Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Sentencing Bill Could Cost Taxpayers $760 Million Over 10 Years"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent report concerning the projected price tag for a sentencing proposal being discussed as an approach to dealing with Chicago's gun violence.  Here are the details:

A bill designed to reduce gun violence by increasing gun-crime sentences could end up costing Illinois taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, according to an investigation by NBC Chicago and The Chicago Reporter.

State Representative Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside) has proposed a bill to increase Illinois’ minimum mandatory prison sentence for gun violators from one year to three years. "We have to make sure individuals are afraid, frankly, of the law, and afraid of the consequences," Zalewski said. "I think three years sets a high bar that if you’re found guilty of the offense, you’re going to face serious consequences. You’re not going to be right back out on the street."

But critics say the bill is nothing more than "political theatre." What’s more, it’s prohibitively expensive, according to opponents like John Maki, Executive Director of the John Howard Association, a local prison-watchdog group. "It’s going to add about 4,000 inmates in about three years," Make explained. "It’s going to explode the budget."

The results of a study done by NBC Chicagos partner, The Chicago Reporter, would seem to support that view. The Reporter analyzed all criminal cases in Cook County Criminal Court from 2000 through 2011, and estimated that it cost taxpayers more than $5.3 billion to imprison Chicago criminals during that period. If those sentencing costs were extrapolated to include the increased prison time resulting from Zalewski’s gun-sentencing bill, The Reporter estimates the bill to taxpayers would have increased by an additional $760 million during that same time period....

As for the potential added expense of these expanded prison sentences, Zalewski is part of a separate discussion in Springfield, aimed at freeing up space in Illinois’ overcrowded prisons. The discussion centers around reducing the number of non-violent offenders — people convicted of such offenses as prostitution or drugs, for example — to make room for these more violent gun offenders.

Discussing this idea and similar gun sentencing proposals making the rounds in other states, Daniel Denvir has this recent commentary in The New Republic.  Its headline captures its themes: "The Worst Gun Control Idea Has Bipartisan Support: Why states should not pass new mandatory minimums for firearm possession."

May 12, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, May 06, 2013

Don't registered sex offenders need gun rights for personal self-defense more than others?

The question in the title of this post is my initial reaction to this big newpaper story from Iowa, headlined "50 sex offenders have gun permits: Law enforcement is concerned that state law allows offenders to easily obtain permits."  Here are excerpts from the lengthy Des Moines Register story,  which is less than fully informative about legal matters, but provides a lot of interesting facts nonetheless:

Joshua Duehr is one of more than 50 sex offenders in Iowa who can carry a gun in public. “I don’t leave the house without one,” said Duehr, who lives in Dubuque.

It’s legal — and it’s news that has surprised some state lawmakers and alarmed a few Iowa and national law enforcement officers.  An FBI official, the president of the Iowa State Sheriffs’ & Deputies’ Association, the president of the Iowa State Police Association and two state lawmakers told The Des Moines Register they have public safety concerns after learning that a two-year-old state law on gun permits allows registered sex offenders to obtain a weapons permit....

Some, if not most, applications by sex offenders for permits to carry weapons would have been denied by county sheriffs before 2011, according to officials from the Iowa Department of Public Safety.  But under a two-year-old state law, sheriffs no longer have discretion to reject such applications.

The law change means people convicted of misdemeanor sex crimes can now walk the streets, malls or virtually any public place in the state while carrying a gun.  Almost all of the sex offenders on the Register’s list were convicted of misdemeanors such as lascivious conduct with a minor or assault with intent to commit sexual abuse.

But the Register found three men convicted of felony sex crimes who had permits to carry weapons in public.  Two of those men had their permits revoked by sheriffs after the Register asked about their situations....

Some sheriffs were aware that sex offenders are carrying weapons in public, primarily because they issue the permits and have firsthand knowledge about the issue.  But other professionals in Iowa’s law enforcement community were caught off guard.

Rob Burdess, a Newton police detective and the president of the Iowa State Police Association, was unaware that sex offenders are being issued weapon permits until he was asked about it by the Register.  He noted that people with felonies or domestic abuse convictions are typically unable to obtain weapon permits, so he questions the logic of allowing sex offenders — even those convicted of non-felony offenses — to carry weapons in public....

[A] review of states surrounding Iowa found that some sex offenders can obtain permits to carry weapons even though authorities said they aren’t aware of a large number being issued.  Those states — including Nebraska, Missouri and Wisconsin — have laws similar to Iowa’s that do not specifically exclude sex offenders from obtaining such permits. Minnesota law, however, makes it a misdemeanor for a person required to register as a sex offender to carry a handgun.

Just as state laws vary, so do opinions about whether armed sex offenders inherently pose more of a risk than other citizens.  Sex offense recidivism rates are much lower than commonly believed, according to legislative testimony given in multiple states by Jill Levenson, an associate professor at Lynn University in Florida.  She is frequently recognized as a national expert on sexual violence....

National uniform crime data from 2006 — the most recent data available — show that about half of all reported sex offenses included a weapon of some form (including the use of fists) but less than 1 percent of all reported sex offenses included the use of a firearm, according to Jason Rydberg, a graduate student at Michigan State.  Iowa numbers mirror the national trend.  Of the roughly 5,750 people on Iowa’s sex offender registry, 47 — or less than 1 percent — used guns in their crimes, according to data from the Iowa Department of Public Safety....

The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, a national organization focused on the prevention of sexual abuse, generally advocates for cases to be reviewed individually when assessing if a sex offender is likely to reoffend or jeopardize public safety.  “There’s no blanket way of stating that sex offenders are more dangerous than everybody else,” said Maia Christopher, executive director of the association.

Iowa Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield and a former state trooper, isn’t reassured by the type of research offered by Levenson or groups like the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.  Until he was contacted for this article, Baudler was unaware that the new gun permit law he advocated for in 2010 has allowed dozens of sex offenders to obtain weapon permits....

An Iowa sheriff may deny a permit to carry a weapon if he believes probable cause exists that the person is likely to use a weapon in a way that would endanger themselves or others.  Those types of denials typically must be based on documented actions from the past two years.  Iowans who believe sheriffs have wrongly rejected their applications for a weapon permit may appeal.  Each appeal, generally reviewed by an administrative law judge, can cost a county government and taxpayers hundreds of dollars....

The cost and the real possibility of losing a case is one reason sheriffs don’t deny permits to carry weapons — even in cases where they have reservations — several sheriffs told the Register.

Washington County in January issued a permit to acquire a weapon to Ronald Nicholis Hahn Jr., who has been on the sex offender registry since 2005 because he was convicted of indecent exposure.  Dunbar said he approved the permit because Hahn passed background checks.  Hahn, 51, said he poses no threat to public safety and that he uses guns for hunting.  “My offense happened seven or eight years ago and it has nothing to do with weapons, so why should I be denied the ability to purchase a gun?” Hahn asked.

Rep. Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, indicated that he believes Iowa’s new weapons permit law doesn’t need to be revised to specifically ban sex offenders.  People convicted of felonies, including sex offenders, are already prohibited from obtaining a permit, he emphasized. “If their local sheriff does not have probable cause to restrict that person under current law from being able to obtain a permit, then that’s the situation at hand,” said Windschitl, a gunsmith who has advocated for multiple pro-gun bills.

Aggravatingly, this story fails to note that it is a serious federal crime, subject to up to 10 years imprisonment, for any and all persons convicted of a felony or a domestic violence misdemeanor from even possessing a gun. Thus, as the story indirectly notes, only persons without a felony or domestic violence conviction is even lawfully able to possess a gun, let alone get a lawful state permit for one. (I find notable that somehow three sex offender felons were able to get an Iowa gun permit, which perhaps highlights the need for background checks on how good current background checks are in the permit-issuance process in Iowa.)

More to the point of the question in the title of this post, if we think the Second Amendment right to bear arms is linked in some important and significant way to the natural right of personal self-defense (as Heller suggested), a reasonable claim might be made that it would be uniquely unconstitutional to deny gun permits to otherwise eligible persons on a state sex offender registry. There has long been considerable anecdotal evidence of considerable vigilante violence directed toward persons based simply on their presence on a sex offender registry. Given the history of private violence directed toward sex offenders — not to mention the possibility that local law enforcement might not be too quick to come to the aid of someone they know is a registered sex offender — I can fully understand why Joshua Duehr and other low-level registered sex offender might be afraid to move around in public without packing heat to potentially aid any efforts to exercise their natural right of self defense.

Though I do not fancy myself a Second Amendment expert, I wonder if a state law like Minnesota's  prohibiting misdemeanor sex offenders from having a firearm in constitutional in the wake of Heller and McDonald.  If and when a low-level sex offender in Minnesota or elsewhere could reasonably document a history of serious personal threats of serious violence directed toward him because of his placement on the registry and asserted a genuine belief in his need for a firearm in order to protect himself, could a state really require his name and address to stay on the sex offender registry while also denying him a right to keep and bear arms to defend himself?

May 6, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Second Amendment issues, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (90) | TrackBack

Friday, March 22, 2013

Based on new Louisiana constitutional provision, state judge strikes down law criminalizing felon gun posssission

As reported in this lengthy local article from New Orleans, some felons in the Bayou have gotten (for now) some benefit from the modern gun rights movement. Here are the basics:

An Orleans Parish judge on Thursday ruled that the state statute forbidding certain felons from possessing firearms is unconstitutional, in the wake of a constitutional amendment passed last year that made the right to bear arms a fundamental one in Louisiana.  The issue will now go straight to the state Supreme Court, which must decide whether the statute infringes on Louisiana citizens' now-enhanced right to gun possession.

Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny on Thursday dismissed the charge against one felon, but took his decision a step further than another judge faced with a similar decision earlier this month.

Derbigny ruled that the entire statute -- RS 14:95.1 -- was unconstitutional after voters last year approved by a sweeping majority a constitutional amendment backed by the National Rifle Association. That bill made gun ownership a "fundamental right," on the same level as freedom of speech or religion. A court interpreting any law restricting a fundamental right -- as gun ownership is now considered -- must approach it with "strict scrutiny," the highest level of judicial scrutiny.

Before Jan. 1, questions of gun rights were considered with "rational scrutiny," which allowed regulations to "protect the public health, safety, morals or general welfare." But strict scrutiny requires that the law is, first, necessary for a "compelling government interest." Then, it must be so narrowly defined as to serve only that interest and, third, be the least restrictive way of doing so.

The Orleans Parish public defenders office challenged the constitutionality of the statute on behalf of a half-dozen clients, all charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. The attorneys concede that public safety is a compelling interest to bar violent offenders, like murderers or armed robbers, from possessing weapons. But the law also bars people convicted of a number of less obviously violent felonies from possessing guns....

The case before Derbigny involved a 20-year-old man named Glen Draughter who had previously pleaded guilty to attempted simple burglary. Draughter was later caught riding in a car with two other people; a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson was in the backseat and an AK-47 with a 30-round magazine was in the trunk.

Public defenders Jill Pasquarella and Colin Reingold argued that under a strict-scrutiny test, the government must be able to provide compelling data showing that those convicted of crimes like simple burglary prove a heightened threat to society when armed. "There is, simply, no rational basis for stripping Louisianans of their rights ... where they have been convicted of crimes that are wholly unrelated to firearm possession or use," Pasquarella wrote to judges in this and several other cases.

Assistant District Attorney Matthew Payne submitted sociological studies suggesting a link between such offenses and a proclivity toward later violent crime.

But Derbigny on Thursday ruled that the statute infringed on constitutional protections when analyzed under a "strict scrutiny" test required of laws restricting fundamental rights. He wrote that it "is not narrowly tailored to achieve the government's interest."...

Judge Frank Marullo had already ruled in favor of defendants in several similar cases. But he did not declare the statute unconstitutional, saying his rulings applied to specific defendants and the circumstances of their cases. Judge Arthur Hunter is scheduled to hear a similar case later this month.

Payne on Thursday noted that he intends to appeal the decision. When a statute is deemed unconstitutional in its entirety, the appeal skips mid-level appeals courts and is fast-tracked straight to the state Supreme Court for review.

If the Supreme Court sides with Derbigny, and rules that the statute violates the state constitution, the law will be scrapped and the Legislature forced to rewrite it. If the court finds that the amendment makes the gun-possession law unconstitutional, it will also have to decide whether the unconstitutionality is retroactive -- which could jeopardize convictions that occurred before the amendment went into effect....

In the meantime, prosecutions of felons in possession of a firearm will continue on, said Chris Bowman, spokesman for Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. In the weeks leading up to the November election, with the gun rights amendment on the ballot, Cannizzaro warned of the possible fallout.

He wrote an op-ed column threatening that it would lead to a "flurry of litigation in which criminal defendants will challenge the constitutionality of current criminal laws regulating gun possession."

The nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research also urged voters to defeat the constitutional amendment, saying it "would expose the public to unnecessary risks and hamper law enforcement efforts" and adding: "There is no good reason to enter this uncharted territory." Gov. Bobby Jindal wrote an op-ed too, but his exhorted voters to pass the amendment, which he described as "an ironclad guarantee of freedom here in Louisiana."

In a prepared statement Thursday, the Jindal administration said: "We disagree with the judge's ruling. The amendment passed last session is not in conflict with Louisiana or federal law barring felons from owning guns."

Cannizzaro's office, meanwhile, offered an "I told you so" statement. "District Attorney Cannizzaro predicted that the passing of this amendment would cause prosecutors across the state to go to court and defend the constitutionality of 14:95.1," Bowman said Thursday.

Some related Second Amendment and gun policy posts:

March 22, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, March 18, 2013

Should NRA care more about gun rights for non-violent felons or those accused of domestic violence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new front-page New York Times article headlined "Ruled a Threat to Family, but Allowed to Keep Guns." Here is an excerpts from the first part of the article:

[I]n one of a handful of states, the protection order would have forced [an abusive husband] to relinquish his firearms.  But that is not the case in Washington and most of the country, in large part because of the influence of the National Rifle Association and its allies.

Advocates for domestic violence victims have long called for stricter laws governing firearms and protective orders.  Their argument is rooted in a grim statistic: when women die at the hand of an intimate partner, that hand is more often than not holding a gun.  In these most volatile of human dramas, they contend, the right to bear arms must give ground to the need to protect a woman’s life.

In statehouses across the country, though, the N.R.A. and other gun-rights groups have beaten back legislation mandating the surrender of firearms in domestic violence situations.  They argue that gun ownership, as a fundamental constitutional right, should not be stripped away for anything less serious than a felony conviction — and certainly not, as an N.R.A. lobbyist in Washington State put it to legislators, for the “mere issuance of court orders.”

That resistance is being tested anew in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., as proposals on the mandatory surrender of firearms are included in gun control legislation being debated in several states.

Among them is Washington, where current law gives judges issuing civil protection orders the discretion to require the surrender of firearms if, for example, they find a “serious and imminent threat” to public health.  But records and interviews show that they rarely do so, making the state a useful laboratory for examining the consequences, as well as the politics, of this standoff over the limits of Second Amendment rights.

By analyzing a number of Washington databases, The New York Times identified scores of gun-related crimes committed by people subject to recently issued civil protection orders, including murder, attempted murder and kidnapping.  In at least five instances over the last decade, women were shot to death less than a month after obtaining protection orders. In at least a half-dozen other killings, the victim was not the person being protected but someone else.  There were dozens of gun-related assaults like the one Ms. Holten endured.

The analysis — which crosschecked protective orders against arrest and conviction data, along with fatality lists compiled by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence — represents at best a partial accounting of such situations because of limitations in the data.  The databases were missing some orders that have expired or been terminated.  They also did not flag the use of firearms in specific crimes, so identifying cases required combing through court records....

In some instances, of course, laws mandating the surrender of firearms might have done nothing to prevent an attack.  Sometimes the gun used was not the one cited in the petition. In other cases, no mention of guns was ever made.  But in many cases, upon close scrutiny, stricter laws governing protective orders and firearms might very well have made a difference.

As long-time readers know, I find puzzling and troubling that the NRA or others are quick to assert or assume that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, if it really is about protecting a truly fundamental constitutional right, that it can be permanently stripped away for any and every felony conviction, even very-long-ago, indisputably non-violent drug possession or white-collar offenses.  This new article reinforces my sense that the NRA's advocacy policies, as well as existing gun laws and practices, are crude and problematic tools now often used to deny gun rights to persons who are not obviously dangerous while sometimes preserving gun rights for persons who are obviously dangerous.

Some related Second Amendment and gun policy posts:

March 18, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (29) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Interesting developments in "smart gun" discussions and debate

I just came across this notable piece from California on my favorite firearms topic, namely smart gun technologies and policies.  The report is headlined "Personalized guns touted as safety check," and here is how it starts:

In the latest James Bond movie, the hero is given a gun that recognizes the palm of his hand.  Later, when a bad guy snatches the pistol away in a tussle, it won't fire, and Agent 007 lives to die another day.  It may have felt like Hollywood fantasy, but the basic premise is very real — and very dear — to some lawmakers and gun control advocates.

They believe that in the age of smartphones and the aftermath of December's elementary school massacre in Connecticut, the time has come for a marriage of firearms — which have changed little for decades — and modern technology that allows all sorts of devices to be personalized to their user.

President Obama, in the anti-gun-violence plan he introduced in January, directed the attorney general to issue a report on "existing and emerging gun safety technologies."  He also promised prizes to companies that develop the smart guns.

Sensing momentum, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, introduced legislation last month that would require all handguns sold in the state to be "owner-authorized."  Under the bill, which is similar to one New Jersey passed in 2002, standard guns would become illegal for sale 18 months after the state Department of Justice determines personalized guns are readily available and function well.

The idea is that a gun should be useless if picked up by a child or a suicidal teen or stolen in a burglary.  The weapons would feature biometric technology such as fingerprint or grip recognition, or radio-frequency identification, which is used in employee-access badges and the toll-collection system FasTrak.

The guns could be used only by their owner, who in some cases would have to wear a special watch or ring to be able to fire the weapon.  The firearms could be configured to allow for multiple users, such as family members.

Skeptics of the technology point out that, despite years of research and high hopes, such guns are still not available in the United States.  But that may be changing.

Belinda Padilla, the head of U.S. sales for a German company called Armatix, said the firm plans to sell a .22-caliber pistol in the United States by this summer that works only after its user activates it by entering a five-digit code into a wristwatch.  The watch uses radio waves to communicate with the gun.  "The bottom line is, this exists now," said Stephen Teret, founder of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, who has followed the progress of personalized guns for years.  "The question isn't one of technological feasibility anymore, but one of policy."

No one doubts the tough politics around personalized guns, which have been studied and debated for more than two decades.  Many gun owners oppose them, saying they fear the technology will fail them in a pinch.  A major gun control group, the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., also opposes the idea, arguing that personalized technology would save few lives, distract from more important efforts, and give a false impression that guns are safe, perhaps driving new sales.

Brandon Combs, who heads the Calguns Foundation, a gun rights organization, said personalized guns aren't close to being marketable or reliable.  Even if they were, he said, a law mandating their sale would make guns much more expensive and difficult to use, infringing upon the constitutional right to bear arms. "We're creating laws now for a possible future that may or may not ever come to fruition, and to me that's silly," Combs said.  "The reality is this would do nothing but create another opportunity for California to ban handguns and make them expensive for people."

A few recent and older related posts:

March 9, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, March 01, 2013

Procedural rules now blocking efforts to undo convictions of federal defendants who are legally innocent

As reported in this new USA Today piece, headlined "Federal judge refuses to release innocent prisoners," a number of procedural issues are getting in the way of undoing federal convictions of defendants that the US Justice Department now recognizes are legally innocent.  Here are the details:

Even the federal prosecutors who put Gordon Lee Miller in prison couldn't get him out.  U.S. Justice Department lawyers took the unusual step in December of asking a federal judge to throw out Miller's conviction and free him because, they said, he had not actually broken the law.

But the judge's answer was still more unusual: No. 

The judge's ruling against Miller is among the latest in a handful of court decisions blocking — at least temporarily — efforts by defense lawyers and prosecutors to overturn convictions in hundreds of cases in which the Justice Department agrees that people were sent to prison improperly because of a misunderstanding of federal law. The decisions raise for the first time the prospect that scores of prisoners still waiting for courts to decide their cases might remain locked up.

"It's very frustrating," said Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, which has been tracking the cases.  "These are cases where everybody is on the same page. The government and the defense agree.  The only one standing in the way is the judge."  Miller finished his prison sentence while the case was being decided, but still must serve three years on supervised release.

The legal dispute stems from a misunderstanding about which North Carolina state convictions were serious enough to make having a gun a federal crime.  A USA TODAY investigation last year identified 60 people who had been sent to prison on gun charges even though an appeals court later determined that it was not illegal for them to have a gun.  The Justice Department had initially asked courts to keep the prisoners locked up anyway, but dropped that position last year "in the interests of justice," and is now asking courts to let them out.

In response, judges have so far freed 34 people and taken at least 16 others off supervised release, court records show.  A Justice Department review last year identified 175 others in the smallest of the state's three judicial districts who are entitled to be released or have their prison sentences reduced.

But this month, U.S. District Judge Robert Conrad in Charlotte turned down petitions by Miller and another man seeking to have their convictions overturned, even though prosecutors said in court filings that they were "convicted for conduct that we now understand is not criminal." Another judge, Martin Reidinger, has expressed skepticism that he can free five other men, and has asked prosecutors and defense lawyers to prepare additional filings before he makes his decision.

A Justice Department spokeswoman, Allison Price, declined to comment on the specifics of those cases, saying only that "the court is empowered with great discretion and we respect the court's decision."  The department has until next week to tell Reidinger whether it still believes the men can be freed.

Miller was sent to federal prison under a law that bars people from owning guns if they have already been convicted of a crime that could have put them in prison for more than a year.  But Miller's prior North Carolina convictions could have put him in jail for no more than eight months. Conrad — the former chief federal prosecutor in Charlotte — said in a Feb. 15 order that he could not upend Miller's conviction.  Miller, he wrote, was "lawfully sentenced under then-existing law," and an appeals court's 2011 decision that changed that understanding of the law did not apply to cases that were already concluded.

Miller's lawyers, who declined to comment, have appealed Conrad's order.  If an appeals court upholds the decision, it could effectively block other judges from overturning convictions in similar cases that are still pending in federal courts throughout North Carolina.

Related prior posts:

March 1, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, February 11, 2013

Talk in Chicago of increasing mandatory minimum sentences for gun possession

Chicago gunsAs reported in this new local article from Chicago, that city's "mayor, cops and prosecutors are taking aim at Illinois’ gun possession laws — calling for longer mandatory prison terms and 'truth in sentencing'." Here are some of the details of the proposal and the sentencing debate is has started to engender:

Their wish list includes boosting the minimum required sentence for people convicted of gun possession from one year in prison to three years. They hope to increase the minimum sentence for felons caught with guns from two years to three years.

They also want everyone convicted of felony gun possession to be required to serve 85 percent of their sentences. Now those inmates must complete only half their terms — and sometimes much less after earning “good time” in prison.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said the proposed reforms would deter more people from carrying guns illegally and would help curb violence. “The guys who are doing the shootings would be away from the corners for a longer time,” Alvarez said in an interview.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose office drafted the legislative proposals, is expected to announce them Monday with Alvarez and other officials. “Criminals continue to escape with minor sentences for possessing and using firearms,” Emanuel said in a prepared statement.

For months, police Supt. Garry McCarthy has proposed lengthening the mandatory sentence for gun possession to three years, pointing to New York City, where he was once a high-ranking cop. The state of New York passed a 3½-year mandatory minimum sentence for illegal gun possession in 2007. The following year, NFL star Plaxico Burress was arrested after a handgun he was carrying accidentally discharged and shot him.

Burress pleaded guilty to a lesser offense and was hit with a two-year jail term, drawing national attention to New York City as a place that cracks down on illegal gun possession. Criminologists point to the mandatory gun sentence in New York as one of the reasons for the Big Apple’s continuing decline in violent crime.

Chicago — whose murder tally rose 16 percent to 506 last year — has about three times as many murders per capita as New York. Also, about 85 percent of murders in Chicago involve a gun, compared to about 60 percent in New York.

While the cops and prosecutors in charge of locking up criminals support lengthier sentences, one judge said the General Assembly — and the public — need to think hard before making the gun laws harsher. “As a taxpayer of this state, I would hope the legislators are cognizant that creating mandatory minimum sentences creates a financial consequence to the state,” said Cook County Judge Nicholas Ford.  “A lot of judges bristle at mandatory minimum sentences.  It’s not my position to question it.  It’s my job to enforce whatever the legislature forwards me.

“But for a person who’s never been convicted of a felony, for a person who’s never committed a violent crime, for a taxpayer who’s never had any problems with the law, I wonder about that,” Ford said.

Alvarez responded that few people without criminal backgrounds are charged with felony gun possession in Cook County.  “You will see that once in a while, but that is when our discretion [as prosecutors] comes into play in charging and in looking at cases once they’re in the system,” she said.

Supporters of mandatory minimum sentences say they also provide a predictable outcome. Indeed, a Chicago Sun-Times examination found wide disparities in how often Cook County judges put people behind bars for gun possession before mandatory minimum sentences fully took effect in early 2011.

Ford, for example, sentenced 42 defendants for gun possession and sent about 76 percent to prison. About 21 percent received probation and 2 percent went to boot camp. The length of his average prison sentence was almost two and a half years. Judge Michael Brown, meanwhile, sentenced 45 defendants. About half went to prison, 23 percent received community service, 18 percent probation and 5 percent boot camp. But the length of his average prison sentence was more than three years.

Overall, Cook County judges sent nearly three-quarters of such defendants to prison for an average sentence of almost two and a half years.  About 14 percent got probation, 6 percent boot camp and 4 percent community service.  The newspaper studied 2011 sentencing outcomes in felony gun possession cases that didn’t include other types of crimes.

Many of those cases involved 2010 arrests, which didn’t apply to the mandatory minimum sentences that took effect in 2011. A separate law that took effect in late 2009 requires a minimum sentence of three years for gang members convicted of carrying a loaded gun.

The Sun-Times analysis found that judges sometimes sentenced defendants to Cook County boot camp — a four-month program with eight additional months of strict supervision. Ford called boot camp a “really solid disposition” for younger defendants without a felony record or violent background.

But Alvarez said she doesn’t think judges should have the option to sentence such defendants to boot camp. “It’s not ‘pen’ time,” she said. “I think the law is clear that they should not be giving boot camp, but judges see it a different way.”

Alvarez said she’s considering discussing the matter with Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans and “seeing if there’s something we need to change legislatively — or litigate it.” As Alvarez and other politicians pursue tougher gun laws, one man convicted of illegal gun possession surprisingly said they’re right.

Matthew Munoz, 24, was arrested in 2011 after he and his pals got into a squabble with rival gang members on the South Side.... Munoz was eligible for probation because his crime happened in 2010, before the one-year mandatory minimum took effect. He was sentenced to two years’ probation, but after one year he messed up when he tried to foil a drug test.

Munoz was sent to prison. But because he got credit for time he spent in the Cook County Jail, he said he spent only one day at Stateville Correctional Center. “It’s called ‘dress in and dress out,’ ” he said.

Munoz is now on parole, which he vows to complete successfully. He plans to go to school and get a job. “Some people need prison to learn their lesson,” Munoz said. “I wish I got sent to prison a long time ago. I kept getting probation for this and that. . . . Chicago is getting out of control with the gang violence. They should send those guys to prison — even guys like me.”

As serious sentencing fans know well, and as this article helps highlight, mandatory minimum sentencing laws do not really mandate prison for all offenders.  Rather, they mostly serve to transfer the discretion as to which offenders go to prison from judges to prosecutors. 

If there is good research indicating that this transfer of discretion in the gun crime settings help to reduce illegal gun use and gun violence, I can understand why folks in Chicago and elsewhere think increased mandatory minimums should be a needed response to gun crimes and gun violence.  But, as lots of research and experience reveals in the federal system and elsewhere, having prosecutors as exercising the most sentencing discretion via mandatory minimums tends to increase sentencing disparities, not ensure that similar defendants always receive similar sentences.

Recent and older related posts:

February 11, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Friday, February 08, 2013

"What the Gun Lobby and the Marijuana Lobby Have in Common"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary by Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic.  It gets started this way:

Last week, I took a glancing look at some of the most dubious gun measures creeping up from state legislatures all over the country since the beginning of the year. The statutory text may differ from state to state, but the theme of those post-Newtown proposals are essentially the same: Under the banner of federalism, expressing alarm at federal power, earnest lawmakers are seeking to use new state laws to prevent law enforcement officials from enforcing existing (and future) federal gun regulations.

At the same time, also in the last five weeks, lawmakers in at least 18 states -- more than one-third of the nation -- have proposed dozens of new marijuana laws that would dramatically alter the way millions of people interact with pot.  Again, the details differ from bill to bill.  But, again, the underlying theme is familiar: Under the banner of federalism, expressing disdain with federal power, earnest lawmakers are seeking through these measures to erode the scope of federal law, which still classifies marijuana as a dangerous drug that is illegal to sell or possess.

The new generation of gun laws, which run directly counter to national public opinion, is rooted in the fealty of state lawmakers to the 10th Amendment, to the 2nd Amendment, to gun industry lobbyists and to its tribune, the National Rifle Association.  And these measures, if passed, would be patently unconstitutional.  You can amend or repeal a federal statute, in other words, including of course a federal gun regulation, but as a state lawmaker you cannot seek to punish federal officials who are trying to enforce it.

On the other hand, the new generation of marijuana laws, which represent growing national support for reasonable reform, is a direct result of the stunning election success last November of two legalization measures in Colorado and in Washington.  These measures, too, on their face, violate federal marijuana law.  And, ultimately, either the federal law will have to change, or these state laws will have to change.  That change isn't likely to come first from the courts.  It's going to have to come from lawmakers, from Congress, and the White House.

February 8, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

More proof mandatory sentencing laws are never really mandatory and can enhance disparities

Guns-prison5One typical argument for mandatory sentencing provisions, whether in the form of statutory minimums or rigid guideline structures, is that they ensure all persons who commit a certain kind of crime will be sure to get a certain kind of sentence. But even if one believes such one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing can be justified normatively in some settings, real-world evidence reveals again and again and again that criminal justice actors will devise various ways (some hidden, some in the open) to avoid consistent application of these mandates. The latest proof of this reality appears in this lengthy article from yesterday's New York Times, which is headlined "Prison Isn’t as Mandatory as State’s Gun Laws Say." Here are excerpts:

The last time New York State’s gun laws were tightened, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg rolled out a graphic reminder of what would happen to anyone caught carrying a loaded, illegal weapon. “Guns = Prison,” public service posters proclaimed categorically.  In 2006, the mandatory prison sentence was increased to 3.5 years from 1 year.

Five years later, though, that equation seemed decidedly more equivocal.  In 2011, the latest year for which sentencing statistics are available, fewer than half the defendants who had been arrested for illegal possession of a loaded gun in New York City received a state prison sentence, according to an analysis of criminal justice statistics by the mayor’s office.  In the Bronx, as few as 31 percent were imprisoned. In Brooklyn the rate was 41 percent; in Staten Island it was 47 percent; in Manhattan it was 68 percent; and in Queens it was 76 percent.

Still, the proportion of defendants sentenced to prison represents an improvement over previous years, said John Feinblatt, the mayor’s chief policy adviser and criminal justice coordinator.  “Before the new law in 2006, which required anyone convicted of felony possession of an unlicensed loaded gun to serve three and a half years, the prison rate was 28 percent,” he said.  “We’ve made a lot of progress.”

But the fact that only half the suspects arrested wind up in state prison also demonstrates that the prerogatives of prosecutors and judges still create a lot of wiggle room, particularly in cases that are weaker or have mitigating circumstances.   Mr. Feinblatt said the laws had what he called a “gigantic loophole”: prison sentences are mandatory except where the interests of justice would dictate otherwise. “You could drive a Mack truck through that,” he said.

Sometimes, he said, prosecutors reduce the charges appropriately as a result of plea bargaining, which spares the time and expense of going to trial in a marginal case, as when a weapon is found in a car carrying several people and it is difficult to prove who had physical possession, or the seizure is subject to constitutional challenges over its reasonableness.  In pressing for a stricter assault weapons ban last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the law had “more holes than Swiss cheese.”

Even some of the more stringent assault weapons provisions rushed through the Legislature last week, while raising minimum penalties, have left some prosecutors puzzled.  For example, the new law says those penalties “shall” be imposed, not “must be.”  The law also leaves some latitude if a judge, “having regard to the nature and circumstances of the crime and to the history and character of the defendant,” finds that meting out consecutive sentences for multiple offenses “would be unduly harsh and that not imposing such sentence would be consistent with the public safety and would not deprecate the seriousness of the crime.”

Richard A. Brown, the district attorney in Queens, has taken the word “mandatory” more literally.  “The statistics bear out the effectiveness of the supply-and-demand strategy that we have been following for some time here in Queens,” he said.  “On the one hand, we aggressively go after the gun supply by going after those who traffic in illegal weapons, and on the other hand we concentrate on controlling the demand for illegal guns by making it clear that if you illegally possess a gun in Queens County, there is a very strong likelihood that you are going to state prison.”...

The ratio of arrests to prison sentences is only one measure of the law’s effectiveness.  By another measure, of the 448 defendants sentenced in New York State in 2011 after conviction on the top illegal gun possession charge, 437 received a term of at least three and a half years.  That same year, 3,018 people were arrested on that charge in the state. State Division of Criminal Justice Services officials caution that comparisons between arrests and convictions can be imprecise because not all the cases are adjudicated in one calendar year.

Steven Reed, spokesman for the Bronx district attorney, said the comparison of arrests and prison sentences of three and a half years also did not account for the number of shorter prison sentences imposed after guilty pleas, or after the many convictions in the cases that prosecutors chose to try.  “When those numbers are included, the incarceration rate for gun cases in the Bronx is nearly 85 percent,” he said.  (In Queens that rate is 98 percent.)...

Still, Mr. Feinblatt, the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator, suggested that the 50 percent mandatory minimum imprisonment rate remained too low.  “Maybe I can’t answer what should it be,” he said, “but when I look and see that one borough is doing 76 percent, I certainly see what it can be.”

Though a bit confusing in its data reporting, this article still is so very telling as to how the "prerogatives of prosecutors" ultimately determine whether and how mandatory sentencing provisions are applied and how the policies and practices of different local prosecutors can have more profound impact on sentencing outcomes in the shadow of mandatory sentencing laws than any other factor. And the final comment by the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator here is especially telling when he says he "can’t answer what should" be the imprisonment rate for offenders who break a law which is supposed to indicate a legislative and executive commitment to the principle that 100% of persons who commit a certain crime should get prison time.

Though sophisticated criminal justice participants already know this story well, this article provide still more evidence about the real import and impact of so-called mandatory sentencing laws: they dramatically impact the power of prosecutors to control sentencing outcomes and thus increase prosecutors' leverage to shape all prior stages of the criminal justice system. In turn, unless and until the discretionary decisions of prosecutors are subject to greater regulation, scrutiny, accountability and review, mandatory sentencing laws are likely to enhance (and hide from view) sentencing disparites.

January 22, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sentencing "highlights" in President Obama's new gun control push

Thanks to this helpful piece from the New York Times, which is headlined "What’s in Obama’s Gun Control Proposal," I see that at least a few of the latest idea on gun control coming from the White House involve sentencing matters.  Via the list provided by the Times, here is a partial account of the provisions likely to be of greatest interest to sentencing fans:

Proposed Congressional Actions

• Requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales, including those by private sellers that currently are exempt.

• Reinstating and strengthening the ban on assault weapons that was in place from 1994 to 2004....

• Increasing criminal penalties for "straw purchasers," people who pass the required background check to buy a gun on behalf of someone else.

• Acting on a $4 billion administration proposal to help keep 15,000 police officers on the street....

Executive actions...

• Directing the attorney general to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks....

• Issuing a presidential memorandum to require federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations.

• Releasing a report analyzing information on lost and stolen guns and making it widely available to law enforcement authorities.

• Maximizing enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime.

• Issuing a presidential memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence.

• Directing the attorney general to issue a report on the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies and challenging the private sector to develop innovative technologies.

As regular readers know, the last listed item here is of particular interest to me because I continue to want to believe that smart gun technologies may be a much more effective and efficient means to reduce gun violence than lots of new prohibitions or increased sentences and other costly criminal justice investments.

Prior related posts following Newton masacre:

January 16, 2013 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Fascinating federal "gun control" criminal charges in wake of NY ambush murder-suicide

This AP story, headlined "New York woman arrested in connection with murder of 2 firefighters," discusses the federal criminal law follow-up to the depressing ambush murder-suicide that took place in upstate New York earlier this week (discussed here).  Here are some details:

William Spengler raised no alarms in prison for 17 years and for more than a decade afterward.  Well-spoken, well-behaved and intelligent, his demeanor was praised by four straight parole boards that nevertheless denied him parole, worried that bludgeoning his 92-year-old grandmother with a hammer showed a violent streak that could explode again.

After his sentence was up in 1996, he stayed out of trouble until 2010, police said Friday. That's when Spengler went to a sporting goods store with a neighbor's daughter, picked out a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle and a shotgun and had her buy the guns that the convicted felon couldn't legally possess.  On Monday, he used the weapons to ambush firefighters lured to a blaze he set at his house in upstate Webster, killing two people and wounding three others before killing himself.

On Friday, state and federal authorities charged the woman who bought the guns, 24-year-old Dawn Nguyen, with lying on a form that said she would be the owner of the guns she bought for Spengler.  The charges involve the semiautomatic rifle and the 12-gauge shotgun that Spengler had with him Monday when volunteer firefighters Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka were gunned down.  Three other people, including two other firefighters, were wounded before the 62-year-old Spengler killed himself.  He also had a .38-caliber revolver, but Nguyen is not connected to that gun, police said....

U.S. Attorney William Hochul said Nguyen bought the two guns on June 6, 2010, on behalf of Spengler.  Police used the serial numbers on the guns to trace them to Nguyen.  "She told the seller of these guns, Gander Mountain in Henrietta, N.Y., that she was to be the true owner and buyer of the guns instead of William Spengler," Hochul said.  "It is absolutely against federal law to provide any materially false information related to the acquisition of firearms."

During an interview late on Christmas Eve, she told police she had bought the guns for personal protection and that they were stolen from her vehicle, though she never reported the guns stolen.  The day after the shootings, Nguyen texted an off-duty Monroe County Sheriff's deputy with references to the killings.  She later called the deputy and admitted she bought the guns for Spengler, police said Friday....

As police announced the charges against Nguyen, a clearer portrait of Spengler began to emerge, in the words of wary parole commissioners who kept him locked up until the law said they had to let him go.  At his final parole hearing in 1995, the then-45-year-old Spengler repeated his desire to get out of prison while he still had time to rebuild his life. He also took issue with a previous decision not to release him because the board believed he remained a danger to society....

During four hearings between 1989 and 1995, Spengler quarreled with parole board members over details of his grandmother's killing, insisting each time he'd only hit her three times on the head with a hammer while evidence pointed to 13 blows, and initially saying he couldn't explain why the attack happened....

The transcripts reveal a well-spoken man, proud to be staying out of trouble in prison and earning positions of trust and responsibility, even time out of prison with a work crew that did renovation work in places including a century-old chapel.  The board members mention Spengler testing high for intelligence and noted he came to prison with no other crimes on his record, had only dabbled in drug use and had a spotty work history, mostly as a house painter....

"So why do you think you killed her?" Spengler was asked in 1989.  "I still haven't figured that out. It was matter of just wanting to get out. She was between me and the door," he replied.

"She was just a little, bitty old lady," a board member commented.  "I realize that. That's why I still can't explain it," Spengler said.

This gun-buying back-story and the federal criminal charges facing Dawn Nguyen raise so many issues concerning not only the challenges of gun control, but ultimately sentencing purposes, policies and practices. Federal law imposes serious penalties on any felons possessing any guns — a prohibition which itself seems suspect if the Second Amendment's protection of self-defense rights is to be viewed as a serious natural/constitutional right for all persons — but this case highlights how easily even this widely accepted form of gun control can be evaded.  Sophisticated "smart gun" technology (recently discussed here and here) might help on this front by ensuring only legal/registered buyers can operate the gun, but even a "Lojack-style" gun operation technology would have difficulty prevent "neighborly friends" like Dawn Nguyen from aiding prohibited persons like William Spengler from getting access to firearms.

Speaking of Spengler and Nguyen, I continue to focus on the reality that Spengler apparently served over 17 years as a seemingly changed person in prison and was successful on parole for another decade thereafter.  It seems possible that Dawn Nguyen did not know Spengler was a convicted killer when he asked for help getting firearms; even if she did, Spengler likely convinced her that his criminal past was way in the past.  Moreover, Spengler apparently possessed the guns bought by Nguyen for him for over two years without incident (and another gun, for that matter) before Spengler snapped and turned (back?) into a homicidal evil killer.

Given that it appears Nguyen is ready to admit commiting a federal "gun control" crime, her involvement in this tragic event is now full of challenging federal sentencing issues.  I seriously doubt that Nguyen even considered the prospect of Spengler would commit a serious crime with the guns she bought for him, let alone multiple murders.  Should she still be held criminally responsible at sentencing for the horrific harms caused by the guns she bought based on a lie?  Should the many victims of Spengler's crimes get to be involved in her prosecution and eventual sentencing?  Especially if and when a plea deal is considered by the involved attorneys, is there a particular sentence or sentencing range that is obviously too lenient or too harsh for Nguyen "gun control" crime?  (Bill Otis spotlights some of these issues in this new post at Crime & Consequences titled "Should We Criminally Punish Non-Violent, Regulatory Offenses?".)

A few recent related posts:

December 29, 2012 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (76) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 20, 2012

"Empirical evidence suggests a sure fire way to dramatically lower gun homicides: repeal drug laws"

Homicides-1900-20062The title of this post is drawn from the title of this lengthy must-read post by Dan Kahan over at The Cultural Cognition Project blog. The post not only satiates my desire to have some distinct (and seemingly more productive) discussions about gun violence in the wake of the Newtown massacre than being provided by traditional media outlets, but it also makes a bunch of points that ought to be of interest to all persons on all sides of the tired-old gun-control debates. Dan's terrific post should be read in full, and I hope this taste (with some of his many links) will encourage everyone to click through to it:

I now want to point out that in fact, while the empirical evidence on the relationship between gun control and homicide is (at this time at least) utterly inconclusive, there certainly are policies out there that we have very solid evidence to believe would reduce gun-related homicides very substantially.

The one at the top of the list, in my view, is to legalize recreational drugs such as marijuana and cocaine.

The theory behind this policy prescription is that illegal markets breed competition-driven violence among suppliers by offering the prospect of monopoly profits and by denying them lawful means for enforcing commercial obligations.

The evidence is ample.  In addition to empirical studies of drug-law enforcement and crime rates, it includes the marked increase in homicide rates that attended alcohol prohibition and the subsequent, dramatic deline of it after repeal of the 18th Amendment.

Actually, it's pretty interesting to look at homicide rates over a broader historical time frame than typically is brought into view by those who opportunistically crop the picture in one way or another to support their position for or against gun control.  What you see is that there is a pretty steady historical trend toward decline in the US punctuated by expected noisy interludes but also by what appear to be some genuine, and genuinely dramatic, jumps & declines.

One of the jumps appears to have occurred with the onset of prohibition and one of the declines with repeal of prohibition. Social scientists doing their best to understand the evidence generally have concluded that that those are real shifts, and that they really were caused by prohibition and repeal.

Criminologists looking at the impact of drug prohibition can use the models developed in connection with alcohol prohibition and other modeling strategies to try to assess the impact of drug prohibition on crime.  Obviously the evidence needs to be interpreted, supports reasonable competing interpretations, and can never do more than justify provisional conclusions, ones that are necessarily subject to revision in light of new evidence, new analyses, and so forth.

But I'd say the weight of the evidence pretty convincingly shows that drug-related homicides generated as a consequence of drug prohibition are tremendously high and account for much of the difference in the homicide rates in the U.S. and those in comparable liberal market societies....

There is a very interesting empirical study, though, by economist Jeffrey Miron, who concludes that the available evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that the difference in homicide rates in the US and in other liberal market societies is attributable to our drug prohibition policies.  Gun availability in the US, according to this hypothesis, doesn't directly account for the difference in homicide rates between the US and these countries; rather, gun availability mediates the impact between drug prohibition and homicide rates in the US, because the criminogenic properties of drug prohibition create both a demand to murder competitors and a demand for guns to use for that purpose....

Repealing drug laws would do more -- much, much, much more -- than banning assault rifles (a measure I would agree is quite appropriate); barring carrying of concealed handguns in public (I'd vote for that in my state, if after hearing from people who felt differently from me, I could give an account of my position that fairly meets their points and doesn't trade on tacit hostility toward or mere incomprehension of whatever contribution owning a gun makes to their experience of a meaningful free life); closing the "gun show" loophole; extending waiting periods etc.  Or at least there is evidence for believing that, and we are entitled to make policy on the best understanding we can form of how the world works so long as we are open to new evidence and aren't otherwise interfering with liberties that we ought, in a liberal society, to respect.

Prior related posts following Newton masacre:

December 20, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"Smart Gun Technology Could Have Blocked Adam Lanza"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Huffington Post commentary by David Shuster, which I view as a long-needed and welcome example of a new kind of discourse over gun control needed in the wake of the Newtown massacre.  Here are excerpts:

As our leaders begin the uncertain political debate over gun control, there is a simple and straightforward policy solution right now that would uphold gun owners' 2nd amendment rights and still keep our kids safer.  It's called "smart gun technology."

The system is similar to "smart technology" already in use for things like cars, iPhones and security doors.  A computer microchip measures the bio-metric details of the person attempting to activate the product. If the details match the rightful owner, the device is "enabled." If the details don't match, the device will not work or open.

Smart gun technology has been around for years. CBS News profiled a New Jersey institute that was perfecting it in 2009. Science Daily had a story about the emerging technology back in 2005,

The most reliable smart gun technology involves a grip recognition system.  There are 16 digital sensor chips embedded in the handle. The computerized sensors capture the unique pattern and pressure of your grip, plus the specific size of your hand.  If someone else tries to use the gun, the information will not match the stored pattern of the gun owner's — and the weapon will not fire....

[T]his technology, as well as similar versions involving fingerprint recognition, could be embedded in guns today.  But for years, the National Rifle Association has blocked these efforts, in part because they would make guns costlier to produce and purchase.  The NRA has also insisted that smart gun technology would infringe upon the Second Amendment. Constitutional experts say that argument is absurd.  The Constitution allows for all kinds of product regulations....

The best argument against smart gun technology is a logistical one. It could prevent a homeowner who wrestles away an intruder's gun from firing it back at them. I think we can agree, however, that such MacGyver-like situations are exceedingly rare.  And the fact is, 10 to 15 percent of guns used in home invasions, robberies and mass shootings are weapons that have been stolen.

Furthermore, smart gun technology allows for multiple biometric "identities" to be stored in one gun.  This would solve a problem for police or members of the military who may want to have the option of "sharing weapons."

In the case of the Connecticut massacre, is it possible that Adam Lanza's mother, a gun enthusiast who reportedly took her sons to the range, would have embedded Adam's biometric data on her weapons if that was possible?  Sure.  But family baby sitters have told reporters that Nancy Lanza repeatedly urged "caution" around Adam and was worried about his behavioral problems....

The weapons Adam Lanza relied on were not his. They belonged to his mother, the only person entitled to use them.  And while she may have taught her son how to fire the weapons at shooting ranges over the years, she was the sole owner of the weapons, not him.  If smart technology had been in place, the weapons would have likely been useless to Adam Lanza.

And that's the point. Congress and the President should begin their new effort at preventing mass shootings by mandating something that might have made a different in Newtown, Conn. — require smart gun technology in all weapons.  Just as our nation insists on basic quality standards for cars, houses, tools, air, water, and etc, insisting on basic features for all weapons that may be "fired" is perfectly reasonable.

It's not about taking guns away.  It's about making sure that guns can't be fired by anybody but their lawful owners.  Is that too much to ask?

As long-time readers know, I have been talking up smart-gun technology on this blog for years (examples here and here), and I have been sincerely hoping that the horrific shooting in Connecticut will start generating new and needed buzz on this encouraging front. This Huff Post commentary is a good start, and I sure hope the new leadership and initiatives coming from President Obama and VP Biden (basics here from the AP) will be focused like a laser on the potential pros and cons of smart guns.

Prior posts both old and new:

December 19, 2012 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Could latest tragic mass shooting prompt renewed consideration of "smart gun" technologies?

Like so many others, I have been struggling to come to terms with the largely incomprehensible and horrifically tragic mass murder in Connecticut on Friday.  And the struggle has not been especially aided by another round of the same old debates over the politics and practicalities of gun control and over the so-called "gun culture" in the United States.  But a helpful reader reminded me of my posts nearly five years ago here and here about the prospect of smart-gun technologies being a possible frontier for a better gun control discourse.

Because I am not well-versed on gun manufacturing or the modern devises that now control and monitor smart phones and smart cars, I still cannot readily discuss what kind of engineering might have allowed Adam Lanza's mother to buy all the guns she wanted without making it so easy for her son to murder her and so many innocent teachers and children with her guns.  But I have an inkling that most (all?) legal gun purchasers — and surely all law enforcement agencies — would love to have guns that, through some sort of advanced technological means, would become disabled if pointed toward the authorized owner and/or would not function in certain regions and/or would not fire more than a single shot without a special user code. 

Rather than go on and on as I did years ago concerning the seeming value (and failure of) advancing smart-gun technologies with the help of modern GPS tracking, I will close here by linking to my old posts on this topic and by encouraging readers to supply links to any new (or old) discussions of new gun technologies.

Prior posts from way back in February 2008:

UPDATE:  For clarity, I wanted to add that I fully recognize that smart-gun technologies would surely not eliminate all (or even most) gun crimes or harmful/illegal uses of firearms.  But I do think advanced gun technology could and should reduce misuse and harms, just as smart car and related safety technologies have reduced the number and severity of car accidents.

December 16, 2012 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (31) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Does the last decade add support for "more guns, less crime" claims?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new USA Today story, which is headlined "Federal gun checks surge as violent crime ebbs."  Here is how the piece starts:

The number of federally required background checks of prospective gun purchasers has nearly doubled in the past decade — a time when violent crime has been in long decline in many places across the USA, according to FBI records.

The bureau's National Instant Check System (NICS) does not track actual firearms sales — multiple guns can be included in one purchase.  But the steady rise in background checks — from 8.5 million in 2002 to 16.8 million in 2012 — tracks other indicators that signal escalating gun sales.

Advocates on both sides of the gun-rights debate disagree over what is driving the trend. Gun-rights groups attribute the steady increase to the growing popularity of hunting and other gun-recreation uses, the impact of state laws allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns and concerns that the Obama administration will push for laws restricting weapons purchases.

Gun-control advocates, led by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, say existing gun owners are responsible for most new purchases (about 20% of gun owners possess 65% of the nation's guns, according to a 2006 Harvard study).  Brady Campaign President Dan Gross said concerns about new gun-control laws are part of a "marketing ploy" to keep firearms moving.

No gun-control legislation was passed in President Obama's first term and no major proposal was offered during the 2012 presidential election campaign.  Still, there is an "expectation" that new gun-control proposals will surface in Obama's second term, said National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.  "People expect a siege on the Second Amendment (right to bear arms).''

Larry Keane, senior vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said gun-related recreation — from hunting to target shooting on the range — is growing, too.  From 2006 through 2011, spending on hunting equipment grew by nearly 30%, according to a national survey published in August by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Keane said the overall firearms industry has thrived despite the sputtering economy and the decline in violent crime. "Personal safety still is a big reason people purchase firearms," Keane said.  "The economic downturn, I think, raised fears that crime would eventually go back up."

December 13, 2012 in Data on sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

What do folks think of a local "violence tax" on guns and ammunition?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new local article out of Chicago, headlined "Cook County Considers 'Violence Tax'." Here are the interesting details:

A potential Cook County tax takes aim at guns, and gun rights activists aren't happy about it.

County president Toni Preckwinkle is considering a "violence tax" on guns and ammunition to help plug a $115 million budget gap in 2013. Under the tax, guns and ammunition would cost more, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, but Preckwinkle isn't saying how much more just yet.

The idea follows a violent Chicago summer, when some weekends left multiple people killed and dozens others injured in shootings. The city's murder rate is up 25 percent, and the Cook County Jail is near capacity with 9,000-plus inmates....

The idea raises questions about how much this would raise for the county and whether the tax would really cut down on crime.

"If we can tax cigarettes, it seems we can tax bullets and guns," said Chicago resident Cathryn Taylor. "But at the same time, I get the point that if people are buying the stuff illegally, then the tax doesn't matter because they aren't going through legal channels anyway."

The idea has come up before. Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) pushed for a 10-cent per-bullet tax back in 2007 when he was Cook County board commissioner. That didn't happen....

Preckwinkle's budget proposal is set to be unveiled Oct. 18, and an ammunition tax isn't the only potential money maker on the table. The board president reportedly wants to lease the top two floors of the County Building in Chicago's Loop for what she estimates could net at least $1 million a year for 10 years.

In response to this story, I cannot help but think about Chris Rock's great riff on gun control and "bullet control" in which he explains just why the world would be so much better if each bullet cost $5,000.

October 9, 2012 in Gun policy and sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How often do US Attorneys "fail to exercise responsible oversight and failed to provide the leadership and judgment required of a United States attorney"?

The question in the title of this post is drawn from a quote in DOJ's inspector general's report on "Operation Fast and Furious" (highlights of which CNN has excerpted here).  Specifically, the F&F report singles out the (now resigned) US Attorney of Arizona, Dennis Burke, for his failings as quoted in the title of this post. 

A congressional hearing this morning is likely discuss this notable finding and other sharp criticisms of DOJ agents and officials in the F&F report to try to give the Obama Administration, and especially AG Eric Holder, a political black eye.  But even though often seemingly motivated more by political point-scoring than broader concerns about prosecutorial practices, I sincerely hope that the entire F&F debacle might help folks on both sides of the aisle see that federal prosecutors often can conclude that big-government, federal law enforcement ends are all too often used as a justification for utilizing very poor means by US Attorneys and their agents.

I have not followed the Fast and Furious political fights closely enough, nor do I have time to read the new 500+-page report, in order to be able to make a thoughtful assessment of whether this whole prosecutorial mess might have a potential reform silver lining.  But I hope commentors will share their take on what the new F&F report and the broader controversy should lead us to conclude about the working dynamics and mind-set of the always powerful US Department of Justice and its US Attorneys.

September 20, 2012 in Gun policy and sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Documenting the extremes of stacked federal gun mandatory sentences

This recent Reuters article, headlined "Florida man sees 'cruel' face of U.S. justice," details an extreme (but not all that uncommon) federal sentencing story resulting from stacked mandatory gun minimums. Here is how it starts:

Quartavious Davis is still shocked by what happened to him in federal court two months ago.  "My first offense, and they gave me all this time," said Davis, a pudgy African American with dreadlocks who spoke with Reuters at the Federal Detention Center in Miami.  "Might just as well say I'm dead."

Davis was convicted of participating in a string of armed robberies in the Miami area in 2010.  His accomplices testified against him, saying he carried a gun during their crimes and discharged it at a dog that chased them after one of their burglaries.  But Davis was not convicted of hurting anyone physically, including the dog.

Davis would occupy no place at all in the annals of crime if not for his sentence.  Now 20 years old, he was sentenced to 1,941 months -- almost 162 years -- in prison without the possibility of parole.

On the day of Davis's interview with Reuters, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that life sentences without parole for defendants under the age of 18 constituted "cruel and unusual punishment" even in cases of murder.  Unfortunately for Davis, he was 18 at the time of his crimes.

Nonetheless, Davis's attorney will argue that Davis's sentence to die in prison also constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" on the grounds that Davis is a "first offender," having never before been charged with a crime.

"Just as the Supreme Court recently held that the Constitution bars taking away all discretion from judges in sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment for committing murder," said the attorney, Jacqueline Shapiro, "so also is it cruel and extreme to allow unfettered prosecutorial discretion to force a sentencing judge to impose a life sentence on a teenage first offender convicted of lesser charges."

Davis's unusually long sentence results from a controversial practice known as "stacking," in which each count of an indictment is counted as a separate crime, thus transforming a first-time defendant into a "habitual criminal" subject to multiple sentences and mandatory sentencing guidelines.

"Any law that provides for a mandatory term of imprisonment for a 19-year-old first offender that exceeds a century has got to be unconstitutional," said Michael Zelman, the court-appointed attorney who represented Davis at his trial.  Zelman resigned from Davis's case after filing a notice of appeal.  If Davis's new lawyer, Shapiro, has her way, the Supreme Court may ultimately decide the issue.  The case will be appealed first to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

Until then, Davis's story will be a prominent case in point for both sides in an increasingly heated debate, pitting those who would protect society from the prospective dangers posed by serial criminals against those who see the United States -- whose overcrowded prisons house fully one-quarter of all the prisoners in the world, most of them black -- as a bastion of injustice.

July 7, 2012 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (38) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Agent who started ‘Fast and Furious’ defends gunrunning operation"

The inter-branch sparring in the long-running brouhaha over the "Fast and Furious" gun operation has always seemed much more a political story than a criminal justice one.  Still, the enduring controversy surely has had significant federal criminal justice implications, at least by severly impacting relationship(s) between current members of Congress and the current Justice Department.  As the full House of Representative considers a vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt based on a failure to provide full information about discussions of the operation, I wondered if reader have views concerning any potential (good or bad) long-term criminal justice implications of this scandal.  This Washington Post article, which shares the headline of this post, seems like a good prompt for urging F&F discussion to be more focused on criminal justice issues that political one.  Here is how the WaPo piece starts:

The “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking operation has been widely condemned by Republicans, Democrats and even top officials at the Justice Department as a failed sting. The case has led to the ouster of the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, President Obama’s first use of executive privilege and a probable vote of contempt Thursday against the attorney general.

But in the eyes of the man who started and oversaw Fast and ­Furious, the operation remains an example of smart law enforcement — an approach that has simply been misunderstood. “It was the only way to dismantle an entire firearms-trafficking ring and stop the thousands of guns flowing to Mexico,” said William D. Newell, a veteran federal agent who spent five years as the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Phoenix.

In his first public interview about the operation, Newell said he believed that he and his agents were working the largest gun-trafficking case of their careers and finally had a window into Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel.  To identify cartel members, ATF agents, beginning in 2009, watched as about 2,000 weapons purchased at Phoenix gun stores hit the streets; their goal was to trace them to the cartel.

But on Dec. 14, 2010, Operation Fast and Furious came crashing down. A Border Patrol agent was killed in the Arizona desert, and two AK-47s found at the scene were linked to Newell’s sting.  Agents working under him, enraged, went to lawmakers about the operation, sparking an 18-month investigation led by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who called Fast and Furious “felony stupid.”

Ever the optimist, I am hopeful the long-term impact of the F&F controversy will be a greater disinclination by federal (and state?) officials and prosecutors to imagine and engineer criminal justice stings that might end up looking "felony stupid."  But I fear that I may just be looking too hard for a silver lining in this otherwise dark criminal justice cloud.

Related post:

June 28, 2012 in Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Scores in N.C. are legally 'innocent,' yet still imprisoned" due to federal gun laws

Med-topperThe folks at USA Today have this fascinating and fantastic front-page feature story concerning the many persons currently serving federal prison time for gun possession crimes that are no longer crimes in the wake of an important recent Fourth Circuit ruling.  The headline of this post is drawn from the headline of the USA Today piece, which is today's must-read and includes these excerpts:

A USA TODAY investigation, based on court records and interviews with government officials and attorneys, found more than 60 men who went to prison for violating federal gun possession laws, even though courts have since determined that it was not a federal crime for them to have a gun.  Many of them don't even know they're innocent.

The legal issues underlying their situation are complicated, and are unique to North Carolina. But the bottom line is that each of them went to prison for breaking a law that makes it a federal crime for convicted felons to possess a gun.  The problem is that none of them had criminal records serious enough to make them felons under federal law.

Still, the Justice Department has not attempted to identify the men, has made no effort to notify them, and, in a few cases in which the men have come forward on their own, has argued in court that they should not be released.

Justice Department officials said it is not their job to notify prisoners that they might be incarcerated for something that they now concede is not a crime.  And although they have agreed in court filings that the men are innocent, they said they must still comply with federal laws that put strict limits on when and how people can challenge their convictions in court.

"We can't be outcome driven," said Anne Tompkins, the U.S. attorney in Charlotte. "We've got to make sure we follow the law, and people should want us to do that." She said her office is "looking diligently for ways, within the confines of the law, to recommend relief for defendants who are legally innocent."

These cases are largely unknown outside the courthouses here, but they have raised difficult questions about what, if anything, the government owes to innocent people locked in prisons.   "It's been tough," said Ripley Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, N.C. "We've spent a lot of time talking about issues of fundamental fairness, and what is justice."

It's also unusual.  Wrongful conviction cases are seldom open-and-shut — usually they depend on DNA or other new evidence that undermines the government's case, but does not always prove someone is innocent.  Yet in the North Carolina gun cases, it turns out, there simply were no federal crimes.

Using state and federal court records, USA TODAY identified 23 other men who had been sent to federal prison for having a firearm despite criminal records too minor to make that a federal crime.  Nine of them remain in prison, serving sentences of up to 10 years; others are still serving federal probation.  The newspaper's review was limited to only a small fraction of cases from one of the three federal court districts in North Carolina.

Federal public defenders have so far identified at least 39 others in additional court districts, and are certain to find more. And prosecutors have already agreed to drop dozens of cases in which prisoners' convictions were not yet final.

Some of the prisoners USA TODAY contacted — and their lawyers — were stunned to find out that they were imprisoned for something that turned out not to be a federal crime. And their lawyers said they were troubled by the idea that innocence alone might not get them out. "If someone is innocent, I would think that would change the government's reaction, and it's sad that it hasn't," said Debra Graves, an assistant federal public defender in Raleigh. "I have trouble figuring out how you rationalize this. These are innocent people. That has to matter at some point."...

Decades ago, Congress made it a federal crime for convicted felons to have a gun. The law proved to be a powerful tool for police and prosecutors to target repeat offenders who managed to escape stiff punishment in state courts. In some cases, federal courts can put people in prison for significantly longer for merely possessing a gun than state courts can for using the gun to shoot at someone.

To make that law work in every state, Congress wrote one national definition of who cannot own a gun: someone who has been convicted of a crime serious enough that he or she could have been sentenced to more than a year in prison.

Figuring out who fits that definition in North Carolina is not as simple as it sounds. In 1993, state lawmakers adopted a unique system called "structured sentencing" that changes the maximum prison term for a crime, based on the record of the person who committed it. People with relatively short criminal records who commit crimes such as distributing cocaine and writing bad checks face no more than a few months in jail; people with more extensive records face much longer sentences.

For years, federal courts in North Carolina said that did not matter. The courts said, in effect: If someone with a long record could have gone to prison for more than a year for the crime, then everyone who committed that crime is a felon, and all of them are legally barred from possessing a gun.

Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said federal courts (including itself) had been getting the law wrong. Only people who could have actually faced more than a year in prison for their crimes qualify as felons under federal law.

The 4th Circuit's decision came in a little-noticed drug case, United States v. Simmons, but its implications could be dramatic. For one thing, tens of thousands of people in North Carolina have criminal records that no longer make having a gun a federal crime. About half of the felony convictions in North Carolina's state courts over the past decade were for offenses that no longer count as felonies under federal law.

No one yet knows precisely how many people were incorrectly convicted for having a gun, but the number could be significant. Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, estimated that more than a third of the gun cases his office prosecuted might be in question, either because the defendants didn't commit a federal crime at all by possessing a gun or because their sentences were calculated incorrectly.  "We're going to be addressing this for a while," he said.

The Justice Department and federal courts moved quickly to clean up cases that were pending when the 4th Circuit announced its decision. Prosecutors dropped pending charges against people whose records no longer qualified them as felons; the 4th Circuit reversed convictions in more than 40 cases that were on appeal at the time. Some of the men were given shorter sentences; others were simply let go.

But the next question has proved far harder to answer: What should the government do with the prisoners whose legal cases were already over?

Whether [these legally innocent defendants] can go home depends on federal laws that put strict limits on when and how people who have already been convicted of a crime can come back to court to plead their innocence.

Those laws let prisoners challenge their convictions if they uncover new evidence, or if the U.S. Supreme Court limits the sweep of a criminal law.  But none of the exceptions is a clear fit, meaning that, innocent or not, they may not be able to get into court at all. Federal courts have so far split on whether they can even hear the prisoners' cases.

Habeas corpus — the main legal tool for challenging unlawful detention — is currently ill-suited to such cases, said Nancy King, a Vanderbilt Law School professor who has studied the issue.  Habeas mainly safeguards people's constitutional right to a fair process, she said, and the problem is that "saying, 'I'm innocent' isn't, on its face, that type of constitutional claim." Still, she said, "innocent people should be able to get out of prison."

Prosecutors don't disagree, though most said they are not convinced the law allows it. Rand, the U.S. attorney in Greensboro, said he is "not aware of any procedural mechanism by which they can be afforded relief," though he said lawyers in his office "have not been pounding on the table" to keep the men in jail.

"No one wants anyone to spend time in jail who should not be there," said Thomas Walker, the U.S. attorney in Raleigh.  That's why he said prosecutors were quick to dismiss charges that were pending when the 4th Circuit ruled.  But cases in which convictions are already final "are in a totally different posture and require us to follow the existing statutory habeas law," he said.

But there's also an even more basic question: How would the prisoners even know?... [C]ourts have asked public defenders to seek them out. Those lawyers said the Justice Department should do more to help, because it has better information and more resources, an assertion prosecutors dispute.

"We're doing it with our hands tied," said Eric Placke, a federal public defender in Greensboro.  "I appreciate the compelling considerations they have to deal with.  But I do think in cases of actual innocence that it would be nice, to say the least, if they would be a little more proactive."  Placke and other public defenders said the reviews have been difficult because they often have limited access to records from the men's prior convictions, which has left them to hunt through files in courthouses across the state.

This story is sad, telling and remarkable for so many reasons, and it also seems to present a situation in which I might argue that some kind of habeas relief (or even federal clemency) is constitutionally required under the Fifth and/or Eighth Amendment. 

As a matter of substantive due process and/or cruel and unusual punishment, I do not think the federal government should be constitutionally permitted to keep someone imprisoned for an act that all now seem to agree was not a federal crime.  Though the statutory habeas rules might preclude relief, I think the continuing constitutional violation of on-going imprisonment of an innocent person demands some kind of immediate remedy.  Clemency is often mentioned by the Supreme Court and commentators as the fail-safe in these kinds of cases, and I hope that this important USA Today piece will at the very least make the folks in the executive branch take this constitutional problem even more seriously.

June 14, 2012 in Clemency and Pardons, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (52) | TrackBack