it is described:

The ABA offers recommendations to improve the criminal justice system.  Such recommendations include: alternatives to incarceration; repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing; eliminating sentencing disparities; and enacting prison reform legislation.

December 16, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

A modest(?) proposal for filling the bench from the ivory tower

Law prof Carl Tobias has this new piece online at FindLaw that is sure to get the law professor blogs a buzzing. Titled "Why Barack Obama, as President, Should Nominate Leading Law Professors for Seats on the Federal Appeals Court," this essay certainly gets my endorsement as long as some profs with criminal justice backgrounds are among the short-list mix.  Here are a few excerpts from the short piece:

President-elect Barack Obama will receive much advice in the coming months. One valuable idea that his nascent administration should embrace and implement is nominating legal scholars to serve on the United States Courts of Appeals.  Numerous legal academics are particularly well-suited to discharge the critical responsibility of delivering appellate justice.

President Ronald Reagan used this concept to excellent effect over both of his administrations. The chief executive searched for, identified, and appointed many highly-respected legal scholars to the appeals courts.... Yet selecting legal academics for the appellate courts apparently fell out of favor in the administrations of Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. To be sure, these chief executives did choose a few legal scholars, but they were notable exceptions to the rule....

President Obama has vowed both to practice bipartisanship and to appoint excellent judges.  One fertile source of nominees who possess the requisite expertise and temperament to be outstanding appellate jurists is the faculties of the 200 American law schools.  Because legal scholars' work closely resembles that of circuit judges, choosing academics will allow President Obama to select candidates who are essentially known quantities, and to be confident that they possess the skills necessary to be distinguished federal appeals judges.

I obviously have a parochial and personal interest in endorsing academics who have criminal justice backgrounds when thinking about judicial appointments.  But the important reality of heavy criminal law dockets in the federal appellate courts (especially outside the DC Circuit) undercuts somewhat the assertion by Tobias that "legal scholars' work closely resembles that of circuit judges." 

I fear that too many modern legal scholars, perhaps especially many modern constitutional scholars, tend to give far too little attention and thought to a broad array of criminal justice issues that regularly occupy the day-to-day work of the federal judiciary.  Put another way, I fear that too many criminal justice issues tend to get second-class treatment in the modern legal academy.  I would hate to have a federal appellate bench filled with academics inclined to give criminal justice cases second-class treatment on appeal.

Some recent related posts:

December 16, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, December 01, 2008

President-Elect Obama officially names Eric Holder as his AG pick

As detailed in this CQ Politics entry, the likely next U.S. Attorney General was officially named today: "President-elect Barack Obama on Monday tapped former Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to take the top spot in the Justice Department."  Here are some other notable snippets from the CQ report:

Holder would be the first black attorney general.  The Senate Judiciary Committee will vet Holder for the post.  Several Republicans on the panel have already voiced support for him.

To be sure, Holder will face renewed questions about his role in Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich in 2001.  Rich’s ex-wife, Denise, donated heavily to Democratic causes, including Clinton’s presidential library and Hillary Rodham Clinton ’s 2000 Senate campaign. Holder signed off on the pardon.  Holder told the House Government Reform Committee in early 2001, “It is now clear, and this is admittedly hindsight, that we, at the Justice Department, and more importantly, former President Clinton, the American public, in the cause of justice, would have been better served if the case had been handled through the normal channels.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy , D-Vt., has said that Clinton, not Holder, bears the responsibility for the Rich pardon. Leahy has predicted a “lopsided vote” to confirm Holder.

Just in time for this long-predicted announcement is this profile of Holder in today's New York Times and this editorial about the Justice Department in today's Washington Post.

Some prior posts on the Obama transition, the Holder pick and federal criminal justice issues:

December 1, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, November 24, 2008

Great state-focused coverage of federal Second Chance Act

A helpful reader pointed me to this effective and timely coverage today of the Second Chance Act at Stateline.org.  The piece is headlined "States want Second Chance Act funded," and here is how it begins:

With correctional facilities around the country teeming with repeat offenders, state and local officials are hoping the Second Chance Act — a federal law signed by President Bush in April to help keep former prisoners from committing new crimes — will be a priority under the incoming Obama administration.

The act, which Congress approved with widespread bipartisan support, authorizes $165 million in annual grants to states, localities, nonprofits and religious groups to build programs that help current and ex-offenders find jobs and housing, overcome drug and alcohol addictions, receive mentoring and return to society as law-abiding residents.

When he signed the bill into law, President Bush called it a sign of support for the roughly 700,000 people who are released from state and federal prisons each year. Federal statistics that show more than two thirds of all those released from prison are rearrested for serious crimes within three years.

That has resulted in surging prison populations — and corrections costs — for many states. Corrections trails only health care, education and transportation among state expenses, costing states nearly $50 billion last year.

Despite the new law’s promise of federal dollars to fund so-called “reentry” initiatives, Congress has not appropriated the money. State and local lawmakers, corrections officials, advocacy groups and others now are pushing the incoming Congress — and the administration of President-elect Barack Obama — to provide funding, perhaps in a spending measure that could come up for debate as early as January.

November 24, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Interesting reflections on Obama appointees from drug policy reformers

The Drug War Chronicle has this interesting new feature piece titled "Obama's Appointees Raise Questions in the Drug Reform Community."  Here are snippets from the start and end of the piece:

Like other interest groups, the drug reform movement has the Obama transition under a microscope, searching for clues on the new administration's intentions as it scrutinizes those appointments for positions that are going to be key to advancing the cause. Some of the Obama transition team's early moves have some drug reformers sounding alarm bells, but other reformers -- not so much....

The reform community should not be freaking out, agreed Eric Sterling, who served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the 1980s and now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.  Instead, it should be trying to flex its muscles. "I think the reform community is way overreacting and, more importantly, not taking the initiative," he said "Reform leaders ought to be asking themselves what letters they've written to President-elect Obama, what letters to the editor they've penned, what op-eds they've submitted. Is the movement doing anything other than passively reacting?" he asked....

"We have to build the movement. We keep seeing the same 300 people at the conferences, maybe 1,000 if you're talking about the harm reduction conferences. No one is going door to door in the black community talking about how the drug war is undermining public safety and its relationship with the police. No one is talking to the unions. We've done well on the education part of our issue, but we haven't done well in developing a political power base, and until we do that, we won't get reform."

Some recent related posts on the Obama transition and criminal justice issues:

November 23, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Three late afternoon thoughts on the Holder pick: race, tough and tech

I have so many old and new thoughts about the importance of the next Attorney General and about President-Elect Obama's apparent selection of Eric Holder for that spot.  At the end of a long day, I want to focus on three particular thoughts/words:

1.  Race:  The import and impact of racial issues in all aspects of the work of the federal Justice Department (both criminal and civil) should not be overlooked, even though war on terror and political issues have dominated modern DOJ and AG discussions.  An appointment of the first African-American Attorney General is therefore noteworthy and important for many reasons.  And, while many aspire for post-racial dialogues about crime and justice, the interplay between race and justice will be that much more salient when Eric Holder becomes the nation's top cop.

2.  Tough:  Jeff Rosen wisely notes here that, because Holder "has impeccable credentials as a tough-on-crime prosecutor," he might be uniquely positioned to achieve a "Nixon in China on Crime."  While many might be concerned about his past connection to all the tough-on-crime posturing during the Clinton Administration, that very background might give him a unique ability and unique credibility if and when he tries to turn the corner on "tough-on-crime" in an effort to now be "smart-on-crime."

3.  Tech:  I was pleased to learn during this NPR segment that Holder is, according to a close friend, "a technology junkie."  As some of my regular technocorrections blogging helps to highlight, I expect some of the hardest and most unpredictable crime and justice issues on the horizon will involve technology issues.  Whatever his policy positions or instincts, the fact that Holder has an affinity and comfort with technology should be a great assert for his new job.

Some recent Holder as AG posts:

November 19, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lots of buzzing around Eric Holder as the next US Attorney General

In this afternoon post, Newsweek has reported today that "President-elect Obama has decided to tap Eric Holder as his attorney general."  But this BLT post has this bold update on the story:

The Associated Press and The New York Timesare reporting that Obama is deeply considering Holder for the AG post but that no decision has been made.  Apparently, Obama aides have been feeling out Republican senators to get a sense of Holder's chances.  An official in the Obama camp told the Times that the Newsweek report was "wrong."

Of course, regular readers know that there is a pardon story that surround Holder as a result of his service in the Clinton Administration.  Here is how the Newsweek report covered this notable ghost of pardons past:

The only hesitancy about Holder’s selection was that he himself had reservations about going through a confirmation process that was likely to revive questions about his role in signing off on the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich.  Although there is no evidence that Holder actively pushed the pardon, he was criticized for not raising with the White House the strong objections that some Justice Department lawyers and federal prosecutors in New York had to pardoning somebody who had fled the country.  But after reviewing the evidence in the case, and checking with staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Obama aides and Holder both decided the issue was highly unlikely to prove an obstacle to his confirmation, one of the sources said --especially given the Democrats’ more sizable post-election majority in the Senate.

UPDATE:  Jeralyn at TalkLeft has a series of posts on Eric Holder's criminal justice record, including these recent ones of note:

Because I have never been much of a fan of what the Clinton Administration did on any number of federal criminal justice issues, I am not especially excited to learn that Obama's concept of hope and change for DOJ seems to involve the promotion of a former Clinton Administration high ranking DOJ official.  That said, a lot of people I respect have a lot of respect for Eric Holder, so I will come at this appointment with an open mind.  Still, I am growing ever more concerned that inside-the-beltway experience seems to be a running theme in all the cabinet picks being talked up these days.

November 18, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, November 17, 2008

Notable US Attorney transitions and the Obama administration

Though not a core sentencing issue, who serves as the US Attorney in a federal district certainly can have an impact of a variety of sentencing issues. Thus, I am intrigued to see this news from the WSJ Law Blog that the US Attorneys for New Jersey and for the Southern District of New York are announcing their resignations. 

Few should be surprised that a new incoming federal administration is prompting some old US Attorneys to head for the door.  And everyone should get in the game of predicting who might take over these local federal "top cop" spots in the future.  Also, I encourage readers to opine on whether and how any particular US Attorney transition might have a particular impact on particular federal sentencing issues under an Obama Administration.

Some recent related posts:

November 17, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 15, 2008

More proof that pardon scandals rarely get completely forgotten

The latest proof that bad pardoning actions can cast a long shadow comes from this new article at Politico, headlined "Clinton scandal figure on Justice team."  Here are a few details:

President-elect Barack Obama tapped a major campaign bundler and a former U.S. attorney who got caught up in Bill Clinton's 2001 pardons scandal to serve on the 14-member Justice Department review team announced Friday.

Alejandro Mayorkas, a former U.S. attorney in California, drew controversy in 2001 for calling the White House on behalf of Carlos Vignali, a convicted drug dealer who was seeking a presidential commutation.... The House Committee of Government Reform cited Mayorkas in a report critical of Southern California politicians who pushed Clinton to release Carlos Vignali, saying Mayorkas should have been aware of Horacio Vignali's questionable background, according to a Los Angeles Times story published in March 2002.

Mayorkas told the newspaper that the criticism was fair, and he did not know the elder Vignali very well. "It is reasonable to expect that someone in my position would do his or her due diligence to learn that information," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I made a mistake."

The Obama transition team did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Mayorkas, who will serve on the Justice Department review team.

The saddest aspect of this story is the fact that a past pardon scandal is overshadowing the important decision by the Obama transition team to create a "team of 14 law scholars, corporate attorneys and former Clinton appointees who will look at civil rights, legal services and election law."  The full review team is listed here at change.gov.

November 15, 2008 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 14, 2008

Developing criminal justice "wish list" for the Obama Administration

Over at the White Collar Crim Prof Blog, Ellen Podgor has this terrifically interesting "Wish List to President Barack Obama & The Next AG."  Ellen's wish list is lengthy (even though only focused on white-collar topics), and here are a few of her provocative and thoughtful wishes that caught my eye:

Needless to say, I could add dozens of my wishes to this list, especially if I were to branch out beyond white-collar topics.  But on a Friday, I am especially interested to hear some criminal justice wishes from readers.  

So, dear readers, please use the comments for expressing your wishes on criminal justice topics for the next Administration.  Though I seriously doubt the President-Elect or his future AG regularly read this blog, one never knows how many cyberspace genies might try to help make a good criminal justice wish comes true.

November 14, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A criminal justice blueprint for the new Prez that I hope gets followed

I received recently an e-mail announcing a new publication from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, entitled "Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President."  This website explains this new document and its coverage, and it provides this link to ten chapters available for download.  One chapter of special interest for sentencing fans is this one authored by Dawn Johnsen titled "Department of Justice: Restoring Integrity and the Rule of Law."

This whole chapter encouraging changes within DOJ should be enjoyable reading for anyone troubled by how the Justice Department has operated in recent years.  And anyone eager for serious state and federal sentencing reform should be especially pleased by the last three pages of this chapter, which are devoted to "longer-term priorities."  Here are some lengthy excerpts from this astute and effective part of CAP's blueprint for criminal justice change:

The attorney general should launch a coordinated set of initiatives that tackle the most fundamental and intractable problems in the criminal justice systems, both federal and state.... Although crime is largely a state and local responsibility, federal leadership can be enormously influential beyond the federal system through assistance that fosters innovation, supports research, and shares information about “what works” in combating crime....

Incarceration in the United States is an issue crying out for DOJ attention.  After holding steady for most of the 20th century, the federal prison population increased 10-fold in the last 25 years. The United States at all levels of government incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world, both in terms of the incarceration rate and in absolute numbers....

The costs, both financial and social, are astronomical. DOJ should undertake affirmative efforts to decrease prison populations without endangering public safety.  Again, states can provide useful models for each other and for the federal government. In response especially to budget crises, some states have successfully reduced incarceration rates without increasing crime. DOJ should study, disseminate, and implement best practices, which include increased and improved use of drug courts and treatment alternatives to incarceration....

DOJ should document the condition of indigent defense representation systems in the states, compile existing national and local standards for indigent defense systems and defense counsel, and bring stakeholders — judges, defenders, and prosecutors — together to devise solutions to the problem.  Beyond this, DOJ should advocate for federal funding for state indigent defense systems analogous to funding for state prosecutorial functions.... 

DOJ should strive to remedy the terribly disparate racial impact of current criminal law enforcement efforts. Under both the federal and state systems, African Americans suffer gravely disproportionate treatment at every stage — stops, arrest, prosecution, conviction, and sentencing. The causes and solutions are complex. The consequences, however, are devastating, in terms of shockingly disparate rates of imprisonment, which translate into political disenfranchisement and exclusion from student loans, jobs, and other life opportunities....

The solutions typically should not be race based, but should address the harms of problems such as ever-lengthening prison terms and the failures of the war on drugs.  Yet the gross disparate impacts on African Americans, and the perpetuation of the historic harms of discrimination, provide a special moral imperative for concerted attention to problems that harm us as a nation.

In addition, DOJ should pay special attention to how our criminal justice policies harm our nation’s youth, diminishing forever their life opportunities.  Most obvious are extremely lengthy prison sentences and even life without parole imposed for crimes committed by juveniles. Another recent such trend is to put children convicted of sex offenses on public sex offender registries, in some cases for the rest of their lives, which in turn may be used to limit where they may live or work....

Some progress in resolving these and other fundamental criminal justice problems can be made in the first months of the new administration — and the effort certainly should begin then.  But real change will take far longer.  Criminal justice reform should remain a priority throughout the next administration, with the goal of a more just and humane criminal justice system that better protects the public.

Some recent related posts:

November 13, 2008 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack