Sunday, April 23, 2017
Notable recent work from the Prison Policy Initiative on prison wages and medical co-pays in prisons
A helpful reader made sure I did not miss some recent pieces from the Prison Policy Initiative on prison wages and medical co-pays in prisons that ought to be of interest to readers.
The piece on wages, "How much do incarcerated people earn in each state?," provides a 50-state survey of wages paid to incarcerated people. Here is a snippet:
One major surprise: prisons appear to be paying incarcerated people less today than they were in 2001. The average of the minimum daily wages paid to incarcerated workers for non-industry prison jobs is now 87 cents, down from 93 cents reported in 2001. The average maximum daily wage for the same prison jobs has declined more significantly, from $4.73 in 2001 to $3.39 today. What changed? At least seven states appear to have lowered their maximum wages, and South Carolina no longer pays wages for most regular prison jobs -- assignments that paid up to $4.80 per day in 2001. With a few rare exceptions, regular prison jobs are still unpaid in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.
The piece on medical co-pays, "The steep cost of medical co-pays in prison puts health at risk," highlights the hours it would take a low-paid incarcerated worker to earn enough for one co-pay. Here is an excerpt:
The excessive burden of medical fees and co-pays is most obvious in states where many or all incarcerated people are paid nothing for their work: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. Texas is the most extreme example, with a flat $100 yearly health services fee, which some officials are actually trying to double to $200. People incarcerated in these states must rely on deposits into their personal accounts -- typically from family -- to pay medical fees. In most places, funds are automatically withdrawn from these accounts until the balance is paid, creating a debt that can follow them even after release.
Co-pays that take a large portion of prison wages make seeking medical attention a costly choice. Co-pays in the hundreds of dollars would be unthinkable for non-incarcerated minimum wage earners. So why do states think it’s acceptable to charge people making pennies per hour such a large portion of their earnings? Some might argue that incarcerated people have nothing better to spend wages on than medical care. But wages allow incarcerated people to buy things they need that the prison does not provide: toiletries, over-the-counter medicine, additional clothes and shoes, as well as phone cards, stamps, and paper to help them maintain contact with loved ones. Co-pays that take a large portion of prison wages make seeking medical attention a costly choice.
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
SCOTUS rules 7-1 that due process precludes requiring defendant to prove innocence by clear and convincing evidence to recover assessments after invalidated conviction
The Supreme Court this morning handed down a notable due process decision in Nelson v. Colorado, No. 15–1256 (S. Ct. April 19, 2017) (available here). Here is how Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court gets started and concludes:
When a criminal conviction is invalidated by a reviewing court and no retrial will occur, is the State obliged to refund fees, court costs, and restitution exacted from the defendant upon, and as a consequence of, the conviction? Our answer is yes. Absent conviction of a crime, one is presumed innocent. Under the Colorado law before us in these cases, however, the State retains conviction-related assessments unless and until the prevailing defendant institutes a discrete civil proceeding and proves her innocence by clear and convincing evidence. This scheme, we hold, offends the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process....Colorado’s scheme fails due process measurement because defendants’ interest in regaining their funds is high, the risk of erroneous deprivation of those funds under the Exoneration Act is unacceptable, and the State has shown no countervailing interests in retaining the amounts in question. To comport with due process, a State may not impose anything more than minimal procedures on the refund of exactions dependent upon a conviction subsequently invalidated.
Justice Alito concurs separately, because in his view "Medina’s historical inquiry, not Mathews [the modern due process balancing test applied by the majority], provides the proper framework for use in these cases." Justice Alito's extended opinion provides a distinct account of the problem with Colorado's procedures.
Justice Thomas dissents in an opinion that is founded on the view that "petitioners have not demonstrated that defendants whose convictions have been reversed possess a substantive entitlement, under either state law or the Constitution, to recover money they paid to the State pursuant to their convictions. "
Monday, April 17, 2017
"Should NC sex offenders pay to be on registry?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this local article, which gets started this way:
Sex offenders would have to pay an annual fine to be listed on the state’s sex offender registry under a bill proposed by N.C. Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover. “There is a cost to continuing to have them on that registry,” Davis said. “The point of this is to get revenue to keep these people on the sex offender registry.”
House Bill 684 calls for sex offenders to pay an initial and annual fee of $90 to be on the registry. The money would be directed to county sheriff’s offices to offset the costs associated with registering sex offenders, according to the bill. Failure to pay the fee does not mean a registered sex offender isn’t listed on the registry -- the state attorney general’s office could sue to collect unpaid fees, according to the bill.
Many states require fees to be listed on the registry. In Tennessee, for example, the fee is $150 per year.
Cristina Becker, criminal justice debt fellow for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU), said the bill could amount to adding an additional burden to someone who has served their jail term, serves on probation, lives under the restriction of the sex offender registry and is already facing a host of other fees associated with their conviction. “It can become a perpetual form of punishment,” she said of an annual fee. Becker said that because many released offenders “are indigent, their probationary periods can be extended for as long as they owe money.”
Monday, April 10, 2017
"Day Fines: Reviving the Idea and Reversing the (Costly) Punitive Trend"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Elena Kantorowicz-Reznichenko now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Fines have numerous advantages as a criminal sanction. They impose minor costs on the society and compliance leads to an increase of the state revenue. Furthermore, fines have no criminogenic effect as prisons do. However, the potential of this sanction is not fully exploited due to income variation among offenders. Sanctions must impose an equal burden on offenders who commit similar crimes. Yet in practice, low fines are insufficiently punitive to deter and punish wealthy offenders. And high fines are unaffordable for low-income offenders. As a result, fines are imposed only for minor offenses.
On the contrary, day-fines allow imposing an equal relative burden of punishment, while assuring the offender is capable of complying with the pecuniary sanction. This is possible due to the special structure of day-fines, which separates the decision on the severity of the crime and the financial state of the offender. Such structure enables expanding the categories of offenses that can be dealt with pecuniary sanctions. Day-fines can offer a partial solution for the American prison-overcrowding problem.
Therefore, the aim of this article is twofold. First, to provide a comparative analysis of day-fines in Europe. This analysis includes an exhaustive depiction of all the day-fine models that are currently implemented in Europe. Second, this article examines for the first time some of the challenges in transplanting day-fines into the U.S. criminal justice system, i.e. the constitutional restriction on Excessive Fines and the suitability of this model of fines to the American ‘uniformity revolution in sentencing’.
Tuesday, February 07, 2017
Prez Trump in sheriffs meeting expresses support for broad civil forfeiture police powers
This Washington Post report details the notable joke Prez Trump made regarding a state legislator who apparently wants to limit police civil forfeiture powers, and highlights the broader issues raised by the surrounding discussion. Here are the details:
At a meeting on Tuesday with sheriffs from across the country, President Trump joked about destroying the career of an unnamed Texas state senator who supported curtailing a controversial police practice for seizing people's property....
Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Tex., brought up the issue of civil asset forfeiture, which allows authorities to seize cash and property from people suspected, but in some cases never convicted or even charged, with a crime. Eavenson told Trump of a “state senator in Texas that was talking about legislation to require conviction before we could receive that forfeiture money.”
“Can you believe that?” Trump interjected. “And,” Eavenson went on, “I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed.”
“Who's the state senator?” Trump asked. “Do you want to give his name? We'll destroy his career,” he joked, to laughter from the law enforcement officials in the room....
While many people are unfamiliar with the practice, asset forfeiture is widespread. In 2014, federal authorities alone seized over $5 billion from suspected criminals, more than the total losses to burglary that year. That number doesn't even count seizures conducted by state and local law enforcement. Critics of asset forfeiture policies say the broad leeway afforded to law enforcement officers in most states creates a system ripe for abuse....
A 2015 ACLU investigation found that Philadelphia police routinely seized what amounted to “pocket change” from some of the city's poorest residents. A 2014 Washington Post investigation found that police seized $2.5 billion in cash from motorists not charged with crimes as part of a federal program.
When told of the practice, a large majority of Americans are opposed to it. A December 2016 survey by YouGov and the libertarian Cato Institute found that 84 percent of Americans oppose taking “a person’s money or property that is suspected to have been involved in a drug crime before the person is convicted of a crime.”...
But law enforcement groups have been resolute in their support for the practice. They say seizing money from people not charged with crimes is sometimes necessary to protect public safety, particularly in cases where it may be hard to obtain a criminal conviction against a suspect.
Law enforcement groups often cast asset forfeiture as a tool for fighting drug kingpins and foreign drug cartels, as Sheriff Eavenson implied at the White House meeting. But reports of asset forfeiture abuse suffered by American citizens have become more common. Nonetheless, police have had great success in convincing state and federal lawmakers to uphold the practice.
President Trump has not spoken much about the practice, and the White House did not immediately return a request for comment. But Trump's nominee to lead the Justice Department, Sen. Jeff Sessions, has been an enthusiastic proponent of civil asset forfeiture. In a 2015 Senate hearing, Sessions said that “95 percent” of forfeitures involve suspects who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”
February 7, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)
Sunday, January 08, 2017
SCOTUS back in action with booking fee process as first notable criminal case of 2017
The Supreme Court returns to action tomorrow morning, and the Court's January sitting only has a couple cases that should be of serious interest to criminal justice fans. But the very first case slated for the very first 2017 oral argument is one of procedural note, Nelson v. Colorado. The folks over at SCOTUSblog have provided this preview by Steve Vladeck, which starts and ends this way:
Every jurisdiction in the United States requires at least some criminal defendants to make certain payments to the government tied to their convictions. And if a defendant’s conviction is subsequently vacated — whether on appeal or through collateral post-conviction proceedings — virtually every jurisdiction directly returns those funds to the acquitted individual. Colorado does not. Instead, according to the Colorado Supreme Court, criminal defendants seeking a return of funds paid in conjunction with a later-vacated conviction must bring a separate civil suit under a Colorado statute — the Exoneration Act — in which, among other burdens, plaintiffs apparently have to prove their actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence in order to recover. The very first argument the justices will hear in 2017 — Nelson v. Colorado — raises the question whether this seemingly unique scheme violates the due process clause of the 14th Amendment....
Although it is often difficult to predict from an oral argument how the justices are likely to rule, the sharp distinctions in how the parties have framed the issue in this case may allow for more than the usual tea-leaf reading at next Monday’s argument. The more the questioning focuses on distinctions between the different types of payments made by Nelson and Madden, and the state’s interest in collecting and preserving those funds, the more it may bode well for Colorado. But the more the justices’ attention appears drawn to how poor a fit the Exoneration Act actually is for defendants like these, the more likely the court will be to reverse. After all, as Nelson and Madden conclude in their reply brief, Colorado appears to be the first and only jurisdiction in the United States “to require successful appellants to prove their innocence by any standard to get their money back when their convictions are reversed.” If that fact seems to trouble enough of the justices during their first argument of the new year, then a reversal may well be in the offing.
Monday, January 02, 2017
Great report on Texas justice reviewing why Lone Star State is a "leader in criminal justice reform"
Via this local press article, headlined "Report: Don't cut funding for inmate rehabilitation," I came across this terrific new report from the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Corrections. These excerpts from the press piece provides a partial summary of the report:
When lawmakers return to Austin in 10 days to begin grappling with what appears will be a bare-bones state budget, a legislative panel that oversees the Texas prison system is urging them to resist cutting funding for programs that help former inmates and probationers adjust to free-world life.
“As (the prison system) cannot cut back on the security and public safety components of their mission, it is likely that many of the programs that are making a real difference will face the axe,” says a report released over the holidays by the Texas House Corrections Committee.
“The state that leads the nation in executions also leads the nation in providing alternatives to incarceration,” the report adds. “An American state that used to be infamous for its ‘lock 'em up and throw away the key’ approach to crime is now providing an unlikely inspiration to other states and countries.”
The 68-page report that the panel will likely use as a blueprint for legislative initiatives once 2017 session begins Jan. 10 makes several recommendations, include lowering the fees that probationers must pay, opting out of a federal program that requires the suspension of a driver’s license for anyone convicted of possessing even a small amount of marijuana and sealing the criminal records for qualifying former inmates who remain out of trouble for a specified period of time.
The report comes some 20 years after Texas leaders frustrated by rising crime rates completed a massive prison building program that tripled the system’s capacity. It even uses a phrase once thought to be politically toxic is describing the state’s approach for helping lawbreakers return to society. “Texas is a leader by being ‘softer on crime,’ although we prefer the word ‘smarter,’” it says. “It's something to think about as we head into the next legislative session.”....
The committee report says probation revocations, while still relatively high, have been steadily dropping for about a decade as lawmakers began devoting more resources to programs aimed at reducing inmates’ and probationers’ substance addictions and arming them with job skills. During that period, the report says, Texas’ crime rate has dropped about 20 percent while recidivism rates declined from 28 percent to 21 percent.
During a hearing in February, Corrections Committee Chairman Jim Murphy said it’s important that inmates and probationers believe that the state is committed to programs aimed at minimizing the chance that they’ll be back behind bars. “I am thinking about the dynamic of someone being in the system, wanting to improve themselves, and being told ‘you're not a priority,’” said Murphy, a Houston Republican. “If we're trying to get someone not to recidivate, that's exactly opposite of what I think the intended result would be.”
According to the report, which Murphy signed in early December before its release last week, the fees associated with being on probation can be insurmountable for offenders struggling to find employment. Probationers are charged upward of $60 a month to help cover the cost of supervision. Many are required to take and pay for classes aimed at fighting addiction or controlling anger and violence. Probationers who lose driving privileges can be required to take a class to have the license reinstated and pay up to $325 before being allowed to drive, even if it’s just to and from work.
The list goes on. “There are fees for records management, for juries, for judicial support, for court security, and for indigent defense,” the committee’s report says. “Pages and pages of fees. It boggles the mind to read it. Think of what it must be like to live it.” Often, the report continues, judges who impose the costs have little information regarding an offender’s ability to pay them. “In an era when you can find out your credit score for free on the internet, would it be that difficult to determine if a person is indigent prior to appearing before a judge?” the report asks.
The committee’s report points out that in April 2016, Pennsylvania enacted legislation, allowing criminal records of qualified nonviolent offenders to be sealed for offenders who remain free of legal trouble for 10 years. The records of those charged but not convicted of a crime can be sealed after 60 days.
As this partial summary should highlight, any and everyone interested in state or national criminal justice reform ought to have this across this important new Texas government report high on their New Year's reading list.
January 2, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)
Saturday, December 10, 2016
U.S. Supreme Court adds federal drug-offense forfeiture case to its docket
As reported here at SCOTUSblog, on Friday afternoon "the justices issued orders from [their] private conference, adding one new case to their merits docket for the term." That new case concerns a criminal justice/sentencing issue, forfeiture, that has been a focal point of concerns for reform activists across the political spectrum. Here are the details from SCOTUSblog about the forfeiture case now before the Justices on the merits:
They agreed to review the case of Terry Honeycutt, who worked as a salaried employee at a hardware store owned by his brother, Tony. The two brothers were charged with federal drug crimes for the store’s sale of an iodine-based water disinfectant -- which can also be used to make methamphetamines. Tony pleaded guilty and forfeited $200,000 to account for the proceeds of the illegal sales. After Terry went to trial and was convicted, the government argued that he should have to forfeit the rest of the proceeds, approximately $70,000.
Terry countered that he should not have to forfeit the remaining proceeds because he did not own the store and therefore did not receive them. The district court agreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed. It ruled that Terry could be held independently liable for the store’s proceeds from the sales even if the funds never actually reached him.
The federal government acknowledged that the courts of appeals are divided on the question presented by Terry’s appeal. It nonetheless urged the justices to deny review, explaining that the split among the circuits is “lopsided and recent.” And in any event, it contended, Terry’s case is not a good one in which to consider that question, because he would also be liable for the forfeiture under the conflicting rule adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Despite the government’s objections, the justices granted certiorari [and] Honeycutt v. United States will likely be argued in the spring, with a decision by the end of June.
December 10, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, September 15, 2016
"Nickel and Dimed into Incarceration: Cash-Register Justice in the Criminal System"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing article authored by Laura Appleman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Criminal justice debt has aggressively metastasized throughout the criminal system. A bewildering array of fees, fines, court costs, non-payment penalties, and high interest rates have turned criminal process into a booming revenue center for state courts and corrections. As criminal justice administrative costs have skyrocketed, the burden to fund the system has fallen largely on the system’s users, primarily poor or indigent, who often cannot pay their burden.
Unpaid criminal justice debt often leads to actual incarceration or substantial punitive fines, which turns rapidly into “punishment.” Such punishment at the hands of a court, bureaucracy, or private entity compromises the Sixth Amendment right to have all punishment imposed by a jury. This Article explores the netherworld of criminal justice debt and analyzes implications for the Sixth Amendment jury trial right, offering a new way to attack the problem. The specter of “cash-register justice,” which overwhelmingly affects the poor and dispossessed, perpetuates hidden inequities within the criminal justice system. I offer solutions rooted in Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.
September 15, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)
Tuesday, September 06, 2016
New York Times editorial spotlights "The Injustice of Making Kids Pay"
This new editorial from the Gray Lady highlights a new report that laments the imposition of economic sanctions on juve offenders and their families. Here are excerpts (with links from the original):
It takes a lot these days to surprise anyone with the irrationalities of the American criminal justice system, rife as it is with harsh and counterproductive practices that do little or nothing to improve lives or keep the public safe. But a new report, published by the Juvenile Law Center, shocks nonetheless. It illustrates the destructive results of charging court fees and fines to juveniles, many of whom come from impoverished families.
Courts impose costs on defendants in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to cover all sorts of expenses — day-to-day courtroom operations, drug and mental-health tests, even public defenders, who exist solely to represent people who can’t afford a lawyer. These charges, which mount quickly, are disruptive enough for lower-income adults who are trying to get their lives back on track. They can be an even heavier burden on juveniles, one million of whom find themselves in court each year.
When these young people or their families fail to pay, they may end up behind bars, be forced to return to court over and over again, or have their driver’s licenses suspended, making it harder for them to go to school or work. Families that are already struggling to get by may have to decide between paying the courts or buying food and clothing.
Absurdly, 11 states even charge to expunge a juvenile record, which is a major obstacle to a young person’s ability to get into college, land a job or find a place to live.
In general, the report found, these burdens — many ostensibly aimed at deterring crime — have the opposite effect: By saddling young people with piles of debt they cannot pay, they increase the likelihood that juveniles will wind up in trouble with the law again. And like so much else about the criminal justice system, these costs fall most heavily on poor and nonwhite juveniles. As one of the report’s authors put it, “Asking people to pay what they don’t have doesn’t help anyone.”
Saturday, September 03, 2016
"State Bans on Debtors' Prisons and Criminal Justice Debt"
The title of this post is the title of this article by Christopher Hampson recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Since the 1990s, and increasingly in the wake of the Great Recession, many municipalities, forced to operate under tight budgetary constraints, have turned to the criminal justice system as an untapped revenue stream. Raising the specter of the “debtors’ prisons” once prevalent in the United States, imprisonment for failure to pay debts owed to the state has provoked growing concern in recent years. Existing approaches have failed to recognize an alternate potential font of authority: state bans on debtors’ prisons, enacted over several decades in the first half of the nineteenth century, as a backlash against imprisonment for commercial debt swept the nation. This Note takes a first pass at this missing constitutional argument.
Monday, June 13, 2016
Intriguing Ninth Circuit ruling about restitution and forfeiture and the Excessive Fines Clause
The Ninth Circuit handed down an interesting new opinion dealing with various challenges to various financial sanctions in US v. Beecroft, No. 12-10175 (9th Cir. June 13, 2016) (available here). Here are snippets from the start and heart of the extended ruling:
Following her convictions for participating in an extensive mortgage-fraud conspiracy, a defendant was ordered to pay more than $2 million in restitution and to forfeit more than $100 million. We must decide whether either amount was erroneously calculated or unconstitutionally excessive....
As noted, Beecroft has not demonstrated error in the district court’s calculation of the amount of losses suffered by the banks injured by Beecroft’s actions. Without error in the loss calculation, Beecroft cannot show that requiring her to pay that amount back to the victims was somehow excessive or grossly disproportional to her crimes, which caused the loss in the first place. And we reiterate that Beecroft was not ordered to pay anything approaching the full amount of the banks’ losses. Uncontroverted evidence was presented to the district court showing that the scheme in which Beecroft participated caused losses in excess of $50 million; requiring her to pay slightly more than $2 million of that back is not an unconstitutional and excessive punishment....
The $107 million Beecroft was ordered to forfeit for the conspiracy (Count 1) stands apart. As with the other counts of conviction, for Count 1 Beecroft could be fined no more than $1 million (with a Guidelines range beginning as low as $20,000). In other words, for Count 1, Beecroft was ordered to forfeit a sum more than 100 times greater than the maximum fine allowable and more than 5,000 times greater than the lower-end of the Guidelines range. Even accounting for the fact that Beecroft faced potentially significant prison time as well, see Mackby, 339 F.3d at 1018, this is a tremendous disconnect between the forfeiture amount and Beecroft’s legally available fine. Indeed, such a disconnect stands out even among forfeiture orders which have previously been held grossly disproportional....
The government cites no case upholding a forfeiture order with a disparity similar to the one here, and it has not attempted to argue that the $107 million otherwise corresponds to injuries sustained by the government or the banks....
We have little doubt that the Eighth Amendment allows Beecroft to be ordered to forfeit a substantial sum of money for her participation in such an extensive and damaging conspiracy. But difficulty remains with the exceptional amount of forfeiture the court did impose. Without even an argument supporting the propriety of the $107 million forfeiture, we have no choice but to conclude that an order which so vastly outpaces the otherwise available penalties for Beecroft’s criminal activity runs afoul of the Excessive Fines Clause. Even on plain-error review, we must vacate the forfeiture order with respect to Count 1 and remand to the district court for reconsideration of that amount in light of the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause.
Wednesday, June 01, 2016
Examining the high costs of expungement process in some jurisdictions
The Marshall Project has this effective new piece highlighting the ugly economics behind how some jurisdictions handle the expungement processes. The piece is headlined "Want to Clear Your Record? It’ll Cost You $450: In Tennessee and other states, former felons can’t always afford it." Here are excerpts:
Many states charge $150 or less to apply for expungement, the legal term for clearing a criminal record, and some states offer a waiver if the applicant is too poor to pay. But the Tennessee legislature wanted money for the state’s general fund, so it set the fee much higher.
While a gun permit may be discretionary, a decent job or money for an education are crucial, and for many people once convicted of a crime, Tennessee’s high fee has put expungement out of the reach. In Tennessee, there are 958 restrictions based on a criminal record, including disqualification for any state-funded student loan or grant. A record also bars employment in a number of fields and any job that involves working with children.
In recent years, increased attention to the connection between these restrictions, which make it difficult to lead a stable life, and recidivism has spurred lawmakers in states across the country to pass legislation affording those with a conviction or an arrest a clean slate, according to a Vera Institute report. Between 2009 and 2014, 31 states and Washington, D.C., established or expanded expungement laws. Most laws only included misdemeanor convictions or arrest records. A growing number of states are including some low-level, non-violent felonies. Of the 17 states that do so, the application fee is generally in line with standard court fees. But three states are charging far more. Tennessee’s $450 is trumped by Louisiana's $550 fee, and as of July, Kentucky will charge $500.
Louisiana’s high fee results from inefficiencies that make processing an application arduous — the state’s jurisdictions are largely autonomous, with no central storehouse for information, said Adrienne Wheeler, executive director of the Justice & Accountability Center of Louisiana, a group that has worked to make expungement more accessible. Further, the justice system — from the state police to sheriffs’ departments as well as district attorneys and court clerks — are underfunded and depend on fines to make up for the tax dollars they don’t receive. “We were pretty vocal that this was an impossible cost,” said Wheeler of recent reform discussions. But, she said, “These agencies are not getting the funding that they need to function, so it’s hard to ask them to bring it down.”
In Tennessee and Kentucky, bloated prices have little to do with processing the application, but rather the state revenue they were designed to produce. Fifty-five percent of the cash collected in Tennessee goes into the state’s general fund. In Kentucky, it will be a full 90 percent. The prospect of revenue is exactly why Tennessee lawmakers were persuaded to pass felony expungement legislation in 2012, said State Representative Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat. At the time, the official estimate was that the law would raise $7 million for the state annually. In reality, it has generated only about $130,000 each year according to an analysis by a criminal justice nonprofit, Just City. The lack of income is tied to the fact that few would-be applicants can afford to apply, Akbari said.
Public awareness of the issue is gaining momentum in Tennessee. At a fundraising event in February, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland raised $55,000 in private donations to cover the cost of expungement for indigent applicants.
Friday, April 22, 2016
"Why I refuse to send people to jail for failure to pay fines"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy recent Washington Post commentary authored by Ed Spillane, the presiding judge of the College Station Municipal Court and president of the Texas Municipal Courts Association. Here are excerpts:
As a municipal judge in College Station, Tex., I see 10 to 12 defendants each day who were arrested on fine-only charges: things like public intoxication, shoplifting, disorderly conduct and traffic offenses. Many of these people, like Melissa, have no money to pay their fines, let alone hire a lawyer.
What to do with these cases? In Tate v. Short, a 1971 Supreme Court decision, the justices held that jail time is not a proper punishment for fine-only criminal cases, citing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But in many jurisdictions, municipal judges — whether they’re overworked, under pressure to generate revenue through fees, skeptical of defendants’ claims to poverty or simply ignorant of the law — are not following the rules. As a result, far too many indigent defendants are cited for contempt of court and land behind bars for inability to pay.
There’s another way, and I’ve been experimenting with it in my own courtroom.
There are no firm numbers nationally on how many fine-only cases end with the defendants in jail, but figures from particular jurisdictions around the country are grim, if partial. A 2014 survey by NPR, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts showed that in Benton County, Wash., a quarter of people in jail for misdemeanors on a typical day were there for nonpayment of fines and court fees. (The study also found that civil and criminal fees and fines had increased in 48 states since 2010.) The percentage of jail bookings in Tulsa involving inmates who had failed to pay court fines and fees more than tripled, from 8 to 29 percent of 1,200 inmates, between 2004 and 2013, according to reporting by the Tulsa World. Eighteen percent of all defendants sent to jail in Rhode Island between 2005 and 2007 were incarcerated because of court debt; in 2005 and 2006, that amounted to 24 people per day....
Fortunately, courts and judges are not powerless to fix the system.
First, defendants must be allowed to argue economic hardship in an indigency hearing, which is Constitutionally required if a defendant says he or she can’t pay. It’s unclear how many judges skip these hearings, and practices vary from one jurisdiction to another, but Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the Brennan Center, says there’s no question that some judges aren’t holding them. “Sometimes it’s not always nefarious,” Eisen says. “They have very full dockets. . . . It can require overtime just to finish their docket for the day. It’s not always a deliberate decision to not hold those hearings.”...
Once a defendant proves indigency, we can also be much more creative in our sentencing than “fine or jail” (or a suspended driver’s license, a popular measure that disproportionately hurts low-income workers who can’t get to their jobs without driving). Community service at a nonprofit or government entity is one of the strongest tools judges have at their disposal; in my experience, it boosts defendants’ self-esteem and provides valuable assistance to organizations that need the help....
Judges can also sentence defendants to anger-management training, classes for first-time offenders or drunk-driving-impact panels. National research shows that alternative sentencing like teen court can reduce recidivism, and my time on the bench confirms this. One defendant in an alcohol-related case, Jeff Schiefelbein, was sent to a Mothers Against Drunk Driving victim-impact panel in 1997. He was so moved by the experience that he decided to create a designated-driver program for anyone who is intoxicated and needs a ride home. Since 1999, his organization, Carpool, has provided on average 650 rides each weekend in College Station.
And occasionally, as a judge, you can choose mercy. Roger S. was facing an $800 fine for speeding, driving without insurance or registration and driving with defective equipment. He also had terminal cancer. He wrote to me, explaining that he could not afford his treatments, much less what he owed the court. I picked up the phone and called him from court. He was a little surprised but pleased to be talking to the judge. After discussing his medical treatment and all of those costs in detail, I waived his fines because of indigency and inability to perform community service, much to his and his family’s relief....
Of course, no matter how many great alternatives judges can provide instead of jail time, if a defendant fails to come to court, he or she won’t be able to hear about them. Courts must be as accessible as possible, and that starts with allowing children to accompany their parents. One of the revelations in the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson was that children weren’t allowed in municipal court, which explains why many defendants were unable to appear. Several courts in Texas limit or don’t allow parents bringing their children, even though kids don’t present a problem in my court — maybe because we provide coloring books and toys for them to play with while their parents take care of their cases....
I used to prosecute felonies as an assistant district attorney in Brazos County. During that time, I worked for a year in the intake division. This drove home a lesson that my boss, the district attorney, had been trying to instill in me: Every case file is an individual whose rights are as important and sacred as mine or those of my family. The decision to charge or dismiss demands empathy and vigilance. Misdemeanor criminal cases provide an opportunity for a much happier outcome than most felonies because there is a genuine chance for a defendant to learn from a mistake and never set foot in a courtroom again — and keeping someone out of jail is a good way to ensure that happens. In these cases, it should be possible for defendants to resolve their cases without losing their liberty.
All judges want to uphold the rule of law in the communities we serve, but too often we can get lost in the day-to-day business of running a court; we ignore the consequences of what we do. An arrest can cost a citizen his or her job, dignity and security. Alternative sentencing is a way to achieve what we should all want: an end to criminal behavior.
April 22, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, April 06, 2016
Former coal exec gets maximum misdemeanor sentence for conspiracy to evade mine safety regulations
As reported in this AP piece, a federal "judge sentenced former coal executive Don Blankenship to a year in prison Wednesday for his role in the deadliest U.S. mine explosion in four decades, saying he was part of a 'dangerous conspiracy'." Here is more on a high profile federal misdemeanor white-collar sentencing result:
One day after the sixth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, which killed 29 men, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger gave the ex-Massey Energy CEO the maximum prison time and fine of $250,000. A federal jury convicted Blankenship on Dec. 3 of a misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch. MOBlankenship's attorneys contended he should receive probation and a fine, at most. The judge denied their motion for Blankenship to remain free as he appeals. It's not clear when he must report to prison.
As Blankenship left the courthouse, a few family members of miners who were killed started yelling at him while he and his attorneys spoke with reporters. "We buried our kid because of you," said Robert Atkins, whose son Jason died in the explosion. "That's all I got is a goddamn tombstone." Asked by a reporter what he had to say to the shouting family members, Blankenship said: "Well, just that the coal miners didn't cause the accident."...
U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez echoed prosecutors in saying the maximum punishment didn't fit the crime. "This administration continues to support efforts in Congress to strengthen those penalties, and we stand ready to work with members who believe that no worker should lose their life for a paycheck," Perez said in a news release.
At Upper Big Branch, four investigations found worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers then allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno. Blankenship disputes those reports. He believes natural gas in the mine, and not methane gas and excess coal dust, was at the root of the explosion.
Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and the United Mine Workers of America spoke favorably about the decision. The sentencing capped a wide-spanning investigation into Massey following the explosion. Four other workers in the corporate chain were convicted of crimes including faking a foreman's license, lying to federal investigators and conspiring in an illegal scheme to warn miners and other subsidiaries of surprise safety inspections. Their sentences ranged from less than a year to more than three years in prison.
The judge described Blankenship's rise from a meager, single-mother Appalachian household to one of the wealthiest, most influential figures in the region and in the coal industry. "Instead of being to be able to tout you as a success story, we are here as a result of your part in a dangerous conspiracy," she said.
During the trial, prosecutors called Blankenship a bullish micromanager who meddled in the smallest details of Upper Big Branch. They said Massey's safety programs were just a facade — never backed by more money to hire additional miners or take more time on safety tasks. Blankenship was acquitted of felonies that could have stretched his sentence to 30 years....
In 2011, Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey after the explosion, agreed to pay $210 million to compensate grieving families, bankroll cutting-edge safety improvements and pay for years of violations by Massey Energy. Under the deal with federal prosecutors, Alpha wasn't criminally charged. The judge already ruled that Blankenship won't have to pay $28 million in restitution to Alpha Natural Resources, helping him avoid a serious blow to his personal fortune. Berger also ruled that Blankenship would not have to pay restitution to about 100 people, including former miners and family members.
Monday, April 04, 2016
"Summary Injustice: A Look at Constitutional Deficiencies in South Carolina’s Summary Courts"
The title of this post is the title of this new report produced by National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about low-level (in)justice in the low country. Here is a summary account via this press release of Summary Injustice:
In South Carolina, the bulk of criminal cases are low-level offenses heard in municipal and magistrate courts, collectively referred to as summary courts. These courts often fail to inform defendants of the right to counsel, refuse to provide counsel to the poor at all stages of the criminal process, and force defendants who can’t afford to pay fines to instead serve time in jail.
“When you go to a summary court in South Carolina, you find yourself in a judicial netherworld where the police officer who made the arrest acts as the prosecutor, the judge may not have a law degree, and there are no lawyers in sight,” said Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “By operating as if the Sixth Amendment doesn’t exist, these courts weigh the scales of justice so heavily against defendants that they often receive fines and jail time they don’t deserve.”
This report documents the constitutional violations observed by attorneys with NACDL and the ACLU in 27 different courts throughout the state during several weeks between December 2014 and July 2015, including multiple stories from defendants. The U.S. Constitution guarantees that a person accused of a crime and who faces loss of life or liberty as punishment has the right to a lawyer even if he or she can’t afford one.
“Many, if not most, people will read this report and be shocked by the numerous and profound constitutional deficiencies in South Carolina’s summary courts as observed by NACDL and the ACLU since they began this research in 2014,” said longtime Rock Hill, South Carolina, criminal defense lawyer and NACDL Treasurer Chris Wellborn. “Sadly, as someone who has spent my career representing the criminally accused in South Carolina, I am only able to underscore how pervasively these courts have been disregarding the rights of the people of South Carolina, and that it’s been like this for decades.”
NACDL President E.G. “Gerry” Morris said: “While this important report, and a forthcoming second report to be released later this year, is focused on South Carolina, it is part of a larger initiative to study state level public defense delivery systems across the nation. The ultimate goal is to identify and document weaknesses in different public defense delivery systems that must be remedied as well as to highlight strengths and successes in systems that can and should be replicated elsewhere. More than 50 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, the people of America are entitled to nothing less than to have their courts respect the very rights recognized and protected by the Constitution. NACDL will not waver in its mission to shine the light brightly on systems where that is not happening, and to offer policymakers effective solutions to what is quite clearly a widespread problem of constitutional dimensions.”
Monday, March 28, 2016
NY Times laments "A Modern System of Debtor Prisons"
The New York Times today ran this editorial headlined "A Modern System of Debtor Prisons." Here are excerpts:
Court systems commonly raise revenue by punishing people who commit minor offenses with fines, fees and penalties that can pile up, driving them into poverty. Worse still, state and local governments often jail people illegally for nonpayment, putting them at risk of losing their jobs and homes.
The Justice Department responded forcefully to this problem in Ferguson, Mo. This month, the racially troubled town agreed to a federal plan to root out racist and unconstitutional practices in its Police Department and courts. The case put other state and local governments on notice that they, too, could be held accountable for operating court systems that violate the constitutional rights of people charged with nonpayment of fines.
The guidelines issued by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division explain in detail what courts can and cannot do when enforcing fine collections. The department says state and local courts have an obligation to inquire about a person’s ability to pay fines and fees before jailing them for nonpayment. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that imprisoning a person because he or she is too poor to pay a fee amounts to “punishing a person for his poverty” and violates equal protection under the 14th Amendment....
The danger of unjust practices is magnified when courts hire private companies to collect court fines. These companies often operate without oversight, which leaves them free to adopt abusive tactics and bleed people with fees and penalties. The Justice Department makes clear that courts can be held accountable for constitutional violations committed by the firms they hire. The Ferguson reform plan is a reminder of how far state and local courts have strayed from the law in this area, and it provides a clear route to restoring lost justice for the indigent.
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
"Of Systems and Persons: The Ability and Responsibility of Corporate Law to Improve Criminal Punishment"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking new paper available via SSRN authored by W. Robert Thomas. Here is the abstract:
The federal government has used criminal fines to punish corporations for as long as it has been punishing corporations. Yet to this day, with more than a century in which to get the punishment right, corporate-criminal fines fail to satisfy virtually any standard justification that underlies criminal punishment.
Attempts to address the failure of corporate-criminal fines founder on two shoals. First, there is a deep and abiding ambiguity about what it means to designate corporate fines as a failed punishment. Second, there is a tendency to see the failure of punishment as a problem for criminal law to solve, and in doing so to treat corporate law as a fixed, immutable feature of the legal background. This particularly is a profound mistake: the failure of corporate-criminal fines is as much a corporate-law problem as it is a criminal-law problem.
Corporate punishment stands at the vanguard of the conceptual and regulatory interplay between corporate and criminal law. At the heart of this conflict is an interaction between drastically different regulatory functions that operate on the basis of conflicting conceptions of the corporation: corporations as persons for criminal law, and corporations as systems for corporate law. While pluralism about the nature of corporation works well when cabined to specific legal do-mains, corporate-criminal punishment forces these domains, and their competing conception of the corporation, to reconcile or give way.
This Article explores the intimate connections between corporate law and criminal punishment — specifically, how corporate law creates the conditions for, makes necessary, and yet at the same time undermines criminal law’s efforts to punish corporations. Appreciating these interconnections requires understanding not just the conceptual frames implicit to each area of law, but also the historical contingency of associating certain conceptions of the corporation with particular legal domains. To be sure, this project is reform-minded: I consider what it would mean to improve criminal fines through corporate law reforms designed to redistribute the harms attendant to criminal fines in a manner that better aligns the punishment with standard penological aims. That said, the ambition first and foremost is to reveal a blind spot in current discussions of corporate-criminal punishment by drawing attention to the conceptual intricacies that attend a practice — corporate-criminal punishment — that stitches together diametrically opposed conceptions of the corporation.
Sunday, February 07, 2016
"Restitution and the Excessive Fines Clause"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Kevin Bennardo now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Restitution is a component of many criminal sentences. There is little agreement, however, upon whether and how the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution limits restitution orders in criminal cases. Courts have long been divided over whether the Excessive Fines Clause applies to restitution orders at all, whether to apply the “grossly disproportional” test to restitution orders or some other causation-based test, and how to measure gross disproportionality in the restitution context.
First, the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment should be read as a limit on restitution orders in criminal cases. The Eighth Amendment applies because these monetary payments are partially punitive. And, although restitution payments are not made to the sovereign, the concept of “fines” for purposes of the Excessive Fines Clause is properly understood to encompass payments to third parties that result from government-initiated action.
Second, the same “grossly disproportional” test that has been applied to criminal fines and forfeitures should apply to restitution orders as well. Indeed, all monetary sanctions should be pooled together for purposes of a single Excessive Fines Clause proportionality analysis. The constitutionally-relevant question should be whether an offender’s total monetary sanction is grossly disproportional to the gravity of the offense. Although causation between the offense conduct and the victim’s loss is generally a statutory requirement of restitution orders, it is not a constitutional one. The causation requirement furthers restitution’s remedial purpose; it is not relevant to the Eighth Amendment’s excessiveness inquiry, which functions to limit the punitive severity of monetary sanctions.
Lastly, the question of gross disproportionality is largely an exercise of judgment that should be left to the judiciary. Some courts have inappropriately wholly relied on analyzing whether the monetary sanction was authorized by the legislature in assessing the constitutionality of the penalty. This approach inappropriately collapses the constitutional inquiry into the statutory one. Although the statutory restitution or fine range may be a useful input in the constitutional analysis, it cannot be the sole component. In the end, the judiciary's independent judgment must be trusted to weigh proportionality and detect unconstitutionally excessive monetary sanctions.
Friday, January 08, 2016
"Full Restitution for Child Pornography Victims: The Supreme Court's Paroline Decision and the Need for a Congressional Response"
The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Paul Cassell and James Marsh now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In this article, we have reviewed the legal issues surrounding restitution for child pornography victims. In our view, the Supreme Court’s Paroline decision failed to fully implement the congressional mandate that victims receive restitution for the “full amount” of their losses. Congress should move swiftly to ensure full restitution for child pornography victims by enacting the proposed Amy and Vicky Act — a more rational scheme for awarding restitution.
After the Supreme Court's Paroline ruling in April 2014, a number of reasonable folks reasonably predicted that Congress could and would move quickly to pass legislation to remedy the victim-oriented concerns stressed in this article. But, now nearly two years later, "Paroline fix" legislation seems stuck in Congress while victims like Amy and Vicky and others wait and wait for statutory reforms that, in the words of this article, would create "a more rational scheme for awarding restitution."
January 8, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)
Monday, December 21, 2015
Federal judge enjoins Tennessee county's privatized probation system operating like debtors' prison
As reported in this local article, "Judge's order frees 13 held for not paying probation fees," a group of probationers got a holiday gift in the form of a significant federal judicial order preventing a locality for jailing low-level offenders for failing to pay fines or court costs. Here are the basics:
Heather Keller is looking forward to spending Christmas with her children after a federal judge's order set her free from the Rutherford County Detention Center Friday afternoon. A day earlier, a federal judge in Nashville granted an injunction that prevented officials and probation supervisors in Rutherford County from holding people in jail for certain violations or only because they could not pay fees. It also said that anyone being held for those reasons should be let go.
Keller, 35, was one of 13 inmates released from the jail in Murfreesboro who were held there because they could not pay fees to the private company contracted to oversee the Rutherford County misdemeanor probation system. The injunction that won Keller’s release was part of a lawsuit filed against Providence Community Corrections, which has changed its name to Pathways Community Corrections.
The suit was filed in October and accuses Rutherford County and PCC of working together to extort people on probation there by charging excessive fees. Many of the seven people named in the lawsuit rely on government assistance and have said in court testimony or documents that PCC's excessive fees leave them struggling to pay bills and facing extended probation terms because they cannot pay court costs.
It is a practice Alec Karakatsanis, attorney for the plaintiffs, likens to the operation of a debtors' prison. Karakatsanis said Sharp's order is only the beginning of possible probation reform in Rutherford County.
“We will fight to end permanently what we believe to be the rise of a modern debtors' prison system in which the poor and destitute are jailed and threatened with jail solely because of their inability to make monetary payments to a private company and their local government,” Karakatsanis said. “This is a very important ruling for impoverished people in Tennessee.”
The injunction was granted by Chief District Judge Kevin Sharp in Nashville. In addition to freeing these prisoners, Sharp also ordered PCC immediately stop the practice of violating probationers solely for non-payment of fees.
Keller was originally arrested for driving on a suspended license and since has been jailed twice for non-payment of probation fees, she said. “I’ve spent more time in jail for non-payment than the original charge,” Keller said.
And Sharp ordered Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold to free any inmates held on violation of probation charges stemming solely from non-payment of fees and fines.
The federal district judge's 20-page injunction order in Rodriguez v. Providence Community Corrections is available for download here: Download Opinion Granting Injunction
December 21, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Monday, December 07, 2015
"Are debtors' prisons returning?"
The title of this post is the headline of this recent lengthy CNN commentary authored by Van Jones and Jessica Jackson. Here are excerpts:
Debtors' prison is supposed to be illegal in the United States. But in too many American cities, it has made a shocking return. This [past] week, a bipartisan group of leaders, and a few A-list celebrities, gathered at the White House to do something about it.
The problem: Faced with ballooning costs of America's massive incarceration industry, local jurisdictions have started billing people for time they spend behind bars. They are also charging them for electronic supervision services. Not to mention DNA collection, juries and constitutionally mandated public defenders.
The trouble here is obvious: Recently incarcerated people often do not have jobs. Therefore, they cannot possibly keep up with an increasingly aggressive list of fees and fines.
So believe it or not: Cities are throwing them BACK into jail -- for not being able to pay! From Detroit to Dallas, America's criminal justice system is trapping poor people in a perpetual cycle of prisons and poverty....
On top of the stated fees and fines, many jurisdictions are adopting practices employed by shady payday lenders, not public safety agencies. For example, Washington state charges a 12% interest rate on all its criminal debt. Florida adds a 40% fee that goes into the pockets of a private collections agency. And in Arizona, an 83% surcharge turns a $500 fee into a $915 bill. A portion of those proceeds go to finance electoral campaigns, creating a strong incentive to preserve the status quo.
One study revealed that most people with a felony conviction can expect to be saddled with an average $11,000 in debt. In total, about 10 million Americans collectively owe more than $50 billion in outstanding fines and fees. Repaying this debt would be challenging for the average American family, half of whom would have trouble finding $400 on short notice. But for those already struggling to get on their feet after prison, the debt from fees and fines often carry carries with it an air of impossibility.
The current system has dire consequences for millions of Americans that can be permanently debilitating and perpetuates a cycle of poverty and incarceration. Failure to pay fines can result in lost income, depressed credit ratings, housing instability, suspended drivers' licenses, arrest warrants, loss of Social Security benefits or further incarceration. These consequences can permanently affect an individual's life and reduce the ability ever to get his or her life back on track.
The system is not supposed to work this way. A Supreme Court ruling in 1983 prohibited putting people in prison for failure to pay their fines and fees without an indigency hearing. And yet at least 15 states have found ways to ignore this mandate. They have made this a standard practice....
The Sunlight Foundation is supporting the collection of data so we can understand the scope of the problem and how we can better address the issue. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is funding a comprehensive research and litigation-based approach to reform. And #cut50 is dedicated to highlighting this injustice and amplifying leadership from around the country.
Together, we can roll back these policies that ultimately have little to do with public safety. Our challenge strikes at the heart of our criminal justice system: Are we a nation of second chances, or will we sit by and watch a perpetual punishment machine run wild? Let us ensure our elected representatives and government agencies live up to the highest values of our society.
This ABC News column authored by Lz Ganderson, headlined "To Be Poor, Black and Jailed," discusses similar issues and concerns.
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
"For Offenders Who Can’t Pay, It’s a Pint of Blood or Jail Time"
The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times story of a remarkable local sentencing story out of Alabama. Here is how the article starts:
Judge Marvin Wiggins’s courtroom was packed on a September morning. The docket listed hundreds of offenders who owed fines or fees for a wide variety of crimes — hunting after dark, assault, drug possession and passing bad checks among them.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” began Judge Wiggins, a circuit judge here in rural Alabama since 1999. “For your consideration, there’s a blood drive outside,” he continued, according to a recording of the hearing. “If you don’t have any money, go out there and give blood and bring in a receipt indicating you gave blood.”
For those who had no money or did not want to give blood, the judge concluded: “The sheriff has enough handcuffs.”
Efforts by courts and local governments to generate revenue by imposing fines for minor offenses, particularly from poor and workingclass people, have attracted widespread attention and condemnation in recent months. But legal and health experts said they could not think of another modern example of a court all but ordering offenders to give blood in lieu of payment, or face jail time. They all agreed that it was improper.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Charles Koch Institute produces great set of short videos urging crimnal justice reforms
I am really intrigued, and really impressed, by this new set of one-minute videos created by the the Charles Koch Institute under the banner "Criminal Justice and Policing Reform Explainer." Here are the topics and links to the videos, and I have embedded the one on mandatory minimums below:
Friday, October 02, 2015
"How to Fight Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons? Sue the Courts."
The title of this post is the headline of this Marshall Project report on recent litigation brought by Alex Karakatsanis and his Equal Justice Under Law non-profit. Here is the start of the report (with links from original):
A young civil-rights attorney in Washington, D.C., is suing courts across the country for jailing defendants unable to afford their bail, court fines, and probation fees. As a result, cities in Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana have recently done away with bail for misdemeanors and traffic violations.
The lawyer, 31-year-old Alec Karakatsanis, has now filed a federal lawsuit against Rutherford County, Tenn. and the private company it contracts with to collect court debts. According to the lawsuit, that company, Providence Community Corrections, ran “an extortion scheme” that “conspired to extract as much money as possible” from people who were threatened with jail time if they couldn’t pay court fees and fines.
PCC is “user funded,” which means the company does not charge the county for its services but depends solely on fees paid for by people on probation. Some of those fees include “supervision fees,” costs for drug tests and classes, and even a $25 fee for those applying for fee reductions. Before Rutherford County outsourced its probation services to PCC in 1996, the county was only collecting a fraction of fees, PCC State Director Sean Hollis told the Daily News Journal in 2014.
PCC collected over $17 million from probationers in Rutherford County between 2009 and 2014, according to the Daily News Journal. Rutherford County Judge Ben Hall McFarlin told the paper at that time: “The county didn't pay for anyone to get that money," adding that he had never sentenced anyone to jail if their only violation was a failure to pay. "I don't see where the taxpayers would disagree with that.”
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven plaintiffs and alleges that indigent defendants in Rutherford County have lost their jobs, houses, cars, and even sold their own blood plasma to make payments and avoid jail time.
“Everything about this scheme is in flagrant violation of U.S. constitutional law, federal law, and even specific Tennessee law,” Karakatsanis told The Marshall Project. In Tennessee, it’s illegal to imprison a person over court debt.
The suit was brought under a federal anti-corruption law accusing PCC and Rutherford County of operating a “racketeering enterprise” that misuses “the probation supervision process for profit.” A spokesman for PCC, Jeff Hahn, wrote in a statement that PCC's "mission is to encourage people to complete their probation successfully per the terms set by the courts." He added that "in each of the states we serve, we steadfastly comply with the laws governing the probation system."
It’s just the latest salvo from Karakatsanis, who helped start Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil-rights organization. Karakatsanis and co-founder Phil Telfeyan, 32, started their organization in 2014 with a grant from their alma mater, Harvard Law School, in order to challenge inequalities in the criminal justice system. The organization often works in partnership with local attorneys and nonprofits.
In November 2014, the city of Montgomery, Ala., agreed to terminate its contract with a private probation company as part of a settlement with Equal Justice Under Law. The lawsuit alleged that indigent people in Montgomery were being jailed over their inability to pay their court debts. Similar lawsuits were filed in 2015 against municipal courts in Ferguson, Mo., Jennings, Mo. and New Orleans, La., although those cities do not rely on private probation companies to collect debts.
Equal Justice Under Law has also sued six jurisdictions over their bail systems, and all six no longer require defendants to pay bail as a condition of their release. The organization filed a seventh lawsuit, in Calhoun, Ga., in early September.
Wednesday, September 16, 2015
"The Literal Cost of Solitary Confinement: Why are prisoners forced to pay fines when they are put in isolation?"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable New Republic piece, and here is an excerpt:
The United Nations has determined that solitary confinement may amount to torture: It can destroy the mind, sometimes the spirit. And yet many jails and prisons around the country have decided that this punishment alone is not harsh enough. It’s not widely known, but inmates who are determined to have committed a disciplinary infraction are regularly subjected to fines that can range into the hundreds of dollars on top of weeks or months-long solitary sentences. Both the psychological damage caused by extreme isolation and the financial burden of the jail debt can hang over these people once they’re released, often making re-entry into society nearly impossible.
“When the system is built on punishment, you find every chance you get to damage people more,” said Glenn Martin, who spent six years in New York state prisons and founded the criminal justice reform group JustLeadershipUSA. “Unfortunately, prisons in America have evolved into places that are devoid of values such as rehabilitation, fairness and human dignity.”
Prison officials in at least six state systems have the authority to impose fines in addition to solitary for a single rule violation. Wyoming charges up to $50, Georgia up to $100, Oregon as much as to $200. Fees in the states of New York, Kansas, and South Dakota range between $5 and $20. (Wyoming, New York State, Georgia, and Kansas dismiss fines once an inmate is released or put them on hold in case the person returns. South Dakota said it doesn’t use solitary confinement, but the ACLU contends that the state’s isolation policies fit the definition.)...
While some of the state disciplinary fees may sound insignificant, small fines can pile up fast. They pile up on people who often were homeless or unemployed before they were incarcerated and will face the same situations upon release. The ACLU of Kansas said inmates could easily rack up thousands of dollars of debt just from disciplinary fines....
For many inmates and their families, disciplinary fines accumulate on top of court and attorney fees, court-ordered restitution, and child support. And around the country, inmates may be obligated to pay for a seemingly infinite number of additional charges. Some of those costs: drug and alcohol abuse treatment; medical, dental, and psychiatric services; vocational training; toilet paper, laundry, and clothing; phone and video calls, food from the jail store, booking fees, drug testing, and fingerprinting. In some jurisdictions, inmates pay “room and board” for the time they spend in jail awaiting trial. Ninety percent of local jails collect revenue from incarcerated people. Those inmates pay an average of $1,259 per person per year to local facilities, according to a recent study by the Vera Institute of Justice.
Prisoners can even be charged for trying to kill themselves. “I’ve seen it multiple times,” said Elisabeth Owen, the managing director of the Prisoners’ Justice League of Colorado. “Someone hangs themselves and then they get a medical bill for thousands of dollars.”
Saturday, September 12, 2015
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper by Cortney Lollar now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Criminal restitution is a core component of punishment. In its current form, this remedy rarely serves restitution’s traditional aim of disgorging a defendant’s ill-gotten gains. Instead, courts use this monetary award not only to compensate crime victims for intangible losses, but also to punish the defendant for the moral blameworthiness of her criminal action. Because the remedy does not fit into the definition of what most consider “restitution,” this Article advocates for the adoption of a new, additional designation for this prototypically punitive remedy: punitive compensation.
Unlike restitution, courts measure punitive compensation by a victim’s losses, not a defendant’s unlawful gains. Punitive compensation acknowledges the critical element of moral blameworthiness present in the current remedy. Given this component of moral blameworthiness, this Article concludes the jury should determine how much compensation to impose on a particular criminal defendant.
The jury is the preferable fact-finder both because jurors represent the conscience of the community, and because the Sixth Amendment jury trial right compels this result. Nevertheless, many scholars and legislators remain reluctant to permit juries to determine the financial award in a particular criminal case. Courts and lawmakers share a common misperception that juries make arbitrary, erratic, and irrational decisions, especially in the context of deciding criminal punishments and punitive damages, both of which overlap conceptually with punitive compensation.
In debunking this narrative, this Article relies on empirical studies comparing judge and jury decision-making and concludes that juries are the more fitting fact-finder to determine the amount of punitive compensation to impose in a given case. Although anchoring biases, difficulties in predicting the duration and degree of a crime victim’s future emotional response, and poorly written jury instructions challenge juries, each of these impediments can be counteracted through thoughtful and conscientious systemic responses.
September 12, 2015 in Blakely Commentary and News, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, September 10, 2015
New Justice Department sound and fury about white-collar prosecutions signifying....?
The interrupted question in the title of this post is my first-cut reaction and uncertainty in response to this front-page New York Times report on new Justice Department guidance concerning white-collar prosecutions. The NYTimes piece is headlined "Justice Department Sets Sights on Wall Street Executives," and here are excerpts:
Stung by years of criticism that it has coddled Wall Street criminals, the Justice Department issued new policies on Wednesday that prioritize the prosecution of individual employees — not just their companies — and put pressure on corporations to turn over evidence against their executives.
The new rules, issued in a memo to federal prosecutors nationwide [which can be accessed here], are the first major policy announcement by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch since she took office in April. The memo is a tacit acknowledgment of criticism that despite securing record fines from major corporations, the Justice Department under President Obama has punished few executives involved in the housing crisis, the financial meltdown and corporate scandals.
“Corporations can only commit crimes through flesh-and-blood people,” Sally Q. Yates, the deputy attorney general and the author of the memo, said in an interview on Wednesday. “It’s only fair that the people who are responsible for committing those crimes be held accountable. The public needs to have confidence that there is one system of justice and it applies equally regardless of whether that crime occurs on a street corner or in a boardroom.” Photo
Though limited in reach, the memo could erase some barriers to prosecuting corporate employees and inject new life into these high-profile investigations. The Justice Department often targets companies themselves and turns its eyes toward individuals only after negotiating a corporate settlement. In many cases, that means the offending employees go unpunished.
The memo, a copy of which was provided to The New York Times, tells civil and criminal investigators to focus on individual employees from the beginning. In settlement negotiations, companies will not be able to obtain credit for cooperating with the government unless they identify employees and turn over evidence against them, “regardless of their position, status or seniority.” Credit for cooperation can save companies billions of dollars in fines and mean the difference between a civil settlement and a criminal charge....
But in many ways, the new rules are an exercise in public messaging, substantive in some respects but symbolic in others. Because the memo lays out guidelines, not laws, its effect will be determined largely by how Justice Department officials interpret it. And several of the points in the memo merely codify policy that is already in place.
“It’s a good memo, but it states what should have been the policy for years,” said Brandon L. Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor and the author of the book “Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise With Corporations.” “And without more resources, how are prosecutors going to know whether companies are still burying information about their employees?”
It is also unknown whether the rules will encourage companies to turn in their executives, but Ms. Yates said the Justice Department would not allow companies to foist the blame onto low-level officials. “We’re not going to be accepting a company’s cooperation when they just offer up the vice president in charge of going to jail,” she said.
Under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the Justice Department faced repeated criticism from Congress and consumer advocates that it treated corporate executives leniently. After the 2008 financial crisis, no top Wall Street executives went to prison, highlighting a disparity in how prosecutors treat corporate leaders and typical criminals. Although prosecutors did collect billions of dollars in fines from big banks like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, critics dismissed those cases as hollow victories.
Justice Department officials have defended their record fighting corporate crime, saying that it can be nearly impossible to charge top executives who insulate themselves from direct involvement in wrongdoing. Ms. Yates’s memo acknowledges “substantial challenges unique to pursuing individuals for corporate misdeeds,” but it says that the difficulty in targeting high-level officials is precisely why the Justice Department needs a stronger plan for investigating them....
Ms. Yates, a career prosecutor, has established herself in the first months of her tenure as the department’s most vocal advocate for tackling white-collar crime. She foreshadowed plans for the new policy in a February speech to state attorneys general, in which she declared that “even imposing unprecedented financial penalties on the institutions whose conduct led to the financial crisis is not a substitute for holding individuals within those institutions personally accountable.”...
While the idea of white-collar investigations may conjure images of raids of corporate offices by federal agents, the reality is much different. When suspected of wrongdoing, large companies typically hire lawyers to conduct internal investigations and turn their findings over to the Justice Department. Those conclusions form the basis for settlement discussions, and they are likely to take on greater significance now that companies will be expected to name names....
Still, even if the Justice Department’s effort succeeds, it will not automatically put more executives behind bars. Mr. Garrett, the University of Virginia law professor, analyzed the cases in which corporate employees had been charged. More than half, he said, were spared jail time.
I am going to need to read the new Yates memo a few times before I will have any sense of whether and how this new guidance to federal prosecutors is likely to really "move the needle" with respect to white-collar prosecutions. But, in part because my white-collar expertise and experience is at the sentencing stage after an individual has been charged and convicted of a federal economic crime, I am not sure I will ever be able to see clearly from the very back-end of the federal criminal process how much this memo could alter what typically happens at the very front-end of the federal criminal process in the corporate crime world.
In turn, I would be grateful to receive (in the comments or off-line) input from persons with more experience than me on the front-end of corporate criminal investigations about whether this Yates memo signifies much or not so much in the white-collar world. If nothing else, I suspect the Yates memo will prompt many "client alert memos" from big corporate law firms to their corporate clients, and perhaps what those client alerts say about the Yates memo could matter as much as what the Yates memo itself says.
UPDATE: At this link one can now find the text of the big speech Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates delivered today at New York University School of Law concerning DOJ's "New Policy on Individual Liability in Matters of Corporate Wrongdoing." White-collar practitioners will want to read the speech in full, and here is one thematic paragraph from the heart of the text:
But regardless of how challenging it may be to make a case against individuals in a corporate fraud case, it’s our responsibility at the Department of Justice to overcome these challenges and do everything we can to develop the evidence and bring these cases. The public expects and demands this accountability. Americans should never believe, even incorrectly, that one’s criminal activity will go unpunished simply because it was committed on behalf of a corporation. We could be doing a bang-up job in every facet of the department’s operations — we could be bringing all the right cases and making all the right decisions. But if the citizens of this country don’t have confidence that the criminal justice system operates fairly and applies equally — regardless of who commits the crime or where it is committed — then we’re in trouble.
September 10, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Monday, September 07, 2015
"The New Peonage"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Tamar Birckhead now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Although the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution formally abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865, the text created an exception for the punishment for crimes “whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Two years later, Congress passed The Anti-Peonage Act in an attempt to prohibit the practice of coerced labor for debt. Yet, in the wake of the Civil War, Southern states innovated ways to impose peonage but avoid violations of the law, including criminal surety statutes that allowed employers to pay the court fines for indigent misdemeanants charged with minor offenses, in exchange for a commitment to work. Surplus from these payments padded public coffers (as well as the pockets of court officials), and when workers’ debt records were subsequently “lost” or there was an allegation of breach, surety contracts were extended and workers became further indebted to local planters and merchants. Several decades later, the U.S. Supreme Court in Bailey v. Alabama (1911) and U.S. v. Reynolds (1914) invalidated laws criminalizing simple contractual breaches, which Southern states had used to skirt the general provisions of the Anti-Peonage Act. Yet, these decisions ultimately had little impact on the “ever-turning wheel of servitude,” and the practice persisted under alternative forms until after World War II.
This Article, the Author’s third on the disproportionate representation of low-income children in the U.S. juvenile justice system, examines the phenomenon of what the Author calls “the new peonage.” It argues that the reconfiguration of the South’s judicial system after the Civil War, which entrapped blacks in a perpetual cycle of coerced labor, has direct parallels to the two-tiered system of justice that exists in our juvenile and criminal courtrooms of today. Across the U.S. even seemingly minor criminal charges trigger an array of fees, court costs, and assessments that can create insurmountable debt burdens for already-struggling families. Likewise, parents who fall behind on their child support payments face the risk of incarceration, and upon release from jail, they must pay off the arrears that accrued, which hinders the process of reentry. Compounding such scenarios, criminal justice debt can lead to driver’s license suspension, bank account or wage garnishment, extended supervision until debts are paid, additional court appearances or warrants related to debt collection and nonpayment, and extra fines and interest for late payment. When low-income parents face such collateral consequences, the very act of meeting the economic and emotional needs of one’s children becomes a formidable challenge, the failure of which can trigger the intervention of Child Protective Services, potential neglect allegations, and further court hearings and fees. For youth in the juvenile court system, mandatory fees impose a burden that increases the risk of recidivism. In short, for families caught within the state’s debt-enforcement regime, the threat of punishment is an ever-present specter, and incarceration always looms. Ironically, rather than having court fees serve as a straightforward revenue source for the state, this hidden regressive tax requires an extensive infrastructure to turn court and correctional officials into collection agents, burdening the system and interfering with the proper administration of justice. Moreover, states frequently divert court fees and assessments to projects that have little connection to the judicial system.
This Article is the first to analyze the ways in which the contemporary justice tax has the same societal impact as post-Civil War peonage: both function to maintain an economic caste system. The Article opens with two case profiles to illustrate the legal analysis in narrative form, followed by several others presented throughout the piece. The Article then chronicles the legal history of peonage from the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment through the early twentieth century. It establishes the parallels to the present-day criminal justice system, in which courts incarcerate or re-incarcerate those who cannot pay, including juveniles. It argues that Supreme Court decisions intended to end the use of debtors’ prisons ultimately had limited impact. The Article concludes with proposals for legislative and public policy reform of the new peonage, including data collection and impact analysis of fines, restitution, and user fees; ending incarceration and extended supervision for non-willful failure to pay; and establishing the right to counsel in nonpayment hearings.
September 7, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3)
Sunday, August 16, 2015
New York Times magazine highlights link between bail and pleas
This cover story from today's New York Times magazine is headlined "The Bail Trap," and this pull-out quote appearing in the article captures why sentencing fans ought to pay attention to bail reform efforts: "Across the criminal-justice system, bail acts as a tool of compulsion, forcing people who would not otherwise plead guilty to do so." Here is a bit more from a lengthy article that merits a full read:
In 1689, the English Bill of Rights outlawed the widespread practice of keeping defendants in jail by setting deliberately unaffordable bail, declaring that "excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed." The same language was adopted word for word a century later in the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
But as bail has evolved in America, it has become less and less a tool for keeping people out of jail, and more and more a trap door for those who cannot afford to pay it. Unsecured bond has become vanishingly rare, and in most jurisdictions, there are only two ways to make bail: post the entire amount yourself up front — what’s called "money bail" or "cash bail" — or pay a commercial bail bondsman to do so. For relatively low bail amounts — say, below $2,000, the range in which most New York City bails fall — the second option often doesn’t even exist; bondsmen can’t make enough money from such small bails to make it worth their while.
With national attention suddenly focused on the criminal-justice system, bail has been cited as an easy target for reformers. But ensuring that no one is held in jail based on poverty would, in many respects, necessitate a complete reordering of criminal justice. The open secret is that in most jurisdictions, bail is the grease that keeps the gears of the overburdened system turning. Faced with the prospect of going to jail for want of bail, many defendants accept plea deals instead, sometimes at their arraignments. New York City courts processed 365,000 arraignments in 2013; well under 5 percent of those cases went all the way to a trial resolution. If even a small fraction of those defendants asserted their right to a trial, criminal courts would be overwhelmed. By encouraging poor defendants to plead guilty, bail keeps the system afloat....
In early 2013, Jonathan Lippman, chief judge of the State of New York, decided that the businessasusual approach to setting bail could not be tolerated any longer. "We still have a long way to go before we can claim that we have established a coherent, rational approach to pretrial justice," he said in his annual State of the Judiciary address. "Incarcerating indigent defendants for no other reason than that they cannot meet even a minimum bail amount strips our justice system of its credibility and distorts its operation." Lippman sent a package of proposed legislation to reduce the reliance on cash bail to lawmakers in Albany, and he lobbied for the reforms hard in the press. His efforts went nowhere. "Zero," Lippman says, shaking his head. "Nothing." Lawmakers had no appetite for bail reform.
Two years later, that may be changing. This summer, the New York City Council took a tentative step toward reform by earmarking $1.4 million for a citywide fund to bail out low-level offenders. The fund, proposed with much fanfare by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in her State of the City address in February, is modeled on a number of smaller bail funds around the city. The oldest of these, the Bronx Freedom Fund, was established in 2007 in association with the Bronx Defenders, a public-defender organization. The founders shut down the fund after only a year and a half, after a judge argued that it was effectively operating as an unlicensed bailbond business. But before they did, the fund bailed out nearly 200 defendants and generated some illuminating statistics. Ninety-six percent of the fund’s clients made it toevery one of their court appearances, a return rate higher even than that of people who posted their own bail. More than half of the Freedom Fund’s clients, now able to fight their cases outside jail, saw their charges completely dismissed. Not a single client went to jail on the charges for which bail had been posted. By comparison, defendants held on bail for the duration of their cases were convicted 92 percent of the time. The numbers showed what everyone familiar with the system already knew anecdotally: Bail makes poor people who would otherwise win their cases plead guilty.
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
"Charging Inmates Perpetuates Mass Incarceration"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new Brennan Center white paper authored by Lauren-Brooke Eisen. Here is its introduction (with endnotes omitted):
The American criminal justice system is replete with fees that attempt to shift costs from the government to those accused and convicted of breaking the law. Courts impose monetary sanctions on a “substantial majority of the millions of U.S. residents convicted of felony and misdemeanor crimes each year.” Every aspect of the criminal justice process has become ripe for charging a fee. In fact, an estimated 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in debt resulting from their involvement in the criminal justice system. In the last few decades, additional fees have proliferated, such as charges for police transport, case filing, felony surcharges, electronic monitoring, drug testing, and sex offender registration. Unlike fines, whose purpose is to punish, and restitution, which is intended to compensate victims of crimes for their loss, user fees are intended to raise revenue. The Justice Department’s March 2015 report on practices in Ferguson, Mo. highlights the overreliance on court fines as a primary source of revenue for the jurisdiction. The New York Times noted that the report found that “internal emails show city officials pushing for more tickets and fines.”
Fees and debts are increasing partially because the criminal justice system has grown bigger. With 2.2 million people behind bars, courts — and all the relevant agencies — have expanded as well. Since the 1970s, incarceration in the U.S. has risen steeply, dwarfing the incarceration rate of any other nation on Earth. The U.S. added about 1.1 million incarcerated people, almost doubling the nation’s incarcerated population, in the past 20 years. The fiscal costs of corrections are high — more than $80 billion annually — about equivalent to the budget of the federal Department of Education.6 A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that corrections is currently the third-largest category of spending in most states, behind education and health care. In fact, somewhat disconcertingly, 11 states spent more of their general funds on corrections than on higher education in 2013.
Fees already on the books have increased. And, these fees are extending into state and local corrections.
As a result of these runaway costs, counties and states continue to struggle with ways to increase revenue to pay for exorbitant incarceration bills. In 2010, the mean annual state corrections expenditure per inmate was $28,323, although a quarter of states spent $40,175 or more. Not surprisingly, departments of corrections and jails are increasingly authorized to charge inmates for the cost of their imprisonment. Although this policy is alarming, less widely understood but equally troubling is the reality that these incarceration fees perpetuate our nation’s addiction to incarceration. This policy brief exposes how the widespread nature of charging fees to those who are incarcerated connects to the larger problem of mass incarceration in this country.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Spotlighting who profits from "Piling on Criminal Fees"
Professors Ronald Wright and Wayne Logan have this important new Huffington Post article summarizing the important themes from their important article titled "Mercenary Criminal Justice." Here are excerpts:
Criminal courts sometime function as fee-generating machines.... The problem here is not any single criminal fee; the problem is how they stack up to create injustice. That's why we are calling for a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees.
In a recent law review article, "Mercenary Criminal Justice," we chronicled the historically central role of fee-generation in U.S. criminal justice systems, a tendency that became even more pronounced as a result of the recent fiscal crisis. We call this system "mercenary" because the revenues affect the enforcement decisions of actors in the justice system, who start to depend on that revenue, and put their own job security above the job of doing individual justice. As the Justice Department's report on Ferguson noted, city officials there asked the police and courts to increase ticket collection, explicitly to increase their revenue, basically treating minor criminal offenders as ATM machines. This mistreatment is all the more troubling when the fees and fines land most heavily on racial minorities and the poor, as they routinely do...
The beneficiaries of the revenue hail from diverse and powerful institutions. Courts, crime labs, prosecutors, and even public defenders all see the dollar signs and make their requests. What's the harm, after all, in asking for another $100 from an arrestee, convict, or probationer?
And it is not only government employees who have their hands out: private sector actors (with profit motives) have increasingly gotten a piece of the action. Courts, for instance, ask private contractors to collect fees and fines, allowing them to add their own service charges to the total bill. Private companies, moreover, have been active in probation services. More recently, the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC) started promoting a variation on this theme -- called "post-conviction bail" -- that empowers private bail bond dealers to monitor defendant compliance with post-release conditions. If the released inmate does not comply, the dealer tracks him down and collects a new financial penalty.
Any one of these fees or fines might be a reasonable part of a non-prison punishment, promoting public safety and the interests of defendants alike. The trouble comes when nobody minds the total effects of all these fees on individuals. Taken together, even the most modest and well-justified fees can trap the indigent in the control of criminal courts, always paying but never paying their debt down to zero. We believe that a statewide Commission on Criminal Fees can see the big picture and prevent this piling-on effect. Before authorizing a new fee to support the state crime lab, for instance, the Commission would ask how that fee interacts with the public defender's application fee, the probation supervision fee, and all the other fees currently imposed on individuals ensnared in the justice system.
May 20, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Monday, April 27, 2015
Is US push for sentencing reform progressive enough to embrace progressive "day fines"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable New York Times article about fine punishment for speeding in Finland. The piece is headlined "Speeding in Finland Can Cost a Fortune, if You Already Have One," and here are excerpts:
Getting a speeding ticket is not a feelgood moment for anyone. But consider Reima Kuisla, a Finnish businessman. He was recently fined 54,024 euros (about $58,000) for traveling a modest, if illegal, 64 miles per hour in a 50 m.p.h. zone. And no, the 54,024 euros did not turn out to be a typo, or a mistake of any kind.
Mr. Kuisla is a millionaire, and in Finland the fines for more serious speeding infractions are calculated according to income. The thinking here is that if it stings for the little guy, it should sting for the big guy, too. The ticket had its desired effect. Mr. Kuisla, 61, took to Facebook last month with 12 furious posts in which he included a picture of his speeding ticket and a picture of what 54,024 euros could buy if it were not going to the state coffers — a new Mercedes. He said he was seriously considering leaving Finland altogether....
The Nordic countries have long had a strong egalitarian streak, embracing progressive taxation and high levels of social spending. Perhaps less well known is that they also practice progressive punishment, when it comes to certain fines. A rich person, many citizens here believe, should pay more for the same offense if justice is to be served. The question is: How much more?...
At the University of Helsinki, Jussi Lahti, 35, a graduate student in geography, said that he could understand why Mr. Kuisla was upset, but that he considered the principle of an equal percentage fair. And, he added, Mr. Kuisla “had a choice when he decided to speed.”
The size of Mr. Kuisla’s ticket nonetheless drew considerable attention here as television shows and newspapers debated the merits of Finland’s system, which uses a complex formula based on income to calculate an individual’s fines. Some wondered whether the government should stop imposing such fines for infractions at relatively low speeds. Some suggested that a fine so big was really a form of taxation. But the idea that the rich should pay heavier fines did not seem to be much in question. “It is an old system,” said Pasi Kemppainen, chief superintendent at the National Police Board. “It may lead to high fines, but only for people who can afford it.”
In fact, the Finnish “day fine” system, also in use in some other Scandinavian countries, dates to the 1920s, when fines based on income were instituted for all manner of lesser crimes, such as petty theft and assault, and helped greatly reduce the prison population. The fines are calculated based on half an offender’s daily net income, with some consideration for the number of children under his or her roof and a deduction deemed to be enough to cover basic living expenses, currently 255 euros per month.
Then, that figure is multiplied by the number of days of income the offender should lose, according to the severity of the offense. Mr. Kuisla, a betting man who parlayed his winnings into a real estate empire, was clocked speeding near the Seinajoki airport. Given the speed he was going, Mr. Kuisla was assessed eight days. His fine was then calculated from his 2013 income, 6,559,742 euros, or more than $7 million at current exchange rates.
Someone committing a similar offense and earning about 50,000 euros a year, or $54,000, none of it capital gains, and with no young children, would get a fine of about 345 euros, or about $370. Someone earning 300,000 euros ($322,000), would have to pay about 1,480 euros ($1,590). When the “day fine system” was devised for petty crimes, Finland did not even have any speed limits on its roads. Those did not arrive until the 1970s....
Until he was issued the speeding ticket, Mr. Kuisla used his Facebook page largely to post pictures of his winning horses or the lobbies and bars of the hotels he owns. But the ticket seemed to focus his attention on Finnish policies that he said discouraged entrepreneurs, apparently a reference to the country’s progressive tax system and its high inheritance taxes. High earners can face an income tax rate of more than 50 percent. “Finland is now an impossible country to live in for people with a large income and wealth!” he posted on March 2.
But online comments in newspapers suggested a strong showing for the other side. “This says a lot about the times when the stinkingly rich can’t even take their fines for crimes, but are immediately moving out of the country. Farewell, we won’t miss you,” said one post in The Helsingin Sanomat, a daily newspaper and website....
Mr. Kuisla’s $58,000 ticket is not even the most severe speeding ticket issued in recent years. According to another daily newspaper, Ilkka, Mr. Kuisla himself got an even bigger fine in 2013 when he was going about 76 m.p.h. in a 50 m.p.h. zone. That ticket was for 63,448 euros, about $83,769 at the time. Bigger yet was the ticket issued to a 44-year-old Nokia executive in 2002, when he was caught blowing through Helsinki on his Harley motorcycle and was hit with a $103,600 fine, based on a $12.5 million yearly income.
Both tickets were appealed and in the end reduced. Usually, appeals are based on financial issues, such as a one-time sale of stock that year. But judges have great leeway, experts said. Mr. Kuisla ended up paying 5,346 euros for the 2013 ticket.
Long-time readers know that I am a huge fan of economic sanctions, and I have long thought that the Scandinavian "day fine" approach to punishment for lower-level crimes to be much more fair and effective than short terms of incarceration. I think it is fair to claim (and perhaps complain) that these kinds of day fine operate more like taxes than like traditional punishments; whatever label is attached, I suspect that defendants (especially rich ones) drive much more carefully in jurisdictions where an infraction is likely to have a real financial bite. Among other potential benefits, a "day fine" approach to certain lower-level "quality of life" offenses might prompt law enforcement to concentrate more of their policing resources in richer rather than poorer neighborhoods.
Perhaps needless to say, I doubt the billionaires who support sentencing reform in the US on both the left (George Soros) and the right (the Koch brothers) are likely to get behind a progressive "day fine" approach to devising effective alternatives to prison. But maybe all the folks now protesting police abuses in Baltimore and elsewhere might consider urging police department to adopt such an approach to police discipline (with the monies, I would urge, going to victim restitution funds).
April 27, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
New York State court concludes multiple mandatory minimum fines constitutionally excessive
Thanks to this post by Eugene Volokh, I discovered an interesting New York trial court Excessive Fine ruling in Pujols v. City of New York, No. 103637/12 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. April 2, 2015) (available here). Here is the heart of the ruling concerning an attack on a $11,175 fine for illegally posting 149 flyers advertising babysitting services:
It is undisputed that petitioner violated the relevant Administrative Code provision and substantial evidence supports ECB's determination that petitioner is liable for violating § 10-119 of the New York City Administrative Code, which generally prohibits the posting or other placement of handbills, posters, notices, signs and other written materials on certain public property. Nonetheless, this Court finds that under the specific circumstances presented herein, the imposition of the mandatory minimum of $75.00 per violation for a total penalty of $11,175.00, amounts to an unconstitutionally excessive fine, and cannot be viewed as solely remedial.
Moreover, this Court, in considering the seriousness of the offense, the severity of the harm caused to petitioner, and the City's objective to deter posting of materials on public property, we find that the fine imposed is "grossly disproportional" to the gravity of petitioner's offense.
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
"Law & Tactics for a Market-Reality Narcotics Policy"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Mark William Osler now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
The War on Drugs seems to be ending, leading to a crucial question: What comes next? Legalization of narcotics (marijuana aside) is unlikely, and the pursuit of broad incarceration to create deterrence or incapacitation has been largely disavowed. However, drug use continues to be a profound social problem that must be confronted.
This article argues for the aggressive use of asset forfeiture to capture cash flow to core sources in order to systemically disrupt narcotics networks. Importantly, such a project would steer police efforts away from capturing people, drugs, or the profits retained by drug dealers and instead target the lifeblood of the narcotics business, which is proceeds flowing back to mass producers, importers, and major wholesalers of drugs.
This tactic would address the continuing narcotics problem without mass incarceration or the problems associated with seizing small amounts of profit through forfeitures. Fortunately, the necessary tools are already embedded in existing federal statutes; all that is left to do is to use them wisely in a new and more effective way.
March 18, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Monday, February 23, 2015
"What rights do felons have over their surrendered firearms?"
The question in the title of this post is the substance of the title of this helpful SCOTUS argument preview of Henderson v. US authored by Richard Re over at SCOTUSblog. Here are excerpts which highlight why I think of Henderson as an interesting and dynamic sentencing case:
Tuesday, the Court will hear argument in Henderson v. United States, a complex case that offers a blend of criminal law, property, and remedies, with soft accents of constitutionalism. The basic question is this: when an arrested individual surrenders his firearms to the government, and his subsequent felony conviction renders him legally ineligible to possess those weapons, what happens to the guns?
The petitioner, Tony Henderson, was a Border Patrol agent convicted of distributing marijuana, a felony offense. Shortly after being arrested in 2006, Henderson surrendered his personal collection of firearms and other weapons to federal agents as a condition of release during the pendency of his criminal case. According to Henderson, his weapons collection included valuable items that had long been in the family, as well as an “antique.” Moreover, the collection was and remains Henderson’s lawful property. So, starting in 2008, Henderson asked authorities to transfer his weapons collection to someone else. But prosecutors and courts alike declined. Understandably enough, Henderson didn’t want his collection to escheat to the government like so much feudal property. So he’s pressed his rights to the Supreme Court.
The legal issues start with a conflict between a procedural rule and a federal statute. Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41, the government usually has to “return” a defendant’s lawful property. But that can’t happen in Henderson’s case because a federal criminal law (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)) prohibits convicted felons, including Henderson, from possessing firearms. So if Rule 41 were allowed to operate according to its terms, Henderson would instantly be in violation of Section 922(g)(1). The courts below recognized that result as contrary to federal law and policy. (In a footnote in its merits brief, the federal government acknowledges that some of Henderson’s long-withheld weapons collection actually doesn’t consist of firearms at all. The government accordingly assures the Court that the “FBI is making the necessary arrangements to return the crossbow and the muzzle-loading rifle to petitioner.”)
To get around Section 922(g)(1), Henderson asked the government to transfer his firearms to third parties who are permitted to possess such items – specifically, either his wife or a friend who had promised to pay for them. Those proposed transfers, Henderson points out, wouldn’t result in his own possession of the firearms. And, critically, the proposed transfers would honor Henderson’s continued ownership of the weapons.... While Rule 41 by its terms may authorize only the “return” of property, Henderson argues that the federal district courts have “equitable” authority to direct transfers to third parties....
Without questioning that federal equitable authority operates in this area, the courts below apparently rejected Henderson’s transfer request in part based on the ancient rule of “unclean hands.” Under this venerable maxim, a wrongdoer (whose hands are figuratively dirty) may not seek relief at equity in connection with his own wrongful act. Based on a broad view of that precept, the courts below seemed to say that convicted felons are categorically barred from equitable relief as to their government-held property. Henderson contends that this holding revives ancient principles of “outlawry,” whereby criminals lose the protection of the law, while also running afoul of the Due Process Clause, the Takings Clause, and other constitutional provisions. However, the Solicitor General disputes that the decision below actually rested on this ground and — more importantly — has declined to defend it.
Instead, the federal government defends the result below on the ground that Section 922(g)(1) should be read to prohibit not just felons’ actual possession of firearms, but also their “constructive possession” of such weapons. On this view, impermissible constructive possession occurs when a convicted felon can exert some control over the next physical possessor of a particular item of property. Thus, Henderson would exert constructive possession – barred by federal law – if he could direct the transfer of his firearms to any particular person, including his wife or friend. Such direction, the government contends, would also create an unacceptable risk of letting the firearm find its way back to the felon. A permissible approach, in the government’s opinion, would be for it to transfer weapons to a licensed firearms dealer for sale, with proceeds going to the convicted felon.
Having gotten the federal government to endorse some remedial third-party transfers – a significant development in itself – Henderson asks why a convicted felon can’t at least nominate specific third parties, like a museum or a relative, to receive previously surrendered firearms that double as historical artifacts or family heirlooms....
While the ultimate outcome may turn in part on case-specific facts, the case touches on a number of important public debates. This becomes most obvious when the parties peripherally joust over the Second Amendment. The case has also drawn a number of amici. For instance, the Institute for Justice connects the case to public debate over forfeitures by asserting an aged canon against such forfeitures. Meanwhile, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Rifle Association of America respectively argue from the Excessive Fines Clause and, of course, the Second Amendment. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the government’s only amicus, also joins issue.
February 23, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Monday, February 16, 2015
Senate unanimously passes child porn restitution bill to fix Paroline problems
As report in this article, last week the U.S. Senate finally passed a bill to restructure the standards and procedures for restitution awards for victims of child porn downloading offenses. This bill made it through the full Senate a little less than year after the Supreme Court issued a split decision on this matter in the Paroline case. Here are the basics of the response by Congress:
A bill named for two women whose childhood images were turned into heinous pornography was handily passed in the Senate on Wednesday. The Amy and Vicky Child Pornography Victim Restitution Improvement Act was approved by a 98-0 vote.
The measure gives hope to victims that they will finally be able to win major compensation from any single person who illegally viewed, made or distributed their images. Victims of child pornography and other sexual exploitation “ought to have access to full restitution from any single perpetrator for their losses,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican.
The bill establishes a minimum amount for damages for certain child pornography offenses and makes any single perpetrator responsible for the full damages created by a crime that involves multiple perpetrators, Mr. Grassley’s office said. Perpetrators, instead of victims, will have the burden of suing each other to recover damages they paid beyond their offenses. Medical costs, lost income and therapy are included in compensable damages.
The bill responds to a 2014 Supreme Court 5-4 ruling in Paroline v. United States that said people convicted of viewing, making or distributing child pornography should be ordered to pay a nontrivial amount of restitution — but it should fit the scale of the offense....
The Paroline case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by a woman known as “Amy Unknown” against Doyle R. Paroline of Texas, who was convicted of having two images of her in his child pornography collection. When the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Amy’s favor and ordered Paroline to pay $3.4 million in damages to her, Paroline asked the Supreme Court to review his case. Paroline’s court-appointed attorney said after they won last year that he would contest any restitution award against his client.
Amy, now an adult, was sexually assaulted by her uncle when she was about 9 years old. The uncle put pictures of her rape online, and those images have been shared by pedophiles worldwide. “Vicky” is the pseudonym of another victim, whose father raped her as a child and took “orders” from men to make videos of her being bound and sodomized.
I am a bit concerned that, even if this bill makes it through the House and is signed into law, defendants like Paroline and others who have already been prosecuted for child pornography offenses will be able to rely on ex post facto doctrines to still avoid having to pay any significant restitution awards to Amy or Vicky or other victims. Still, this new statue could and should help child porn victims recover significant sums from future offenders.
A few (of many) prior posts on Paroline and child porn restitution issues:
- SCOTUS splits the difference for child porn restitution awards in Paroline
- Fascinating NY Times magazine cover story on child porn victims and restitution
- "Pricing Amy: Should Those Who Download Child Pornography Pay the Victims?"
- SCOTUS grants cert on challenging child porn restitution issues that have deeply split lower courts
- "Should child porn 'consumers' pay victim millions? Supreme Court to decide."
- Explaining why I am rooting so hard for "Amy" in Paroline
- Will Congress fix (quickly? ever? wisely?) the "puzzle of paying Amy" after Paroline
Friday, January 16, 2015
AG Holder announces notable new limits on civil forfeitures to fund local police
As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police," the out-going Attorney General today announce a notable new policy that ought to take some of the economic incentives out of some drug war enforcement activities. Here are the basics:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without proving that a crime occurred. Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.
Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing. The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.
“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement. Holder’s decision allows some limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.
While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund. A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”
Holder’s decision follows a Washington Post investigation published in September that found that police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
January 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack
Friday, December 26, 2014
South Dakota legislator suggests using drug war proceeds to fund public defenders
This local article, headlined "Hickey: Use seized drug money for public defender," reports on some notable public advocacy by a public official concerning public defenders in South Dakota. Here are the details:
A Sioux Falls lawmaker wants to use seized drug money to help pay the legal defense bills of those who can't afford a lawyer, but the state's attorney general says counties should look elsewhere to save money on court-appointed attorney costs.
Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, says the money in the state's Drug Control Fund is correctly used to tackle the problem of drug use, but he says he worries about the legal costs counties bear after the arrest. The fund is made up of money seized during drug investigations and money from the sale of seized property, such as vehicles.
"My thought is that we should put some of that money not just into catching more bad guys, but put some of it into the cost of defending them we're stuck with afterward," Hickey said. "We get excited about sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols, but after those tickets get written, someone has to pick up the tab."
Hickey's bill would ask for a more thorough accounting of the money seized by law enforcement from suspected drug dealers and direct between 25 percent and 50 percent of it toward the legal fees amassed by counties. The fund is administered by Attorney General Marty Jackley's Office, which decides where the seized money is spent. "It seems to me that there's very little oversight," Hickey said....
Counties are legally obligated to offer court-appointed lawyers to the indigent. Local governments can ask that legal fees be repaid, but many bills go unpaid, either because defendants don't earn enough or own enough to pay or because they go to prison or jail.
Hickey's proposal comes alongside growing concerns over court-appointed attorney fees in Minnehaha County. Commissioners want judges to consider income guidelines when deciding whether to appoint a public defender, and they've offered a county employee to check defendants' income statements.
The state's largest county has spent $3.8 million on indigent defense this year, but reimbursements from defendants stand at $824,000. The county also has more than $26 million in liens on defendants who haven't paid their bill.
Commissioner Cindy Heiberger hasn't seen Hickey's proposal, but says any discussion about helping the counties that shoulder the burden of legal defense is welcome. "It sounds really good on the surface. Anything we can use to pay for court-appointed attorneys or court costs is something we should talk about," Heiberger said. But, she cautioned, "when we're taking money from one pot and moving it to another, we need to make sure the logistics make sense for everyone."
The notion of using seized drug money to pay for criminal defense doesn't sit well with Attorney General Marty Jackley. The drug control fund consists of money seized from suspected drug sales and other cash collected from auctioning off seized vehicles and other property. "I do not support using the profits of criminals to defend their activities," Jackley said.
The money pays the drug testing bills for cities and counties, Jackley said, and the remaining money is used to buy vehicles, camera systems and other items for local police and sheriff's departments. Giving some of the money to counties for indigent defense could force local agencies to bear the cost of drug testing and reduce the availability of funds for equipment upgrades and replacements.
In 2013, $70,514 was awarded from the drug control fund for law enforcement and prosecution costs in Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County. Overall in 2013, $643,722 was awarded from the drug control fund to local agencies. Drug control money pays an average of $60,000 per month to local law enforcement for drug testing, according to DCI records.
December 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Sunday, October 26, 2014
More drug war collateral damage: "Law Lets I.R.S. Seize Accounts on Suspicion, No Crime Required"
The title of this post includes my extra bit of spin on the headline of this notable front-page New York Times article, which gets started this way:
For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000.
The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report. “How can this happen?” Ms. Hinders said in a recent interview. “Who takes your money before they prove that you’ve done anything wrong with it?”
The federal government does. Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.
“They’re going after people who are really not criminals,” said David Smith, a former federal prosecutor who is now a forfeiture expert and lawyer in Virginia. “They’re middle-class citizens who have never had any trouble with the law.”
On Thursday, in response to questions from The New York Times, the I.R.S. announced that it would curtail the practice, focusing instead on cases where the money is believed to have been acquired illegally or seizure is deemed justified by “exceptional circumstances.”
Richard Weber, the chief of Criminal Investigation at the I.R.S., said in a written statement, “This policy update will ensure that C.I. continues to focus our limited investigative resources on identifying and investigating violations within our jurisdiction that closely align with C.I.’s mission and key priorities.” He added that making deposits under $10,000 to evade reporting requirements, called structuring, is still a crime whether the money is from legal or illegal sources. The new policy will not apply to past seizures.
October 26, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack
Wednesday, October 01, 2014
"Prison bankers cash in on captive customers: Inmates' families gouged by fees"
The title of this post is the headline of this one part of some impressive reporting about the economic realities facing prisoners and their families being done by the Center for Public Integrity and CNBC. Here is an excerpt from this piece that provides a basic summary:
JPay and other prison bankers collect tens of millions of dollars every year from inmates’ families in fees for basic financial services. To make payments, some forego medical care, skip utility bills and limit contact with their imprisoned relatives, the Center for Public Integrity found in a six-month investigation.
Inmates earn as little as 12 cents per hour in many places, wages that have not increased for decades. The prices they pay for goods to meet their basic needs continue to increase.
By erecting a virtual tollbooth at the prison gate, JPay has become a critical financial conduit for an opaque constellation of vendors that profit from millions of poor families with incarcerated loved ones.
JPay streamlines the flow of cash into prisons, making it easier for corrections agencies to take a cut. Prisons do so directly, by deducting fees and charges before the money hits an inmate’s account. They also allow phone and commissary vendors to charge marked-up prices, then collect a share of the profits generated by these contractors.
Taken together, the costs imposed by JPay, phone companies, prison store operators and corrections agencies make it far more difficult for poor families to escape poverty so long as they have a loved one in the system.
Here are links to additional related reporting as part of this project:
From CNBC: "The big business of selling apps to prison inmates"
- From the Center for Public Integrity: "Inside the virtual tollbooth at many U.S. prisons"
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
The title of this post is the title of this notable and interesting new paper by Alexandra Natapoff now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
As the U.S. rethinks its stance on mass incarceration, misdemeanor decriminalization is an increasingly popular reform. Seen as a potential cure for crowded jails and an overburdened defense bar, many states are eliminating jail time for minor offenses such as marijuana possession and driving violations, and replacing those crimes with so-called “nonjailable” or “fine-only” offenses. This form of reclassification is widely perceived as a way of saving millions of state dollars — nonjailable offenses do not trigger the right to counsel — while easing the punitive impact on defendants, and it has strong support from progressives and conservatives alike.
But decriminalization has a little-known dark side. Unlike full legalization, decriminalization preserves many of the punitive features and collateral consequences of the criminal misdemeanor experience, even as it strips defendants of counsel and other procedural protections. It actually expands the reach of the criminal apparatus by making it easier — both logistically and normatively — to impose fines and supervision on an ever-widening population, a population who ironically often ends up incarcerated anyway when they cannot afford the fines or comply with the supervisory conditions.
The turn to fine-only offenses and supervision, moreover, has distributive implications. It captures poor, underemployed, drug-dependent, and other disadvantaged defendants for whom fines and supervision are especially burdensome, while permitting well-resourced offenders to exit the process quickly and relatively unscathed. Finally, as courts turn increasingly to fines and fees to fund their own operations, decriminalization threatens to become a kind of regressive tax, turning the poorest populations into funding fodder for the judiciary and other government budgets. In sum, while decriminalization appears to offer relief from the punitive legacy of overcriminalization and mass incarceration, upon closer inspection it turns out to be a highly conflicted regulatory strategy that preserves and even strengthens some of the most problematic aspects of the massive U.S. penal system.
September 10, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Saturday, August 30, 2014
"The criminalisation of American business"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Economist cover story, which carries the subheadline "Companies must be punished when they do wrong, but the legal system has become an extortion racket." Here are excerpts:
Who runs the world’s most lucrative shakedown operation? The Sicilian mafia? The People’s Liberation Army in China? The kleptocracy in the Kremlin? If you are a big business, all these are less grasping than America’s regulatory system. The formula is simple: find a large company that may (or may not) have done something wrong; threaten its managers with commercial ruin, preferably with criminal charges; force them to use their shareholders’ money to pay an enormous fine to drop the charges in a secret settlement (so nobody can check the details). Then repeat with another large company.
The amounts are mind-boggling. So far this year, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and other banks have coughed up close to $50 billion for supposedly misleading investors in mortgage-backed bonds. BNP Paribas is paying $9 billion over breaches of American sanctions against Sudan and Iran. Credit Suisse, UBS, Barclays and others have settled for billions more, over various accusations. And that is just the financial institutions. Add BP’s $13 billion in settlements since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Toyota’s $1.2 billion settlement over alleged faults in some cars, and many more.
In many cases, the companies deserved some form of punishment: BNP Paribas disgustingly abetted genocide, American banks fleeced customers with toxic investments and BP despoiled the Gulf of Mexico. But justice should not be based on extortion behind closed doors. The increasing criminalisation of corporate behaviour in America is bad for the rule of law and for capitalism (see [companion] article)....
The drawbacks of America’s civil tort system are well known. What is new is the way that regulators and prosecutors are in effect conducting closed-door trials. For all the talk of public-spiritedness, the agencies that pocket the fines have become profit centres: Rhode Island’s bureaucrats have been on a spending spree courtesy of a $500m payout by Google, while New York’s governor and attorney-general have squabbled over a $613m settlement from JPMorgan. And their power far exceeds that of trial lawyers. Not only are regulators in effect judge and jury as well as plaintiff in the cases they bring; they can also use the threat of the criminal law.
Financial firms rarely survive being indicted on criminal charges. Few want to go the way of Drexel Burnham Lambert or E.F. Hutton. For their managers, the threat of personal criminal charges is career-ending ruin. Unsurprisingly, it is easier to empty their shareholders’ wallets. To anyone who asks, “Surely these big firms wouldn’t pay out if they knew they were innocent?”, the answer is: oddly enough, they might.
Perhaps the most destructive part of it all is the secrecy and opacity. The public never finds out the full facts of the case, nor discovers which specific people—with souls and bodies—were to blame. Since the cases never go to court, precedent is not established, so it is unclear what exactly is illegal. That enables future shakedowns, but hurts the rule of law and imposes enormous costs. Nor is it clear how the regulatory booty is being carved up. Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, who is up for re-election, reportedly intervened to increase the state coffers’ share of BNP’s settlement by $1 billion, threatening to wield his powers to withdraw the French bank’s licence to operate on Wall Street. Why a state government should get any share at all of a French firm’s fine for defying the federal government’s foreign policy is not clear....
In the longer term, two changes are needed to the legal system. The first is a much clearer division between the civil and criminal law when it comes to companies. Most cases of corporate malfeasance are to do with money and belong in civil courts. If in the course of those cases it emerges that individual managers have broken the criminal law, they can be charged.
The second is a severe pruning of the legal system. When America was founded, there were only three specified federal crimes — treason, counterfeiting and piracy. Now there are too many to count. In the most recent estimate, in the early 1990s, a law professor reckoned there were perhaps 300,000 regulatory statutes carrying criminal penalties—a number that can only have grown since then. For financial firms especially, there are now so many laws, and they are so complex (witness the thousands of pages of new rules resulting from the Dodd-Frank reforms), that enforcing them is becoming discretionary.
This undermines the predictability and clarity that serve as the foundations for the rule of law, and risks the prospect of a selective — and potentially corrupt — system of justice in which everybody is guilty of something and punishment is determined by political deals. America can hardly tut-tut at the way China’s justice system applies the law to companies in such an arbitrary manner when at times it seems almost as bad itself.
Friday, August 22, 2014
"The Debt Penalty: Exposing the Financial Barriers to Offender Reintegration"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper authored by Douglas Evans with the Center for Research and Evaluation at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Here is the paper's summary:
Financial debt associated with legal system involvement is a pressing issue that affects the criminal justice system, offenders, and taxpayers. Mere contact with the criminal justice system often results in fees and fines that increase with progression through the system. Criminal justice fines and fees punish offenders and are designed to generate revenue for legal systems that are operating on limited budgets. However, fines and fees often fail to accomplish this second goal because many offenders are too poor to pay them.
To compound their financial struggles, offenders may be subject to other financial obligations, such as child support payments and restitution requirements. If they do not pay their financial obligations, they may be subject to late fees and interest requirements, all of which accumulate into massive debt over time. Even if they want to pay, offenders have limited prospects for meaningful employment and face wage disparities resulting from their criminal history, which makes it even more difficult to pay off their debt.
An inability to pay off financial debt increases the possibility that offenders will commit new offenses and return to the criminal justice system. Some courts re-incarcerate offenders simply because they are unable to settle their financial obligations. Imposing financial obligations and monetary penalties on offenders — a group that is overwhelmingly indigent — is not tenable. States often expend more resources attempting to recoup outstanding debt from offenders than they are able to collect from those who pay. This report explores the causes and effects of perpetual criminal debt and offers solutions for encouraging ex-offender payment.
August 22, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Third Circuit finds "reprehensible" conduct regarding victim restitution not grounds for revoking supervised release
A Third Circuit panel yesterday handed down an interesting ruling in US v. Bagdy, No. 13-2975 (3d Cir. Aug. 21, 2014) (available here), reversing the revocation of supervised released despite calling the defendant's conduct "reprehensible." Here is how the Bagdy opinion starts:
At issue on this appeal is whether supervised release may be revoked and an offender sent to prison based upon a District Court’s finding that the offender acted in bad faith in relation to his obligation to make restitution to the victims of his criminal conduct. In this case, although Appellant David Bagdy complied with the letter of the District Court’s restitution order by ultimately paying more than one-third of a $435,000 inheritance he had received while on supervised release, he engaged in a lavish spending spree that dissipated the balance of the inheritance while delaying the proceedings intended to modify the restitution order. Like the District Court, we find Bagdy’s conduct reprehensible. We conclude, however, that the District Court could not revoke supervised release for such bad faith conduct because Bagdy did not violate a specific condition of supervised release in relation to the restitution obligation. Accordingly, we will vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Pennsylvania Supreme Court declares $75K mandatory fine constitutionally excessive for $200 theft
Thanks to How Appealing, I just saw this fascinating new unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Pennsylvania v. Eisenberg, No. (Pa. Aug. 19, 2014) (available here). Here is how the lengthy opinion gets started:
The controlling issue in this unusual direct appeal from a conviction arising under the Gaming Act is whether imposition of a mandatory minimum fine of $75,000 for a conviction of a first-degree misdemeanor theft of $200 violates the prohibition of Article I, Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Constitution against excessive fines. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that, under the circumstances, the fine imposed indeed is unconstitutionally excessive. Accordingly, we vacate that portion of the judgment of sentence involving the mandatory fine and we remand to the trial court to determine, in its discretion, the appropriate fine to be imposed commensurate with appellant’s offense.
The full ruling is worth a full read by anyone interested in constitutional review of sentences, especially because the ruling turns in part on the fact that the punishment here involved a statutory mandatory term. Here is an excerpt from the heart of the opinion's analysis:
In our view, the fine here, when measured against the conduct triggering the punishment, and the lack of discretion afforded the trial court, is constitutionally excessive. Simply put, appellant, who had no prior record, stole $200 from his employer, which happened to be a casino. There was no violence involved; there was apparently no grand scheme involved to defraud either the casino or its patrons. Employee thefts are unfortunately common; as noted, appellant’s conduct, if charged under the Crimes Code, exposed him to a maximum possible fine of $10,000. Instead, because appellant’s theft occurred at a casino, the trial court had no discretion, under the Gaming Act, but to impose a minimum fine of $75,000 – an amount that was 375 times the amount of the theft....
The Commonwealth argues that the mandatory fine is not constitutionally excessive because a fine serves both to punish and to deter, and in the Legislature’s judgment, the amount here was necessary to accomplish both in light of the public perception of the gaming industry and the significant amount of money exchanged in casinos. We acknowledge that all fines serve the twin purposes of punishment and deterrence. At the same time, however, we note that the extension of the mandatory fine to this offense was adopted in 2010, and it was accompanied by no separate legislative statement of purpose. The only statement of purpose is that attending the initial Gaming Act legislation, i.e., the general statement of purpose to protect the public through regulation of the gaming industry. The Commonwealth cites nothing in the later legislation, its legislative history, or logic to explain the sheer amount of this fine for this particular added offense, and the reason for making the offense subject to a mandatory fine....
[T]he Commonwealth’s reliance on cases in which courts have upheld substantial criminal administrative penalties in light of the Legislature’s dual objectives of punishment and deterrence, is misplaced. In those cases, the fines were tailored, scaled, and in the strictest sense, calculated to their offenses. It is undoubtedly within the Legislature’s discretion to categorize theft from a casino differently than other theft crimes in Pennsylvania, and, in turn, to fashion different penalties. However, the prohibition against excessive fines under Article I, Section 13 requires that the Legislature not lose sight of the fact that fines must be reasonably proportionate to the crimes which occasion them. We hold that, as imposed here, the mandatory fine clearly, palpably and plainly violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.
August 20, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack
Thursday, July 24, 2014
"Paying for Gideon"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new essay by Beth Colgan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
To protect the “noble ideal” that “every defendant stands equal before the law,” Gideon v. Wainwright guaranteed the right to defense counsel for those who cannot afford it. Gideon’s concept is elegantly simple: if you are too poor to pay for counsel, the government will provide. The much more complicated reality, however, is that since Gideon, courts have assigned counsel to millions of American defendants too poor to pay for an attorney, have required those defendants to pay for their counsels’ services, and have punished those unable to do so.
This essay examines how we moved from Gideon’s guarantee to this reality. I assert that Gideon’s protection against recoupment for those with no ability to pay has remained hidden in plain sight due to misinterpretations in two lines of cases. The first line involves a series of cases in which the Court held that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment required the waiver of financial barriers to accessing the courts. The second line involves the misapplication of the Fifth Amendment’s collateral consequences doctrine to the Sixth Amendment’s effective assistance of counsel jurisprudence, leading to a misunderstanding that to be constitutionally effective, counsel need not advise a client about collateral consequences.
I posit that the intersection of these two lines of cases has obscured the unconstitutional nature of today’s recoupment schemes, pushing Gideon out of the picture. The more or less successful attempts by advocates, academics, and the courts to squeeze recoupment into a due process/equal protection/effective assistance of counsel frame misses the fact that today’s version of recoupment is itself a Gideon problem.
Friday, June 27, 2014
A 22-year-old driving his parents' RV from Colorado to Wisconsin with $50K, pot and a pit-bull gets pulled over in Nebraska...
The title of this post might make for the start of a great joke about modern America circa 2014. But, in fact, it is the factual basics of a fascinating little ruling today by the Eighth Circuit in US v. Nelson, No. 13-1902 (8th Cir. 2014) (available here).
In an effort not to "give away the joke," I am not going to say anything more about this case others that to suggest that those concerned about excessive police powers will be pleasantly surprised by the ending to this story provided by the Eighth Circuit panel's opinion.
Thursday, June 26, 2014
"What Is Criminal Restitution?"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Cortney Lollar now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
A new form of restitution has become a core aspect of criminal punishment. Courts now order defendants to compensate victims for an increasingly broad category of losses, including emotional and psychological losses and losses for which the defendant was not found guilty. Criminal restitution therefore no longer serves its traditional purpose of disgorging a defendant’s ill-gotten gains. Instead, restitution has become a mechanism of additional punishment. Courts, however, have failed to recognize the punitive nature of restitution and thus enter restitution orders without regard to the constitutional protections normally attaching to criminal proceedings.
This Article deploys a novel definition of punishment to situate restitution alongside other forms of punishment. Like all forms of punishment, restitution is imposed subsequent to a criminal allegation, pursuant to a statute motivated by morally condemnatory intent, and resulting in a substantial deprivation or obligation. Because restitution has become a form of punishment, this Article argues that judges should recognize criminal restitution for what it is — victim compensation imposed at the state’s request as condemnation for a moral wrong — and extend to defendants in restitution proceedings all the constitutional protections they enjoyed in earlier criminal proceedings. This means submitting restitution to a jury for determination pursuant to the Sixth Amendment, and subjecting it to the excessive-fines analysis of the Eighth Amendment.
Thursday, May 29, 2014
"Funding Favored Sons and Daughters: Nonprosecution Agreements and 'Extraordinary Restitution' in Environmental Criminal Cases"
The title of this post is the title of this recent article authored by Paul Larkin that a helpful reader altered me. Here is the abstract:
Over the past eight years, the federal government has entered into more than two hundred nonprosecution agreements with corporations in white-collar crime cases. In such agreements the government promises to cease its investigation and forego any potential charges so long as the corporation agrees to certain terms. And there’s the rub: given the economic realities of just being charged with a white-collar crime these days, corporations are more than willing to accept nonprosecution agreements.
Prosecutors are cognizant of this willingness, as well as of the fact that these agreements are practically insulated from judicial review. This results in the prosecution possessing a seemingly unfettered discretion in choosing the terms of a nonprosecution agreement. The breadth of this discretion is nowhere more apparent than in environmental criminal cases. Nonprosecution agreements in such cases have begun to require corporations to donate monetarily to a nonprofit of the government’s choosing. Indeed, in 2012 British Petroleum agreed to pay more than $2.394 billion to nonprofit agencies.
This Article critiques this practice by highlighting the inconsistencies between nonprosecution agreements and plea bargaining — the latter are subject to judicial review while the former are not — and unearthing the differences between these payments and any common-law understanding of restitutionary principles. The Article then suggests that the practical result of these nonprosecution agreements is that prosecutors are diverting money that ought to be paid to the Treasury to government-chosen nonprofit agencies, a power constitutionally granted to legislative actors. Finally, the Article concludes by suggesting a modest reform: judicial review by a United States magistrate judge, so as not to run into any Article III concerns, to ensure that prosecutors do not take advantage of the nonprosecution agreement process.
May 29, 2014 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack