Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Can we save thousands of innocent lives from serious crime through . . . a tax increase?
Those who vigorously oppose various modern sentencing reform proposals are often quick to suggest that any efforts to save taxpayer monies by reducing excessive prison terms could with the potential costs of increased crime and increased victimization. I tend to resist (as does most sophisticated research) the assertion that there is a zero-sum reality to incarceration rates and crime rates, but I do share a concern that any budget-driven criminal justice reforms need to keep a close watch on what evidence and research suggests is the public safety impact of reform.
With those thoughts always in mind, I am especially encouraged by this report about new research suggestion we might be able to successfully reduce serious crimes and innocent victimization through a tax increase that could be good for state budgets. The report is titled "Researchers see significant reduction in fatal car crashes after an increase in alcohol taxes," and here are the highlights:
Increasing state alcohol taxes could prevent thousands of deaths a year from car crashes, say University of Florida Health researchers, who found alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes decreased after taxes on beer, wine and spirits went up in Illinois.
A team of UF Health researchers discovered that fatal alcohol-related car crashes in Illinois declined 26 percent after a 2009 increase in alcohol tax. The decrease was even more marked for young people, at 37 percent. The reduction was similar for crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers and extremely drunken drivers, at 22 and 25 percent, respectively. The study was released online in the American Journal of Public Health in March and will be published in a forthcoming issue.
“Similar alcohol tax increases implemented across the country could prevent thousands of deaths from car crashes each year,” said Alexander C. Wagenaar, a professor in the department of health outcomes and policy at the UF College of Medicine. “If policymakers are looking to address dangerous drivers on our roads and reduce the number of fatalities, they should reverse the trend of allowing inflation to erode alcohol taxes.”
Alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes account for almost 10,000 deaths and half a million injuries every year in the United States. Alcohol is more affordable than ever, a factor researchers say has contributed to Americans’ widespread drinking and driving. Drinking more than 10 drinks per day would have cost the average person about half of his or her disposable income in 1950 compared with only 3 percent in 2011. Alcoholic beverages have become so inexpensive because alcohol tax rates have declined substantially, after taking inflation into account....
The research team defined an impaired driver as having a blood alcohol level of less than .15 percent and an extremely drunken driver as having a blood alcohol level of more than .15 percent, which translates to roughly six drinks within an hour for an average adult. To control for multiple other factors that can affect motor vehicle crash rates, such as traffic safety programs, weather and economic conditions, the researchers compared the number of alcohol-related fatal crashes in Illinois with those unrelated to alcohol during the same time period as well as alcohol-related fatal crashes in Wisconsin, which did not change its alcohol taxes. Results confirmed that the decrease in crashes was due to the tax change, not other factors.
The larger-than-expected size of the effects of this modest tax increase may be because the tax change occurred at the same time as the Great Recession -- a time when unemployment was high and personal incomes lower, according to the study. “While our study confirms what dozens of earlier studies have found -- that an increase in alcohol taxes reduces drinking and reduces alcohol-related health problems, what is unique is that we identified that alcohol taxes do in fact impact the whole range of drinking drivers, including extremely drunk drivers,” Wagenaar said. “This goes against the conventional wisdom of many economists, who assert that heavy drinkers are less responsive to tax changes, and has powerful implications for how we can keep our communities safer.”
Monday, March 30, 2015
"Monitoring Youth: The Collision of Rights and Rehabilitation"
The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper by Kate Weisburd now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
A monumental shift in juvenile justice is underway, inspired by the wide recognition that incarceration is not the solution to youth crime. In its place, “electronic monitoring” has gained widespread support as a new form of judicial control over youth offenders. Supporters herald it as “jail-to-go”: a cost-efficient alternative to incarceration that allows youth to be home while furthering rehabilitative and deterrent goals. But despite electronic monitoring’s intuitive appeal, virtually no empirical evidence suggests its effectiveness. Instead, given the realities of adolescent development, electronic monitoring may cause more harm than good.
This Article is the first to examine the routine, and troubling, use of electronic monitoring in juvenile courts. After describing the realities of the practice and its proffered justifications, this Article refutes three key misperceptions about the practice: (1) that it lowers incarceration rates because it is used only on youth who would otherwise be detained; (2) that it effectively rehabilitates youth; and (3) that it is cost-effective.
Yet because of the deference afforded to judges in crafting terms of probation and pretrial release, the rehabilitative rhetoric of juvenile court, and the perception of electronic monitoring as non-punitive, electronic monitoring is subject to virtually no judicial oversight or scrutiny. The result is that the practice exists in a legal and policy netherworld: wielded and expanded with almost no limits. This Article concludes by arguing that electronic monitoring should be categorized as a form of punishment, warranting a new doctrinal framework that more rigorously evaluates, and circumscribes, monitoring and other forms of non-carceral control.
Sunday, March 29, 2015
Local Tennessee prosecutors pushed for female sterilization in plea discussions
A helpful reader alerted me to this stunning AP article about a stunning aspect of what some local prosecutors sometimes incorporated into plea discussion with female defendants in Tennessee. The piece is headlined "Attorneys: Sterilizations were part of plea deal talks," and here are some of the details:
Nashville prosecutors have made sterilization of women part of plea negotiations at least four times in the past five years, and the district attorney has banned his staff from using the invasive surgery as a bargaining chip after the latest case.
In the most recent case, first reported by The Tennessean, a woman with a 20-year history of mental illness had been charged with neglect after her 5-day-old baby mysteriously died. Her defense attorney says the prosecutor assigned to the case wouldn't go forward with a plea deal to keep the woman out of prison unless she had the surgery.
Defense attorneys say there have been at least three similar cases in the past five years, suggesting the practice may not be as rare as people think and may happen more often outside the public view and without the blessing of a court .
Sterilization coerced by the legal system evokes a dark time in America, when minorities, the poor and those deemed mentally unfit or "deficient" were forced to undergo medical procedures that prevented them from having children.
"The history of sterilization in this country is that it is applied to the most despised people — criminals and the people we're most afraid of, the mentally ill — and the one thing that that these two groups usually share is that they are the most poor. That is what we've done in the past, and that's a good reason not to do it now," said Paul Lombardo, a law professor and historian who teaches at Georgia State University.
Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk agrees. A former defense attorney who took over the office in September, he recently ordered lawyers in his office not to seek sterilization by defendants. He said he hadn't heard of it happening before but didn't ask. Funk said people could be ordered to stay away from children, and the state wouldn't have to resort to such invasive measures. "The bottom line is the government can't be ordering a forced sterilization," Funk said.
However, such deals do happen.
In West Virginia, a 21-year-old unmarried mother of three agreed to have her tubes tied in 2009 as part of her probation after she pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute marijuana. And last year, a Virginia man who fathered children with several women agreed to undergo a vasectomy in exchange for less prison time in a child endangerment case.
Forced sterilization came up in a different way in California last year, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that banned state prisons from forcing female inmates to be sterilized. The law was pushed through after the Center for Investigative Reporting found that nearly 150 female prisoners had been sterilized between 2006 and 2010. An audit found that the state failed to make sure the inmate's consent was lawfully obtained in every case ....
The assistant district attorney who worked the [most recent] case, Brian Holmgren, is a child prosecutor who speaks around the country, was once a senior attorney with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse and serves on the international advisory board of the National Center for Shaken Baby Syndrome. He has been both praised and fiercely criticized for his aggressive courtroom tactics on behalf of children.... Holmgren did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
Nashville defense attorney Carrie Searcy said Holmgren asked that two of her clients who gave birth to children who tested positive for drugs undergo sterilization. Neither did, Searcy said, because both women had already undergone the procedure.
Assistant public defender Joan Lawson, who also supervises other attorneys, said she also had been involved in cases in which a prosecutor had put sterilization on the table. Lawson said it was typically not an explicit demand, was not an everyday occurrence and was made off the record. Lawson said she refused the idea and resolved her cases without sterilization. "It's always been more of 'If your client is willing to do this, then I might be inclined to talk about probation,'" Lawson said.
Friday, March 27, 2015
Prodded by state court ruling, California announces it will not enforce sex offender residency restrictions
The potential import and impact of state court litigation over collateral consequences is on full display now in California as a result of the news reported in this Los Angeles Times article:
California officials announced Thursday that the state would stop enforcing a key provision of a voter-approved law that prohibits all registered sex offenders from living near schools. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it would no longer impose the blanket restrictions outlined in Jessica's Law that forbids all sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park, regardless of whether their crimes involved children.
High-risk sex offenders and those whose crimes involved children under 14 will still be prohibited from living within a half-mile of a school, the CDCR emphasized. Otherwise, officials will assess each parolee based on factors relating to their individual cases, the agency said. The shift comes nine years after California voters approved the controversial law, which has made it difficult for some sex offenders to find places to live.
The California Supreme Court on March 2 unanimously ruled that Jessica's Law violated the constitutional rights of parolees living in San Diego County who had argued that the limitations made it impossible for them to obtain housing. As a result, advocates said, some parolees were living in places like riverbeds and alleys.
"While the court's ruling is specific to San Diego County, its rationale is not," CDCR spokesman Luis Patino said Thursday. "After reviewing the court's analysis, the state attorney general's office advised CDCR that applying the blanket mandatory residency restrictions of Jessica's Law would be found to be unconstitutional in every county."
The CDCR sent a memo to state parole officials on Wednesday outlining the policy change. The directive said residency restrictions could be established if there was a “nexus to their commitment offense, criminal history and/or future criminality." The memo said officials would soon provide further direction on how to modify conditions for parolees currently already living in the community....
A CDCR report found that the number of homeless sex offenders statewide increased by about 24 times in the three years after Jessica's Law took effect. Parole officers told the court that homeless parolees were more difficult to supervise and posed a greater risk to public safety than those with homes.... The court ultimately determined that the residency restrictions did not advance the goal of protecting children and infringed on parolees' constitutional rights to be free of unreasonable, arbitrary and oppressive government action.
This news reinforces my view that California's Supreme Court ruling in In re Taylor, S206143 (Cal. March 2, 2015) (available here) was especially significant for the future of sex offender residency restrictions. I am not surprised that California state officials concluded after reading Taylor that it had to modify how it approached Jessica's Law. The next big question is whether and how courts in other states will respond if and when Taylor is used by advocates to attack other residency restrictions similar to Jessica's Law.
A few prior recent related posts:
- California Supreme Court rules blanket sex-offender residency restriction fails rational basis review
- "Disgust, Dehumanization, and the Courts’ Response to Sex Offender Legislation"
- Growing awareness of the limited efficacy of local sex offender residency restrictions
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Is it constitutional to "offer" juve offenders the alternative sentence of writing a bible essay?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article about a novel alternative sentence being utilized by a judge in Mississippi. Here are the details:
Dozens of tickets are written every month in South Mississippi for minors in possession of alcohol. It is an offense that could not only cost the person charged hundreds of dollars, it could also cause them to lose their license for up to 90 days, and even worse; it can follow them the rest of their lives. "If you enter a plea of guilty, it's on your record," Harrison County Justice Court Judge Albert Fountain said.
Fountain knows everyone makes mistakes, and instead of letting one mistake follow a young person for the rest of their life, the judge has come up with an alternative way to sentence children charged with minor in possession of alcohol. "A 1,000 word essay on The Book of Revelations and also the effects from drinking alcohol," Fountain said. "I don't force them to do that. It's their choice. That's just my recommendation. They can write it on anything they want to."
He also takes their license for 10 days and places them on a 90 day non-reporting probation with conditions of good behavior. "It just felt like I had to do something different," Fountain said. "There is more to it than just sentencing someone, and I felt I needed to make a difference."
While he knows it can be considered controversial, Fountain feels it is right. "Separation of church and state is a big topic, and I understand some people have their beliefs, but I think what's wrong with the country today is that we've taken Christ and God out of everything," Fountain said.
The judge has been sentencing children this way for the past eight to 10 years. He said about one in every 20 children choose to write an essay on something other than The Book of Revelations. "Some of the things I have gotten from them is that the fear, really reading the essays, what they ought to face in the future if they don't do the right things," Fountain said. "It's pleasing to me to see that."
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Effective review of the import and impact of new reentry certificates for former offenders
The Marshall Project has this interesting new piece of original reporting on an important new component of reentry effort. The piece is headlined "Forgiving vs. Forgetting: For offenders seeking a new life, a new redemption tool," and here is an excerpt:
[T]he granting of so-called Certificates of Rehabilitation has become an increasingly popular compromise version of full expungement in courts around the country. Between 2009 and 2014, nine states and Washington, D.C. began issuing the documents, also called certificates of relief, recovery, achievement, or employability.
“These certificates are a remarkably dynamic new option,” says Kari Hamel, a civil legal aid attorney in North Carolina who is working to make the certificates — available in that state since 2011 — more accessible to more people with criminal records. “It’s a way of showing employers that the crime someone committed probably wasn’t committed yesterday. It makes what has happened since the crime a fully official part of that person’s record, for all employers to see.”
“That’s the key,” she adds. “Rehabilitation is absolutely a part of a person’s history of trouble with the law, it’s just the second part, the positive part.”
Paul Biebel, the presiding judge for Chicago's criminal court, agrees that the certificates are a promising new option. "Only over the last few years have we seen more of these coming through the court," he says of the certificates, "but I feel very strongly that they are an additional tool in a judge's toolbox to evaluate people. We judges are prepared to send people to prison. But now, if the evidence proves rehabilitation, we also have a tool for redeeming people."
Friday, March 13, 2015
Utah establishes criminal registry for white-collar offenders
Via this New York Times piece, I see that Utah has extended the idea of a criminal registry to fraudsters. Though I have reservations about criminal registries for a variety of reasons, I think this particular kind of registry might make a lot of sense as a recidivism/crime prevention measure. Here is how this fascinating story gets started:
With just a point and a click, you can browse a face book of felons, a new government website that will warn of the danger these criminals pose to society. Only these are not the faces of sex offenders and serial killers. These criminals are mortgage schemers and inside traders, most likely armed with nothing more than an M.B.A. or a law degree.
Their faces will soon appear online courtesy of the Utah Legislature, which on Wednesday approved a measure to build the nation’s first white-collar offender registry, appending a scarlet letter of sorts on the state’s financial felons. The registry — quirky even by the standards of a legislature that this week reinstated firing squads as a method of execution — will be replete with a “a recent photograph” of Utah’s white-collar offenders and, in case they try to run or hide, their “date of birth, height, weight, and eye and hair color.”
“White-collar crime is an epidemic in Utah,” said Sean Reyes, the state’s attorney general who formulated the idea for the registry when he was a defense lawyer, “representing some of these bad guys.” A former mixed martial arts fighter who has a metal plate lodged in his eye socket from a basketball injury, Mr. Reyes noted that while violent crimes were devastating, many “physical wounds heal,” whereas white-collar crimes “can forever deplete your life savings.”
While some Utah lawmakers fear that the registry is overkill, the idea does tap into a vein of populist outrage over financial misdeeds. As much as sex offender registries spread state by state, so too could a white-collar crime registry find favor across the nation, say its supporters.
The legislation’s sponsor in the Utah Senate, Curtis S. Bramble, a Republican, plans to promote the idea through his role as president-elect of the National Conference of State Legislatures, an influential group, saying that “the registry could become a best practices for other states.”
March 13, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack
Monday, March 09, 2015
Right on Crime poll reports most Texans want to "spend more money on effective treatment programs [rather than] on our prison system"
Last week, Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences in this post wondered what the general public thinks about Attorney General Eric Holder's advocacy for "smart on crime" reforms. Bill there asks:
What is the electorate's view of the current state of crime and punishment in America? Does the public agree with the Attorney General that we have too many people in prison for too long, or does it think we aren't doing enough to keep people who commit crime off the street? To my knowledge, this question has never been polled by any respected organization.
I am unsure if Bill would consider the Texas Public Policy Foundation or Right on Crime to be a "respected organization," but today brings the release of a new poll from these sources that suggests that Texans strongly support the state's own "smart on crime" reforms that have served as something of a model for AG Holder's own advocacy for sentencing reform. This press release, titled "New Poll Shows Voters Strongly Support New Justice Reforms in Texas," provides the details, and here are excerpts from it:
A new poll released today by Right on Crime, the nation’s leading conservative public policy campaign for criminal justice reform, shows voters strongly support criminal justice reforms in Texas. The poll conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research for the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that the vast majority of likely Texas voters want to hold more nonviolent offenders accountable in communities, make penalties proportionate to the crime, and ensure those leaving prison spend part of their sentence-under community supervision....
The poll was conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research from February 24-26, 2015. The study has a sample size of 1000 likely voters, with a margin of error of ±3.1%. Some significant findings from the survey, include:
• 73% of voters in Texas strongly support reforms that would allow non-violent drug offenders found guilty of possession to be sent to a drug treatment program instead of jail.
• Voters agree that we should spend more money on effective treatment programs (61%) rather than spending more money on our prison system (26%)....
“Texans are clearly demanding a different solution to the state’s criminal justice problems, especially when it comes to nonviolent offenders,” said Right on Crime Policy Director Marc Levin. “The primary reason to adopt these policies is that they are the most cost-effective way to fight crime, but it is reassuring to see that average Texans recognize this as well.”
March 9, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Wednesday, March 04, 2015
First Circuit creates hard and firm standards before allowing sex offender penile plethysmograph testing
Long-time readers likely can recall the occasional post throughout the years setting out some appellate jurisprudence as to when and how a court may rely upon or order sex offenders to be subject to penile plethysmograph testing. The First Circuit has added to this jurisprudence today in via a lengthy panel ruling in US v. Medina, No. 13-1936 (1st Cir. March 4, 2015) (available here), which starts and ends this way:
Moisés Medina failed to register as a sex offender when he moved to Puerto Rico in May of 2012, even though he had been convicted of a state sex offense four years earlier. As a result, Medina was arrested for violating the Sex Offender Notification and Registration Act, also known as SORNA, 18 U.S.C. § 2250. He then pled guilty and was sentenced to a thirty-month prison term, to be followed by a twenty-year term of supervised release.
The supervised release portion of the sentence included various conditions that Medina must follow or face returning to prison. Medina now challenges two of those conditions as well the length of the supervised release term. One of the two conditions restricts Medina from accessing or possessing a wide range of sexually stimulating material. The other requires Medina to submit to penile plethysmograph testing -- a particularly intrusive procedure -- if the sex offender treatment program in which he must participate as a condition of his supervised release chooses to use such testing.
We hold that the District Court erred in setting the length of the supervised release term. We further hold that the District Court inadequately justified the imposition of the supervised release conditions that Medina challenges. We therefore vacate Medina's supervised release sentence term and the conditions challenged on this appeal, and remand for re-sentencing....
A district court has significant discretion in setting a term of supervised release. A district court also has significant discretion to craft special supervised release conditions. But a district court's exercise of its discretion must still accord with the statutory framework governing supervised release.
Here, we conclude that the District Court improperly determined the relevant guidelines range in setting the term of supervised release; imposed a blanket pornography ban without explanation and contrary to directly applicable precedent; and then imposed an extraordinarily invasive supervised release condition without considering the condition's efficacy in achieving the statutory purposes of such conditions, given both the particular defendant whose liberty was at stake and the evident concerns he directly raised about the appropriateness and reliability of the condition to which he was being required to submit. Although we have been deferential in reviewing district courts crafting of special conditions of supervised release, Congress and our precedent required more of the district court in this instance. We thus vacate the supervised release sentence term, as well as the conditions challenged on this appeal, and remand the case for resentencing.
Some related prior posts:
P.S.: I am truly sorry I could not resist using a juvenile and sophomoric double-entendre in the title of this post. It has been a long day.
March 4, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack
"Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition"
The Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) and the Education from the Inside Out Coalition are pleased to announce the release of "Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition" written by Alan Rosenthal, Esq., Advisor on Special Projects and Counsel; Emily NaPier, M.A., Senior Research Associate; Patricia Warth, Esq. Director of Justice Strategies; and Marsha Weissman, Ph.D., Executive Director.
This report builds upon CCA's 2010 study, "The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered." It makes clear how the criminal history box on college applications and the supplemental requirements and procedures that follow create barriers to higher education for otherwise qualified applicants. We focused on the State University of New York (SUNY), and found that almost two out of every three applicants who disclosed a felony conviction were denied access to higher education, not because of purposeful denial of their application but because they were driven out of the application process by the stigmatizing questions and the "gauntlet" of additional requirements. We call this phenomenon "felony application attrition."
This case study of SUNY has national implications. The supplemental procedures and requirements imposed by SUNY campuses are not unique, and reflect procedures followed by many colleges and universities across the county.
Monday, March 02, 2015
California Supreme Court rules blanket sex-offender residency restriction fails rational basis review
In recent years, a number of state courts have struck down local sex-offender residency restrictions on a number of different legal grounds. As this AP article reports, another state Supreme Court is now part of this group: "California's Supreme Court ruled Monday the state cannot prohibit all registered sex offenders in San Diego County from living within 2,000 feet of a school or park."
As the title of this post hints, the unanimous ruling released today in In re Taylor, S206143 (Cal. March 2, 2015) (available here), strikes me as especially significant because of the legal rationale used to strike down a state-wide voter-initiative law as it was applied in one jurisdiction. These passages explaining the heart of the ruling highlight why Taylor will likely be cited in challenges to sex offender residency restrictions nationwide:
In this case, however, we need not decide whether rational basis or heightened strict scrutiny review should be invoked in scrutinizing petitioners' constitutional challenges to section 3003.5(b). As we next explain, we are persuaded that blanket enforcement of the mandatory residency restrictions of Jessica's Law, as applied to registered sex offenders on parole in San Diego County, cannot survive even the more deferential rational basis standard of constitutional review. Such enforcement has imposed harsh and severe restrictions and disabilities on the affected parolees‟ liberty and privacy rights, however limited, while producing conditions that hamper, rather than foster, efforts to monitor, supervise, and rehabilitate these persons. Accordingly, it bears no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators, and has infringed the affected parolees' basic constitutional right to be free of official action that is unreasonable, arbitrary, and oppressive....
The authorities we have cited above explain that all parolees retain certain basic rights and liberty interests, and enjoy a measure of constitutional protection against the arbitrary, oppressive and unreasonable curtailment of “the core values of unqualified liberty” (Morrissey v. Brewer, supra, 408 U.S. at p. 482), even while they remain in the constructive legal custody of state prison authorities until officially discharged from parole. We conclude the evidentiary record below establishes that blanket enforcement of Jessica's Law's mandatory residency restrictions against registered sex offenders on parole in San Diego County impedes those basic, albeit limited, constitutional rights. Furthermore, section 3003.5(b), as applied and enforced in that county, cannot survive rational basis scrutiny because it has hampered efforts to monitor, supervise, and rehabilitate such parolees in the interests of public safety, and as such, bears no rational relationship to advancing the state's legitimate goal of protecting children from sexual predators.
March 2, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack
AG Holder provides Congress a sentencing reform to-do list
This new Politico story indicates that a confirmation vote for Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as Attorney General may still be week away. But AG Holder is still in the midst of some parting shots as he prepares to leave his position, and this Washington Post commentary finds the AG making a full-throated pitch for more congressional sentencing reforms. Here are excerpts from a piece headlined "Time to tackle unfinished business in criminal justice reform":
Today, a rare consensus has emerged in favor of reforming our federal drug sentencing laws. This presents a historic opportunity to improve the fairness of our criminal justice system. But unless we act quickly, we risk letting the moment pass.
The Justice Department has sought to be an early innovator on this front. A year and a half ago, I launched the Smart on Crime initiative — a comprehensive effort to reorient the federal government’s approach to criminal justice.... Preliminary results from this effort are extremely encouraging....
Last year also witnessed the first overall reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years. Most impressive of all, we achieved this drop in incarceration at the same time we cut the crime rate, marking the first simultaneous reduction in both crime and incarceration rates in more than four decades.
But while it is indisputable that we are moving in the right direction, there is a limit to what the Justice Department can accomplish on its own. Moving forward, we need to build upon, and make permanent, these gains through action in Congress.... [A] few specific items of unfinished business should command our immediate attention.
First, although Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate a discriminatory 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, thousands of individuals who committed crimes before 2010 are still serving sentences based on the old ratio. This is unfair. Congress should pass legislation to apply that statute retroactively so that no one is sitting in prison serving a sentence that Congress, the president and the attorney general have all declared unjust.
Second, while the Justice Department has declined to seek harsh mandatory minimum sentences in cases where they are not warranted, we need to codify this approach. Congress should pass one of the multiple bipartisan bills aimed at restricting and refining those crimes to which mandatory minimums apply.
Third, in individual states, legislatures should eliminate statutes that prevent an estimated 5.8 million U.S. citizens from exercising their right to vote because of felony convictions. These unfair restrictions only serve to impede the work of transitioning formerly incarcerated people back into society.
Finally, we should seek to expand the use of federal drug courts throughout the country for low-level drug offenses. These programs provide proven alternatives to incarceration for men and women who are willing to do the hard work of recovery, and it is my hope that, in the next five years, there will be an operational drug court in every federal district — with individual states following suit.
While I will depart the Obama administration in the coming weeks — and my own formal career in law enforcement will soon draw to a close — I intend to continue this work, to promote this mission and to advance this cause. And I hope that, in the days ahead, leaders in Congress and around the country will come together to help build the fairer, more efficient and more effective criminal justice system that all Americans deserve.
In this post over at The Volokh Conspiracy, titled "The President doesn’t need Congress’s help to fix unjust sentences," Will Baude properly notes that Prez Obama could take care of the first item on the AG's action list without any action by Congress. As Will notes, the "Constitution gives the President 'Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States.' If the President indeed shares the Attorney General’s views, he can eliminate the thousands of unfair sentences at a few strokes of a pen." Will speculates that "the President is unwilling to exercise his constitutional pardon power [this way] because he wants political cover if somebody who is pardoned later goes on to do something wrong."
I am glad Will highlights the president could through commutations (or pardons) readily fix on his own problems and unfairness presented by the non-retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act. Those problems persist because of President Obama's failure of resolve, not a failure of power, on this front. In addition, I think the President could (and should) be using a lot more of his political time and energy trying to move Congress forward on other fronts as well (e.g., he could have, but failed to, talk at lengthy about these issues during his State of the Union address not long ago).
Monday, February 16, 2015
Senate unanimously passes child porn restitution bill to fix Paroline problems
As report in this article, last week the U.S. Senate finally passed a bill to restructure the standards and procedures for restitution awards for victims of child porn downloading offenses. This bill made it through the full Senate a little less than year after the Supreme Court issued a split decision on this matter in the Paroline case. Here are the basics of the response by Congress:
A bill named for two women whose childhood images were turned into heinous pornography was handily passed in the Senate on Wednesday. The Amy and Vicky Child Pornography Victim Restitution Improvement Act was approved by a 98-0 vote.
The measure gives hope to victims that they will finally be able to win major compensation from any single person who illegally viewed, made or distributed their images. Victims of child pornography and other sexual exploitation “ought to have access to full restitution from any single perpetrator for their losses,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican.
The bill establishes a minimum amount for damages for certain child pornography offenses and makes any single perpetrator responsible for the full damages created by a crime that involves multiple perpetrators, Mr. Grassley’s office said. Perpetrators, instead of victims, will have the burden of suing each other to recover damages they paid beyond their offenses. Medical costs, lost income and therapy are included in compensable damages.
The bill responds to a 2014 Supreme Court 5-4 ruling in Paroline v. United States that said people convicted of viewing, making or distributing child pornography should be ordered to pay a nontrivial amount of restitution — but it should fit the scale of the offense....
The Paroline case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a woman known as “Amy Unknown” against Doyle R. Paroline of Texas, who was convicted of having two images of her in his child pornography collection. When the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Amy’s favor and ordered Paroline to pay $3.4 million in damages to her, Paroline asked the Supreme Court to review his case. Paroline’s court-appointed attorney said after they won last year that he would contest any restitution award against his client.
Amy, now an adult, was sexually assaulted by her uncle when she was about 9 years old. The uncle put pictures of her rape online, and those images have been shared by pedophiles worldwide. “Vicky” is the pseudonym of another victim, whose father raped her as a child and took “orders” from men to make videos of her being bound and sodomized.
I am a bit concerned that, even if this bill makes it through the House and is signed into law, defendants like Paroline and others who have already been prosecuted for child pornography offenses will be able to rely on ex post facto doctrines to still avoid having to pay any significant restitution awards to Amy or Vicky or other victims. Still, this new statue could and should help child porn victims recover significant sums from future offenders.
A few (of many) prior posts on Paroline and child porn restitution issues:
- SCOTUS splits the difference for child porn restitution awards in Paroline
- Fascinating NY Times magazine cover story on child porn victims and restitution
- "Pricing Amy: Should Those Who Download Child Pornography Pay the Victims?"
- SCOTUS grants cert on challenging child porn restitution issues that have deeply split lower courts
- "Should child porn 'consumers' pay victim millions? Supreme Court to decide."
- Explaining why I am rooting so hard for "Amy" in Paroline
- Will Congress fix (quickly? ever? wisely?) the "puzzle of paying Amy" after Paroline
Thursday, January 29, 2015
"The Eternal Criminal Record"
The title of this post is the title of this important new book by James B. Jacobs. Here is a description of the book via the publisher's website:
For over sixty million Americans, possessing a criminal record overshadows everything else about their public identity. A rap sheet, or even a court appearance or background report that reveals a run-in with the law, can have fateful consequences for a person’s interactions with just about everyone else. The Eternal Criminal Record makes transparent a pervasive system of police databases and identity screening that has become a routine feature of American life.
The United States is unique in making criminal information easy to obtain by employers, landlords, neighbors, even cyberstalkers. Its nationally integrated rap-sheet system is second to none as an effective law enforcement tool, but it has also facilitated the transfer of ever more sensitive information into the public domain. While there are good reasons for a person’s criminal past to be public knowledge, records of arrests that fail to result in convictions are of questionable benefit. Simply by placing someone under arrest, a police officer has the power to tag a person with a legal history that effectively incriminates him or her for life.
In James Jacobs’s view, law-abiding citizens have a right to know when individuals in their community or workplace represent a potential threat. But convicted persons have rights, too. Jacobs closely examines the problems created by erroneous record keeping, critiques the way the records of individuals who go years without a new conviction are expunged, and proposes strategies for eliminating discrimination based on criminal history, such as certifying the records of those who have demonstrated their rehabilitation.
Monday, January 26, 2015
Could charter schools within the prison system help reduce recidivism?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting article from Georgia headlined "Gov. Deal wants new charter high schools for prison system." Here are excerpts:
Gov. Nathan Deal in the both the amended 2015 and 2016 budgets is [recommending the legislature devote] money to help lower the recidivism rate in Georgia’s prisons. He’s including over $15 million dollars for two new charter high schools in the prison system so inmates can actually earn a diploma as opposed to just a GED. He says seven out of ten Georgia inmates have neither.
“Education can open the door of opportunity while shutting the revolving door that has plagued our prison system for far too long,” says Deal.
The recommendation includes nearly 30 academic positions for the new schools which would begin with the 2015-2016 school year. Deal says the schools would partner with the newly renamed Georgia Career College System, formerly the state’s technical colleges, to teach vocational skills. He says private prisons would also be given incentives to do the same.
“With a high school diploma or a GED, these individuals will certainly be better equipped to get a job and hopefully able to assume a greater pursuit of a job opportunity in the future because they have this basic education behind them,” says Deal.
He’s also including money to help inmates better assimilate into society once released through a transitional housing program for those inmates considered at highest risk for reoffending. Another $5 million is being proposed to expand the state’s accountability courts to keep non-violent offenders out of prison.
Saturday, January 24, 2015
Another remarkable exoneration thanks only to NC Innocence Inquiry Commission
On this blog, I typically do not extensively cover or frequently discuss exonerations and criminal appeals based on actual innocence claims because, as some may know, I fear guilt/innocence concerns can at times distort sentencing procedures and policy debates focused only on indisputably guilty persons. But this new amazing story out of North Carolina, headlined "After 36 years, Joseph Sledge's unfamiliar feeling: normal," seemed especially blogworthy for various reasons.
Most significantly, I think, is that this remarkable NC story highlights the unique benefits resulting if (and perhaps only when) a jurisdiction has a special institution and special procedures for dealing specifically with innocence claims. Here are the basic of one remarkable story that is embedded in the broader realities of North Carolina's unique approach to innocence concerns:
Joseph Sledge looked out across Lake Waccamaw on Friday afternoon, shivering against a cold January rain and trying to embrace an unfamiliar feeling: normal. Sledge walked out of jail Friday for the first time in 36 years without the burden of handcuffs and shackles.
He is finally free. The state had been wrong about him in 1978, and in all the years since; he is no killer. At 70, he will begin again. “I’m full up on freedom,” Sledge said shyly, leaning over a menu at Dale’s Seafood, a lakeside restaurant in rural Columbus County.
Sledge is the eighth man freed through a unique process that forces the state to deal with prisoners’ claims of innocence. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, created in 2006, examined Sledge’s innocence claim over the last 18 months, and in December, it voted that his case merited a possible exoneration.
On Friday afternoon, a trio of judges did just that. Jon David, the Columbus County district attorney, made their decision swift and easy; David told judges he had become convinced that Sledge was innocent.
As Superior Court Judge Tom Lock announced Sledge’s exoneration, a dozen photographers and reporters rushed toward Sledge and his attorneys. Sledge smiled slightly as his attorneys, Christine Mumma and Cheryl Sullivan of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, pulled him close. Applause erupted....
Sledge ... stole some T-shirts from a department store in the early 1970s. A judge sentenced him to four years in a prison camp in rural Eastern North Carolina. In 1976, with just a year left in his sentence, he escaped from the White Lake Prison Camp one night after a beef with another inmate.
That very night, not 5 miles away, someone brutally murdered Josephine and Ailene Davis, a mother and daughter, who lived together in rural Bladen County. That horrible coincidence set the course for Sledge’s life.
Sledge’s exoneration is bittersweet. It comes after dozens of mistakes and casual dismissals of his pleas for help. David, the district attorney, ticked through the justice system’s blind spots in Sledge’s case. The system wasn’t what it is now, he said. No DNA testing was available. The best it had – microscopic hair comparison – could only determine that Sledge’s pubic hair was consistent with pieces left on one victim’s exposed torso. Sledge’s escape and the wild testimony of two jailhouse informants made it all seem too obvious during the 1978 trial, which had been moved to Columbus County.
David said Friday that he regretted the system’s weaknesses and any part that court officials played in it. “There’s nothing we regret more to our values as prosecutors than to believe an innocent person is in prison,” David said. He offered Sledge an apology.
Mumma, who first encountered Sledge’s case a decade ago, has had a hard time swallowing all of the ways the criminal justice system failed Sledge – and the amount of time it took to make it right. Clues that should have sent investigators to other suspects were disregarded. None of the nearly 100 fingerprints taken from the crime scene matched Sledge’s. Investigators also collected head hairs from the victims’ bodies, but Sledge had always shaved his bare.
During two decades, Sledge sent dozens of letters to judges, police officials and prosecutors asking that they find and test evidence from his case for DNA. Yet it took nearly 20 years for a clerk to find hairs that would prove his innocence. By happenstance, a Columbus County clerk climbed a ladder in late 2012 while cleaning the evidence vault; she found an envelope flat on the top shelf with the missing hairs. The clerks had been ordered to search for that evidence as far back as 2003.
Without the state’s new apparatus for testing innocence claims, Sledge might have remained in prison. The Center on Actual Innocence and the Innocence Inquiry Commission interviewed dozens of people, testing memories that had faded over decades. Commission staff discovered crime scene evidence and investigators’ notes that local sheriff’s deputies had said for years had been lost or destroyed. The commission spent $60,000 on forensic testing.
January 24, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Should a court hearing be required anytime a registered sex offender seeks entry to a public school?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable article from Virginia headlined "ACLU questions new sex offender bill." Here are the details:
Their faces and address are already public, now one Virginia lawmaker wants registered sex offenders to face public hearings before going inside schools. To have access to Virginia public schools, House Bill 1366 would require violent sex offenders to pay for a newspaper ad publicizing a personal court hearing. It would run once a week for two weeks. Then anyone could attend the hearing and testify against them.
The bills author, Delegate Jeff Campbell, says it’s about safety, but the ACLU says it crosses the line of civil rights. “The public hearing is simply an invitation for an angry mob to gather at a school and get in the way of a parent’s right to be involved in the education of his or her child,” said ACLU of Virginia’s Executive Director Claire Gastanaga.
Gastanaga said there is no real proof that registries and restrictions like this keep kids safer. He said the most direct impact of the bill would be on parents with kids in school who want to go and meet with the kids’ teachers.
Delegate Campbell disagrees: “I disagree totally, what it does is it gives parents of the other children a say in who is around their children.”... “The public’s right to know who is around their children and to have a say in whether they agree in that or not trumps that individual’s right to free access to the school,” he said.
Currently, sex offenders must inform school superintendents before they go inside a Virginia school. Delegate Campbell said there was an incident last year in Wise County where a parent did that and got permission to attend sporting events, but then started showing up to school at other times. Parents got upset and that is the reason for his bill.
A subcommittee unanimously passed the bill on Monday, but there is no set date yet for it to go before the full committee.
Because Virginia's court system is surely already pretty crowded, the burden this bill will create for state court personnel strikes me as significant and notable. A bit of research revealed that there are about 20,000 registered sex offenders in Virginia. Even if only 10% of that group has good reason to go to a public school each year, the Virginia court system is going to have to handle 2000 more annual hearing to consider (and supervise?) any school visit.
Friday, January 16, 2015
AG Holder announces notable new limits on civil forfeitures to fund local police
As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police," the out-going Attorney General today announce a notable new policy that ought to take some of the economic incentives out of some drug war enforcement activities. Here are the basics:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without proving that a crime occurred. Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.
Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing. The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.
“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement. Holder’s decision allows some limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.
While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund. A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”
Holder’s decision follows a Washington Post investigation published in September that found that police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
January 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack
Thursday, January 15, 2015
Fifth Circuit reverses computer filter lifetime supervised release condition for sex offender
A Fifth Circuit panel yesterday handed down an intriguing little ruling in US v. Fernandez, No. 14-30151 (5th Cir. Jan. 14, 2015) (available here), reversing a notable condition of supervised release. Here is how the ruling starts and ends:
In 2013, Fernando Fernandez was convicted, pursuant to his guilty plea, of failing to register as a sex offender, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2250(a). He challenges a life-term special condition of supervised release, requiring him to “install [computer] filtering software . . . block[ing]/monitor[ing] access to sexually oriented websites” for “any computer he possesses or uses”. At issue is whether the court abused its discretion by imposing the software-installation special condition in the light of, inter alia, Fernandez’ neither using a computer nor the Internet in committing either his current offense (failing to register as a sex offender) or his underlying sex offense (sexual assault of a child)....
In the light of the facts at hand, the district court abused its discretion in imposing the software-installation special condition provision at issue, when, inter alia, neither his failure-to-register offense nor his criminal history has any connection to computer use or the Internet. Similar to Tang, the special condition imposed in this instance is related neither to the nature and circumstances of Fernandez’ offense (failing to register as a sex offender) nor his criminal history and characteristics.
Along that line, the district court’s reason for justifying the special condition is not sufficiently tied to the facts. As noted, for justifying its imposition, the court stated: “‘Failure to register’ means he’s a sex offender in the past. Ease of access through the Internet”. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the court’s general concerns about recidivism or that Fernandez would use a computer to perpetrate future sex-crimes are insufficient to justify the imposition of an otherwise unrelated software-installation special condition.
January 15, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack
Friday, January 02, 2015
"Policing Public Order Without the Criminal Law"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper now available via SSRN authored by Charlie Gerstein and J.J. Prescott. Here is the abstract:
Millions of Americans every year are charged with and detained for “public order” offenses. These minor offenses are unusual in that the actual sentence violators receive when convicted — usually time already served in detention — is beside the point. Rather, public order offenses are “enforced” prior to any conviction by subjecting accused individuals to arrest, detention, and other legal process. These “process costs” are significant; in fact, they distort plea bargaining to the point that the substantive law behind the bargained-for conviction is largely irrelevant.
Maintaining public order is an important civic function, yet these unmoored cases have serious long-term consequences for defendants, their families, and our criminal justice institutions. Many scholars have argued that vague terms and broad standards in defining public order crimes results in broad discretion that leads to abuse.
In this essay, we argue instead that criminal law process costs essentially decouple statutory discretion from actual police behavior, rendering the debate about statutory language by and large moot. Abuse is better addressed by first recognizing that, in the context of public order crimes, discretion has little to do with substantive criminal law and that, instead, focus is much better placed on mitigating the harmful consequences discretion can generate and on limiting police discretion through other means. To this end, we propose providing the police with new civil enforcement tools that will be equally effective at preserving order but that will in all likelihood cause significantly less unnecessary harm.
January 2, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack