Friday, May 22, 2015

Two notable voices from the (far?) right calling again for drug war and sentencing reform

Download (2)The two recent stories about recent comments by notable advocates reinforce my sense that more and more traditional (and not-so-traditional) conservative voices are feeling more and more confortable vocally criticizing the federal drug war and severe drug sentencing:

Headline: "Grover Norquist: Malloy Right On Drug Sentencing Reform"

Money Quotes:   If you told me a year ago that I [Grover Norquist] would be speaking out in favor of one of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's top priorities, I would have said you were crazy. The governor is a tax-and-spend liberal and I have spent my entire career fighting high taxes and wasteful government spending. Yet, just as a broken clock gets it right once in a while, Gov. Malloy is right about the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Contrary to their original intent, mandatory minimum laws have done little to reduce crime. They have, however, been significant drivers of prison overcrowding and skyrocketing corrections budgets. That's why conservatives and liberals in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses all across the country are coming together to repeal and reform these one-size-fits-all laws. Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Florida are just a handful of the states where conservatives have not simply supported, but led, the efforts to scale back mandatory minimum sentences.

Conservatives in Connecticut should support the governor's mandatory minimum proposals for two reasons. First, the reforms are very modest — addressing only drug possession. In some states, such as Connecticut's neighbor, Rhode Island, and Delaware, lawmakers have repealed mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses. Still more states have enacted significant reform to their drug mandatory minimum laws so that judges have discretion to impose individualized sentences that fit the crime. In all of these states, crime rates have dropped.

Conservatives in Connecticut also should embrace sentencing reform because of the state's awful budget mess. For too long, fiscal hawks have turned a blind eye to wasteful law enforcement spending. Not wanting to appear "soft on crime," they have supported every program and policy to increase the prison population without subjecting those ideas to cost-benefit analysis.

Those days are over. After watching state spending on prisons skyrocket more than 300 percent over the last two decades, state leaders across the country seem to understand that they can no longer afford to warehouse nonviolent offenders in prison.

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Headline: "Glenn Beck Calls for the Repeal of Federal Drug Prohibition"

Money QuotesToday on Glenn Beck's radio (and TV) show, I [Jacob Sullum] debated marijuana prohibition with Robert White, co-author (with Bill Bennett) of Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America The conversation turned to the war on drugs in general and also touched on federalism, the Commerce Clause, the nature of addiction, and the moral justification for paternalistic interference with individual freedom.  Reading from my recent Forbes column, Beck said he is strongly attracted to the Millian principle that "the individual is sovereign" over "his own body and mind," which rules out government intervention aimed at protecting people from their own bad decisions. "I'm a libertarian in transit," he said. "I'm moving deeper into the libertarian realm.... Inconsistencies bother me." By the end of the show, Beck was declaring that the federal government should call off its war on drugs and let states decide how to deal with marijuana and other psychoactive substances.

Addendum: Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell notes that Beck indicated he favored marijuana legalization back in 2009, saying, "I think it's about time we legalize marijuana...  We either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars or we legalize it, but this little game we are playing in the middle is not helping us, it is not helping Mexico and it is causing massive violence on our southern border...  Fifty percent of the money going to these cartels is coming just from marijuana coming across our border." As far as I know, however, this is the first time Beck has explicitly called for an end to federal prohibition of all the other currently banned drugs.

May 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Debate over harms of online drug market now at center of upcoming sentencing of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht

As reported in this Wired piece, headlined "Ahead of Sentencing, Ulbricht Defense Argues Silk Road Made Drug Use Safer," the defense in a notable drug sentencing case is making a notable new claim about the nature and consequences of the defendant's drug dealing methods.  Here are the details:

When a jury convicted Ross Ulbricht three months ago of running the Silk Road, it closed the legal question of whether he was guilty of masterminding that billion-dollar online black market for drugs. But as Ulbricht’s sentencing approaches, his defense is opening another ethical question that may be far more societally important: Did the Silk Road’s newly invented method of narcotics e-commerce actually reduce the risks of drug use?

In a memo to judge Katherine Forrest filed Friday afternoon, Ulbricht’s defense has asked her to consider the Silk Road’s potential for “harm reduction” when she determines Ulbricht’s sentence in less than two weeks.  The memo argues that the Silk Road’s community provided drug users a more reliable way to buy untainted drugs, that Ulbricht had expressly tried to encourage “safer” drug use on his black market site, and that the digital nature of the site’s commerce may have protected users from physical interactions that in the traditional drug trade often lead to violence.

“In contrast to the government’s portrayal of the Silk Road web site as a more dangerous version of a traditional drug marketplace, in fact the Silk Road web site was in many respects the most responsible such marketplace in history, and consciously and deliberately included recognized harm reduction measures, including access to physician counseling,” writes Ulbricht’s lead defense attorney Joshua Dratel in the filing.  “In addition, transactions on the Silk Road web site were significantly safer than traditional illegal drug purchases, and included quality control and accountability features that made purchasers substantially safer than they were when purchasing drugs in a conventional manner.”

The memo argues that the Silk Road’s community provided drug users a more reliable way to buy untainted drugs.  One of the Silk Road’s innovations, after all, was to bring an eBay-like system of ratings and reviews for online drug sales.  That system gave buyers a way to quickly weed out dealers selling lower quality or less pure substances. The site maintained a section of its user forum devoted to safer drug use, where users could ask each other for advice and help with health problems.  And Ulbricht’s defense points to archived messages showing that Ulbricht even offered at one point to pay $500 a week to a Spanish doctor, Fernando Caudevilla, who frequented the forum and answered users’ questions.  Ulbricht also asked Caudevilla if he’d be willing to chemically test drugs on the site for quality, though it’s not clear if that testing scheme was ever put into practice.

Regardless, Ulbricht isn’t likely to receive a light sentence.  The 31-year-old Texan was convicted of seven felony charges in February that include conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and money laundering, as well as a “kingpin” statute reserved for the leaders of organized criminal operations, which could add another decade to his prison time.  In all, he faces a minimum of 30 years in prison and a maximum of life.  Ulbricht’s defense team has already said it plans to appeal the case.

The prosecution in Ulbricht’s case has revealed that it plans to present at Ulbricht’s sentencing hearing six cases of individuals who died from overdoses of drugs bought on the Silk Road.  But in its Friday filing, the defense addressed and rebutted each of those examples. In a grisly section of a separate memo, it goes through the details of those six deaths, in each case arguing that the deceased suffered from earlier health conditions and questioning whether the death-inducing drugs had actually been bought from vendors on the Silk Road. “It is simply impossible for the government to prove that drugs obtained from Silk Road ‘caused’ death, and in certain cases, the government cannot even establish to any degree of certainty that any of the drugs ingested came from Silk Road,” Dratel writes....

To bolster its argument about the societal benefits of the Silk Road, the defense includes in its filing sworn statements from a series of experts, including Tim Bingham, the administrator of an addiction-focused non-profit known as the Irish Needle Exchange Forum, and Meghan Ralston, the former director of harm reduction for the Drug Policy Alliance.  Bingham, for instance, published three studies in the International Journal of Drug Policy about the Silk Road based on surveys of users.  He writes in his statement that he “concluded that Silk Road forums…appeared to act as an information mechanism for the promotion of safer and more acceptable or responsible forms of recreational drug use.”

The full text of this Ulbricht Sentencing Defense Letter can be accessed at this link.

Prior related posts:

May 19, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Is a former lobbyist and former federal prisoner likely to be a uniquely good sentencing reform advocate?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new CQ Roll Call article headlined "Out of Prison, Ex-Lobbyist Pushes Sentencing Overhaul." Here are excerpts:

Kevin Ring helped write a bill in the 1990s that toughened penalties for methamphetamine charges. Now, recently out of prison, the former Team Abramoff lobbyist says he wants Congress to overhaul the nation’s justice system and to undo mandatory minimum requirements altogether.

His own effort comes at a pivotal time for the issue on Capitol Hill, where bipartisan measures (S 502, HR 920) to reduce stiff sentencing requirements for drug charges appear to be gaining some traction.

Ring, a former Hill aide, is wrapping up his 20-month sentence for an honest services fraud conviction by serving home confinement that allows him to work in downtown Washington, D.C. He is drawing on his K Street and criminal justice experiences at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group devoted to peeling back the same sort of laws he helped push through while serving as a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer.

“We wanted to look tough on meth,” said Ring, a Republican, who recently started working full-time as FAMM’s new director of strategic initiatives. “The Hill is run by too many 20-year-olds with a lot of opinions and not enough experience, and I was part of that. I didn’t have enough experience to write criminal statutes. What did I know?”

Ring is a former colleague of ex-K Street power player Jack Abramoff, and like Abramoff he went to the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md. Ring started working with FAMM part-time five years ago, doing grant writing. He’d already lost two jobs at K Street firms amid the unraveling Abramoff scandal, and he needed work. He had to terminate all outside employment during his prison term.

“When he first interviewed with us, he was incredibly humble, hat in hand, and said, ‘I’m about to be indicted,’” recalled Julie Stewart, FAMM’s president and founder and a self-described libertarian. “I immediately realized what an incredible gem we had in Kevin because of his conservative background. It was very clear to me that Kevin could do so much good for FAMM and for our issue and promoting it in a voice that could really be heard by the people we were trying to influence on the Hill.” FAMM, she noted, is a rare organization that gets funding from conservative David Koch and liberal George Soros.

Ring, 44, said he doesn’t expect he will meet the legal definition of a lobbyist at FAMM, but he intends to write op-eds, congressional testimony and advocacy letters. In short, he plans to influence the process largely from the background. It's not likely to be an easy sell.

Even as the White House and Republicans on the Hill, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, are championing sentencing overhaul legislation, such proposals are far from a fait accompli. Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa has pushed back on criticism that he is blocking sentencing legislation, but he’s made clear his support would come with a price....

Grassley, in a recent speech at the Press Club, said white-collar criminals such as Ring receive "paltry sentences." He has suggested such criminals ought to be subject to mandatory minimums in exchange for reduced minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. "The last thing we need is to take away a tool that law enforcement and prosecutors use to get the bad guys," Grassley said.

His spokeswoman, Beth Levine, said Grassley’s staff and aides to the lawmakers pushing for sentencing legislation “have been sitting down to work something out.”

FAMM, as well as Ring, opposes new mandatory minimum requirements for white-collar crimes. “It’s an awful, awful idea,” Ring said during an interview last week in FAMM’s offices near Metro Center. “Even without mandatory minimums, prosecutors can threaten you with such a long sentence that you want to plead guilty.”

He said the mandatory minimums have inflated sentencing guidelines across crimes, even those not subject to mandatory sentences. In Ring’s case, prosecutors asked the judge to sentence him to at least 20 years in prison. He said even his current home confinement, which includes a GPS ankle tracker to monitor his location 24 hours a day, is surprisingly restrictive and ought to be used more for nonviolent offenders — keeping them out of the prison system and allowing them to continue to work, pay taxes and care for their children.

It’s a message that resonates with budget-conscious Republicans, especially those with a libertarian stance. Stewart, who started FAMM 24 years ago, when her brother went to federal prison for growing marijuana in Washington state, said the current conversation on Capitol Hill and across the country is unprecedented. “My one fear is that talk is cheap,” she said. “It’s going to be a push.”

And Ring will be right in the middle of it. “I believed it before, and now I just feel like I’m better informed for having had the experience,” Ring said. “You know I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, but now that I have it, I feel compelled to say what I saw. So that goes to not only how prosecutions work, how sentencing works, but then also how prisons work or don’t work.”

May 19, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Florida prosecutor says he will not seek 15-year prison terms for sex-on-beach convictions

Images (2)As noted in this recent post, "Imprisonment for 15 years for sex on the beach?!?! Really?!?!," at least one member of an indecent couple in Florida seemed to be facing an indecent prison sentence for some shoreline dirty dancing. But this local article, headlined "State attorney won't seek 15-year prison sentences for Bradenton Beach sex-on-the-beach couple," now suggests that prosecutors are going to be seeking a much less extreme sanction for these miscreants. Here are the latest details:

State Attorney Ed Brodsky said Thursday he will not seek the maximum possible punishment — 15 years in prison — for the couple convicted of having sex in public on Bradenton Beach.

Brodsky, elected state attorney for the 12th Judicial District, said his office never intended to seek the maximum 15-year sentence against Jose Caballero, 40, or Elissa Alvarez, 20, for having sex on Cortez Beach in July.

The couple was found guilty Monday on charges of lewd and lascivious exhibition after a video played in court showed Alvarez moving on Caballero in a sexual manner. Witnesses testified a 3-year-old girl had seen the couple.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, and requires both to register as sex offenders. "It was never our intention to seek 15 years for either of them," Brodsky said. "That's not a reasonable sentence."

Defense attorney Ronald Kurpiers said because Caballero served a previous prison sentence for cocaine trafficking within the past three years and the prosecution had filed prison release reoffender paperwork, Caballero would be sentenced to the maximum sentence of 15 years under Florida's prisoner release reoffender law.

Kurpiers said if Brodsky was saying they weren't seeking 15 years, it meant they had withdrawn the PRR. "I've never experienced that before in all my years in law," Kurpiers said. "I'm honestly emotional about it. That was a huge hurdle."

Brodsky said he wasn't willing to discuss what kind of sentences they will seek and a sentencing hearing hasn't been scheduled. Kurpiers said the judge would now have some discretion instead of an automatic sentence for Caballero. Kurpiers said he would try to have the sentence lowered. "I need to get out my knee pads so I can get down and beg," Kurpiers said.

Brodsky refuted the claim he would be seeking the maximum punishment after Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a Washington, D.C.-based interest group that fights mandatory minimum prison sentences, said they called his office Thursday to urge prosecutors not seek 15 years in prison for Caballero.

"As outrageous as Mr. Caballero's behavior was, it would be even more outrageous for the state to make him spend 15 years in prison," said Julie Stewart, president and founder of the organization, in a release. "As a parent, I would not want my children to see people having sex on a public beach in the middle of the day. But as a taxpayer, I would be even more offended to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars to punish Mr. Caballero's irresponsible behavior."...

A campaign was also launched Thursday on Causes.com titled: "Free couple facing 15 years in prison for sex on the beach." Led by Vitor Ribeiro, whose Facebook account lists Portugal as home, the campaign received more than 500 signatures by early Thursday evening. "Having sex on the beach is not a crime worthy of such a barbaric sentence," reads the campaign's subtitle.

Stewart said the state plea offer to Caballero for two and a half years in prison prior to the trial was evidence it didn't believe he deserved 15 years for the crime. Brodsky confirmed they had made the plea offer, and Caballero chose to reject it to go to trial. Kurpiers said he "strongly recommended" his clients take the plea deal, but ultimately it was their choice to refuse....

Alvarez and Caballero are in the Manatee County jail awaiting sentencing.

Beyond its prurient elements, this case provides a notable case-study in the import and impact of mandatory minimum sentencing schemes and the sentencing power mandatory minimums necessarily place in the hands of prosecutors.

For starters, I doubt the defense attorney would have "strongly recommended" that one defendant accept a 2.5-year prison sentence for merely having sex on the beach absent the threat of a 15-year mandatory prison term if the defendant exercised his right to go to trial.  How could and would a defense attorney reasonably tell a client that a long prison term is a reasonable offer for this behavior and giving up all rights to challenge the state's case absent the threat of a much more extreme mandatory prison term if convicted after a trial?

Next, as I understand Florida law in this setting, the only reason now that defendant Caballero will not get 15 years in state prison is because the prosecutor now has decided to, in essence, nullify the Florida "prison release reoffender" (PRR) law by taking back the paperwork needed to invoke its mandatory sentencing consequences.  Absent the media scrutiny that this case has come to generate, would the prosecutor likely have been so quick to say he never sought an extreme 15-year PRR sentence for Caballero?.

Critically, if the prosecutor never thought this was a proper PRR case, why did the prosecutor initially file the PRR paperwork in the first instance against Caballero?   Is there likely any reason other than to to try to force a plea deal through the threat of an extreme mandatory prison sentence — a threat which would essentially require the defense attorney to "strongly recommended" that defendant Caballero accept the 2.5-year prison sentence offered by the prosecutor?

Finally, only when the defendants exercised their right to trial — and thereafter likely only because this case started to garner attention — do we now here the prosecutor say on the record that a 15-year term was never sought and would not be reasonable.  In other words,  only once the media saw the prosecutor with his hand in the extreme mandatory-sentencing cookie jar did he pull his hand out and say he never really wanted that 15-year prison term for Caballero.

It is reassuring to see that media attention can and will sometimes prompt a prosecutor in an individual case to exercise his power and discretion to take an extreme mandatory sentence of the table after a trial conviction.  But these problems only arise because of the existence of extreme and broad mandatory minimums, and that is why I generally believe such laws make for bad public policy because I think our sentencing system should incorporate true checks-and-balances rather than be functionally controlled  by executive branch fiat.

Prior related post:

May 10, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Friday, May 08, 2015

Senator Grassley's home-state paper tells him to stop blocking federal sentencing reforms

This new editorial from the Des Moines Register, headlined "Grassley should not block sentencing reforms," highlights that some notable folks are frustrated by Senator Charles Grassley's apparent unwillingness to move forward significantly with federal sentencing reforms proposed by his colleagues. Here are excerpts:

Amid hysteria over growing use of illegal drugs 30 years ago, Congress passed tough new criminal laws carrying long mandatory prison sentences. Regardless of whether mandatory sentences had any effect on drug abuse, they have contributed to a 500 percent increase in the federal prison population and a 600 percent increase in federal prison spending.

Besides filling prisons and imprisoning a generation of largely minority males from inner cities, these one-size-fits-all sentences tie the hands of judges who should tailor penalties to the unique circumstances of individual defendants.  And this obsession with criminalizing drug use has diverted resources that instead should be used to help people overcome their addictions.

Something extraordinary has happened recently, however: A consensus has emerged that this nation has put far too many people behind bars, and in the process it has created an unemployable underclass with criminal records.  That consensus includes a remarkable cross-section of politicians from both ends of the political spectrum, along with religious leaders, corporate executives and opinion leaders.

While there is growing bipartisan support in Congress for changing the mandatory-minimum sentencing law, one potential stumbling block remains stubbornly in place: U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, who as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is in a position to allow federal sentencing reforms to move forward.

Grassley’s rhetoric has not encouraged optimism.  He was dismissive and defensive when a “Smarter Sentencing Act” was introduced in March with the support of senators ranging from Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky to Democrats Dick Durban of Illinois and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.  He referred to supporters of the sentencing reform bill in a floor speech as the “leniency industrial complex.”

Although he recently seemed to soften his tone, saying he is “ready to address some of these issues,” Grassley has ruled out any across-the-board cut in mandatory minimum sentences.  Three Iowa bishops in a guest opinion published by the Register May 1 called on him to support sentencing reform, but he promptly responded with an opinion piece that amounted to a full-throated defense of mandatory minimum sentences.

The argument in favor of mandatory sentences is that the prospect of spending decades in prison gives prosecutors leverage to get lower-tiered dealers to produce evidence against “drug kingpins.”  But this gives prosecutors enormous power to force defendants to plead guilty, and with no prior involvement of a judge in open court.

Despite the assertion that mandatory sentences are aimed at putting away drug lords, “offenders most often subject to mandatory minimum penalties at the time of sentencing were street-level dealers — many levels down from kingpins and organizers,” according to research by the U.S. Sentencing Commission....

This nation’s war on drugs focused on criminal punishment instead of treatment has been a complete failure.  At long last there is growing support for changing that.  Iowa’s senior senator should not stand in the way.

Some recent related posts:

May 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Imprisonment for 15 years for sex on the beach?!?! Really?!?!

ImagesI had heard earlier this week about the Florida couple getting into criminal trouble for having sex in public on a beach, but only this morning have I focused on the reality that, thanks to Florida's severe recidivist sentencing laws, it appears that one of the defendants may have to serve 15 years(!!) in state prison for this crime.  This local story, headlined "Couple found guilty of having sex on Florida beach," explains:

A jury Monday found a couple guilty of having sex on Bradenton Beach after only 15 minutes of deliberation. The convictions carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

Jose Caballero, 40, and Elissa Alvarez, 20, were charged with two counts each of lewd and lascivious behavior for having sex on a public beach on July 20, 2014. Video played in the courtroom during the 1- 1/2-day-long trial showed Alvarez moving on top of Caballero in a sexual manner in broad daylight. Witnesses testified that a 3-year-old girl saw them.

Both Caballero and Alvarez will now have to register as sex offenders.

A sentencing date was not announced, but Assistant State Attorney Anthony Dafonseca said they will pursue a harsher sentence for Caballero than Alvarez, since Alvarez has no prior record and Caballero has been to prison for almost eight years for a cocaine trafficking conviction.

The state will ask for jail time for Alvarez and prison time for Caballero. Dafonseca said due to Caballero being out of prison less than three years before committing another felony, he's looking at serving the maximum time of 15 years. "We gave them a reasonable offer, what we felt was reasonable, and they decided it wasn't something they wanted to accept responsibility for," Dafonseca said. "Despite the video, despite all the witnesses."

Ronald Kurpiers, defense attorney for the couple, said his clients were "devastated," by the verdict. Though Dafonseca hinted that they'd be speaking with the judge about whether or not 15 years was appropriate for Caballero, Kurpiers said the judge would have no discretion. "That's what he'll get," Kurpiers said.

Ed Brodsky, elected state attorney for the 16th judicial district, joined Defonseca in prosecuting the case. When asked why the case was an important one to the state attorney, Dafonseca said it was important that the community knew what wouldn't be tolerated on public beaches. "We're dealing with basically tourists, that came from Brandon and Riverview and West Virginia, and they're here on the beaches of Manatee County, our public beaches," Dafonseca said, referring to the witnesses. "So you want to make sure that this isn't something that just goes by the wayside. And that it is well known to the community, what will be tolerated and what won't be."

Family members who witnessed the act and a Bradenton Beach police officer, as well as Caballero, testified in the case. The defense argued that the two weren't actually having sex, but that Alvarez had been dancing on Caballero or "nudging" him to wake him up. "She wasn't dancing," Dafonseca said during closing arguments. "It's insulting your intelligence to say that she was dancing."

Kurpiers said since the witnesses had not seen genitals or penetration, and neither was visible in the video, either, that saying the two had sex was speculation. "You folks cannot speculate," Kurpiers told the jury. "And in order to say they had intercourse, you would have to speculate."

Brodsky said they weren't calling it the crime of the century, but it was still a violation of Florida law. "Did they try to cuddle, or do it discreetly? Did they go in the water, where people couldn't see?" Brodsky asked the jury. "Did Ms. Alvarez try to drape a towel over herself, or anything? They didn't care."

I do not know Florida sentencing law well enough to know if defendant Caballero is in fact going to have to be sentenced and actually going to have to serve a decade or more in state prison for his misguided dirty dancing on a public beach. This press report makes it sound as though perhaps there may be some means for the sentencing judge to impose a lesser sentencing term, and I think a constitutional challenge based on the Eighth Amendment might also be viable here if state law really does mandate such a severe term in this case.

In addition to wondering whether and how Florida sentencing law may provide the judge with some sentencing discretion in this setting, I especially wonder about the terms of the "reasonable offer" that prosecutors offers to resolve this case via a plea deal. Specifically, I wonder if the offer required either or both defendants to serve significant time incarcerated and required sex offender registration. Especially given all the housing restrictions on registered sex offenders in Florida, that component of any conviction may have led to the defendants being especially eager to try to fight the charges.

May 6, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Oklahoma Gov signs "safety valve" legislation giving judges more sentencing discretion

As noted in this prior post, a few month ago the Oklahoma House passed by a significant margin a state Justice Safety Valve Act authorizing state judges to give sentences below otherwise-applicable mandatory minimums.  Now, as effectively reported via this FreedomWorks posting, this notable sentencing reform has become law.  The piece is headlined "Oklahoma becomes the latest Republican state to enact meaningful justice reforms," and here are the details (with links from the original).

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a major bill into law allowing judges to sentence nonviolent offenders below mandatory minimum sentences, a big government, one-size-fits-all policy that costs taxpayers big bucks....

Introduced in February by state Rep. Pam Peterson (R-Tulsa), the Justice Safety Valve Act, HB 1518, is aimed at reducing the rate of incarceration in the Oklahoma, which is among the highest in the United States. The bill allows sentences below mandatory minimums if a judge determines, based on a risk assessment, that a nonviolent offender is not a public safety risk. The bill would allow the state to save much-needed bed space for dangerous criminals.

"Our prison bed space is being taken up with people who don’t need to be there," Peterson told NewsOK.com in February. "These people are breaking the law, but I think we’ve gone to the point now where we need that space for violent offenders and are filling it up with too many nonviolent offenders."

"The courts' hands are often tied because of these mandatory minimums," she said. “Longer sentences do not equate to public safety.”

HB 1518 passed both chambers of the Republican-controlled Oklahoma State Legislature with relative ease. The House approved the bill in March by a 76 to 16 vote. The Senate followed suit in late April, passing the bill in a 31 to 13 vote.  Fallin, a Republican, signed the bill on Monday.

In her State of the State address delivered in February, Fallin urged lawmakers to get "smart on crime," offering support for alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. Incarceration, she explained, actually increases the likelihood that an offender will continue a cycle of crime.

"Personal and community safety remain top priorities, and violent criminals will continue to be incarcerated. But the fact is, one in eleven Oklahomans serve time in prison at some point in their lives. Many of our current inmates are first time, nonviolent offenders with drug abuse and alcohol problems. Many also have mental health issues they need treatment for," said Fallin. "For some of these offenders, long sentences in state penitentiaries increase their likelihood of escalated criminal behavior.

"Oklahoma must ramp up its 'smart on crime' policies, including the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, designed to intervene for low-risk, nonviolent offenders and more readily offer alternatives such as drug-courts, veterans courts and mental health courts," she continued. "Implementation of coordinated 'smart on crime' efforts between state and local governments and tribal nations has demonstrated significant cost savings and improved outcomes for offenders and public safety."...

"It costs the state around $19,000 a year to house an inmate, but only $5,000 a year to send an addict through drug court and on to treatment," Fallin explained. "In addition to being less expensive, it’s also more effective; the recidivism rate for offenders sent to drug court is just one-fourth of the rate for those sent to prison."

The Justice Safety Valve Act will take effect on November 1.

May 5, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 01, 2015

Iowa faith leaders urge Senator Grassley to move forward with drug sentencing reforms

2015-SKO-Website-Flyer-3_12_151Last week, US Senator Charles Grassley spoke at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Forum, and the Faith & Freedom Coalition asserts here that its beliefs are rooted in the view "that the greatness of America lies not in the federal government but in the character of our people — the simple virtues of faith, hard work, marriage, family, personal responsibility, and helping the least among us." If Senator Grassley really shares this view, I would expect him to be significantly moved by this new Des Moines Register op-ed authored by clergy members headlined "Bishops call on Grassley to reform sentencing." Here are excerpts:

As bishops and as Christians, we are called to love and serve all people, share compassion and aid God's most vulnerable children. That is why we were among 130 of Iowa's faith leaders who last week signed a letter [available here] delivered to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the leader of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter advocates for sentencing reforms that affect men and women in federal prison for non-violent drug offenses.

We abhor the damage and death caused by addictive drugs. Too many Iowa families are in pain because of drug addiction, particularly from heroin. We seek to aid these families and the addicted, by supporting broader access to drug treatment, counseling and medical care. Incarceration is not an appropriate treatment for curing drug addiction.

We believe in accountability for the men and women responsible for selling illegal drugs. Those who are addicted themselves and sell drugs to support their habit should also have access to rehabilitative services. Punishment for distributing drugs is necessary; however, where we seek to influence our elected leaders is in how much punishment is justified.

Under federal law, people convicted of drug offenses are subject to strict mandatory minimum sentences based largely on the quantity of drugs possessed by the defendant. Judges have limited discretion to sentence below a mandatory sentence, even when evidence supports doing so.

For example, Mason City native Mandy Martinson received a mandatory 10-year drug sentence in 2004 for her affiliation with a boyfriend who sold marijuana and methamphetamine. She received an additional five years because two firearms were found in their home. At her sentencing hearing, the judge stated that "the evidence demonstrated that [Martinson] was involved due to her drug dependency and her relationship with [her boyfriend] and that she was largely subject to his direction and control. ... Upon obtaining reasonable drug treatment and counseling and in the wake of what she is facing now, the Court does not have any particular concern that Ms. Martinson will commit crimes in the future." Despite the judge's assessment, he had no choice but to sentence her to 15 years in federal prison.

Martinson remains in prison today, but we believe she has been in prison long enough. She is joined by nearly 100,000 people — most of whom are non-violent — serving excessive sentences in federal prisons for drug offenses. We recognize no simple solutions exist when it comes to protecting liberty and public safety, and crime demands accountability. However, a "lock em' up and throw away the key" philosophy actually undermines both of these values. Mandatory minimum sentences do not allow for consideration of an individual's experiences that led them to crime, nor to consider their age, mental capacity, or ability to learn their lesson and redeem themselves....

As many of chaplains and prison ministry volunteers know, prison overcrowding makes it difficult to operate effective faith-based and other rehabilitation programs that are proven to reduce recidivism and make our communities safer. Finally, there is an intangible expense paid by family members, particularly children, who must cope with the pain and burden of having a loved one incarcerated for far too long. Among the saddest of statistics is that some 10 million young people have had a mother or father — or both — spend time behind bars at some point in their lives.

As Iowans, we are privileged to have Senator Grassley hold unique influence in the trajectory of America's sentencing policy. We hope he will use this authority to enact drug sentencing reforms that are more appropriate, will reduce the prison population and take into account the complicated factors that lead people to sell drugs.

In the meantime, we pray for the thousands of Iowans still behind bars, their families and the many thousands more who will be subject to extreme sentencing policies in years to come if lawmakers choose not to act. Those prayers and our advocacy efforts are the best things we can do for them. Now it is time for our elected leaders to do their part.

I strongly share the view that "the greatness of America lies not in the federal government but in the ... people" and that the "virtues of faith, hard work, marriage, family, personal responsibility, and helping the least among us" should inspire the work of all government officials. To that end, if Senator Grassley is truly committed to these virtues, I hope he takes to heart the advice given by these faith leaders to move forward ASAP on "drug sentencing reforms that are more appropriate, will reduce the prison population and take into account the complicated factors that lead people to sell drugs."

Notably, as highlighted in this recent post about recent criminal justice reform essays from GOP leaders, a large number of leading GOP candidates seeking to become president seem to share the view that federal drug sentencing needs to be reformed ASAP.  Senator Ted Cruz, for example, has said this is simply a matter of common sense.  If that is true, I am not sure what Senator Cruz would call Senator Grassley's seemingly steadfast opposition to various drug sentencing reforms proposals that have garner lots of support from lots of different quarters.

Some recent related posts:

May 1, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Senator Grassley yet again says he is open to some federal sentencing reforms

As reported in this new Washington Times article, "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley on Monday said he supported looking into sentencing reform." Here is more of this (not-quite-new) news:

Mr. Grassley, Iowa Republican, has long opposed reducing mandatory minimums, and was seen as a barrier to advancing any sort of sentencing reform legislation while at the committee’s helm. “Over the last several months, I’ve been accused of being a roadblock to sentencing reform. Let me be clear. I have told my colleagues and the White House that I’d like to sit down and talk about how we can move forward,” Mr. Grassley said in prepared remarks Monday, where he laid out his committee’s priorities for the session. “I’m ready to address some of these issues.”

He reiterated that he wasn’t willing to do “an across-the-board cut in mandatory minimums,” but did agree that some should be cut, and perhaps some should be raised, such as for those who commit white-collar crimes. Mr. Grassley also spoke about the need for his committee to look into indigent defendants who are not provided with legal counsel, as the Constitution requires, when they are arrested on misdemeanors and may face jail time....

Mr. Grassley’s stance aligns him with more liberal and libertarian groups, who have long advocated civil justice reforms. In February, Koch Industries, which is led by the billionaire conservative kingmaker Charles Koch, formed a coalition with the Center for American Progress — a bitter adversary on economic and tax issues — to champion proposals to reduce prison populations, reform sentencing guidelines and reduce people’s lapses back into criminal behavior....

The effort has been building traction in Congress with libertarian-leaning republicans such as Utah’s Mike Lee, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul, joining with liberals including Sens. Dick Durbin and Patrick Leahy. Those efforts were expected to face an uphill climb with Mr. Grassley, who took to the Senate floor this year to say the system wasn’t sending a huge uptick of nonviolent drug offenders to prison under lengthy mandatory minimums, and criticized the Senate proposal to change sentencing laws as possibly reducing sentences for terrorists who used drug trafficking to finance terrorism....

Earlier this month, faith leaders in Iowa encouraged Mr. Grassley to embrace the various bipartisan bills in front of him and encouraged reintegration of people returning from prisons and jails. A group of more than 100 pastors, reverends, bishops and other faith leaders suggested in an April 20 letter that Mr. Grassley limit disproportionate sentences “particularly for drug offenses.” “We believe justice can be better served and proportionality restored by lowering penalties,” the letter states. The unnecessarily lengthy incarceration of people with drug offenses has burdened the federal criminal justice system and produced increasing costs that are unsustainable.”

On Monday, Mr. Grassley seemed willing to negotiate — or at least sit down and listen to their concerns. “I told a lot of people that are for sentencing reform that I want to sit down and talk to them,” said Mr. Grassley. “There is some talk going on, I don’t know how far its progressed at this point, at the staff level. But yes, I’m willing to do some legislation in that area.”

Mr. Grassley also said he supported having video cameras in the Supreme Court and wanted to examine the fairness of asset forfeiture by the police and federal law enforcement. In addition, Mr. Grassley plans to introduce a Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act reauthorization bill this week. The bill, he said, has the support of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism.

The full speech by Senator Grassley delivered yesterday at the National Press Club Newsmakers News Conference is available at this link. As highlighted in prior posts linked below, these comments from Senator Grassley do not reflect any major change of position, but it does reinforce my belief that any and all persons seriously committed to serious federal sentencing reforms need to figure out just what kinds of reforms Senator Grassley is prepared to support or allow to get to a vote in his critical committee.

April 28, 2015 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Residual Impact: Resentencing Implications of Johnson v. United States’ Potential Ruling on ACCA’s Constitutionality"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely paper concerning the potential impact of the Supreme Court case re-argued yesterday.  The piece is authored by Leah Litman, and here is the abstract:

This Essay examines the impact a favorable decision in Johnson v. United States could have at the various stages of post-conviction relief for three categories of prisoners -- prisoners whose convictions have not yet become final; prisoners whose convictions have become final but who have not yet filed a petition seeking post-conviction relief; and prisoners whose convictions have become final and who have already filed at least one petition seeking post-conviction relief.  In doing so, it offers a reading of the relevant cases and statutes that permits any defendant sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act to obtain relief based on a decision invalidating the residual clause.  It also highlights some under-explored statutes and doctrinal questions that courts will confront as they determine which prisoners should be resentenced in light of Johnson.

April 21, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, April 20, 2015

Intricate federal criminal law statutory questions on SCOTUS docket this week

Most casual Supreme Court fans are surely looking ahead to next week's oral arguments in the same-sex-marriage and lethal injection cases.  But this week brings two other exciting and intricate cases before SCOTUS for federal criminal justice fans, as these SCOTUSblog brief summarizes reveal: 

Johnson v. US, No. 13-7120: Whether mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun should be treated as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act [and whether ACCA's residual clause is unconstitutionally vague].

McFadden v. US, No. 14-378: Whether, to convict a defendant of distribution of a controlled substance analogue -- a substance with a chemical structure that is “substantially similar" to a schedule I or II drug and has a “substantially similar” effect on the user (or is believed or represented by the defendant to have such a similar effect) -- the government must prove that the defendant knew that the substance constituted a controlled substance analogue, as held by the Second, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits, but rejected by the Fourth and Fifth Circuits.

Regular readers know that the Johnson case is getting a second argument this week after SCOTUS asked the parties to brief the constitutional issue it raised on its own after the first oral argument. And helpful Rory Little via SCOTUSblog provides these informative new posts with more on what can be expected in this week's arguments:

In addition, Garrett Epps has this extended new Atlantic piece discussing both Johnson and McFadden headlined "Too Vague to Be Constitutional: Two indecipherable criminal laws passed in the 1980s now face scrutiny at the Supreme Court."

April 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Canadian Supreme Court declares gun mandatory minimums unconstitutional

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable sentencing ruling from our northern neighbor reported in this press account headlined "Supreme Court quashes mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes: Court upholds Ontario ruling that struck down mandatory minimum sentences of 3 and 5 years." Here are the basics:

The Supreme Court of Canada dealt the Harper government's tough-on-crime agenda a serious blow Tuesday by striking down a law requiring mandatory minimum sentences for crimes involving prohibited guns. The 6-3 ruling, penned by Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, said the statute was unconstitutional as it upheld a 2013 Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that labelled the law cruel and unusual.

The ruling said the mandatory minimum sentence could ensnare people with "little or no moral fault" and who pose "little or no danger to the public." It cited as an example a person who inherits a firearm and does not immediately get a license for the weapon. "As the Court of Appeal concluded, there exists a 'cavernous disconnect' between the severity of the licensing-type offence and the mandatory minimum three-year term of imprisonment," McLachlin wrote for the majority.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in a statement that the government will review the decision to determine "next steps towards protecting Canadians from gun crime and ensuring that our laws remain responsive."...

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said there is a place for mandatory minimums in certain situations, noting that past Liberal governments have introduced them for "extreme crimes."

"But I think the over-use of them that the Supreme Court has highlighted, by this Conservative government, isn't necessarily doing a service to Canadians, both by not necessarily keeping us that much safer and also wasting large amount of taxpayers dollars on unnecessary court challenges," he told reporters in Oakville.

Keeping Canadians safe is cited by the government as the reason for its tough sentencing laws. McLachlin took aim at that justification in her ruling. "The government has not established that mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment act as a deterrent against gun-related crimes," she wrote. "Empirical evidence suggests that mandatory minimum sentences do not, in fact, deter crimes."

The court was deciding two appeals involving mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes brought by the Ontario and federal attorneys general. The top court upheld the appeal court's quashing of both the three-year mandatory minimum for a first offence of possessing a loaded prohibited gun, as well as the five-year minimum for a second offence.

The Ontario and federal governments argued that the minimums do not breach the charter protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The new sentencing rules were enacted in 2008 as part of a sweeping omnibus bill introduced by the federal Conservatives.

The full ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada is available at this link.

April 15, 2015 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Senator Grassley again expresses interest in talking about federal criminal justice reform

Senator Charles Grassley is right now arguably the most significant and most important player in all on-going debates over federal sentencing and criminal justice reform.  As Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Grassley can (and seems eager to) block the advancement of any and every federal criminal justice reform bill that he does not personally favor.  

Consequently, even if the vast majority of Senators strongly support significant reforms to federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions or to federal marijuana provisions, Senator Grassley can ensure— at least until 2017, and perhaps after that if the GOP retains control of the Senate — that federal reform bills do not even get a committee hearing, let alone a committee vote.   Indeed, even if the vast majority of 300 million Americans, and even if the vast majority of the 718,215 Iowans who voted for Senator Grassley in 2010, would strongly favor a reform bill, the bill is likely DOA if Senator Grassley himself is not keen on the bill's particulars.  Frustratingly, that is how our democracy now functions.

Bill Otis, whom I believe has Senator Grassley's ear and with whom he shares many sentencing views, predicted after the 2014 election that Senator Grassley's position as Judiciary Chair all but ensured that there would be almost no chance of significant federal sentencing reform until at least 2017.  But this new piece in Roll Call, headlined "Grassley Resistant to Criminal Justice Overhaul, but Says He’s Willing to Talk,"  provides at least of glimmer of hope that this old Senate dog might be open to some new sentencing tricks.  Here is an excerpt:

Grassley has made no bones about his passionate opposition to reducing mandatory minimum prison sentences, as proposed by Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois in the so-called Smarter Sentencing Act (S 1410). On the floor, Grassley has called rolling back such fixed sentences “dangerous,” “ill-conceived” and “indefensible.” Last year, he tried to gut a version of the bipartisan bill, which the Obama administration backs, with an amendment in committee.

Even so, Grassley told CQ Roll Call that he’s ready to start looking for common ground with the bill’s supporters. What’s been missing, he adds, is an invitation — from Obama, from the senators sponsoring the bill, from their staffs — from anyone willing to start a conversation. “First of all, nobody’s asked me even though for three months, including my speech last week, I said I would be glad to meet people about what we could possibly do because I’m open to some reform,” Grassley says.

Juvenile justice is among his top legislative priorities, and he has said he plans to co-sponsor a bill with Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse to reauthorize the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. That law has not been reauthorized since 2002.

Grassley says he thinks there could be some reductions in mandatory minimums, but at the same time he wants to see increases in minimum sentences in other areas, such as child pornography and white-collar crime. He has also cited the need to prevent abuses in the forfeiture of civil assets, and to ensure that offenders receive fair representation. “It may just be time” to start criminal justice talks, Grassley says.

Long story short: anyone and everyone seriously interested in the passage of federal criminal justice reform anytime soon would be wise to invest considerable time and energy figuring out exactly what Senator Grassley is now willing to talk about.  Notably, as stressed in this prior post, Senator Grassley recently penned a strong commentary extolling the importance of transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system, and I urge advocates to highlight for Senator Grassley and others how statutory mandatory minimums and other laws that empower and enhance federal prosecutorial overreaches significantly undermine these important goals.

A few prior related recent posts:

April 14, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, April 10, 2015

Controversy surrounding California judge who sentenced 19-year-old child rapist way below mandatory minimum 25-year-term

As reported in this lengthy CNN piece, headlined "California judge faces recall try over sentence in child rape case," a judge's decision to impose only a 10-year prison term on a child rapist is causing a big stir in Los Angeles. Here are some of the details:

Three county supervisors in California announced Thursday a campaign to recall a judge who sentenced a man to 10 years in prison -- instead of the state mandatory minimum of 25 years -- for sodomizing a 3-year-old girl who is a relative.

At the center of the controversy is Orange County Judge M. Marc Kelly who, according to transcripts of a February court proceeding, was moved by the plea for leniency by the mother of the defendant. The judge expressed "some real concerns" about the state's minimum sentence of 25 years to life in prison for a child sodomy conviction and about "whether or not the punishment is disproportionate to the defendant's individual culpability in this particular case," according to a transcript of the February proceeding.

"I have not done this before, but I have concerns regarding or not this punishment as prescribed would fall into the arena of cruel and unusual punishment and have constitutional ramifications under the Eighth Amendment," the judge said in February, according to the transcript. "I know this is a very rare situation. It doesn't come up very often."... [An] account of [the April 3] sentencing quoted the judge as saying the mandatory sentence would be appropriate in most circumstances, but "in looking at the facts of ... (the) case, the manner in which this offense was committed is not typical of a predatory, violent brutal sodomy of a child case," Kelly said. The judge noted that the defendant "almost immediately" stopped and "realized the wrongfulness of his act," according to the newspaper.

"Although serious and despicable, this does not compare to a situation where a pedophilic child predator preys on an innocent child," the judge said, according to the newspaper. "There was no violence or callous disregard for (the victim's) well-being."

Three Orange County supervisors held a press conference Thursday to announce the campaign to collect 90,829 signatures needed to hold a recall election of Kelly. They were Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Todd Spitzer, County Supervisor and Vice Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett and Supervisor Shawn Nelson. ...

Spitzer said he was responding to "a huge community outcry" against the judge's sentence and his comments from the bench. "We as a community spoke on behalf of the victim today, the 3-year-old child," Spitzer said. "If it was a stranger, the mom would have thrown the book at the guy. The family cares about the perpetrator. It's a family member," Spitzer said. "The victim is related to the perpetrator, and that is what is so difficult here."

But Spitzer said the judge didn't follow state law. "We don't want a judge that legislates from the bench," Spitzer said. "It's just unfathomable that the judge would try to describe what is a brutal sodomy," Spitzer added. "Sodomy of a 3-year-old child is a brutal, violent act in itself."...

Orange County District Tony Rackauckas has called the sentence "illegal," and his office will appeal it, said his chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder. "We believe that his decision, his sentencing was illegal because there was a mandatory minimum set up by statute by the legislature," Schroeder said. "We're doing what the people of Orange County have asked us to do. We're going to fight through the courts."...

The June crime occurred in the garage of the family home in Santa Ana, where the defendant, then 19, was playing video games, prosecutors said. CNN is not identifying any family members so the victim can remain anonymous. The defendant also made the victim touch his penis, and he covered the girl's mouth while the mother called out to her, prosecutors said....

"As a 19-year-old, defendant appears to be mentally immature and sexually inexperienced. It is difficult to explain away defendant's actions, however, as sexual frustration," prosecutors said in court papers. "All things considered, defendant appeared to be a relatively normal 19-year-old, aside from the crime of which he is convicted." But the defendant "poses a great danger to society and probably will for the majority of his life," prosecutors added.

During the February court proceeding, a statement by the mother was read aloud to the court by her husband, according to the transcript. "While a mother's love is nothing less than unconditional, I am clearly aware of the gravity of my son's actions and the inevitable discipline that he must now confront," the mother's statement said. "It has been not only extremely difficult, but utterly devastating for me and my family to fully come to terms with the events that took place."

The mother said she hadn't had the strength or courage yet "to directly talk" to her son about the crime, but she said her son "has allowed God into his heart and has committed himself to God's guidance." Her son "is not a bad person," and she asked for forgiveness for his "transgressions and for the opportunity to have a second chance at liberty," the husband told the judge, summarizing his wife's statement.

The judge remarked about the rarity of the mother's plea. "I have never had a situation before like this where a mother is the mother of the victim of the crime and the mother of the defendant who was convicted of the crime," the judge said. "It's very rare in these situations. So I know it must be very difficult for you."

Defense attorney Erfan Puthawala said his client never denied his responsibility "for the heinous act he committed" and, in fact, cooperated with investigators. "He made a statement essentially incriminating himself, which he did not have to do," the attorney said.

"He expressed remorse for the actions he took and the mistake he made. He understands that a momentary lapse has had lifelong ramifications for his sister the victim, for his family, and for himself," Puthawala added. "It is important to note that (my client) is not a pedophile, he is not a sexual deviant, he is not a sexually violent predator, and he poses a low risk of recidivism." Those findings came from an independently appointed psychologist who wrote a report to assist the judge in sentencing, Puthawala said.

Intriguingly, the judge at the center of this controversial sentencing was a senior local prosecutors for more than a decade before he became a member of the state judiciary. Perhaps because of that history, this judge perhaps though the prosecutor who charged this case likely had some discretion not to charge an offense that carried a 25-year mandatory minimum and thus perhaps he thought he should have some discretion not to sentence based on the mandatory minimum. Based on this case description, too, I wonder if this judge found that some of the Eighth Amendment themes stressed by the Supreme Court in Graham and Miller had some applicability in this setting because the defendant was only 19.

April 10, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, April 04, 2015

In praise of Senator Charles Grassley's advocacy for criminal justice transparency and accountability (and his one blind spot)

GrassleyWith respect to sentencing policy and procedure, I frequently disagree with the current Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley.  But on the topic of federal court transparency, I surmise that Senator Grassley and I have very similar views as evidence by this new National Law Journal op-ed penned by the Senator.  The piece is headlined "Legislation Allowing Cameras in the Courtroom More Important Than Ever, and here are excerpts:

In [the Boston Bombing] high-profile case and countless others, the mechanics of our criminal justice system work day in and day out to provide equal justice under the law.  Before a jury of peers, prosecutors make the government's case on behalf of the people, and the defense works to give the accused a fair trial.  America's system of justice, including our bedrock constitutional principles guaranteeing due process, a fair and speedy trial, and the right to counsel, is a tangible right of citizenship that too often goes unnoticed. That's because a majority of Americans aren't able to look under the hood to see it — at least not in federal courts, which ban cameras from their courtrooms.

The federal trial in Boston carries significant public interest.  And yet, the ban on cameras disallows the public to bear witness to the public proceeding.  Courtroom sketches and tweets from reporters arguably don't do justice for most people, especially those who have a keen interest to see justice served.

In this day and age when the American public is hard-wired to access what they want to see, when they want to see it, it's hard to square the injustice of essentially banning broad civic engagement from our judicial system by banning cameras from the federal courtroom.

Blockbuster trials certainly ­generate a lot of attention.  They renew ­interest in something I've been working to achieve for nearly two decades.  And that is to unlock the federal courtroom door to cameras.  As a co-equal branch of the federal government, the federal judiciary serves a fundamental function in our ­system of self-government.  It alone interprets the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress and managed by the executive branch.  Although removed from electoral politics by constitutional design, the federal judiciary and Article III judges are not part of a royal class or monarchy.  The federal judiciary is the custodian of constitutional rights and providing equal justice under the law. If anything, the federal judiciary ought to be the first to throw open the shutters to bring this extraordinary branch of government to life for ordinary Americans.

As a longtime crusader for more transparency, I've worked to spread sunshine through the halls of the federal government.  Transparency, and the accountability that comes with it, renews credibility in our institutions of government and strengthens our free and open society.  The same goes for civic engagement.  Allowing courtroom proceedings to be broadcast would give more citizens an opportunity to develop a better appreciation for the federal judiciary and how the wheels of justice serve the public good.

With very few exceptions, the public's business ought to be public.  Period.  My leadership on this issue has prompted a few steps in the right direction, such as the adoption of pilot programs to allow cameras into some federal courts.  The most recent program was launched in 2011 and includes 14 federal trial courts.  So far, the sky has not fallen and the program will wrap up this summer.  The courts will report back to Congress next year.

Each of the 50 states allows some level of camera access in their courtrooms.  As far as I know, the recording and broadcasting of state trials haven't turned the carriage of justice into a pumpkin.  To me, it's a miscarriage of justice that the 20th century courtroom camera ban still exists in the 21st century at the federal level....

[M]y bipartisan bill would allow the presiding judge discretion to protect the privacy of witnesses and private conversations among clients, lawyers and the judge.  It prohibits the televising of jurors and includes measures to protect due process rights.  The bipartisan verdict on this issue exceeds reasonable doubt. Allowing cameras into the federal courtroom would foster better civic engagement with our courts of law and, ultimately, strengthen the court of public opinion about the integrity of our judicial system in American society.

The burden of proof is clear.  It's time to lift this arbitrary barrier to transparency.  Let's end the camera ban and raise the bar on good government.

I could not agree more strongly with this forceful assertion by Senator Grassley: "With very few exceptions, the public's business ought to be public. Period."  Now I just wish Senator Grassley would come to understand that his righteous commitment to transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system is deeply undermined by his steadfast support for federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes and the extraordinary hidden power they place in the hands of unelected federal prosecutors.

Existing federal mandatory minimum statutes enable federal prosecutors to make profoundly consequential sentencing decision behind closed doors without any explanation, transparency or accountability. The US Sentencing Commission and others have frequently documented the profound sentencing impact of the hidden charging and bargaining decisions made by federal prosecutors using mandatory minimum sentencing provision.  It is near impossible to even know what decisions are being made by prosecutors in the use of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, let alone to assess effectively the legitimacy of the factors employed by prosecutors in their charging and bargaining decisions, because prosecutors need never explain or justify these sentencing decisions in any way.

My general disaffinity for federal mandatory minimum sentencing statutes is deeply based in my strong belief that "the public's business ought to be public."  Because it seems Senator Grassley is truly and deeply committed to the values of transparency and accountability in the federal criminal justice system, I hope he will at some point come to understand how his support for federal mandatory minimums problematically disserve these critical values.

April 4, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Justices Kennedy and Breyer urge Congress to reform "broken" federal criminal justice system

BreyerKennedyHearing-638x362This new ThinkProgress piece, headlined "Supreme Court Justices Implore Congress To Reform The Criminal Justice System — ‘It’s Not Humane’," effectively reports on the notable comments made about criminal justice reform by two Justices who were testifying before Congress on budget issues yesterday. Here are some of the details:

The prisons are one of the most misunderstood institutions of government. Solitary confinement drives individuals insane. And mandatory minimum sentences are a bad idea. These were the assertions of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer in testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee Monday afternoon.

Asked by Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) about United States “capacity to deal with people with our current prison and jail overcrowding,” each justice gave an impassioned response in turn, calling on Congress to make things better. “In many respects, I think it’s broken,” Kennedy said of the corrections system. He lamented lawyer ignorance on this phase of the justice system:

I think, Mr. Chairman, that the corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions we have in our entire government. In law school, I never heard about corrections. Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. Once the adjudication process is over, we have no interest in corrections. doctors know more about the corrections system and psychiatrists than we do. Nobody looks at it. California, my home state, had 187,000 people in jail at a cost of over $30,000 a prisoner. compare the amount they gave to school children, it was about $3,500 a year. Now, this is 24-hour care and so this is apples and oranges in a way. And this idea of total incarceration just isn’t working. and it’s not humane.

Kennedy, traditionally considered the swing vote among the current set of justices, recalled a recent case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the defendant had been in solitary confinement for 25 years, and “lost his mind.”

“Solitary confinement literally drives men mad,” he said. He pointed out that European countries group difficult prisoners in cells of three or four where they have human contact, which “seems to work much better.” He added that “we haven’t given nearly the study, nearly enough thought, nearly enough investigative resources to looking at our correction system.”

Kennedy’s comments come just weeks after a federal review of U.S. solitary confinement policy also found that the United States holds more inmates in solitary confinement than any other developed nation. Confinement typically involves isolation in an often windowless cell with a steel door for 23 hours a day, with almost no human contact. The treatment has been found to have a psychological impact in as many as a few days, though, as Justice Kennedy pointed out, many are held for decades. In the wake of the new report, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) called upon the Federal Bureau of Prisons to alter its practices.

In his response, Breyer honed in on Womack’s use of the word “priorities” to suggest that prioritizing long prison sentences was not the best use of resources. “Do you want to have mandatory minimums? I’ve said publicly many times that i think that’s a terrible idea,” Breyer said. “And I’ve given reasons, which I’ll spare you.”

“Is it worth your time on earth, or mine, to try to work out ways of prioritizing? I think it is,” Breyer said. “I think it is a big problem for the country. and so I can’t do anything more in the next minute or 30 seconds other than say I like the word prioritize. I hope you follow it up. And I hope do you examine the variety of ways that there of trying to prioritize and then work out one that’s pretty good.”

As far back as 1998, Breyer has called for the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, which mandate minimum prison terms by law according to the crime, amount of drugs, or other factors, and give judges no discretion to lower those sentences. He has said they “set back the cause of justice” because they don’t allow for exceptions depending on the circumstances of a given case. Particularly for drug crimes, they have sent low-level drug offenders to prison for sentences that start at 5 or 10 years and quickly ratchet up from there.

This Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Two Supreme Court Justices Say Criminal-Justice System Isn’t Working: Justice Breyer says mandatory minimum sentences are 'a terrible idea'," provides some more notable quotes from the Justices.

March 24, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Might a President Ted Cruz champion "common sense" mandatory minimum sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this political news from Houston: "Ted Cruz to announce presidential bid Monday."  Here are highlights about Senator Cruz's plans:

Senior advisers say Cruz will run as an unabashed conservative eager to mobilize like-minded voters who cannot stomach the choice of the "mushy middle" that he has ridiculed on the stump over the past two months in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. "Ted is exactly where most Republican voters are," said Mike Needham, who heads the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America. "Most people go to Washington and get co-opted. And Ted clearly is somebody that hasn't been."

For various reasons, I am pleased that Senator Cruz is the first GOP candidate to officially throw his hat into the ring and that he will be running as a "unabashed conservative." As explained in this prior post, this unabashed conservative has stated that he believes a commitment to "fairness" and "justice" and "common sense" calls for passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act and other federal reforms which would help avoid "a world of Le Miserables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.

A few recent and older posts on the modern "conservative politics" of federal sentencing reform:

March 22, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Sparring over sentencing reform lingo involving the media and Senator Grassley

LogoVia this recent Washington Post piece, I see that Senator Charles Grassley last week delivered this notable floor speech assailing the Smarter Sentencing Act.  Notably, the Post piece, headlined "The Orwellian deception of Chuck Grassley’s 'leniency industrial complex'," attacks some language in Senator Grassley's speech, a speech which itself attacks some language used by advocates of sentencing reform. Here are excerpts from the Post piece:

In a strongly-worded floor speech on Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) blasted the Smarter Sentencing Act, which is currently before his committee. Grassley accused the bill's bipartisan supporters, including fellow Republicans Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, of being part of a so-called "leniency industrial complex," a rather colorful turn of phrase.  In the past, he's defined this as "some people in Congress, the public, academia, and the media, who think that sentences that are being imposed on serious criminal offenders are too stringent."  Notice, though, the complete lack of "industry" in Grassley's "industrial complex."

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a fairly modest bill that does not in any way repeal mandatory minimum sentences.  But it does reduce some of them, and it gives federal judges more discretion in how to apply them, particularly ones that apply to nonviolent drug offenders.

That small step toward reform is evidently a bridge too far for Grassley.  He opened his speech with a litany of the dangers and harmful effects of the narcotics trade -- that heroin use is on the rise, that some terrorist groups profit from the drug trade, etc. These facts are hardly in dispute.

The problem is that Grassley believes, contrary to a mountain of evidence, that mandatory minimum sentences are effective tools for combating these problems.... Perhaps the most damning case against mandatory minimum drug sentences is that since they were instituted in the 80s and 90s, the use of illicit drugs has risen and their price has fallen dramatically....

Grassley accuses supporters of the bill of being "Orwellian" in their rhetoric.  In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell wrote that "political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."  There may be no finer example of this than Grassley's use of the term "leniency industrial complex," which would seem to imply the existence of a powerful corporate network that would profit, somehow, from keeping people out of jail....

The only thing Orwellian about the debate over the Smarter Sentencing Act is Grassley's continued insistence that it would cost money, promote crime and benefit an unnamed "industrial complex" -- when in fact it would do the exact opposite.

I share the view that it is silly to speak of a "leniency industrial complex," and there are lots of other linguistic flourishes in Senator Grassley's floor speech that could be extensively picked apart for rhetorical excess and inaccuracy.  But, but the same measure, I understand Senator Grassley's expressed concern with terms like "low-level" and "non-violent" (echoing points previously made here by Bill Otis) because use of these terms in sentencing reform debates are "question-begging" and do involve "sheer cloudy vagueness."  Though I may myself be sometimes guilty of using or repeating these terms, I think a term like "less serious" is a better term that "low-level" (though still vague).  And what can and should qualify as violent or non-violent crime has been such a problem in federal law that the US Sentencing Commission has given up trying to fix this matter and the US Supreme Court might soon blow up a statute for its vagueness in this arena.

Semantic debates aside, the Senator Grassley speech appears most significant for its apparent indication that the mandatory minimum drug sentencing reforms in the Smarter Sentencing Act will not be going anywhere while he is in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  I hope this does not mean all federal sentencing reform is dead, but it does suggest any significant reforms are going to be a long, hard slog.  On a more positive note for would-be reformers, Senator Grassley's latest floor speech indicates that he recognizes "[p]roblems do exist in the criminal justice system," including that "for too many times in America, equality under the law is not a reality [because] the poor do not receive the same justice in many instances."  Perhaps if sentencing reformers can start to emphasize economic inequalities regarding who gets slammed with the toughest sentences, maybe this key Senator will be more open to hearing ideas for reform 

March 17, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, March 16, 2015

Massachusetts Chief Justice taking on prosecutors concerning drug mandatory minimums

This lengthy local article, headlined "Chief justice: Prosecutors “hold the cards” on sentencing," spotlights a war of words in the Bay State over the impact and import of mandatory minimums for drug offenses. Here are excerpts:

The chief justice of the state’s highest court lashed into the mandatory minimum sentencing of drug offenders on Monday, saying the current set-up needs to be abolished because it is “unfair” to minorities, fails to address the drug epidemic and is a “poor investment” of public funds.

In a sharp rejoinder, Boston’s top prosecutor said Monday that Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants was advocating for a “return to a failed policy” from 30 years ago. When judges had “unfettered” discretion, they exercised it “poorly,” Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley said.

Conley, who holds an elected position, said he has not seen judges appear at community meetings in response to crime in Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury.  “Have you ever seen a judge out there listening to the community? No,” Conley said.  “Maybe they don’t see that as their position, but they’re operating in a vacuum. They don’t understand how drug traffickers and drug dealers and gang members are turning some neighborhoods in our city into very, very violent communities.”...

In a speech to attendees of a criminal justice conference at UMass Boston, Gants, who has emerged as a vocal critic of mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases, acknowledged prosecutors have concerns about eliminating the mandatory minimums policy. “Now, let’s be honest: When some district attorneys say they fear judicial leniency, they really are saying that they do not want to relinquish to judges the power to impose sentences that minimum mandatory sentences give to prosecutors,” Gants said.  “They would prefer that prosecutors decide what sentence a drug dealer receives.”

Gants, who worked as a federal prosecutor for eight years, said prosecutors are seeking to maintain “leverage” to induce a plea by dropping the mandatory minimum charge. “I understand why they would like to preserve their power to sentence,” he said.  “What card player would agree to surrender the cards that yield a superior hand? For as long as prosecutors, rather than judges, hold the cards that determine sentences, we will not have individualized, evidenced-based sentences and we will not be applying any of the three principles of just and effective sentencing.”

According to Gants, the three principles are considering the circumstances of the crime and the role of the defendant; ensuring that “the sentence should be no greater than necessary to accomplish the first principle”; and crafting a sentence that enables the defendant to “get past the past” and reduce recidivism.

Gants said the judiciary will implement the three principles through a “best practices” committee created by each trial court department with criminal jurisdiction. The committees will have a first draft prepared by Thanksgiving, and Gants is aiming for implementation of the “best practices” by next spring for cases where mandatory minimums don’t apply....

Gants’ remarks were the keynote address at a summit put together by the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. During one of the panels that followed Gants’ talk, Conley responded to the chief justice, calling himself “the skunk at the garden party” and the “only alternate voice” in the room.

“I hope at the next summit that we have some more alternate voices and more vigorous debate on the efficacy of minimum mandatory sentences and how they’ve impacted our communities,” Conley said.

Conley said the state’s 11 district attorneys exercise their discretion “judiciously and wisely.” “There needs to be consistency across courtrooms, across counties, across regions, and I would argue that the 11 district attorneys, who are responsive to the public, are in the best position to exercise that discretion,” he said.

Out of a population of about 6.75 million residents, Massachusetts has about 1,000 individuals serving mandatory minimum drug sentences, according to Conley. Massachusetts “ought to be held up, frankly, as a beacon of how other states ought to do it,” Conley said. Conley added: “We shouldn’t leave to chance the idea that 400 judges with 400 different views on how defendants who commit drug offenses ought to be sentenced, and give them full and unfettered discretion. It is a recipe for disaster, I believe.”

During Conley’s response, Gants sat a few feet away from the stage with a smile. When Conley walked off the stage, Gants stood up, smiled again and they shook hands. Gants said he has also spoken to prosecutors about his views. “I deal in a court [in] which there are often dissents, so I’m comfortable with disagreement. It’s respectful disagreement, and we’ll keep talking,” he said.

March 16, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Colson Task Force highlights " biggest driver of growth in the prison population is in federally sentenced drug offenders"

Images (2)As reported in this Crime Report piece, the Charles Colson Federal Corrections Task Force has just released this notable new research brief titled "Drivers of Growth in the Federal Prison Population." Here are excerpts from the document (with emphasis in original):

The federal prison population has grown by 750 percent since 1980, resulting in rapidly increasing expenditures for incarceration and dangerous overcrowding.  In response, Congress created the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections to examine trends in correctional growth and develop practical, data-driven policy responses.  Following the example of many states that have recently engaged in criminal justice reform, the first step for the Task Force is to understand the underlying drivers of growth in the prison population.

The biggest driver of growth in the prison population is in federally sentenced drug offenders, almost all of whom were convicted of drug trafficking.  In fiscal year (FY) 2013, there were almost 50,000 more drug offenders in federal prisons than there were in FY 1994.  Incarceration for drug offenses disproportionately affects nonwhite offenders: in FY 2013, over 75 percent of all drug offenders in federal prison were black or Hispanic....

The population growth is driven by both the number of people who are admitted to prison for drug crimes every year and the length of their sentences.   In FY 2013, more people were admitted to federal prison for drug crimes than any other crime type, and the average sentence for those entering prison was almost six years.  Every year, about 95 percent of federally sentenced drug offenders receive a term of incarceration as part of their sentence, up from about 76 percent in the year before the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, which established mandatory minimum penalties for certain drug offenses.

In particular, length of stay for drug offenders, often dictated by statutory mandatory minimum penalties, has driven most of the recent growth.  Though the number of admissions has remained largely constant over time, the number of drug offenders in federal prison has increased because of people serving longer sentences.

March 11, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack