Monday, March 08, 2010
New ACS issue brief making the case against juve LWOP
I just got word of this new issue brief from the folks at the American Constitution Society, which is titled "A Just Alternative to Sentencing Youth to Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole." This piece is authored by Jody Kent and Beth Colgan, and here is how ACS summarizes the work:
This Issue Brief is particularly timely in light of the Supreme Court’s consideration of the constitutionality of juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole in two cases, Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida. Ms. Kent and Ms. Colgan examine why, in their opinion, such sentencing practices represent deeply flawed public policy. As the authors explain:
"Regardless of whether the Court extends [its precedent acknowledging that juveniles are different from adults] to find the sentencing of youth to life in prison without the possibility of parole unconstitutional, advocates for youth have called for reform of extreme sentencing policies, on the basis that they grossly undermine rational, fair, and age-appropriate treatment of youth."
Ms. Kent and Ms. Colgan discuss the well-established principle that youth are different from adults, and explain how this principle is reinforced by adolescent brain development research. The authors address and dismiss arguments that harsh sentencing is necessary to protect public safety, as well as highlight troubling racial disparities and inconsistent sentencing application. In addition, they describe how such sentencing functions to undermine the United States’s moral standing, given that the United States is the only country in the world to sentence offenders under the age of eighteen to life without parole. Finally, the Issue Brief concludes with Ms. Kent and Ms. Colgan proposing an alternative to the practice of sentencing youth to life in prison without the possibility of parole --- creation of a system allowing periodic review of sentences to determine whether individuals continue to pose a threat to society or may be returned to communities as productive citizens. In the view of the authors, this approach balances the need to hold young offenders accountable, while still recognizing their inherent capacity for change and growth.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
EJI files seeks cert on claim that juve LWOP is unconstitutional for 13-year-old offender
I just received a helpful e-mail from the folks at Equal Justice Initiative informing me of a recently filed cert petition challenging under the Eighth Amendment a sentence of life without parole given to an offender who was only 13 years old(!) at the time of his crime. The full petition can be downloaded below, and here is additional information from this EJI link about this stunning case:
Joe Sullivan is one of only two 13-year-olds in the United States to be sentenced to die in prison for an offense in which no one was killed. Both of these sentences were imposed in Florida, making Florida the only state in the country to have sentenced a 13-year-old to die in prison for a non-homicide.
A severely mentally disabled boy, Joe was blamed by an older boy for a sexual battery that was allegedly committed when they broke into a home together. The older boy received a short sentence in juvenile detention, but Joe was tried as an adult, convicted of sexual battery, and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Only eight people in the country are sentenced to die in prison for any offense committed at age 13.
The lawyer who represented Joe in his one-day trial has since been suspended from the practice of law, and the biological evidence that could have exonerated Joe was destroyed in 1993. The lawyer appointed to represent Joe on appeal informed the court that there were no issues in his case worth appealing. Joe was unable to challenge his conviction and sentence earlier because he could not afford legal assistance.
Joe has spent 19 years in a Florida prison, where he has been assaulted and suffered deteriorating health. He is now confined to a wheelchair.
When I learn about cases like this, I have a hard time believing that a country founded on the principles of liberty has become so willing to be so repressive through our criminal justice systems. Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I hope the US Supreme Court will take up this case. And I am discouraged that this kind of case even exists and that officials in other branches of our government cannot bring themselves to address these kinds of sad cases and instead only will react if and when courts order them to be more just and sensible in their sentencing policies.
December 17, 2008 in Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Georgia high court finds mandatory life term for failure to register unconstitutionally excessive
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has this article reporting on an important ruling yesterday in Georgia. The article is headlined "State Supreme Court: Sentence for sex offenders overruled; Life in prison breaks Eighth Amendment," and its provides an effective and detailed summary of the court's work:
The Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down another provision of the state’s tough sex-offender law, calling mandatory life sentences for offenders who fail to register a second time “grossly disproportionate” punishment.
In a 6-1 decision, written by Justice Robert Benham, the court said the life sentence imposed upon 26-year-old Cedric Bradshaw of Statesboro violates the Eighth Amendment’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment. “We conclude the imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment is so harsh in comparison to the crime for which it was imposed that it is unconstitutional,” Benham wrote....
On Tuesday, the court ordered Bradshaw, who tried repeatedly to find a place to live without breaking the law, to be re-sentenced. His lawyer, circuit public defender Robert Persse, applauded the ruling. “The state’s penalty provision was excessive and clearly disproportionate to the offense in question,” he said....
In his ruling, Benham noted that someone convicted of voluntary manslaughter or aggravated assault with the intent to murder, rob or rape can receive a sentence as lenient as one year.
Benham also compared Georgia’s mandatory life term with punishment called for in 23 other states. Of the others, three states call for a maximum punishment of two years; 12 call for sentences of up to five years; six provide maximum terms of 10 years; two allow up to 20 years; and New Hampshire calls for a minimum seven-year sentence, Benham wrote. “Georgia’s mandatory punishment of life imprisonment is the clear outlier, providing the harshest penalty and providing no sentencing discretion,” Benham wrote. “This gross disparity between Georgia’s sentencing scheme and those of the other states reinforces the inference that [Bradshaw’s] crime and sentence are grossly disproportionate.”
Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, in a concurring opinion, said life sentences “should be reserved for society’s most serious criminal offenders … Bradshaw’s failure to register as a sex offender, when his underlying crime only landed him in jail for five years, is not the kind of crime a civilized society ought to require him to pay for with his life.”
Justice George Carley issued the lone dissent, calling the decision a “monumental abuse of this court’s authority to determine the constitutionality of legislation.” The Legislature’s amendment in 2006 calling for the mandatory life term “constitutes the clearest and most objective evidence of how society views a punishment,” he wrote.
The Supreme Court of Georgia's ruling in Bradshaw v. State is available at this link. Writing at Sex Crimes, Corey Yung here asserts that "the majority is exactly right on this one." I concur and I hope this ruling will embolden other courts to be more deliberative in discharging the constitutional duty to assess whether and when extreme terms of imprisonment are constitutionally excessive.
November 26, 2008 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Friday, November 21, 2008
Members of Congress push for commutation of Border Agent sentences
This AP article details the latest effort to encourage President Bush to use his clemency power to do some sentencing justice for two notable federal defendants. Here are the specifics:
A handful of lawmakers want President George W. Bush to commute the sentences of two Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting a now-convicted drug smuggler and covering it up. The House members said Thursday that Bush should commute the sentence of the two men before he leaves office to show his concern for law enforcement officers and the danger of their jobs. They asked the Justice Department to recommend the agents' cases to Bush....
The lawmakers pushing for the pardon attorney to at least commute the sentence of the Border Patrol agents or possibly pardon them say his action on their plea will be a barometer for other pardons. Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean were sentenced to 11 years and 12 years, respectively, after being convicted in 2006 of shooting now-convicted drug smuggler Osvaldo Aldrete Davila of Mexico and trying to cover up the incident.... "If you can't do it for Ramos and Compean, how can you do it for anyone on that list?" said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa....
Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, said lawmakers will pressure President-elect Barack Obama to show leniency to the agents if Bush does not. Other lawmakers who had signed a letter to the Justice Department's pardon attorney by Thursday morning are Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. and Republican Reps. Ted Poe of Texas, Dana Rohrabacher, Howard McKeon and Ed Royce of California and Walter Jones and Sue Myrick of North Carolina.
Some prior posts about the Border Agents case:
Sunday, November 09, 2008
A challenge to severe Oregon sex offense sentences worth watching
Late last year, I blogged here and here about a fascinating and sad Oregon case involving a long mandatory prison term imposed on an adult female counselor convicted of unlawful heavy petting of her underage ward. A helpful reader sent me this local news report on the oral argument in this case that took place last week before the Oregon Supreme Court. Here are some details:
An attorney for a former employee of the Hillsboro Boy's and Girl's Club told the Oregon Supreme Court Tuesday that six-plus years in prison for touching her clothed breasts to the back of a 12-year-old boy's head amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
A Washington County jury found Veronica Rodriguez, now 28, guilty of sex abuse in the first degree after Hillsboro investigators saw her breasts touch the boy's head while she ran her fingers through his hair at the club in 2005.
At sentencing, now-retired Judge Nancy Campbell said the circumstances only merited one year and four months in prison instead of the prescribed sentence of six years and three months required by 1994's voter-approved Measure 11.
Rodriguez and attorney Peter Garlan concede that Measure 11 is constitutional, but claim its application against Rodriguez violates Article 1, Section 16 — the proportionality clause of the Oregon Constitution.
Rodriguez's case is combined with another appeal from Linn County, where 36-year-old Darryl Buck was convicted of first-degree sex abuse for touching a 13-year-old girl's clothed buttocks several times during a fishing trip. Garlan said the girl overreacted to Buck's using his hands to help her remain upright, and her "histrionics" had an effect on the jury.The judge agreed, and handed down a 17-month sentence, appropriate for the action, Garlan said.
The state's Court of Appeals rejected both judge's decisions, and said both defendants should serve another five years....
Department of Justice spokesperson Jake Weigler said Wednesday voters passed the measure to eliminate judges' discretion in a range of crimes. Clearly, Rodriguez and Buck fell within that range, he said. If Measure 11 is to be changed, it should be by the will of the voters or the legislature, he said....
Justice Robert D. Durham asked both attorneys if it was the role of the court to make an evaluation of offenders, when the law only mentions "the offense." Should the court treat each offense as if it were a videotape of the act that turns on when the abuse begins and turns off when it ends? "Does that imply there should be no investigation into the actor?" Durham asked. And did that also imply there should be no consideration of whether a defendant lied on the stand, or lied to the police?
Though this article does not make clear whether the defendants in this case have also presented a federal constitutional challenges as well as the state constitutional challenge. If they have and if the defendants do not get any relief from the state supreme court, these cases could possibly present interesting and important vehicles for raising an array of constitutional issues in the Supreme Court.
Some related posts:
- Fascinating proportionality opinion from Oregon court
- More details and insights on Rodriguez case from Oregon
UPDATE: I found the defendant's brief to the Oregon Supreme Court at this link. It is hard to tell from a quick scan of the brief whether a formal Eighth Amendment claim is pressed by the brief. But one aspect of the brief that jumped out was this notable paragraph under the argument summary:
Victim’s Position at Sentencing. Several statutory and constitutional enactments over the past several decades guarantee the victim a voice at sentencing proceedings. The victim’s mother accepts defendant as a member of the family and supported defendant throughout the course of the prosecution, through and including the sentencing hearing.
This paragraphs confirms my long-held belief that giving all victims a more formal voice and role at sentencing could and would often prove to be catalyst for more sensible sentencing outcomes and reforms. In extreme cases, extreme victims will sometimes be eager for extreme sentences. But I think in most cases, many victims are often eager for moderate sentences.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Friday follies: "Woman Faces Federal Jail Time Over Spilled Soda"
Thanks to this story from FOXNews, we apparently need to thank federal prosecutors for trying to keep our country safe from radical soda-pop terrorists that have started to infiltrate parts of our military establishment:
An Idaho woman is facing federal charges and possible jail time after refusing to pay for a soda and then spilling it on a counter in a case she calls a waste of taxpayer's money.
U.S. Attorney Tom Moss plans to bring two charges against Natalie Walters, 39, stemming from an Aug. 20 incident at the Boise Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the Idaho Statesman reports. If convicted, she could face up to six months in federal prison.
Walters, who routinely takes her father to the Boise hospital for treatment, said there is no posted price for soda refills at the center's cafeteria, and she's typically charged between $1 and $1.50 for filling her mug, according to the paper. On Aug. 20, she was charged $3.80, which lead to the dispute and Walters dumping the soda on the cafeteria counter.
Moss' office refused to speak to the Statesman about the case until after Walters' Oct. 8 arraignment. Walters didn't learn of the charges until she was contacted by a reporter for the story. "My father is a veteran. It is a federal facility for veterans. This should have been handled differently," she told the paper. "This is extreme. This is totally extreme. Well, if they have that much time on their hands, go for it."
The full story from the Idaho Statesman, which is headlined "Dumped diet pop lands Idaho woman in federal court," can be found at this link.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Doesn't Kennedy suggest life in prison for failing to register is unconstitutional?
This new Atlanta Journal-Constitution article highlights an appeal of an extreme state sentence that is another reflection of the modern sex offender panic. The piece is entitled "Fairness of law to be judged -- Mandatory sentences: Georgia's Supreme Court will consider proportion." Here are excerpts:
The judge had only one option when he sentenced Cedric Bradshaw: life in prison. Bradshaw had not committed murder, rape or armed robbery. His offense was failing to properly register as a convicted sex offender for a second time — even though he had repeatedly tried to follow the law....
On Monday, the state's highest court will consider whether the law is unconstitutional on grounds it is cruel and unusual punishment.
No other state calls for a life sentence for failing to register as a sex offender the second time, and even rape and armed robbery convictions in Georgia do not carry mandatory life terms, said Bradshaw's lawyer, Robert L. Persse, the circuit public defender in Statesboro. "The punishment for a second violation is grossly disproportionate to the offense," Persse said. "That is particularly true when this is essentially a paperwork offense not accompanied by aggravating circumstances like violence, sexual deviance or being out in a schoolyard hunting for children."
The Bulloch DA's office is urging the state Supreme Court to uphold the life term. "The courts look at the Legislature's intent in determining the best evidence for the appropriateness of the sentence," Assistant District Attorney W. Scott Brannen said. "When they increase it [to a life term], that too is evidence of the intent and the will of the people."...
Brannen, the prosecutor, said the law is on the books and "it's not my place or the court's place to decide what we like and don't like and what we want to enforce or not enforce." Bradshaw, Brannen said, broke the law by failing to give a valid address within the 72-hour reporting deadline. "There are no exceptions in the law," he said.
I am not sure what I find more remarkable: the fact that Georgia punishes this regulatory offense with a mandatory life term, or the fact that in the wake of the Supreme Court's Kennedy ruling the defendant here could have sexually molested and beaten a dozen children without facing a harsher sentence.
As regular readers know, I have long been troubled that the U.S. Supreme Court's eagerness to hyper-regulate the reach of the death penalty through the Eighth Amendment has not extended to regulating extreme prison terms for relatively minor crimes. The Georgia high court has previously shown the courage and wisdom to do something about a seemingly crazy prison sentence, and this would seem to be another case calling out for some remedy.
Further, as my post heading suggests, I think the recent Kennedy ruling from the Supreme Court provides some significant support for Bradshaw's constitutional challenge. If life in prison is the harshest permissible sentence for the worst child rape, can the proportionality principle in the Eighth Amendment permit a regulatory offense to be subject to the same punishment?
Friday, May 02, 2008
Ohio getting tough on no-snack-sharing rules
I can sleep a little sounder after reading this local article about how tough my state is on its miscreants:
He slept through a fire drill, had loose tobacco in his possession and didn't show up for kitchen duty. Then Timothy E. Caudill shared a Little Debbie snack cake with another inmate at a correctional facility in southeastern Ohio. That was the last straw.
The 21-year-old was kicked out of the residential community corrections program that was a requirement of his probation. And he could go to prison. That is absurd, said Caudill's attorney, Claire "Buzz" Ball. "Everybody talks about prison overcrowding. My God, you have to send some guy to prison for sharing a snack?" Ball said.
Vinton County Prosecutor Timothy P. Gleeson has asked Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Simmons to revoke Caudill's probation and put him in prison. Simmons is expected to rule soon on the request, which he considered at a hearing April 16. The prosecutor wants Caudill put in prison for nine months.
With credit for 105 days served at the SEPTA Correctional Facility, he would serve nearly six more months. Caudill's attorney has asked the judge to keep Caudill on probation or send him to the jail in Athens County, which costs $20 a day less than a state prison. Keeping Caudill out of prison would leave cell space for a more serious offender, Ball said. "My God, over a 50-cent cake, the state would spend $12,600 for six months," Ball said.
Caudill received a sentence of three years' probation Oct. 1, convicted last year of breaking and entering Krazy Katie's, a bar along Rt. 93 just south of McArthur, the Vinton County seat. He was placed in SEPTA, a community corrections residential program in Nelsonville, on Oct. 10. The 64-bed program, which offers drug treatment, work training and counseling, imposes strict rules.
Caudill bought the Little Debbie from the vending machine and then knowingly shared it with a fellow inmate who was on restriction and wasn't allowed access to the vending-machine snacks, said Bob Eaton, operations manager at SEPTA.
I wonder if Ohio parents and teachers realize that, when they encourage children to share at home and at school, they are preparing the kids for a life of crime.
Monday, January 14, 2008
New HRW report assailing juve LWOP in California
As detailed in this press statement, today a new report was released by Human Rights Watch calling upon the California legislature to "pass a law this month to end the sentencing of children to prison for life with no possibility of parole." The report is entitled "When I Die, They'll Send Me Home: Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole in California," and it can be accessed in various ways from this link. Here is the start of the report's summary:
Approximately 227 youth have been sentenced to die in California's prisons. They have not been sentenced to death: the death penalty was found unconstitutional for juveniles by the United States Supreme Court in 2005. Instead, these young people have been sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives, with no opportunity for parole and no chance for release. Their crimes were committed when they were teenagers, yet they will die in prison. Remarkably, many of the adults who were codefendants and took part in their crimes received lower sentences and will one day be released from prison.
In the United States at least 2,380 people are serving life without parole for crimes they committed when they were under the age of 18. In the rest of the world, just seven people are known to be serving this sentence for crimes committed when they were juveniles. Although ten other countries have laws permitting life without parole, in practice most do not use the sentence for those under age 18. International law prohibits the use of life without parole for those who are not yet 18 years old. The United States is in violation of those laws and out of step with the rest of the world.
Some recent related posts on juve life sentences:
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Genarlow Wilson headed to college
I was pleased to see this news report from Atlanta providing an update on the state and fate of Genarlow Wilson. Here are highlights:
In his two years in prison, Genarlow Wilson did a lot of reading. One of his favorite books: Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life." The title could not be more appropriate for the next chapter in Wilson's highly publicized young life.
Nearly three months out of prison for committing a sex act with a teenager, Wilson, 21, plans to move into a dormitory at Morehouse College this weekend. He will live and study for free, thanks to the Tom Joyner Foundation, an educational nonprofit founded by the nationally syndicated radio personality. The foundation announced Thursday that it will cover the cost of tuition, room and board and books....
"I've been wanting to go to college for so long," said Wilson, who wants to major in sociology or education, with a minor in history. "I want to study and learn so I can be a mentor for others. It was very generous for [Joyner] to do that for me. I won't let him down."...
Wilson was released from prison Oct. 26 after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that his 10-year sentence for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl was "cruel and unusual punishment." Wilson, who was 17 at the time of the incident, was convicted of felony aggravated child molestation. At the time, state law mandated a minimum 10-year sentence for the crime. The Legislature eventually changed the law to make such cases misdemeanors when they involved teenagers close in age....
Despite his ordeal, Wilson said he has no regrets. "I'm not mad about anything that happened, really," said Wilson, who now lives in Cobb County. "It helped me grow as a person, made me stronger, made me more ambitious. "I was at my lowest point in life. Now everything I wanted to do can finally happen."
I could not be happier that the Wilson story now has this happy ending; of course, there can be a lot more to the story in the years ahead. I hope that Wilson might get seriously involved in sentencing reform movements because his name and his story alone can help a lot of politicians and voters understand the harms of — and the challenges to undo — extreme mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Fascinating proportionality opinion from Oregon court
A helpful reader alerted me to a fascinating opinion from the Oregon Court of Appeals in Oregon v. Rodriguez, No. A131050 (Or. Ct. App. Dec. 26, 2007) (available here). Both the underlying facts and the legal discussion in this case are noteworthy, and these lengthy excerpts provide only a small flavor of an opinion worth reading in full:
In early 2004, defendant [Victoria Rodriguez] was employed by the Hillsboro Boys and Girls Club to work with at-risk youths.... The victim was a member of the club.... On February 14, 2005, a staff member ... saw defendant and the victim in the game room at the club. There were approximately 30 to 50 youths and at least one other staff member in the room. The victim, who had since turned 13, was sitting on a chair. Defendant, who had since turned 25, was standing behind him, caressing his face and pulling his head back; the back of his head was pressed against her breasts.... The contact lasted approximately one minute....
Defendant was eventually charged with first-degree sexual abuse based on the incident. A jury found defendant guilty.... At sentencing, the prosecutor asked the court to impose the 75-month sentence prescribed by ORS 137.700 (commonly referred to as "Measure 11"). Defendant objected, arguing that the Measure 11 sentence would be unconstitutionally excessive. Numerous family members, friends, and coworkers testified in support of defendant. The court agreed with defendant that a 75-month sentence would be cruel and unusual. The court observed that defendant had no prior criminal record and that she had "lived an exemplary life" and had "really made a very positive impact into the lives of apparently many children * * *." It further noted that the touching occurred "in a crowded room, over clothing, [and was] not prolonged." The court concluded that a 75-month sentence "just cries out" as being shocking to any reasonable person. It imposed a 16-month sentence. This appeal followed....
The state contends, among other things, that, given the nature of the relationship between defendant and the victim, the 75-month sentence mandated by Measure 11 would not shock the moral sense of all reasonable people.... We agree with the state that, given the nature of the relationship between defendant and the victim, there can be no doubt that the Measure 11 sentence would not shock the moral sense of all reasonable people. It is undisputed that the victim was young and vulnerable, a prototypical "at-risk" youth. Defendant was in a position of trust and responsibility, akin to that of a teacher or youth counselor, charged with helping children make appropriate behavioral choices. By engaging in sexual conduct with the victim, defendant seriously abused that trust.
In short, we cannot say that the 75-month sentence required under Measure 11 would shock the moral sense of all reasonable people as to what is right and proper under the circumstances. It follows that the trial court erred in refusing to impose that sentence.
December 26, 2007 in Examples of "over-punishment", Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack
Monday, December 03, 2007
Weldon Angelos files 2255 motion
Regular readers will recall the name Weldon Angelos; Angelos faced a mandatory minimum sentencing term of 55 years following three small hand-to-hand marijuana sales. Some months ago, Weldon's sister asked if I would help with his 2255 motion. Aided by a great legal team working pro bono, this motion was completed and filed in federal district court today. The full 50-page motion, which makes an array of constitutional arguments, can be downloaded here:
Because I am essentially counsel of record, I do not plan to discuss or debate the merits of the motion on this blog. But I cannot help but use this forum to try to solicit amici support. Persons concerned with any number of criminal justice issues — ranging from extreme mandatory minimum sentences, prosecutorial charging and bargaining practices, convictions based solely on informant testimony, the reach of the Second, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments and principles of equal justice — should find the Angelos case interesting and perhaps worthy of some "friendly" brief writing.
UPDATE: The Salt Lake Tribune reports on the filing in this article.
Former border agents Ramos and Compean having appeal heard today
As highlighted in media coverage linked here by How Appealing, a Fifth Circuit panel will hear today the appeal of former U.S. Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, who were sentenced to terms of 11 and 12 years of imprisonment for shooting an illegal alien drug smuggler. As detailed in a series of prior posts, this case has generated lots of political controversy and the severity of the sentences are part of the reason for the case garnering so much attention. I do not think the appeal is focused on the sentencing terms, but prominent Senators from both parties (Diane Feinstein and Jon Cornyn) have already formally requested that President Bush commute the sentences of Ramos and Compean.
Some prior posts about the Border Agents case:
Friday, November 23, 2007
Judge Professor Paul Cassell still speaking out about unfair sentencing
This article from the Deseret Morning News, headlined "Former federal judge is striving for balance," catches up with former federal judge Paul Cassell now that he has been off the bench and back in the academy for a few weeks. Here are some snippets with a sentencing focus:
Sitting in his temporary office at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, Cassell told the Deseret Morning News that, as a federal judge, he felt there were several areas in federal law that were out of balance, particularly in the areas of minimum-mandatory sentencing and prosecution of some illegal immigrants. He saw some aspects of federal law caught in a vortex of political competitiveness for tougher sentences pushed by members of Congress....
"There's a kind of ratchet effect where the Republicans will say, 'We want a five-year mandatory minimum sentence,' and Democrats will say, 'We'll up you, we want a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence,' and you have people ratcheting up sentences to the point where any reasonable observer would think we've gone too high, but there's no political incentive to undo the mischief." Cassell said, in his mind, it takes political courage to step up and say the punishment does not fit the crime....
Cassell said he found himself questioning some laws at each turn. "I felt like it was proper judicial role to ask questions, even if we weren't necessarily charged with fixing the problem," he said. But he wanted to do more — he wanted to make a change. Being a federal judge, he couldn't do that. "One of the frustrations about being a trial court judge is that you never set broad principles of law; of course, that's reserved for the appellate courts. ... When I was there for 5 1/2 years, I began to think that maybe I would have more effect in moving the law in a way that I think is desirable by doing appellate litigation." Becoming a legal advocate is a better fit, he said. "I felt like for the rest of my life, I wasn't sure I could stay in one place doing one kind of thing. There were some issues I wanted to pursue, particularly working on crime victims' rights, which is an area that I felt very passionately about."
Traditionally, criminal cases involve two parties: the state and the defendant. But a growing trend in courts is to give the victims of crimes more of a voice in cases. In addition to teaching at the U., Cassell plans to work with a Washington, D.C., group that deals with crime victims' rights. It seems being a voice for balance is innate in Cassell.
One of the last things he did as a federal judge is speak out on the issue of sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine. As chairman of the Judicial Conference's Criminal Law Committee, Cassell said he spoke for the judiciary when he sent a letter to the president and Congress supporting the Federal Sentencing Commission's recommendation to reduce sentences for crack cocaine possession versus powder. Such sentences bear a 100-to-1 ratio to sentences for powder cocaine. "The differences between crack and powder cocaine penalties have been hurting the federal judiciary's credibility in minority communities, particularly in the African-American communities, who view the differences as racially motivated," Cassell said.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Why so much fear about a robust Eighth Amendment doctrine?
I am surprised and disappointed to see a few academic bloggers I respect expressing reservations about the Georgia Supreme Court's application of the cruel and unusual punishments clause in the Wilson case. Specifically, Eugene Volokh has this to say:
I think there are institutional problems with courts’ evaluating the length of confinement under the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause; it’s hard to see a good legal rule that courts can sensibly apply in a wide range of cases, and to my knowledge there isn’t the sort of textual or original meaning evidence that strongly points to requiring courts to engage in such a mushy judgment.
And Laura Appleman adds this:
If the claim of cruel and unusual punishment is used more frequently, and in less dire cases than it has traditionally been used (i.e., death penalty cases), are we weakening the doctrine? I'm not arguing that Genarlow Wilson deserved to remain in jail -- his 10 year sentence was ridiculous on its face. But I'm a little nervous about using the 8th Amendment as a tool to free him. Wilson's case was arguably a problem of proportionality -- isn't using the 8th Amendment to free him like using a battering ram when a kick or two would do?
I just do not get these sorts of concerns. Let's start with Eugene's points. Why does he or others think the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishments" is any more "mushy" or less subject to sound judicial line-drawing than the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on "unreasonable searches and seizures" or the Fifth Amendments requirements of "due process" and "just compensation." Of course, one might contend that all these vague standards defy effective constitutional line-drawing. But, if one excepts the appropriateness of courts drawing hard lines when interpreting other vague Amendments, I do not quite understand why the protections of the Eighth Amendment should evaporate once a person gets sentenced to a term of confinement.
Laura raises related issues that also make me scratch my head: for Genarlow Wilson, another 7 years in prison seems pretty dire. I know everyone thinks "death is different," but many defendants on death row bringing Eighth Amendment claims are going to die in prison as old men before appeals are exhausted. But, for Genarlow Wilson, this case essentially concerned whether he was going to get to be a free man in his 20s (which is a probably a decade that few adults would want to have spent locked up in a prison). Though others may disagree, but I am much more eager to use a battering ram for the likes of Genarlow Wilson than for the likes of Ted Bundy.
Finally, Eugene suggests a focus on the text of the Eighth Amendment (which few really do). As the Wilson majority adroitly notes, statistics suggest that 7.5 million teenagers are involed each year in the specific offense behavior that resulted in 10 years in prison. Can anyone argue (without using legalese) that it is not "cruel and unusual punishment" for Genarlow Wilson to be only one of this massive population forced to serve 10 years locked in a small cage for this behavior?
Split justice for Genarlow Wilson from the Georgia Supreme Court
As detailed in breaking news stories from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and from the AP, theGeorgia Supreme Court this morning ordered the release of Genarlow Wilson, the young man who has been serving a 10-year sentence for consensual oral sex. The decision divided the state justices 4-3, but ultimately upholds county judge's ruling that the sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling is available at this link, and the court also has this news release summarizing the decision. Here is how the opinion begins:
In Case No. S07A1481, the appellant, Warden Carl Humphrey, appeals from the grant of habeas corpus relief to the appellee, Genarlow Wilson, by the Superior Court of Monroe County (hereinafter referred to as the “habeas court”). For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the habeas court properly ruled that Wilson’s sentence of ten years in prison for having consensual oral sex with a fifteen-year-old girl when he was only seventeen years old constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, but erred in convicting and sentencing Wilson for a misdemeanor crime that did not exist when the conduct in question occurred. Because the minimum punishment for the crime for which Wilson was convicted constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, this case must be remanded to the habeas court for it to enter an order reversing Wilson’s conviction and sentence and discharging him from custody. Accordingly, in Case No. S07A1481, we affirm the habeas court’s judgment in part and reverse it in part.
In Case No. S07A1606, Wilson appeals the denial, by the Superior Court of Douglas County (hereinafter referred to as the “trial court”), of his motion for release on bail during the pendency of the warden’s appeal in Case No. S07A1481. Because the trial court properly denied Wilson’s motion for bail, we affirm the trial court’s judgment.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Spotting the many statutory errors in Peltier
Commentors here have done a great job highlighting the practical craziness of the Fifth Circuit's adoption of a "plain error" approach to reasonableness review in US v. Peltier, No. 05-30440 (5th Cir. Oct. 23, 2007) (available here). But the problems with Peltier run deeper: at the most fundamental level, the Fifth Circuit's approach seems to misunderstand that reasonableness review was embraced in the Booker remedy to "iron out sentencing differences," not simply to protect a defendant's rights. The whole goal of reasonableness review emphasized by the Booker remedial opinion is undermined by affirming unreasonable sentences because errors are not plain enough.
Moreover, spotting the many statutory errors in Peltier would make for a good exam in my sentencing classes. Here are just a few I saw based on a quick read:
1. Peltier asserts in a footnote that "reasonableness has become ... a substantive standard to be applied by the district court," but that claim transgresses the congressional directive in section 3553(a), which states clearly that a sentencing court "shall impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth" in 3553(a)(2).
2. Peltier affirms a statutory maximum sentence of 10 years for a defendant who pleaded guilty to a not-particularly-serious version of felon-in-possession (the defendant had a shotgun in his shed). Given the requirement in 3553(a)(3) to consider "the kinds of sentences available" and in 3553(a)(6) to "avoid unwarranted sentence disparities," what is reasonable about the district court's determination that the defendant should get the highest legally available sentence for this type of crime (especially given that his guideline range was less than half as long)?
3. Peltier makes much of the "weight given to the proper factor of need for treatment" to justify the district court's extra long prison term. However, 18 USC 3582(a) plainly states that courts must "recogniz[e] that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation."
I could go on, but perhaps I need to first re-read Peltier to make sure I'm not overlooking reasons it might not be as bad as it seems.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Does Roper suggest young juve LWOP is unconstitutional?
The Baltimore Sun today has this effective editorial, entitled "Too young to die in prison," which builds off the Equal Justice Initiative's recent new report (available here, overviewed here) on life terms for offenses committed by young teenagers. Here are snippets from the editorial:
Teenagers serving life sentences without the possibility of parole have been condemned to die in prison. It's a death sentence without an executioner, it's perilously close to cruel and usual punishment, and it simply shouldn't be allowed.
States, such as Maryland, that let juveniles spend the rest of their lives behind bars ignore what researchers and others have shown to be true: These offenders lack the physical and emotional maturity to make rational decisions. A life sentence, with the appropriate parole eligibility requirements and restrictions, would keep these young criminals behind bars for a lengthy period and prevent their release until an appropriate time.
A report issued last week by the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative found that nationally, more than 2,225 juveniles, age 17 and younger, have received life without parole sentences. Of those, 73 were 13 or 14 — children by almost any measure — when they committed their crimes....
Their crimes may have been terrible, but there is a reason we have different systems for juvenile offenders: Society recognizes the differences between teenagers and adults; the key difference is that parts of their brains that control impulses, emotions and reasoning are less developed.
Juveniles are barred from buying cigarettes or beer; they can't enlist in the military and aren't supposed to watch R-rated movies unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. And yet when they commit a serious crime, it's as if they have morphed into adults for purposes of their punishment....
The Supreme Court recognized all these differences when it barred the execution of juveniles, no matter the crime. But a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole is just as fatal in its way, and should be prohibited for the same reasons.
I share the editorial's instinct that a fair reading of Roper supports an argument that life without parole for young teenagers is constitutionally excessive under the Eighth Amendment. I suspect others may agree. But it is telling (and troubling) that these viable constitutional arguments on behalf of young offenders facing life terms have not gotten nearly the traction and attention — from courts, the media or academics — that has been given to older offenders facing lethal injections.
Some related posts:
- Using Roper's focus on age in post-Booker sentencings
- California considering eliminating LWOP for juveniles
- Forthcoming PBS program "When Kids Get Life"
Monday, July 23, 2007
Commentaries and editorials on border agents case
A new week brings a new set of commentaries and editorials about the border agents case. Interestingly, as the headlines below suggest, not everyone has the same perspective on this case:
Commentary here from Debra Saunders, "Where's George Bush: Free the Border Patrol Two"
Commentary here from Rick Lowry, "Justice demands sentence commutation for border agents"
Editorial here from the Houston Chronicle, "Border incident Inflexible sentencing law — not prosecutor — created long sentence for rogue border agents"
Editorial here from the Sacramento Bee, "Feinstein takes the low road with border agents: With a grandstanding hearing and a letter to Bush, senator stoops to tarnish -- herself"
Some prior posts about the Border Agents case:
- Will former border agents Ramos and Compean get a commutation?
- Equal justice or just the realities of ratting out?
Friday, July 20, 2007
Report on Genarlow Wilson argument in Georgia
The AP has this article providing the basics of today's argument before the Georgia Supreme Court in the Genarlow Wilson case. Here are a few snippets:
Attorney General Thurbert Baker argues that the order to free Wilson, if upheld, could be used to help free some 1,300 child molesters from Georgia prison. "We urge you to look beyond the confines of this case," Senior Assistant Attorney General Paula Smith told the court's seven justices Friday.
Wilson's lawyer, B.J. Bernstein, said that Wilson's decade-long mandatory sentence violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. "Every day that a defendant spends in jail is a precious day in their life," Bernstein said.
The justices seemed to be wrestling with how to provide Wilson relief under the law. "We have a responsibility to enforce the law," Justice Robert Benham asked. "Should we do that at the expense of fairness?"
How Appealing has more coverage of the argument at this link.