Monday, December 02, 2013

Another preview of Paroline via the New York Times

As I noted in this post a few weeks ago, oral argument in the fascinating Supreme Court case of Paroline v. United States is not until January.  But the parties' opening briefs, all of which are now in and are available via SCOTUSblog on this Paroline case page, already provide a full review of the challenging issues that restitution sentences for child porn downloading victims presents for the Justices.   Adam Liptak in this new New York Times piece, headlined "Evaluating the Liability of Viewers of Child Pornography," effectively reviews the issues and arguments now before the Justices in Paroline:

The notices arrive almost every day. They tell a young woman named Amy, as she is called in court papers, that someone has been charged with possessing child pornography.  She was the child.  “It is hard to describe what it feels like to know that at any moment, anywhere, someone is looking at pictures of me as a little girl being abused by my uncle and is getting some kind of sick enjoyment from it,” Amy, then 19, wrote in a 2008 victim impact statement. “It’s like I am being abused over and over and over again.”

Next month, the Supreme Court will consider what the men who took pleasure from viewing Amy’s abuse must pay her.  Images of Amy being sexually assaulted by her uncle are among the most widely viewed child pornography in the world.  They have figured in some 3,200 criminal cases since 1998.

Amy is notified through a Justice Department program that tells crime victims about developments in criminal cases involving them.  She has the notifications sent to her lawyer. There have been about 1,800 so far.  Her lawyer often files a request for restitution, as a 1994 law allows her to do.  Every viewing of child pornography, Congress found, “represents a renewed violation of the privacy of the victims and repetition of their abuse.”

Amy’s losses are in most ways beyond measure, but some of them can be calculated in dollars.  She has found it hard to hold down a job. She needs a lifetime of therapy. She has legal bills. Her lawyers say it adds up to about $3.4 million.  The question for the justices is how to allocate that sum among the participants in the sordid marketplace for pictures of her.

One of those men is Doyle R. Paroline, who was caught with 280 images of children, including toddlers, being sexually abused.  Two of the pictures were of Amy. The 1994 law allows victims of child pornography to seek the “full amount” of their losses from people convicted of producing, distributing or possessing it, and Amy asked the United States District Court in Tyler, Tex., to order Mr. Paroline to pay her the full $3.4 million....

Mr. Paroline was sentenced to two years in prison, but the trial judge, Leonard Davis, did not order him to give Amy anything.  The link between Amy’s losses and what Mr. Paroline did, Judge Davis said, was too remote.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, disagreed and awarded Amy the $3.4 million she sought. Mr. Paroline should pay what he could and seek contributions from his fellow wrongdoers if he thought it too much, the court said, relying on the legal doctrine of “joint and several” liability....

Mr. Paroline said the ruling was deeply unfair.  “An award of $3.4 million against an individual for possessing two images of child pornography is punitive and grossly disproportionate to the offense conduct,” he told the Supreme Court.  Requiring him to seek payment from his fellow sex offenders, he added, “would create a procedural nightmare.”

Amy’s lawyers countered that it should not be her burden to pursue her abusers over “decades of litigation that might never lead to a full recovery.”  She has received restitution in 180 cases so far, she told the justices, and has recovered a little more than 40 percent of her losses.

The Justice Department took a middle ground before the Supreme Court, saying that Amy deserved something from Mr. Paroline, but that $3.4 million was too much.  The right amount, the department’s lawyers said, was “somewhere between all or nothing.” They did not specify what Mr. Paroline’s share might be, saying the trial court should decide. 

A few prior posts on Paroline:

December 2, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Intermediate NJ appeals panel upholds broad restriction on released sex offender access to social media websites

As reported in this AP article, headlined "NJ panel: Sex offenders can be kept off Facebook," a New Jersey appeals panel handed down today a notable opinion upholding a notable restriction on computer use by released sex offenders. Here are the basics:

A New Jersey appeals court has ruled that paroled sex offenders can be barred from Facebook, LinkedIn and other online social networks.

Two offenders had gone to court to challenge that restriction, saying social networks are important ways to get news, information and find business opportunities.

However, a three-judge panel ruled Tuesday that the offenders can be kept off social network as a term of parole. The judges said they agree that the networks are an important facet of modern life, but said there is a good reason to keep convicted sex offenders off them. "The provisions are legitimately aimed at restricting such offenders from participating in unwholesome interactive discussions on the Internet with children or strangers who might fall prey to their potential recidivist behavior," Judge Jack Sabatino said in his opinion. He noted that the parolees can still get news and buy products online.

The ruling referenced in this article is partially available at this link, and here are excerpts from the start of the opinion:

Appellants J.B., L.A., B.M., and W.M. are individuals who have been convicted of sexual offenses, have completed their respective prison terms, and are now being monitored by respondent New Jersey State Parole Board (the "Parole Board") as of fenders who are subject to either parole supervision for life ("PSL") or its statutory predecessor, community supervision for life ("CSL"). Represented by the same attorney, appellants challenge the constitutionality of certain terms of supervision the Parole Board has imposed upon them. Similar conditions have been imposed on other offenders subject to CSL or PSL, although appellants have not filed a class action.

The terms of supervision mainly being challenged in these related appeals are (1) the Parole Board's restrictions on appellants' access to social media or other comparable web sites on the Internet; and (2) the Parole Board's authority to compel them to submit to periodic polygraph examinations....

For the reasons that follow, we reject appellants' facial challenges to the Internet access restrictions, subject to their right to bring future "as-applied" challenges should they avail themselves of the Parole Board's procedures for requesting specific permission for more expanded Internet access and are then denied such permission.

I expect the defendants here may be eager to appeal this matter to the NJ Supreme Court and maybe even the US Supreme Court, especially since it appears that the internet use restrictions upheld here are set to last a lifetime.  And though this case might not be the best vehicle, I suspect that SCOTUS will eventually have to consider what restrictions can be poperly place on internet access for released offenders.

November 26, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"'Cocaine congressman' received the right sentence"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary by Clarence Page appearing in the Chicago Tribune. Here are excerpts:

"Cocaine Congressman" Trey Radel, as headline writers have rebranded him, voted to allow states to drug test all food stamp recipients. Congress, it turns out, should have drug-tested Radel....

Radel became the first sitting congressman in 31 years, according to The Associated Press, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor drug-possession charge.

FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents swooped in to arrest him after he bought 3.5 grams of cocaine for $250 in a late October sting operation in Washington's fashionable DuPont Circle neighborhood. Charging documents described Radel as having a frequent-buyer reputation in the neighborhood. After Radel pleaded guilty in District of Columbia Superior Court, he was sentenced to a year of probation and will undergo substance abuse treatment in Florida.

House Republicans did not rush to escort Radel out the door, even though he reportedly waited three weeks before telling them about his bust. Speaker John Boehner said before Radel's sentencing that the matter should be left up to the courts, Radel, his family and his constituents.

Indeed, it would hardly be the first time that a politician continued to serve and potentially be re-elected after a misdemeanor conviction. Voters can be very forgiving of lawbreaking politicians.

"Today, I checked myself into a facility to seek treatment and counseling," Radel said in a statement last week. "It is my hope, through this process, I will come out a better man." I wish him luck. Unlike his more outraged critics, I don't think Radel should have been sent to jail. Quite the opposite, I think his case offers a good example of why a lot of nonviolent, first-arrest drug offenders shouldn't be in jail.

Contrast his case, for example, with another high-profile District of Columbia case, the arrest of then-Mayor Marion Barry for taking a hit of crack cocaine during an FBI hotel room sting in 1990. He was sentenced to six months in a federal prison. His sentence could have been worse if the video had not provided so much evidence to back the mayor's argument that he was a victim of FBI entrapment.

The fact that Barry is black and Radel is white doesn't mean that racism played a role in either case. But the differences in their sentences illustrate a persistent problem: Despite recent reforms, a racial disparity persists between the minimum sentences for crimes involving crack and powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act that Congress passed in August of 2010 reduced the 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine that was created during the anti-crack uproar of the 1980s. But it still remains way too huge at about 18-to-1. Fairness should never end at the color line.

Radel is fortunate to have been sentenced in D.C., where enlightened attitudes led to a special "drug court" in 1993 that is designed to funnel low-level addicts into rehab instead of long-term jail time. With prison costs skyrocketing — even after overall crime rates declined in the mid-1990s — even states with reputations for tough justice are turning to alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug offenders. Drug addiction should be handled as a disease, not a crime. Trey Radel knows.

Recent related post:

November 24, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Sex offender offers to castrate himself for lighter sentence"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Boston Herald article, which gets started this way:

A convicted child-sex offender facing more than 40 life sentences in a rash of alleged rapes and assaults at a Wakefield child-care center is offering to undergo a “physical castration” to reduce his sex drive in return for a “massive” reduction in his sentence, his lawyer said.

John Burbine, 49, a Wakefield resident before he was arrested in September 2012, is asking prosecutors or the judge in his case if they would be willing to cap his sentence at the legal minimum of 15 years in prison if he agrees to voluntarily undergo a castration “preventing production of testosterone,” his lawyer William J. Barabino said.  “We would do it only if it results in a massive reduction in sentence,” Barabino told the Herald last night.

He told the judge in a court motion the procedure is effective in producing “a drastic reduction or complete discontinuation in sexual urges and sexual function, due to the inability to produce testosterone,” and is “an accepted method of treating certain types of abnormal sexual behavior, such as pedophilia.”

Barabino will make his pitch this morning in Middlesex Superior Court.  He said prosecutors have already indicated informally they are not interested in the deal.

The Wakefield defense lawyer said he expects a formal reply in court and still hopes the judge might consider authorizing the proposal.  His actual motion calls for a therapist to ensure Burbine can make an informed decision on the medical procedure.

November 20, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Congressman pleads guilty and gets quick resolution to local DC cocaine charge

As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Rep. Trey Radel pleads guilty on charges of cocaine possession," a new member of Congress discovered how quick and efficient (and humane?) government in the form of the criminal justice system can sometime be.  Here are the notable details:

Freshman Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court on Wednesday to a misdemeanor charge of possession of cocaine, after buying the illegal drug outside a restaurant in Dupont Circle late last month.

According to court documents, the first-term congressman “unlawfully, knowingly and intentionally possessed” a quantity of cocaine. Radel was charged Tuesday, following an indictment by a Superior Court grand jury.

Radel and a friend of his met an undercover agent at a restaurant in Dupont Circle at 10 p.m. on Oct. 29, prosecutors said in court. Radel asked the friend and the agent to go with him to his home. The agent declined. Radel then purchased 3.5 grams of cocaine, estimated to be worth $250, from the agent in his car.

After the transaction was made, officers stormed the vehicle, and Radel dropped the drugs. He allegedly invited the officers back to his apartment to discuss the incident. When officers went to the home, they found a vial containing cocaine.

Judge Robert S. Tignor sentenced Radel to one year on probation while he undergoes treatment in Florida. Radel said he is also seeking counseling in the District. Tignor said he took into account that this was Radel’s first offense. If Radel violates the probation, he will have to serve 180 days in jail. He also had to pay a $260 fee. His attorney had sought six months probation at the court hearing.

“Your honor, I apologize for what I’ve done,” Radel told the judge. “I hit a bottom and I realize I need help.”

“I am so sorry to be here,” he said. “I have let my constituents, my country and my family down. I want to come out of this stronger and I intend to do that, to be a better man, a better husband and continuing serving this country.”

If Radel completes probation, he won’t have a conviction on his record, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Radel, 37, was elected last November with 63 percent of the vote. He represents Florida’s 19th Congressional District, which includes Fort Myers, Naples, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs and Marco Island. In a statement issued after he was charged Tuesday, Radel expressed profound regret for his actions and said they stemmed in part from an addiction to alcohol. “I struggle with the disease of alcoholism, and this led to an extremely irresponsible choice,” he said. “As the father of a young son and a husband to a loving wife, I need to get help so I can be a better man for both of them . . . I know I have a problem and will do whatever is necessary to overcome it.”

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said the matter will be dealt with outside the halls of Congress. “Members of Congress should be held to the highest standards, and the alleged crime will be handled by the courts,” Steel said. “Beyond that, this is between Representative Radel, his family and his constituents.”

But Radel’s case will also be examined by the House Ethics Committee. House rules require the panel to launch a preliminary investigation any time a member is indicted or charged with criminal conduct.

Radel did not participate in House votes Monday evening. But he has been casting votes in recent weeks, including on the day of and the day after the alleged cocaine purchase. He recently co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to reform the nation’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses.

November 20, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What message does six-month prison sentence in high-profile NJ animal cruelty case really send?

1467286_670148976359390_1970997383_nThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy local report about a high-profile New Jersey state sentencing, headlined "Brick couple sentenced to 6 months in jail for abusing dog, Sammy."  Here are excerpts:

The township couple that admitted to abusing a 17-year-old dog named Sammy was sentenced to six months in jail on Monday. Brick residents Keith Morgan, 56, and Shauna Ewing Morgan, 43, stood in silence next to each other and between their respective attorneys while the sentence was read. The sentence also included a $1,000 fine, $13,500 in restitution, 30 days community service and the couple is prohibited from future ownership of an animal.

“This is what we wanted, this is what was deserved and it was justified,” Monmouth County SPCA Chief Victor “Buddy” Amato said. “This judge did the right thing.” A packed courtroom erupted in cheers when Judge Robert LePore announced jail time for the couple.

“Unless these individuals are imprisoned for their depraved, cruel and heinous conduct, such acts of animal cruelty will continue worldwide,” LePore said. “The lack of care provided to Sammy was inexcusable.” LePore said the sentence he issued was to deter future animal cruelty. “This court believes that a message needs to be sent not just to these defendants, but to all of society that animal cruelty is a national and global problem and must be addressed and deterred,” LePore said.

The charges stem from a March incident when Keith Morgan brought the Cocker Spaniel to the Associated Humane Society in Tinton Falls, claiming he found Sammy in a garbage bag on the side of the road, Amato said. Keith Morgan gave an interview to a local television station after he turned the dog in, claiming he found the dog. That interview was played in court during the sentencing. However, officials said they later learned that the couple had owned the dog for at least nine years.

Sammy was then brought to the Red Bank Veterinary Hospital for treatment because he was malnourished and his fur was covered in urine and matted together in knots to the extent that the dog could not stand up, Amato said. He was released to a foster family in April. Days after Sammy was turned in, authorities learned through an anonymous tip that the Morgans had a second dog, named Ady, at their home. Amato said that because Ady had been groomed before they found her, authorities they were unable to determine if she was neglected. The 3-year-old Cocker Spaniel was voluntarily surrendered to the SPCA and eventually placed in a new home.

Before LePore issued the sentencing, both of the Morgans made a statement to the judge, apologizing. “I was in a bad time in my life. I was depressed … because my wife left,” Keith Morgan said. “I apologize, I didn’t mean for this to happen.” He and his attorney Kevin Sheehy told the judge that Shauna Morgan wasn’t at the home for several months before the incident because the two were separated. Keith Morgan had also been diagnosed with a kidney disease and at one point was suicidal, Sheehy said.

Shauna Morgan’s attorney, Marc Schram, told the judge the couple did not have any contact during their separation, and found the conditions at the home when she returned. “I should have foreseen that Sammy wouldn’t have been safe with my husband, but I didn’t know he was going to get so sick. … If I had foreseen it I would have taken Sammy with me,” she said through tears. “I’m sorry it turned out the way it did.”...

Attorney Steven Zabarsky prosecuted the case and he said he was happy with the outcome. “On behalf of the state, I’ve very satisfied,” Zarbarsky said.

Sammy’s case garnered international attention and a Facebook page was created in support of the dog. An online petition calling on prosecutors to ask for the maximum sentence for the Brick couple received nearly 33,000 signatures.

The Morgans were arraigned on May 20, with more than 250 people packing the Brick municipal courtroom to watch.  A line stretched out the door of the courthouse with supporters wearing t-shirts and holding signs demanding justice.  During a July 15 hearing, which also drew approximately 150 Sammy supporters, a Staten Island, N.Y. woman yelled out “Go kill yourself” and was escorted out of the courtroom.

Ultimately the Morgans reached a plea agreement on Aug. 19, and Amato called the outcome a “win.”  Keith Morgan pleaded guilty to one count of abuse of animal cruelty and filing a false report with law enforcement, while Shauna Ewing Morgan admitted to two counts of animal cruelty.

The eight-month case also stirred debates surrounding animal abuse. In May, N.J. 101.5 radio hosts Dennis Malloy, Judi Franco and Ray Rossi were under fire after they brought the case up on their respective shows. Social media posts claimed Malloy and Franco said animal rights activists needed to get their priorities straight, while Rossi allegedly said “untrue” and “hurtful” statements on air about one of the administrators of the Sammy the Cocker Spaniel Facebook page....

Capt. Richard Yocum, who is president of the state SPCA, said he was proud of Detective William Hyer and Deputy Chief Larry Donato, who investigated the case and of the ruling that was made.  “The stand that they [the court] have taken against animal cruelty being unacceptable tonight was admirable,” Yocum said.  “Sammy does have a loving home, he’s doing much, much better and he’s living out his life in a very good place.”

After the sentence, both of the Morgans’ attorneys said they would be filing an appeal Tuesday morning.  The judge granted a motion for a stay to allow the Morgans to remain free for the appeal process.

Because I am an animal lover and have been a passionate pet owner for my whole life, I can understand how many people can and will get very worked up about animal abuse. Still, I cannot help but wonder how much NJ taxpayer money was spent in this prosecution, and I especially wonder if many other abused animals might have been better served if those resources had instead been directed to an animal shelter or to a public service campaign.

Effective use of state resources aside, the message I take away from this sentencing story is the telling (and I think unfortunate) reality that many folks view incarceration as the only serious and meaningful punishment even when it seems likely that creative alternative punishments could possibly be more significant and effective. This kind of case, in which the defendants do not appear to present any real risk to public safety, seems to me to be the perfect setting for developing thoughtful shaming sanctions and lengthy (animal-servicing) community service as a punishment that could and should keep an on-going spotlight on the problems of animal cruelty and better enable other to better understand how to avoid hurting animals in the first instance.

November 19, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (35) | TrackBack

Friday, November 15, 2013

Is AG Eric Holder going to stay on the job until he truly reforms American criminal justice?

The question in the title of this post is inspired by this new Washington Post article headlined "Reforming justice system is personal goal for Eric Holder Jr."  Here are excerpts from the piece:

As the Justice Department seeks new ways to reduce the burgeoning U.S. prison population, its success is likely to depend on community programs such as the one in this small city in America’s heartland.

In the past 11 years, federal prosecutors here have authorized substance abuse treatment and other assistance for more than 100 low-level offenders as an alternative to prison sentences.  Eighty-seven have successfully completed the program and, in the process, saved the federal government more than $6 million by sparing it the cost of incarceration....

Justice officials see the program in Peoria as a model for other communities — and central to the criminal justice reforms that Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is moving to implement.  In August, at an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco, Holder announced that low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations would no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.  He has also introduced policies to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates, to find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals, and to improve reentry programs to curb repeat offenses.

The announcements have heralded some of the most significant criminal justice policy shifts from the department in years.  For Holder — who has said that as a U.S. attorney and judge he saw neighborhoods destroyed by both illegal drugs and the tough-on-crime legislation that has disproportionately affected black men — the issue has been personal.

“Day after day, I watched lines of young people, most often young men of color, stream through my courtroom,” Holder told ex-offenders Thursday during a visit to a St. Louis courthouse, one of a string of stops he is making to promote his reform agenda.  “I learned how drug abuse, crime and incarceration can trap people in a destructive cycle.  A cycle that weakens communities, tears families apart and destroys individual lives.”...

Many of the department’s criminal justice reforms have bipartisan support, and Republican governors in some of the most conservative states have led the way on prison reform.  Congress also has shown a renewed interest in reducing the nation’s prison population, including the introduction of a bill this week that would reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which funds grants for programs that support probation, parole and reentry programs across the country.

“Rather than incarcerating repeat offenders in the same families generation after generation, we can put our taxpayer dollars to better use to break this vicious cycle and turn lives around,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former prosecutor and one of the bills sponsors, said in a statement.

Efforts to reduce the prison population have drawn criticism from some lawmakers, who are skeptical that new policies will reduce crime.  “I am skeptical,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, said at a a hearing last week.  “Reducing prison sentences will bring prisoners out on the street sooner.  The deterrent effect of imprisonment would be reduced.  Many so-called nonviolent drug offenders have violent records.  Some of these released offenders will commit additional crimes.”...

In a Philadelphia courtroom earlier this month, the attorney general watched more than a dozen drug offenders in a “reentry” program report to a judge to discuss their personal and work situations.  Officials there said the program, which provides parenting classes, vocational training and job opportunities, has saved $1.5 million in annual incarceration costs because fewer ex-offenders are being sent back to prison.  The national revocation rate for ex-offenders who are not in such programs is 47 percent; the rate among participants in the seven-year-old Philadelphia program is about 20 percent.

During his stops Thursday, Holder met with judges and pretrial service officers and watched as a district court judge encouraged ex-offenders to overcome their drug addictions and stay out of prison.  He spoke emotionally to a group about how his nephew struggled to overcome drug addiction.

Inside a federal courthouse in St. Louis, he watched a ceremony in which ex-offenders graduated from an intensive recovery program called EARN (Expanding Addicts’ Recovery Network). “I look at you all and I see myself,” he said. “I grew up in a neighborhood in New York City where people like you would have been my friends. We would have gone to school together. We would have tried to learn about girls together. We would have played basketball together. So I can’t help but feel mindful of the fact that, although I’m here in my capacity as attorney general of the United States, a few of the people I grew up with, good people like you, ended up taking different paths.”

“Some of them didn’t catch the same breaks,” the nation’s top law enforcement official said. “Some had to deal with drug issues. . . . I know that everyone makes mistakes — everyone. Including me. And that’s why I wanted to be here today to tell you in person how proud I am that each of you has decided not to let your mistakes define you and not to make excuses, but to make the most of the opportunities that you’ve been given.”

Right after President Obama's re-election, as noted in this post from last November, AG Holder was talking about staying on as AG for only "about a year" into this second Presidential term. But that year has now passed, and I have heard very little new buzz about AG Holder moving on. And, if he is truly committed to engineering significant and lasting criminal justice reform, I think he may need (at least) the next three years to really have a chance to get this done.

November 15, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, November 08, 2013

"Informal Collateral Consequences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new piece available via SSRN by Wayne Logan. Here is the abstract:

This essay fills an important gap in the national discussion now taking place with regard to collateral consequences, the broad array of non-penal disabilities attaching to criminal convictions. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2010 decision in Padilla v. Kentucky, efforts are now underway to inventory collateral consequences imposed by state, local, and federal law.  Only when the full gamut of such consequences is known, law reformers urge, can criminal defendants understand the actual impact of their decision to plead guilty.

The increased concern over collateral consequences, while surely welcome and important, has however been lacking in a key respect: it has ignored the many adverse social, medical and economic consequences of conviction, experienced by individuals independent of formal operation of law.  This essay augments the consciousness-raising effort now under way and makes the case that informal, and not just formal collateral consequences of conviction, should figure in post-Padilla policy efforts to achieve a fairer and more transparent criminal justice system.

November 8, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 07, 2013

State judge in Pennsylvania finds lifetime sex offender registration for juve offenders unconstitutional

As reported in this local article, "a York County judge has ruled unconstitutional a two-year-old Pennsylvania law that imposes lifetime registration requirements on juvenile sex offenders."  Here is more:

Senior Judge John C. Uhler issued his ruling against the juvenile registration provisions of the Sexual Offender Registration and Notification Act while weighing the cases of seven county teens adjudicated as having committed serious sex crimes.

Uhler found that the registration mandate "unconstitutionally forecloses a court's considerations of the many unique attributes of youth and juvenile offenders" under age 18 and improperly treats them the same as adult sex offenders. SORNA, as the act is known, also doesn't take into account the greater capacity juvenile offenders have to reform, he noted.

The state law was passed by the Legislature in late 2011 to comply with a federal law, the Adam Walsh Act. The state faced a loss of federal funding if it didn't adopt a measure compatible with the Walsh Act.

Uhler's ruling is in reply to a challenge mounted on behalf of the seven York County youths by the county public defender's office, the Juvenile Law Center and the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The children involved were subject to registration after being found to have committed crimes including rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and aggravated indecent assault. They were ages 14 to 17 when the offenses occurred.

In a statement issued Thursday, officials of the Juvenile Law Center and the defender association called Uhler's decision a "landmark ruling."

"It is our hope that this decision will result in similar findings across the commonwealth," said Riya Saha Shah, a staff attorney with the law center. "To impose this (registration) punishment on children is to set them up for failure."

County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Tim Barker said his office is reviewing Uhler's decision for a possible appeal to the state Supreme Court. A decision is expected next week, he said. "We're thoroughly going through everything," Barker said.

Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorney's Association, predicted an appeal is likely. Prosecutors are well aware of arguments for and against the juvenile sex offender registration requirement, he said. "I'm not surprised that the judge would rule this way," Freed said. "We'll see what happens in the appeals courts."

The full 40+ page ruling reference here is available at this link, which I found via this helpful page from the helpful folks at the Juvenile Law Center.

November 7, 2013 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

New Michigan law adds to number of states requiring registered sex offenders to pay yearly fee

This local article report on yet another notable extra bit of punishment now for sex offenders in Michigan.  The piece is headlined "Sex Offenders Will Have To Pay To Live In Michigan Under Bill Signed By Gov. Snyder," and here are the details:

Gov. Rick Snyder has signed legislation requiring registered sex offenders living in Michigan to pay an annual $50 fee. The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Rick Jones, replaces the system under which sex offenders paid a one-time $50 fee. Snyder signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

The measure only applies to registered sex offenders who are out of prison. Officials say $20 of each fee would go to local law enforcement and $30 would go to the state. If offenders don’t pay the annual fee, they face misdemeanor charges.

Offenders who can’t afford the fee would have the chance to make their case and receive a 90-day waiver. To do that, offenders would either have to prove in court that they are indigent, are receiving food assistance from the state, or are living under the federal poverty level.

Snyder said the law brings Michigan in line with neighboring states that require sex offenders to pay for the operating cost of sex offender websites. He said Indiana charges $50 per year, while Illinois and Ohio charge offenders $100 per year. The state said the move could bring in about $540,000 more in revenue each year.

But not everybody is on board with the new law. Opponents, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, say it’s merely a feel-good measure that ignores experiences in other states where the promise of more revenue falls well short of expectations and is an overly burdensome cost for registered sex offenders who already struggle to find housing and jobs.

“They have paid their dues … this is a burden that we just keep piling on,” said Shelli Weisberg, legislative liaison for ACLU of Michigan. She argues that the state is not asking offenders to pay for something that benefits them, but something that is intended to protect citizens. Therefore, the state should pay for it.

November 7, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (79) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Sentencing and Prison Practices in Germany and the Netherlands: Implications for the United States"

The title of this post is the title of a notable new report from The Vera Institute of Justice available at this link.  Here is a synopsis of the report's coverage via the Vera website:

Germany and the Netherlands have significantly lower incarceration rates than the United States and make much greater use of non-custodial penalties, particularly for nonviolent crimes.  In addition, conditions and practices within correctional facilities in these countries — grounded in the principle of “normalization” whereby life in prison is to resemble as much as possible life in the community — also differ markedly from the U.S.

In February 2013 — as part of the European-American Prison Project funded by the California-based Prison Law Office and managed by Vera — delegations of corrections and justice system leaders from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania together visited Germany and the Netherlands to tour prison facilities, speak with corrections officials and researchers, and interact with inmates.  Although variations in the definitions of crimes, specific punishments, and recidivism limit the availability of comparable justice statistics, this report describes the considerably different approaches to sentencing and corrections these leaders observed in Europe and the impact this exposure has had (and continues to have) on the policy debate and practices in their home states.  It also explores some of the project’s practical implications for reform efforts throughout the United States to reduce incarceration and improve conditions of confinement while maintaining public safety.

October 31, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Democracy on Display: A Case for Public Sanctions"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new piece by Zachary Baron Shemtob now available here via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article begins by discussing the work of Jason Brennan, who argues that voter ignorance is inherently and instrumentally problematic to democratic governance. I then apply this point to the contemporary criminal justice system and penology. I argue that voters’ lack of knowledge here is both unjust on those punished and, using the recent work of William J. Stuntz and others, has resulted in egregious consequences.

The majority of the article focuses on the advantages and disadvantages of public punishments, concluding that such sanctions have great potential to challenge citizens’ ignorance of our penal system. Ultimately, the goal is not to offer any sort of definitive conclusion, but to begin a long-overdue discussion on the role of public ignorance in our broken prison system, and one way in which such ignorance might be dispelled.

October 27, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Should Congress tell all states and localities they many never employ certain ex-offenders in their public schools?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP story headlined "House Votes for School Checks for Sex Offenders." Here are is the backstory:

Public schools would be barred from employing teachers and other workers convicted of sexual offenses against children or other violent crimes under a bill the House approved Tuesday.

The measure would require school systems to check state and federal criminal records for employees with unsupervised access to elementary and secondary school students, and for people seeking those jobs. Workers refusing to submit to the checks would not be allowed to have school positions.

A 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, cited one estimate that there are 620,000 convicted sex offenders in the U.S. It also found that state laws on the employment of sex offenders in schools vary.  Some require less stringent background checks than others, and they differ on how people with past convictions are treated, such as whether they are fired or lose their teaching license.

The bill has run into objections from major teachers' unions like the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.  In letters to lawmakers, their criticisms included concerns that the measure might jeopardize workers' protections under union contracts.  In addition, the NEA wrote that criminal background checks "often have a huge, racially disparate impact" — a reference to critics' complaints that minorities make up a disproportionately high proportion of people convicted of crimes.

Despite those concerns, the House approved the measure by voice vote. "Keeping children safe is not a partisan issue," said the chief sponsor, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. "It's a moral obligation."

"Every school employee, from the cafeteria workers to the administrators, to janitors to the teachers, principals and librarians, that every one" is subject to background checks including the FBI fingerprint indentification system to the national sex offender registry, said Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind.

No one said they opposed the bill.  But Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said that by imposing lifetime bans and ignoring the ability of people to overcome criminal backgrounds, "We do run the risk of doing a good thing, but doing too much of a thing." He said he'd continue seeking changes in the measure as it moves through Congress....

The bill would forbid public schools to employ people convicted of crimes against children including pornography, or of felonies including murder, rape, spousal abuse or kidnapping. It would bar school districts and state education agencies from transferring workers who have engaged in sexual misconduct with minors to another location.  The measure would also apply to contractors who work at schools.

Especially as this bill moves to the Senate, I wonder how tea party conservatives like Senators Cruz and Lee and Paul are likely to look at this seemingly significant intrusion by the federal government into state and local education and employment authority. If applied broadly, it sounds as though this bill would preclude someone convicted decades earlier of public indecency or child abuse from serving as a janitor or construction worker in any public school in any state. Whatever one might think about a state adopting such a rule for its own schools, but it seems like quite an intrusion into state authority for the feds to require this rule for all states and localities nationwide.

October 23, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Monday, October 21, 2013

Alabama legislators proposing adult day-care "clusters" for sex offenders

As reported in this local article, headlined "Bill Proposes Licensed Residential Sex Offender Clusters," legislators in Alabama are considering a new innovation in the monitoring of sex offenders. Here are the details:

Some Alabama State Representatives are hoping a proposed bill will change the laws surrounding where convicted sexual predators are able to live together. Representatives Kurt Wallace and Paul Beckman are sponsoring the proposal that would make it against the law for sexual predators to live together unless it’s in what they’re calling a licensed, regulated residential sex offender cluster.

The proposed bill is similar to a bill passed into law earlier this year by the Alabama State Legislature. Alabama State Senator Arthur Orr is the sponsor of that bill. It encompasses Morgan County, while the proposed bill will cover the entire state.

In part Senator Orr’s bill made it against the law for convicted sex offenders to live in the same house. ”Studies show that if that is the situation there is much more proclivity for them to sexually offend others in the surrounding area,” Senator Orr says. He says his bill was met with agreement from the Alabama Legislature and Morgan County residents. “Certainly the constituents who had small children who were living near this group sexual offender home, and they certainly wanted something done.”

The proposed bill by Representatives Wallace and Beckman would create what lawmakers call residential sex offenders clusters. The bill spells out what that means. A residential sex offender cluster would be a tract of land where registered sex offenders could live together. An on-site monitor would also be required to live there to supervise the offenders. The clusters would have to be licensed and it would authorize the Department of Mental Health to make rules regulating the clusters.

If passed this proposed bill would require any sex offenders who wanted to live together to live in one of the clusters. It’s proposed if they violated that, it would be punishable by a felony charge. Already Alabama has laws preventing convicted sex offenders from living near a school or their victims. Some officials argue it’s already hard enough for them to find a place to live and this proposed bill would make it even harder....

Lawmakers say the proposed bill would promote public safety, health and confidence. They are expected to take this proposed bill up in the 2014 regular session.

October 21, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Second Circuit finds substantive due process problems (and others) with penile plethysmography testing for convicted sex offender

Thanks to a number of helpful readers, I have not missed the news of a notable sentencing ruling by a Second Circuit paenl today in US v. McLaurin, No. 12-3514 (2d Cir. Oct. 3, 2013) (available here). Here is how the opinion starts:

David McLaurin, a convicted sex offender, was required by federal law to register any change in his address.  He failed to do so and, following his guilty plea, was sentenced in the United States District Court for the District of Vermont to fifteen months’ imprisonment and five years of supervised release.  As a condition of his release, McLaurin was required to “participate in an approved program of sex offender evaluation and treatment, which may include . . . plethysmograph examinations, as directed by the probation officer.” Judgment, United States v. McLaurin, No. 11 Cr. 113 (WKS), Dkt. No. 28 (D. Vt. Aug. 22, 2012), J. App. 9.

This examination involves the use of a device know as a plethysmograph which is attached to the subject’s penis.  In some situations, the subject apparently may be required, prior to the start of the test, to masturbate so that the machine can be “properly” calibrated.   The subject is then required to view pornographic images or videos while the device monitors blood flow to the penis and measures the extent of any erection that the subject has.  The size of the erection is, we are told, of interest to government officials because it ostensibly correlates with the extent to which the subject continues to be aroused by the pornographic images.

McLaurin objected to this requirement as unnecessary, invasive, and unrelated to the sentencing factors specified in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) and therefore impermissible as a discretionary condition of supervised release.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3583(d)(1). The district court nonetheless imposed the requirement without reference to the statutory goals of supervised release or to any expected benefits to the public or to McLaurin.  McLaurin now appeals.

We hold that this extraordinarily invasive condition is unjustified, is not reasonably related to the statutory goals of sentencing, and violates McLaurin’s right to substantive due process. We therefore vacate the condition.

October 3, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Documenting the enduring challenges of reentry for parolees and society in Colorado

The Denver Post has had a series of recent notable article on parole policies, practices and practicalities under the heading "Behind Bars." Here are the headlines and links to some of the stories in the series:

Ever the fan of evidence-based policies and technocorrections, I was especially drawn to this article in this series headlined "Technology, quick-reaction programs guiding parole reform in other states." Here is how it starts:

Predicting who will murder is now a science. In cities including Philadelphia and Baltimore, high-tech software helps determine which parolees are most likely to kill and what level of supervision makes sense.

The crime-prediction computer program was developed by Richard A. Berk, a criminology and statistics professor at The University of Pennsylvania. "It's saved a lot of money, and resources for those at low risk have been moved to those at higher risk," Berk said. "Human behavior is complicated, and although parole boards might make the best decisions, there is inevitably going to be a mistake."

The software, which makes forecasts based on geographic location, age, type of crime and other variables, is helping parole boards and law enforcement keep closer watch on the most violent offenders.

In Baltimore, where the system is being used to help determine parolee and probation supervision levels, a test of the program on offenders from 2006 had a 75 percent rate in identifying who would kill and be killed, Berk said. The program doesn't predict whether parolees will commit other crimes. "It's hardly perfect, but we're doing much better than the current seat-of-your-pants forecasting," Berk said.

Pennsylvania is expected to apply the software for all parolees by the end of the year. Other states have found success moving away from parole-officer discretion to more restrictive supervision and rapid-reaction punishment.

A model program in Washington state dishes out swift and predictable consequences for parolees who mess up, according to Mark Kleiman, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Criminals, in general, are short-term oriented, so in order to reform behavior, they need near-immediate reaction from their parole officer. Consequences "need to be fast and they need to be every time or they are not fair," said Kleiman, who formerly worked at the U.S. Department of Justice's criminal division.

September 24, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, September 23, 2013

In praise of a stat-max fine that hits a federal white-collar defendant (and not the federal taxpayer) where it hurts

Some readers of this blog may come to (wrongly) believe I tend to disfavor most harsh punishments, whereas in fact I tend to favor most harsh punishments if and whenever they prove to be especially efficacious and economical.  Consequently, I tend to be fairly skeptical of punishments in the form of lenghty terms of imprisonment, whereas I tend to be fairly supportive of punishments in other forms. 

This mini backstory on my views is provided here to account for my particular affinity for the sentence imposed and now affirmed (via an unpublished ruling) in United States v. Turner, No. 12-6483 (6th Cir. Sept. 20, 2013) (available here). Here is how the opinion gets started, which provides a summary of the ruling and the facts which led up to the defendant's prosecution:

Arch Turner appeals a $250,000 fine imposed by the district court as part of his sentence for conspiring to buy votes. He argues that the fine is procedurally unreasonable because the court did not provide specific reasons for the variance from the Guidelines range of $4,000 to $40,000, and that it is substantively unreasonable because the court impermissibly considered Turner’s socio-economic status.  We conclude that the court adequately explained its reasoning in open court, that any deficiencies in duplicative explanations did not rise to the level of plain error, and that the court did not impermissibly rely on Turner’s socio-economic status. Accordingly, we AFFIRM Turner’s sentence.

Arch Turner, a superintendent of the Breathitt County, Kentucky schools, led and assisted a group of people to buy votes for a candidate in a May 2010 primary election. He coordinated meetings in which he distributed funds he had received from third parties for the purpose of buying votes, and he withdrew cash from his own bank account for the same purpose.  During the government investigation, Turner lied to an FBI agent, convinced a co-conspirator to lie to a grand jury, and attempted to convince another co-conspirator to lie to FBI agents.  During one such attempt, he told a co-conspirator that the FBI had no evidence against them and that they would not get in trouble if neither of them told on the other.  During another, Turner contacted his codefendant, which was a violation of his bond release, told his co-defendant that he could not tell on anyone because he had not seen cash change hands, and instructed his co-defendant to purchase a phone that could not be traced.  Eventually, Turner decided the jig was up and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States through buying votes, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 and 42 U.S.C. § 1973i(c).

Thanks to a plea deal, this vote-buying scoundral faced "an advisory Guidelines range of 18 to 24 months imprisonment plus 1 to 3 years of supervised release and a $4,000 to $40,000 fine ... [and a] statutory maximum sentence [of] 5 years of imprisonment plus 3 years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine." The district judge thereafter notified In October 2012, the district court issued a notice advising the parties that the court intended to consider an upward variance from the Guidelines range and sought at sentencing to hear arguments concerning an upward variance of “not only time but money.” In the end, the sentencing judge imposed a 24-month prison term (the top of the calculated range) as well as a stat-max fine of $250,000.

I suspect that a number of federal sentencing judges may have shared the view that the defendant in this case deserved to have the "book thrown at him," but I fear that most would have done so by increasing the length of the defendant's imprisonment rather than maxing out his fine. As a federal taxpayer who usually see little obvious public safety benefit from imprisoning a non-violent white-collar offender for more than a few years, I am pleased that the judge in this case concluded that it would be arguably more fair and efficient to punish in this case with a greater deprivation of property rather than a greater deprivation of liberty.

September 23, 2013 in Booker in the Circuits, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Litigation prompting California city to give up Halloween sex offender posting law

As reported in this Los Angeles Times piece, headlined "O.C. city likely to drop Halloween law aimed at sex offenders: A lawsuit challenges a city of Orange law requiring sex offenders to post signs to discourage trick-or-treaters," it appears that just the filing of a constitutional lawsuit is prompting reform of a local ordinance. Here are the basics:

An Orange County city will probably toss out a law requiring registered sex offenders to post a sign in front of their homes on Halloween to discourage trick-or-treaters after it was hit with a federal lawsuit alleging the practice is unconstitutional.

Registered sex offenders in the city of Orange are legally required to post a sign on Halloween, no smaller than 12 by 24 inches, that reads, "No candy or treats at this residence." Violators face a $1,000 fine or up to a year in jail. The lawsuit, filed Wednesday on behalf of an individual identified only as "John Doe," alleges the law violates the 1st Amendment rights of registered sex offenders and puts them, and anyone living with them, at risk of physical and emotional harm.

"If you think about it, a lot of older kids go out to trick rather than treat," said Janice Bellucci, an attorney and president of the California Reform Sex Offender Laws group. "All you have to do is look for the house with the sign."...

Bellucci filed a similar lawsuit last year to strike down a Simi Valley ordinance that also required people convicted of sex crimes to post a sign. That law also banned them from putting up Halloween displays and outside lighting on Oct. 31. But the day before the Simi Valley law went into effect, federal court Judge Perry Anderson issued a temporary restraining order barring the city from enforcing the sign provision.

The judge let stand provisions of the ordinance that keep sex offenders from turning on outside lights, decorating their homes and answering their doors to trick-or-treaters....

In Orange, no registered sex offenders have been cited since the ordinance was adopted, said City Atty. Wayne Winthers. When the city passed the law in February 2010 officials counted 81 registered sex offenders, with 81% of them having convictions involving minors, according to city records.

There was no need for the group to file the lawsuit, he said, since the city had been in contact with Bellucci and the City Council was expected to discuss the issue next week in closed session. "I read the district court's [Simi Valley] ruling and I don't see any reason why the court would look at ours any differently," said Winthers, who said he intended to ask the council to remove the sign requirement from the Halloween ordinance. "Our intent wasn't to bring any unnecessary harm or scrutiny to any particular individual," Winthers said. "We just wanted to protect children."

September 23, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, September 09, 2013

Second Circuit panel provides fuller account of child porn restitution accounting

The Second Circuit today released a lengthy panel opinion in US v. Lundquist, No. 11-5379 (2d Cir. Sept. 9, 2013) (available here), providing a detailed discussion of the rules and standards for child porn restitution sentencing decisions. Here is how the opinion begins:

In this case, defendant-appellant Avery Lundquist was convicted of receiving and possessing child pornography.  Among the images in his possession was one of "Amy," the pseudonym for a young woman who was sexually abused by her uncle when she was four years old. The uncle photographed his abuse of Amy, and disseminated those images on the Internet.

Amy is now in her twenties, and the pornographic images her uncle took of her continue to be traded on the Internet.  Some 113 individuals -- including Lundquist -- have been convicted of possessing images of her.  The questions presented are whether Lundquist may be ordered to make restitution to Amy and, if so, in what amount.

The district court (Suddaby, J.) concluded that Lundquist proximately caused $29,754.19 of Amy's losses, but decided he should be held jointly and severally liable, along with all others convicted of possessing Amy's images, for her total losses of $3,381,159.  We conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding of proximate cause and that the district court reasonably estimated the share of Amy's losses to be attributed to Lundquist as her total loss divided by the number of persons convicted of possessing her images at the time of the restitution request.  The district court abused its discretion, however, by including in its calculations losses that Lundquist could not have proximately caused and by holding Lundquist jointly and severally liable for harm caused by defendants who were not before the court. Accordingly, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand for recalculation of the amount of restitution.

September 9, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, September 06, 2013

New commentary calls "creative" shaming punishments "terrible" (on curious grounds)

Dameron.png.CROP.rectangle3-largeSlate's crime correspondent, Justin Peters, has this notable new commentary headlined "Dear Judges: Your Creative Punishments Are Hilarious and Also Terrible. Please Stop."  I will reprint below the commentary in full (with original links also reproduced) because I always find these kinds of (purportedly rightous) attacks on creative shaming sentences puzzling and curious:

If there’s one thing Americans love, other than the troubled-restaurant-turnaround stylings of Gordon Ramsay, it’s judges who impose “stunt” sentences on defendants. These sorts of stories crop up a couple of times per year, and they always seem to make the “lighter side” segment on the 10:00 news.  The most recent example of this comes from Cleveland, where Judge Pinkey Carr sentenced a man named Richard Dameron, who threatened a police officer, to stand outside a police station wearing a sign that read “I apologize to Officer Simone and all police officers for being an idiot calling 911 threatening to kill you. I'm sorry and it will never happen again.” To give the sentence a personal touch, the judge hand-lettered the sign herself.  These sorts of “Oh, snap!” sentences are undeniably funny.  But are they actually legal?  Do public humiliations like these constitute cruel and unusual punishments?

Legislatures generally give judges a lot of latitude to freestyle from the bench, as long as they can make the case that their funny punishments serve some sort of rehabilitative purpose.  Federal courts have supported creative sentencing, too. In 2004’s United States v. Gementera, the Ninth Circuit ruled that a district court judge was well within his rights to sentence mail thief Shawn Gementera to, among other things, stand outside a postal facility wearing a sign that read “I stole mail; this is my punishment.” In his opinion, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain (!) determined that “the district court imposed the condition for the stated and legitimate statutory purpose of rehabilitation and, to a lesser extent, for general deterrence and for the protection of the public.”

So these sentences, although unusual, are not seen to be unconstitutionally cruel.  And they clearly stem from valid frustration with America’s imperfect criminal justice system, which sends convicted criminals into dangerously overcrowded prisons, fails to rehabilitate them, and then releases them back into society, where they are apt to offend again.  It’s a frustrating cycle, and so you can understand why, rather than send an abusive father to prison, a judge might think it more effective to have him sleep in the same doghouse where he allegedly used to banish his son, or to sentence a burglar to have something valuable stolen from his house.  Call it poetic justice.  Call it common sense.

But as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley has written, poetic justice rarely has anything to do with legal justice.  The entire point of a code of laws is to move away from “common sense” justice and its attendant inconsistencies, and to professionalize the process by establishing a standardized list of crimes and punishments that’s valid in all jurisdictions.  The judiciary’s role is to interpret these laws and pass judgment on behalf of the state; judges are theoretically elected or appointed based on their supremely nuanced understanding of these laws, not based on their ability to hand-letter punitive signage.  This doesn’t mean that the system always works.  But it’s meant to ensure that, at the very least, the system proceeds with a measure of fairness and dignity.

Theatrical, cornpone deviations from this standard undermine the judicial system.  A sentencing hearing becomes less about the state passing judgment on a convicted criminal than an individual judge imposing her standards of right and wrong.  Our criminal justice system might not work very well.  But it ought to be fixed in the legislatures, not on an ad hoc basis by grandstanding judges who act as though they won their robes in a raffle. Public shaming is better suited for courtroom reality shows, which, indeed, is where one of stunt sentencing’s most famous practitioners — Judge Joe Brown — ended up. If that’s where Judge Pinkey Carr is bound, then I wish her well, and I hope she gets there soon, because her brand of homespun, alternative justice has no business in a real courtroom.

In short, this commentary recognizes that both the Constitution and legislatures permit shaming sanctions if and when, to quote the Ninth Circuit, they seek to serve the "stated and legitimate statutory purpose of rehabilitation and ... for general deterrence and for the protection of the public." In addition, this commentary seems to acknowledge that in many cases, the traditional punishment of locking someone in a cage often will not effectively or efficiently serve these purposes.  Nevertheless, apparently because a judge's purported role is to "to interpret [criminal] laws and pass judgment on behalf of the state" and because the criminal justice system is to proceed "with a measure of fairness and dignity," then creative shaming punishments somehow "undermine the judicial system." 

Huh?  For me this kind of argument and its fuzzy logic just does not compute.  Perhaps this is fundamentally because I see very little "fairness and dignity" coming from locking humans in cages, but it is also because there is anecdotal evidence that creative shaming sanctions may be significantly more effective than imprisonment in serving the express statutory sentencing purposes set forth by Congress and state legislatures. 

If and when data indicate creative sanctions are less effective than imprisonment at achieving public safety, I will be moved by the notion that such punishments are bad policy.  If and when Congress or state legislatures expressly prohibit shaming sactions because the people's representatives conclude such punishments "undermine the judicial system," then I will support claims they are unlawful.  Until such time, and especially because I also think our traditional punishments "might not work very well," I have a hard time being convinced by reactionary criticisms of seemingly reasonable efforts by seemingly well-meaning judges to try to make the criminal justice system they help administer work just a little better for all of society's benefit.

I sometimes think that what really explains these kinds of criticisms of creative shaming sanctions is the discomfort that the critic feels from having to see on full display and then think seriously about the many ugly realities of crime and punishment in our modern criminal justice systems.  When tens of thousands of defendants are sent away to prison every year in the United States, and thus effectively hidden away from public view (absent hunger strikes or suicides or other dramatic and harmful actions), those who do not regularly encounter many crime victims and/or criminal defendants need not think too much to the ugly modern realities of crime and punishment in our modern criminal justice systems.  But when a just few defendants are given creative shaming sanctions each year by seemingly well-meaning judges who are trying to improve the system, we all must confront the disconcerting reality that these kinds of punishment may actually be a significant improvement over the "traditional" status quo. 

I understand why the notion that creative shaming sanctions are a possible improvement over traditional punishment is a reality that could be deeply disconcerting to those who want to champion (and cling to) high-minded conceptions of the importance of "fairness and dignity" in our criminal justice system.  But attacking judges who are looking for novel sentencing alternatives which could be more effective and efficient than locking humans in cages is, in my view, an example of shooting the messenger because you do not like the real-world news being delivered through these kinds of punishments.

September 6, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack