Tuesday, May 25, 2010

DOJ resisting efforts to disinfect the federal celemency process with some sunlight

Light Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously advocated for transparency and honesty in public policy with the wondrous aphorism "sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  This bright idea came to my mind when I saw this fascinating new article in The National Law Journalconcerning federal celemncy policies and practices. The piece is headlined "Justice Department Wants to Keep Pardon Data Under Wraps: DOJ says release of information on applicants violates privacy law," and here are excerpts:

The Obama Justice Department is fighting to keep secret the names of more than 9,200 people whose applications for pardons and commutations were denied by President George W. Bush.

Last year, DOJ attorneys failed to persuade a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that the privacy interest of the unsuccessful applicants outweighs any public value of producing a list. The department has asked a federal appeals court in Washington to reverse the ruling.

The case is a politically sensitive one for the Justice Department, given Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.'s involvement in the decision to pardon fugitive Marc Rich at the end of the Clinton administration. The Rich pardon turned into a Washington scandal that compelled Holder to apologize for mistakes when it came up during his confirmation hearing last year.

Although the case applies only to pardon applicants during the Bush administration, a loss at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit would likely make public the names of those who sought pardons and clemency during other administrations.

Under the current policy, the Justice Department will confirm whether a specific convict received a pardon, but will not disclose a comprehensive list of all the denials.

Since October 2009, Obama has received 382 pardon petitions and 2,275 applications for commutation -- on top of more than 2,000 pending petitions.  Obama has not granted or denied a single petition, according to Justice Department statistics.  The outcome of the dispute has the potential to change the pardon process going forward, said several lawyers in Washington who represent clients seeking clemency.  Routine disclosure of all names could deter some people from seeking a pardon in the first place.

"Pardon grants should be, and are, publicly disclosed because there should not be secret pardons," Hogan Lovells partner H. Christopher Bartolomucci said. "But pardon denials should not be disclosed as a general matter because of the applicant's privacy interest."

The case stems from a Freedom of Information Act request filed by a retired Washington Post reporter, George Lardner, who is writing a book on the history of clemency.  Lardner's lawyers at the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington said that comparing clemency lists on file at the Office of the Pardon Attorney will help determine whether ethnic consideration played a role in Bush's rejection of thousands of applications.

Last July, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly issued a 35-page opinion ordering the names to be publicly released. "Fundamentally, the disclosure of the requested information shines a light on the most basic information about the executive's exercise of his pardon power -- who is and who is not granted clemency by the President," Kollar-Kotelly wrote.DOJ officials declined to comment.

In the D.C. Circuit, the department continues to mount its privacy argument -- that many applicants have family members, friends and employers who may not know that the person has a criminal record. There's no way to put a favorable spin on the fact an applicant was deemed unworthy of clemency, wrote DOJ Civil Division lawyer John Koppel in court papers filed May 10. "At most, the public would learn the names of those denied clemency, but not the factors favoring or disfavoring the decision, nor whether there were weighty considerations supporting or opposing clemency in the OPA file," Koppel said in court papers. "Without knowing the reasons that factored in the decision, the public learns nothing about how the government works -- even as a significant privacy interest is sacrificed."

One lawyer in Washington whose practice is devoted to clemency said she supports shedding light on the pardon process but also expressed concern about the prospect of a wholesale release of names. "I think a lot of my clients would be really anxious to see their names on a list of applicants who were denied," said Margaret Colgate Love, the U.S. pardon attorney between 1990 and 1997....

Lardner's attorneys at the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington note that none of the unsuccessful applicants are participating in the case and that there are public databases -- the Bureau of Prisons has one -- where employers can check whether an employee has served time in the federal prison system. Public Citizen Litigation Group Director Allison Zieve said DOJ's argument "is speculation about worst-case scenarios" without necessary evidence to support the concern. "For an administration that seeks to pride itself on its openness and commitment to FOIA, it's disappointing they would [appeal]," Zieve said. "It's not really the government's interest at stake in this case."

Because I believe assertions of privacy interests and concerns are frequently overstated, and especially because I consider the federal clemency process very badly broken, I am deeply disappointed that Obama Justice Department is fighting so hard to prevent George Lardner and others from getting the most basic information about the operation of the federal clemency process.  Given that President Obama has failed to act in any way on what is now a backlog of nearly 5,000 clemency petitions, I am a proponent of anyone who is eager in any way to shine more sunlight on a clemency process that seem to me to be teeming with infectants.

Some related posts:

May 25, 2010 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Insiders reporting James Cole tapped to be next Deputy Attorney General

Sentencing fans know that, with the Justice Department's still on-going internal review of sentencing and corrections policy and with lots of important SCOTUS and USSC sentencing decisions in the works, the DOJ remains a critically important playing in helping to chart the short-term and long-term future of sentencing law and practice.  Consequently, given this new story in The National Law Journal headlined "Source: Bryan Cave Partner Picked to Be Next Deputy Attorney General," I now am eager to hear what folks might know about likely future DAG James Cole.

Here are the basic background details from the NLJ story:

President Barack Obama intends to nominate Bryan Cave partner James Cole as the next deputy attorney general, a source with knowledge of the plans confirms.

Cole, 57, comes to the nomination with a mix of experience in the Justice Department and in private practice.  He spent 13 years at the department, rising to be chief of the Public Integrity Section. He's been at Bryan Cave since 1995, specializing in white-collar defense and corporate investigations, though he took time to serve as special counsel to the House Ethics Committee during its inquiry of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

Cole is also a friend of Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., and the two worked together at the Justice Department. "He's experienced, able, and a very fair-minded guy," said Irvin Nathan, general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives, who worked with Cole as a partner at Arnold & Porter....

Arnold & Porter partner James Cooper, who led the embezzlement conspiracy prosecution of officials from the Washington Teachers Union in 2003, called Cole an excellent choice for deputy attorney general because he brings the perspective of an attorney who has worked on both sides of the courtroom.

"I am extremely pleased with the selection," said Cooper, who practices in white-collar criminal defense. "He has had the kind of distinguished career inside and outside of the government that suggests to me he has the right kind of judgment and temperament to be an effective manger."

As the Justice Department's No. 2 official, the deputy attorney general manages the day-to-day operations of its tens of thousands of employees nationwide. The deputy serves as the department's top official when the attorney general is unable to do so, and he can be one of the department's top public faces on Capitol Hill and elsewhere....

Gary Grindler of the department's Criminal Division has been acting deputy attorney general since February, when David Ogden stepped down to return to Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. Cole's candidacy was first reported last month by ProPublica, and the plans to nominate him were reported Friday afternoon by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

I doubt Cole would be confirmed before the Supreme Court hands down its expected big rulings in the honest services fraud cases and other still pending big federal criminal law cases this Term.  But he likely would have a hand in how DOJ responds to the Sentencing Commission's important new proposed sentencing guidelines and also its on-going work on mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.  Thus, if anyone has a sense of Cole's sense of these issues, please consider leaving a comment here.

May 23, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Some Reflections on Conservative Politics and the Limits of the Criminal Sanction"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting piece on SSRN from J. Richard Broughton, which I came across only last night (even though it was posted more than a month ago). Obviously, the piece was written well before yesterday's SCOTUS rulings in Comstock and Graham, but the abstract highlights why the piece is still timely and especially worth reading while the ink is still drying on yesterday's intriguing SCOTUS opinions:

This Article, written for the Charleston School of Law’s recent symposium on Crime & Punishment, briefly addresses the significance of popular forces and conservative political thought in an American criminal justice regime that has become too broad in its scope and sometimes unnecessarily harsh in its treatment of certain offenders. Although conservatives can plausibly embrace some judicially-enforceable limits on the criminal law, a conservative view of structural constitutional considerations would still constrain the judiciary’s authority to undermine popular decision-making as to criminal law and punishment. This Article cites the Supreme Court’s disparate approach to capital and non-capital proportionality issues under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause as an example. Those same structural considerations that would credit popular forces in constitutional adjudication, however, necessarily require popular forces to act as the chief definers of the criminal sanction and enforcers of its limits outside the realm of judicial review.

If conservative politics is to lead a more sensible popular approach to crime and punishment, it cannot do so with unhelpful “soft on crime/tough on crime” rhetoric or mass appeals to popular sentiment about the criminal justice issue of the day.  Rather, it must do so through a conservatism grounded in constitutional balance: an appreciation for the tension between the need for order and the claims of liberty, avoiding the vice of impotence in the face of socially harmful conduct but robustly affirming limits to ensure that the government controls itself as well as the people.  Conservatives can adhere to their impulse for preserving civil order and controlling the governed through formal institutions and arrangements, yet also rely upon those same forms to limit the government’s prosecutorial and penal reach.  Such an approach may require conflict between the political branches of government.  But such conflict is actually a constitutional virtue, and its absence has helped to create many of the current distortions in crime policy. This Article therefore suggests a popular (i.e., non-judge-made) and constitutionalist -- but not a populist -- approach to creating a more limited and responsible crime and punishment regime.

May 18, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Effective USA Today coverage of President Obama's clemency stinginess

Clemencyx Yesterday's edition of USA Today had a pair of pieces (and this reprinted graphis) discussing federal clemency realities, which effectively stressed the significant fact that President Obama has received a huge number of clemency requests while having granted not a single one during his first 16+ months in the Oval Office.  One piece, which is headlined "Record number seek president's clemency," starts this way:

President Obama has received more petitions for pardons and shorter prison sentences than previous presidents at this point in office, and he hasn't approved a single one. 

Obama has already logged 2,361 clemency petitions, according to the Justice Department.  He also faces a backlog of 2,173 old requests, a legacy of a system that civil rights groups and conservative jurists say has fallen into disuse.

A related piece, which is headlined "Convict petitions Obama to reduce crack penalty," highlights the story of, Kenneth Harvey, just one of thousands of offenders hoping that President Obama will give his pledge of hope and change a little more meaning in this context. Here is a brief segment from that piece:

Harvey's family wants him back home — and they thought when Barack Obama got elected president, they'd have a shot. Now, they're not so sure.

Obama has not approved a single request for a pardon or a shorter prison sentence since he took office, despite having more petitions before him — 2,361 according to the Justice Department — than any previous president at this point in his term.

The White House won't discuss the issue, other than to say Obama has asked Justice to review how it processes petitions and makes recommendations.

As regular readers know, I have been urging President Obama to exercise his clemency power with vigor since literally his very first day in the Oval Office (as evidenced by some of the posts linked below).  Though I remain deeply disappointed at the lack of action by the President in this setting, I am perhaps even more disappointed by the lack of criticism concerning the Obama Administration's failings in this historically significant setting.

Some related posts:

April 28, 2010 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fascinating report on backstory behind presidential pardon problems

This new post at Main Justice, which is headlined "Despite Efforts, Pardon System Still Unchanged," provides some new and notable details about discussion and debate over pardon policy inside the Obama Administration.  Here are excerpts:

Behind closed doors Justice Department and White House officials have been considering changes to the system since the start of the Obama administration, though the White House appears to have scaled back its ambitions after key personnel changes.

Former White House Counsel Greg Craig, now a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, led a push for major reforms before stepping down last November, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.  He received support from then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, who recently returned to his practice at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, the individuals said.

Attorney General Eric Holder — whose involvement in the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich at the end of the Clinton administration threatened his career — also expressed interest in making the clemency program “more systematic,” said one of the individuals.

The Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney receives clemency applications and makes recommendations to the White House via the Office of the Deputy Attorney General.  A steep backlog in the pardon office coupled with fewer clemency grants in recent years has driven applicants to reach out to the White House directly.

Some critics say the current system is obsolete because it provides the president with no assurances that his grants will be free of political consequences. Meanwhile, they say, the tool used in the past to “correct injustices that the ordinary criminal process seems unable or unwilling to consider,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy once wrote, has fallen into disuse.

An idea favored by Craig was the creation of a blue-ribbon commission or an advisory process inside the Justice Department but apart from the pardon attorney, the people said.  After he stepped down in November, however, discussions turned to developing criteria under which clemency petitions should be granted in the existing program.

“Like every administration, we are updating the policy guidance for DOJ on requests for executive clemency,” a White House official said.  Craig and Ogden declined to comment.  A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment while the policy was under review.

The clemency issue gained attention after the Supreme Court heard arguments last month in Dillon v. U.S., a case brought by a federal prisoner who was sentenced in 1993 to 27 years behind bars for trafficking in crack cocaine.

Percy Dillon, described as a model prisoner, asked the court to decide whether the U.S. Sentencing Commission erred in limiting federal judges’ discretion in new sentencing hearings under Congress’ 2007 reduction in the crack guidelines.  A federal judge had called his original sentence “unfair” and “entirely too high.”

At one point, Justice Kennedy asked the government’s lawyer whether the Justice Department ever recommends clemency for prisoners like Dillon.  He also questioned whether the lack of commutations last year and the five the year before signaled that “something is not working in the system.”

It is quite sad (and perhaps quite telling) that the two official inside the Obama Administration who were most forcefully pushing for clemency reforms are now out of the Administration.  And, of course, it is even sadder and even more telling that we are now deep into the Obama era and have yet to see any tangible evidence of significant hope and change in this setting or in many other federal criminal justice contexts.

As regular readers know, I have been urging President Obama to exercise his clemency power with vigor since literally his very first day in the Oval Office:

April 21, 2010 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Grandmother Will Mark President's Day By Petitioning Obama To Commute Her 27-Year Prison Sentence For Non-Violent Crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this new press release from the ACLU.  Here are excerpts from the release, which provides the backstory of a remarkable case, that appears to be the kick-off for a remarkable new project:

Hamedah Hasan, a mother and grandmother serving her 17th year of a 27-year federal prison sentence for a non-violent crime, asked President Obama today to commute her remaining sentence. Hasan's petition was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of the Pardon Attorney, and was accompanied by almost 50 letters of support from prison chaplains, community members, advocates, friends and family. The American Civil Liberties Union represents Hasan in her commutation petition....

In an unusual display of support for a commutation petition by a federal judge, the Honorable Richard G. Kopf, U.S. District of Nebraska, who sentenced Hasan in 1993, wrote a letter to the Department of Justice Pardon Attorney's Office. In it, Judge Kopf said, "…I can say, without equivocation, that Ms. Hasan is deserving of the President's mercy. I have never supported such a request in the past, and I doubt that I will support another one in the future. That said, in this unique case, justice truly cries out for relief."...

President Obama, Vice President Biden and Attorney General Holder have publicly called for equalization of federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission has called for reform of the crack-powder sentencing disparity four times. President Obama's "Blueprint for Change," published soon after he was elected in 2008, stated, "...the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated."...

Hasan's petition is the first of several in a larger project, dubbed "Dear Mr. President, Yes You Can."  The Dear Mr. President Project brings together civil rights advocates, legal scholars, law school clinics, pro bono counsel and others to urge President Obama to depart from the practices of his immediate predecessors and use the pardon and commutation power in a principled way, consistent with his administration's position that the crack Sentencing Guidelines have been far too harsh.  The Project also aims to promote the president's clemency power as a means to correct historical injustices.

Baylor Law School professor and former federal prosecutor Mark Osler, who is a founding member of the Project, noted, "President Obama has gone 387 days (and counting) without granting a single pardon or commutation.  This makes him one of the slowest-acting presidents in history to exercise the power of forgiveness.  Thomas Jefferson employed the pardon power to eliminate the sentences of those convicted under the shameful Alien and Sedition Acts.  President John F. Kennedy granted over 100 commutations in less than three years in office.  President Lyndon Johnson commuted 226 sentences. It's time for President Obama to revive the noble and necessary function of executive clemency in Hamedah Hasan's case."

Hasan is the mother of three daughters, Kamyra, 16, to whom Hasan gave birth in prison, Ayesha, 21, and Kasaundra, 26. Hasan also has two grandchildren.  Hasan's commutation petition materials are available at: www.dearmrpresidentyesyoucan.org  

Awesome stuff here, and I am hopeful (though sadly not especially optimistic) that this campaign might finally help President Obama do something about his truly shameful clemency record to date.  At the very least, I hope that this "Dear Mr. President Project" will lead prompt the media to start taking more note of President Obama truly shameful clemency record to date.

Some related recent posts on federal clemency realities:

February 11, 2010 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Noting big (and wasteful?) budget growth in federal prison spending

Following up on an issue I spotlighted in this recent post (which has generated lots of interesting comments), today this article in USA Today takes a look at the Justice Department's proposed 2011 budget numbers. This piece is headlined "2011 budget gives federal prisons $528M," and here are some highlights:

As states cut their budgets by closing prisons and diverting some offenders to probation and treatment programs, the federal government is proposing to dramatically ramp up its detention operations.

The Obama administration's $3.8 trillion 2011 budget proposal calls for a $527.5 million infusion for the federal Bureau of Prisons and judicial security — $227 million more than the proposed increase to Justice's national security program. The boost would bring the total Bureau of Prisons budget to $6.8 billion.

Nearly half of the new funding is proposed to accommodate the administration's plan to close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and move some of the terror suspects to an Illinois prison. The Justice Department also projects that federal prisons, which now hold 213,000 offenders, will hold 7,000 more by 2011.

Also included in the Justice budget is a proposal to hire 652 additional prison guards and fill 1,200 vacant detention positions, far more than the combined 448 new agents planned for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and U.S. Marshals Service.

Assistant Attorney General Lee Lofthus says the increased prison system funding does not reflect a de-emphasis of national security, only that the Bureau of Prisons "needs the bed space."...

The federal spending plan contrasts with the criminal justice strategies pursued in many cash-strapped states, including California, Kansas and Kentucky, where officials have closed prisons or allowed for the early release of some non-violent offenders. In Kansas, for example, state officials last year closed three prisons and reduced the number of probation violators sent to prison to reduce detention costs.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to incarceration, says states have a "greater sense of urgency" to change policy because of their obligations to balance budgets. "That sense of urgency isn't there at the federal level," Mauer says. "Prison expansion slows the momentum for the reconsideration of some of those policies."

I hope we might hear the usual suspects who usually complain most loudly about excessive federal spending will speak out about the continued (and wasteful?) growth of the federal criminal justice and prison system.  I fear, however, that prison spending tends to be an arena in which many persons who are usually advocates for limited government spending become quite willing to endorse the continued growth of big government.

Some recent related posts:

February 4, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Obama as Scrooge: no Christmas clemency grants

Scrooge As I complained in posts here and here and here around Thanksgiving, it was sad and telling that President Barack Obama's first use of his historic clemency power was to continue the modern (silly?) tradition of pardoning a turkey.  At that time, however, I was hoping that Prez Obama might be saving up some holiday clemencies for the Christmas season.  But now the Obamas have gone off to Hawaii on their vacation; as this official webpage reveals, Prez Obama has left behind on Christmas Eve nearly 3,500 requests for pardons and commutations sitting unresolved on his Oval Office desk.

In this new Huffington Post commentary, which is titled "What I Want For Christmas: Mass Clemency," Jacob Appel makes a fulsome pitch for all executive branch leaders to consider the granting of mass clemency this holiday season.  Here are some highlights:

[W]ith the United States now boasting the highest incarceration rate in the world -- more than 1 in every 100 Americans in currently behind bars -- our nation is long overdue for a mass clemency of non-violent felons and those unlikely to re-offend.  Such a collective pardon and commutation would reunite hundreds of thousands of families, save billions of dollars in incarceration costs, and might foster a national spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation....

So here's my Christmas wish: Each chief executive should order a special panel to determine, as quickly as possible, which prisoners either have a history of extreme violence or pose a high risk of re-offending.  Those meeting neither criteria should be transitioned home as quickly as possible....

One of the glaring -- yet too often overlooked -- failings of contemporary America is that we have become a nation obsessed with justice and retribution.  We claim to be The Land of the Free, yet we have lost sight of what it means to be imprisoned: denied liberty and access to one's family, subjected to isolation and violence and unspeakable boredom.  We have come to believe, in the most pernicious way, that people should get what they deserve.  What a sea change it might be in our public discourse and our civic life if we focused instead upon mercy and forgiveness.  A merciful and forgiving culture might find itself with less anger, less social disruption, and even less crime.  If we liberated only half of our prisoners, we could spend the billions of dollars saved educating children, or providing substance-abuse treatment to addicts, or training mental health workers -- breaking the cycle of neglect that sets future prisoners on their initial trajectory toward misconduct....

Fortunately, the majority of our more than two million prisoners are not fanatics and sociopaths. Many are good people who have exercised poor judgment.  They have the same hopes and dreams as ordinary, free Americans, but they now squander their lives behind bars because our prison-industrial complex has gone haywire.  They are, in short, the meek and wretched who the Biblical Jesus -- whether literal or figurative -- would want us to remember in our holiday prayers.

Will the White House read this column and decide upon a mass clemency?  Unlikely.  Such a bold step might make President Obama truly worthy of his Nobel Prize, and win him the praise of history, but political leaders of all stripes think in terms of poll numbers.  I suspect that a mass clemency could be sold to the American public -- particularly as more and more Americans find their own loved ones imprisoned -- but I understand that to attempt such a courageous step requires a leap of considerable faith.  I am more optimistic that, if enough people clamor for a mass clemency, one inspired state governor -- possibly a lame-duck chief executive without a political future -- will consider such a dramatic and compassionate act.  If that happens, and the social order does not crumble, other political leaders may have the courage to follow.  In the interim, I can only hope that the government lawyers assembling last-minute pardons lists, possibly as I write this, remember that each name they add to their clemency register is another flesh-and-blood human being who will be able to spent the Christmas holiday with his or her family.

While I am impressed by Appel's pitch for mass clemencies, I would have been grateful if President Obama would have granted even a single clemency before heading off to the islands.  In this Thanksgiving post, I called out President Obama and the criminal justice members of his White House team as turkeys.  Now, this Christmas Eve, the label Scrooge seems fitting for all these folks. 

Relatedly, as I have suggested before, I think that the media, public policy groups and the left side of the blogosphere also merit some spiritual grief this Christmas eve.  Save for an few commentaries like Appel's, there has been precious little media or blogosphere criticism of the failure of President Obama to bring any hope or change to modern federal clemency stinginess.  Sadly, far too many criminal justice groups and bloggers, who should be making a big stink about Obama's failure to show a true concern for the meek and wretched sitting in prison this holiday season, seem to be content tucked in their beds without stirring this night before Christmas.

Some related posts on federal clemency realities:

December 24, 2009 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

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