Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Massachusetts Gov asked to sign mixed sentencing reform bill

As reported in this local article, headlined "While called ‘balanced,’ sentencing bill lacks provisions sought by Gov. Patrick," the governor of Massachusetts now has on his desk a dynamic state sentencing reform bill.   Here are the details:

Advocates on all sides of the crime and sentencing debate continue to speak out about the habitual offender and sentencing reform bill on Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk, urging him to sign it, veto it or send it back to the Legislature with amendments.

In a WBZ-AM radio interview Monday night, Les Gosule, an activist who has pressed for a habitual offender law for about a decade following the rape and murder of his daughter Melissa, said parties disgruntled over issues left unaddressed by the legislation can pursue those initiatives anew in the next session beginning in January.  “I want the pen,” Gosule said, urging Patrick to put his signature on the bill.

Patrick has until Sunday to act on the legislation and proponents and opponents of the bill are mindful that formal legislative sessions end for the year at midnight next Tuesday. Patrick can sign the bill, veto it, or send it back with amendments.  An eleventh hour amendment from Patrick would force lawmakers to either deal immediately with the amendment or risk seeing their work on the bill go for naught....

While the bill last week cleared the House 139-14 and the Senate 31-7, its supporters and opponents since then have raised concerns about it, with some arguing it lacks crime-fighting tools sought by law enforcement and others arguing that it takes discretionary power in sentencing away from judges and would lead to prison overcrowding.

Among other provisions, the bill reduces mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and eliminates parole eligibility for certain violent offenders upon their third conviction.

While supporters say the bill represents the “balanced” approach Patrick called for, the legislation appears to lack key policies Patrick highlighted in his State of the State speech in January, giving extra weight to the idea that the bill might be returned with amendments....

The lack of judicial discretion in the bill’s habitual offender initiative drew criticism outside the capital Tuesday. “Who has discretionary power? The prosecutor,” said Rev. George Walters-Sleyon, who was joined by other Boston clergy and Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey in front of the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common Tuesday morning.  He said black people and Latinos comprise less than 17 percent of the state’s population but more than 55 percent of those serving time behind bars....

Criticism has also been levied from state prosecutors.  Six of the state’s 11 district attorneys signed onto a letter Friday criticizing the bill for leaving out provisions that would strengthen gun laws, and for including “no supervision” of drug traffickers released into the community.

July 25, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 21, 2012

"The Mandatory Meaning of Miller"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece by Professor William W. Berry III. Here is the abstract:

In June 2012, the United States Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on 'cruel and unusual' punishment prohibited the imposition of mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles.  This case continued the Supreme Court’s slow but steady expansion of the scope of the Eighth Amendment over the past decade.

In light of the Court’s decision in Miller to preclude mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles, this article explores the possibility of further expansion of the Eighth Amendment to proscribe other kinds of mandatory sentences. Applying the approach of the Court in Woodson and Miller to other contexts provides, at the very least, a basis to remedy some of the injustices created by mandatory sentences.

This article, then, argues that the “mandatory” meaning of Miller is that the Eighth Amendment requires consideration of mitigating evidence by courts in all cases involving “death-in-custody” sentences. In light of this mandatory” meaning, the article then considers several important normative consequences.

Specifically, application of this 'mandatory' meaning would result in the Eighth Amendment barring imposition of a 'death-in-custody' sentence in capital cases where life with parole is not a sentencing option, cases involving a mandatory sentence of life without parole, and cases where the term of the sentence approaches the life expectancy of the offender. As explained below, the key principle here is that the Eighth Amendment requires courts to examine mitigating evidence in any case where the duration mandated legislative sentence exceeds the life expectancy of the offender.

Part I of this article explains the meaning of 'mandatory' as developed by Miller. In Part II, the article describes the normative consequences of adopting the 'mandatory' meaning of Miller -- when 'mandatory' matters -- in applying the Eighth Amendment to 'death-in-custody' cases. In Part III, the article then makes the case -- why 'mandatory' matters -- for adopting this approach in Eighth Amendment cases.

July 21, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | 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

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Judge down under laments mandatory 20 years (with parole) for brutal contract killer

The debates on this blog over the Supreme Court's recent work in Miller finding unconstitutional a mandatory LWOP sentence for a juvenile killer (see comments to posts here and here) have been robust and at times (over)heated.  With the Miller case and controversy fresh in mind, I found this new local story from Australia quite interesting and comparatively telling.  The story is headlined "Judge slams mandatory sentencing laws as 'unjust'," and here are excerpts:

A Supreme Court judge has criticised the Northern Territory sentencing regime as "unjust and unfair".  Justice Dean Mildren made the comment after sentencing Darren Jason Halfpenny to 20 years in jail for the contract killing of a man in Katherine.

Justice Mildren said he was required to impose a minimum 20 year prison term because of the mandatory sentencing regime in the Territory.   "It is unjust and unfair, and contrary to the public interest, that prisoners who plead guilty ... and are remorseful ... are left in a situation where their earlier release is left in the hands of the executive (government)," he said.

Russell Golflam of the Criminal Lawyers Association of the Northern Territory agrees. "Mandatory sentencing is, in principle, obnoxious," he said.  Mr Golflam says judges should be given the power to do the job that they're paid to do; impose appropriate penalties according to the circumstances of the case.  "Parliament and governments should not take that job away from judges," he said. He is calling for the Sentencing Act to be amended.

Justice Mildren recommended that Halfpenny be released on parole after 14 years because he will testify against his co-accused in the murder....

During the trial, the court heard Darren Halfpenny and two friends, Christopher Malyschko and Zac Grieve, donned shower caps and gloves before entering the Katherine house where Ray Niceforo lived.  The court was told Mr Niceforo, 41, was struck in the head with a blunt object seven times, then had a rope tied around his neck.

His body was wrapped in a tarpaulin and put into a van before being dumped in bushland. The body was found the following day and an autopsy found Mr Niceforo died from a blunt force head injury or asphyxiation.

Halfpenny was questioned by police a few days later and confessed.  He later agreed to testify against his co-accused, Malyschko and Grieve, who have been charged with murder.

The court was told the three men carried out the killing for a payment of $5,000 each. Crown prosecutor Jack Karzevski, QC, said the contract killing was commissioned by Bronwyn Buttery, the ex-partner of Mr Niceforo, who has also been charged with murder.

So, let's do a little compare/contrast concerning judicial sentencing attitudes in the land down under and in the land of the free: 

--- in Australia, a sentencing judge is bemoaning as "unjust and unfair" a legislative requirement to impose a 20-year prison term with parole on an adult who intentionally committed a brutal contract murder.  This kind of homicide in the US would clearly qualify as first-degree murder in just about every US state and in most would make the defendant eligible for the death penalty.  The defendant's decision to plead guilty and cooperate would likely prompt most US prosecutors to take the death penalty off the table but likely still would make a (perhaps mandatory) LWOP sentence still possible (even probably) for the premeditated and henious crime.

--- in the United States, four Justices of our Supreme Court in Miller have bemoaned the majority's ruling that the US Constitutional prohibits a legislative requirement to impos a life prison term without parole on a 14-year-old who unexpectedly had a role in the another's lethal shooting of a store clerk during an intentional robbery.  This kind of homicide in Australia, I suspect based on this somewhat dated report on homicide sentencing patterns, would likely result in the offender getting a prison sentence of just over 10 years with the possibility of parole a few years soon.

For a host of reasons, I am strongly disinclined to assert that Australia's sentencing approach to murder offenses is to preferred to the US system, and that kind of claim is not the point of this post.  Rather, my goal here is just to highlight (especially on July 4th, the day we most celebrate America as the land of the free and the home of the brave) the reality that a judge in Australia is quick to lament having to impose a 20-year prison term with parole on a brutal adult contract killer, while in Miller we see four Justices being quick to lament our Constitution being interpretted to giving a 14-year-old convicted of felony murder just the chance to seek a sentence less than life prison term without parole.

July 4, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Los Angeles DA's long history with California three-strikes reform efforts

This great new piece at The Crime Report, which is headlined "Three Strikes: the California Challenge," details the unique role of the DA of Los Angeles in efforts to reform the state's broad three-strikes law. Here are excepts:

On June 20, The Three Strikes Reform Act officially qualified for the upcoming California ballot. Come November, voters will have the chance to amend the 1994 law that has condemned approximately 3,600 inmates to a 25-to-life sentence for nonviolent, non-serious crimes.

The law was intended to take serious repeat offenders who pick up a third felony charge off the streets for good — the idea being to protect the public from career super-criminals who would likely offend again if allowed to go free.

But more than a third of all Three Strikes lifers in the state system fit the definition of “non-violent” or “non-serious” — some of whom have infamously been put away for life for crimes as trivial as stealing a slice of pepperoni pizza.  California taxpayers spend more than $100 million annually to house these inmates. When the nonviolent lifers get older and start to need more medical care, the tab goes much higher.

The last time voters had the chance to vote to reform the law — the harshest 3-strikes statute in the nation — was in 2004 with Prop 66.  That initiative was on its way to sailing through the ballot process, until a last-minute offensive from Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, along with then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and others, turned the tide against the initiative in the waning hours of the campaign.

Ironically, despite his role in the death of Prop 66, no California politician is more closely associated with Three Strikes reform than Steve Cooley.  Certainly no one in public office has a more complicated relationship with the statute.

In a conversation with WitnessLA, Cooley maintains that he won his first Los Angeles District Attorney race in 2000, largely thanks to his support of relaxed Three Strikes sentencing guidelines. “It was the defining issue in the race,” he says.

Within two weeks of taking office, Cooley stayed good to his campaign promise, crafting a policy that allowed his attorneys to use discretion in pursuing 25-to-life sentences for non-violent third strikers — the first DA in the state to do so. “It was a very modest reform,” he says. “It was not sweeping.”

According to Cooley, the two most important ethical considerations when it comes to sentencing are evenhanded application and proportionality. “Two-bit forgery and drug possession could be the predicate for 25 to life—the same sentence we often reserve for murderers,” he explains. “People will only respect the laws when they feel punishment is handed out fairly and proportionally. We’ve had a great deal of success with this policy in LA.”

But when Cooley had the chance to back sweeping statewide reform of Three Strikes in 2004 — via Prop 66 — he balked. In May of 2004, polls showed that voters favored Prop 66 by a margin of 76 percent to 14 percent. And then came the 11th hour Cooley, Schwarzenegger and company scare campaign.  Practically overnight, the polls did a 180. Prop 66 went down in flames, by a 53-47 percent margin.

“I don’t think Cooley being against the bill was a deciding factor,” says journalist and author Joe Domanick, whose book Cruel Justice is considered the authoritative work on the history of Three Strikes laws in California.  “The entire law enforcement establishment was against the bill.”...

Cooley is unapologetic about the role he may have played in Prop 66’s demise. “From a public safety standpoint, 66 was scary,” he says. “Once I crunched the numbers and saw how many people would be released and how quickly, I was strongly, openly, publicly against it. In Los Angeles County alone, 12,000-14,000 would have been released within a year.”...

Two years after Prop 66’s demise, the Republican DA teamed with Democrat State Senator Gloria Romero to craft a more modest Three Strikes reform measure — S.B. 1642 — based on the relaxed Three Strikes guidelines he’d developed in the LA DA’s office. “Three Strikes is a powerful tool for prosecutors if used properly,” Cooley explains.  “Prop 66 was a wake-up call: ‘OK, these folks have some arguments that appeal to the public.  Let’s take those arguments away.’ In order to avoid a future Prop 66, we had to make people feel good about how Three Strikes was being applied.”

S.B. 1642, however, died in committee. “The only reason it failed is because five Democrats didn’t vote for it,” Cooley says. “They made a political decision based on their own political careers. It absolutely would have passed otherwise.

The bill’s defeat marked the end of Cooley’s public activism on the issue of Three Strikes. But his positions have followed him throughout his political career....  “During the Attorney General race, both of my Republican opponents made my Three Strikes views an issue. I won the primary by a landslide. My adversary tried the same tact in 2000 and I won by something like 28 points.”

Although an ameliorating law has yet to make it to the books, Three Strikes reform is exceedingly popular in California. A June 2011 Field Poll revealed that nearly 75 percent of California voters favor reform. Field director Mark DiCamillo says his organization won’t take a poll on the initiative itself until the Secretary of State certifies the ballot language sometime next month....

When WitnessLA spoke to him last week, [Cooley] played coy about his support for the current initiative. “I have not taken an official public position yet,” he says. “I do like the concept. I’ve read a number of analyses [of the proposed measure] but I need time to study. I plan on taking a public position soon.”

Cooley readily concedes that the current initiative is based on the policies he implemented in Los Angeles in 2000. He also admits that some of his main deputies were an active part of the conversation when the initiative was being drafted. “People in my office were involved,” he says. “I think this particular product is better than what was proposed in 2006. It’s workable. And I think it will prevent Three Strikes from being attacked by another 66-type effort.

July 3, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Criticism of Justice Alito's one-size-fits-all dissent in Miller

As regular readers know and as previously explained here, in a series of posts I am taking on a claim at the heart of each dissenting opinion to the Supreme Court's new Eighth Amendment SCOTUS Miller ruling (opinion here, basics here).  In the first post here, I questioned number-crunching in the Roberts/textualism dissent.  In this second post here, I questioned claims about LWOP as a method of punishment in the Thomas/originalism dissent. 

Coming soon will be my final post in ths series in which I examine a key claim in Justice Alito's dissent.  But, before I that post is finished, I see that Wendy Kaminar has this potent criticism in The Atlantic of Justice Alito's work in Miller which carries this sub-headlined: "Conservatives are supposed to embrace individualism. So why did the Court's conservative wing defend a one-size-fits-all approach to juvenile justice?"  Here are snippets from the piece:

Individualized justice is supposed to be a conservative ideal. Liberals are supposed to embrace collectivism, while conservatives promote individualism and oppose regulatory schemes, like affirmative action, which treat people categorically as fungible members of groups. A collective or categorical approach to law is, from this perspective, an assault on liberty and the integrity of the individual -- except when it's not....

Justice Alito objected strongly to this individualized approach to sentencing. The "category of murderers" under 18 consists mostly of older teenagers who engage in "brutal thrill-killing," Alito declared in dissent. The offenders in the cases before the Court in Miller were "very young"; they were "anamolies," for whom it was "hard not to feel sympathy," he acknowledged. But if some members of the juvenile murderer category are atypical and inappropriate candidates for LWOP, that, Alito suggested, is their misfortune. In his view, 8th Amendment strictures against cruel and unusual punishment do not bar states from imposing excessively harsh sentences on a few juveniles who may not deserve them in order to facilitate their imposition on many teenagers who do.

"No one should be confused by the particulars of the two cases before us," Alito admonished, in a remarkable rejection of individualized justice when it arguably matters most, in the imposition of criminal sentences. Should Alito ever be arrested, I imagine he'll expect and demand to be treated as an individual -- not as a Catholic, or an Italian-American of a certain age, or a member of a conservative Supreme Court bloc, who might be sentenced for the sins of Justice Scalia (whatever they may be). I suspect he'll want to be treated as Samuel Alito, a particular person alleged to have committed a particular crime. Should he ever be arrested, Justice Alito will probably want police, prosecutors, jurors and judges to pay close attention to his particulars, which I doubt he'll condemn as "confusing."

Particularized, individualized justice is precisely what mandatory sentences deny. The Court has declined to strike them down under the 8th Amendment in cases involving adults, although they often dictate excessively, disproportionately harsh sentences, and their role in filling our prisons with non-violent drug offenders is a decades old scandal. Long promoted as a means of eliminated discretion in sentencing, mandatory minimums merely transfer discretion from judges to prosecutors. They ensure that prosecutors decide how defendants will be sentenced when they choose the crimes with which defendants will be charged.  In juvenile cases, prosecutors may sometimes choose lengthy, mandatory sentences when they choose to transfer juveniles to adult court.

Now, under Miller, prosecutors may still transfer juvenile homicide suspects, who may still face LWOP for "brutal thrill-killings."  But their sentences will no longer be determined by generally unaccountable prosecutors or by the crimes of other juveniles in their "category." This is not an obscure principle, difficult to comprehend.  Juvenile offenders are individuals too, not interchangeable members of a class.

Amen!

Some related Miller posts:

June 30, 2012 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 28, 2012

What is the real national sentencing "mood" in our new era of budget-cut reforms?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by what seems to be a somewhat muted political reaction to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment decision in Miller, and in part by this effective new article at The Crime Report.  The piece is headlined "Rethinking ‘Tough on Crime’," and it has a particular focus on this November's ballot initiative in California to reform that state's broad three-strikes law.  Here are excerpts:

[S]everal thousand prisoners ... could be eligible to petition for early release if California voters this November pass a proposed initiative to reform the state’s three-strikes law, the toughest in the country.  The proposed law would reserve 25-to-life sentences mostly to those who commit serious or violent crimes on their third offense.  It would also allow some current inmates, who committed a third strike that was not violent or serious, to petition for early release.

California is not alone.  States across the country are revisiting three-strikes laws and other tough mandatory minimum sentencing laws, particularly for low-level drug crimes.  Of the 24 states that passed three-strikes laws in the early 1990s, at least 16 have since modified them to give judges more discretion in sentencing or narrow the types of crimes that count as a “strike,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).  At least 14 states in recent years also either eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenders, or gave judges more discretion to consider alternatives to incarceration, according to the NCSL.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission in October 2011 also recommended changes to federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws, saying that some penalties “apply too broadly, are set too high,” and are applied inconsistently across the country.

“Compared to the ‘80s and ‘90s when the push was to adopt more mandatory sentencing policies, the tide is beginning to move in the other direction,” said Marc Mauer, the director of The Sentencing Project.  “We’re seeing a better climate for sentencing and corrections reform.”

The changes are part of a broader rethinking of many of the “tough on crime” sentencing policies that dominated the country for decades.  Driven largely by the flagging economy, states have embraced a variety of reforms to rein in the cost of high prison populations, including diverting low-level drug offenders into treatment; reforming the parole system; and granting early release to certain inmates....

Though criminal justice reform was once thought of as a purely liberal issue, many of the most dramatic changes have come in traditionally conservative states, such as Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia, which have passed comprehensive reform packages.

Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country, recently gave prosecutors and judges sentencing discretion for some crimes that normally carry mandatory minimum penalties and will allow early release for some non-violent offenders sentenced to life without parole.  Prominent conservatives, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Attorney General Edwin Meese, have also spoken out in favor of reform, including eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenses.

Rather than a wholesale rejection of long prison terms, though, many of the mandatory minimum and repeat offender sentencing changes are refining laws to reserve the harshest punishment for violent or repeat criminals....

Not every state is moving towards sentencing reform.  In Florida, which has a three-strikes law and a mandatory sentencing scheme for gun crimes, Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year vetoed a bill that would have diverted some nonviolent drug offenders into treatment.  The legislature in Massachusetts is also considering enacting a new three-strikes law.

And, other than reevaluating mandatory sentences for drug crimes, most states still favor long prison terms, said Barry Krisberg, Director of Research and Policy at the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. “No one wants to fundamentally change sentencing laws, so we’re not,” he said. “We’re just working around them.”

June 28, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"Cracking the Disparities: The Ongoing Battle for Fairness in Crack Sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new commentary by Nkechi Taifa at the Huffington Post. The piece highlights that the passage of the FSA and the subsequent ruling for defendants in Dorsey hardly makes all well in the federal sentencing world, and it urges President Obama to get in the game.  Here are excerpts:

Last week's Supreme Court ruling in Dorsey v. United States represents another victory in the ongoing battle for fairness in cocaine sentencing. The Court correctly ruled that the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which increased fairness in cocaine penalties, was not limited to newly committed crimes but applied also to offenses committed prior to passage of the Act where the defendant had not yet been sentenced....

The ruling comes in the wake of advances that have successfully chipped away disparities between crack and powder cocaine sentencing.  First, Congress passed the FSA, reducing the egregious 100-to-1 sentencing ratio to a more reasonable, albeit still insufficient, 18-to-1.  Second, the U.S. Sentencing Commission amended its guideline ranges to be consistent with the new Act.  Third, the Commission unanimously agreed to make these changes retroactive....

None of these necessary improvements, however, benefit those whose offenses and harsh, discriminatory mandatory minimum sentences occurred prior to the Fair Sentencing Act's passage. Ironically, these are the very cases that originally inspired reform.

The process for relief for this remaining category of cases can be swiftly initiated with the stroke of the executive pen, moving the nation closer to concluding a shameful chapter in the chronicles of federal drug sentencing policy.  There is wide support for fairness and consistency in cocaine sentencing, and utilizing presidential clemency power is the most practical option to ensure immediate reform.  Commutation of the sentences of the identifiable class of people currently incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses under the old sentencing regime -- that all three branches of government agree is unjust, inconsistent, unfair, and biased -- is timely and can be readily accomplished.

Professor Mark Osler and former prosecutor Matthew Fass in a recent article [here from the Federal Sentencing Reporter], highlighted Gerald Ford's 1974 strategic use of the presidential pardon power to impanel an ad hoc executive clemency board to oversee the petitions of 21,000 people convicted of draft-related offenses during the Vietnam War. Within a year, President Ford granted 90 percent of the petitions.  On balance, the approach by Ford to establish a pardon board allowed for individualized review of each clemency application, with options including approval, community service, or denial....

Similarly, adoption of an individualized review process for pre-FSA cases would not be burdensome or a "get out of jail free card."  Cases could simply be recalculated according to the new 18-to-1 ratio, under already existing parameters established by the Sentencing Commission that result in gradual releases in appropriate cases over the course of several decades.  The president would be free to use his constitutional pardon power unrestricted by the 18-to-1 ratio should he so choose.

Moreover, the creation of a transparent process by which to review and remedy these discredited sentences would correct an injustice that has resulted in egregiously severe and racially discriminatory sentences for a quarter of a century.  And establishment of a clemency board independent of the Office of the Pardon Attorney and the Department of Justice could shield the review process from scandals of past administrations and current allegations of discriminatory treatment of clemency applications unveiled by the investigative journalism website Pro Publica....

Despite improvements by Congress, the Sentencing Commission, the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court, the fight for fairness and justice in crack cocaine sentencing is not over.  The president could bring closure to this injustice through his constitutional executive power of clemency, creating a review board to reevaluate old crack cocaine sentences so they are consistent with the new law.

Regular readers should not be surprised to hear that I think this is a great idea, nor should they be surprised to see this great idea get completely ignored by the powers-that-be in the White House (at least until after this November's election).

June 27, 2012 in Clemency and Pardons, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, June 04, 2012

Another week of SCOTUS waiting for sentencing fans

I had thought there was a reasonable possibility that the Supreme Court sometime this week might hand down one of the big sentencing cases still pending: Southern Union (Apprendi's application to fines); Jackson and Miller (mandatory LWOP for young juve murderers); Dorsey and Hill (the FSA's application to pipeline cases).  But, as detailed via this post at How Appealing, the Justices did not issue opinions in any of these cases this morning.  They Justices did grant cert and hand down one opinion on police practice issues, and Lyle Denniston reports here at SCOTUSblog that probably the most notable criminal justice decision was a cert denied in two high-profile federal convictions flowing from campaign donations in Alabama. 

According to the folks at SCOTUSblog, it appear that the Court will not hand down opinions again until next Monday.  So, it's another week of waiting for these sentencing rulings.  Fortunately, absent some dramatic or unexpected development (such as a order for reagument), I think we can reasonably expect to see opinions in all of these cases within the next three weeks.

Anyone yet eager to make predictions on the timing, outcomes, vote counts or opinion writers in these big sentencing cases.  At this moments I am inclined to guess we will get Southern Union next week, the juve LWOP cases the week of June 18, and the FSA pipeline cases the week of June 25.  In addition, I think the defendants are likely to previal in these cases by votes of 7-2, 5-4, and 6-3, with Justices Thomas, Kennedy and Sotomayor as principal opinion writers. 

But who really knows with this Court these days!?!?

June 4, 2012 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 03, 2012

NY Times editorial supports jury findings for mandatory minimums

A few weeks ago, I noted and promoted in this post the remarkable opinion by US District Judge William Young in US v. Gurley, No. 10-10310 (D. Mass. May 17, 2012). I am consequently pleased to see that this past weekend the New York Times had this editorial about the case, headlined "A Jury Draws a Line." Here are excerpts:

Rodney Gurley faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison for possession of 28 or more grams of crack cocaine with an intent to distribute it because he had previously been convicted of a felony.

The police found 32 grams in the apartment where he was arrested, but a federal jury in Boston found that the amount of crack “properly attributable” to Mr. Gurley did not exceed 28 grams. Relying on the jury for guidance, Federal District Judge William Young sensibly imposed a sentence of 30 months.  That riled the Justice Department, which insisted it was entitled to have the judge, not the jury, decide factors in sentencing and that Mr. Gurley should have gotten the 10-year minimum.  The government has appealed the sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit....

Since federal mandatory minimum sentences were enacted in 1986 and prosecutors began to “run our federal criminal justice system,” as the judge said, much of the debate has focused on the reduction of judges’ power in sentencing.  The Booker case and others have restored some of it, but there remain excessive mandatory minimums, which Congress should rescind.

But Judge Young, like other judges and scholars, has campaigned to restore the jury’s constitutional role in sentencing to ensure that criminal laws are applied fairly.  The federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums have substantially diminished that role.  In this case, Judge Young properly used it in imposing a sentence based on the jury’s finding about a critical fact.

June 3, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, May 28, 2012

"A Tough Judge’s Proposal for Fairer Sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Sidebar column by Adam Liptak now available via the New York Times. The piece does a terrific job reporting upon and providing context concerning US District Judge John Gleeson's fascinating Dossie opinion from earlier this year (which I blogged about here and here). The piece also makes (too) brief mention of US District Judge William Young's similarly themed (and similarly fascinating) opinion in Gurley from earlier this month (discussed here). Here are excerpts from the Liptak piece:

Judge John Gleeson hears cases where he used to prosecute them, in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. There, in 1992, he led the team of prosecutors that put the Mafia boss John J. Gotti in prison for life. Judge Gleeson is not shy about meting out tough sentences.  “Most people, including me,” he wrote in a 2010 decision, “agree that the kingpins, masterminds and midlevel managers of drug trafficking enterprises deserve severe punishment.”

But he has lately been saying that his old employer, the Department of Justice, has stopped living up to its name when it comes to some small-time criminals.  Almost 20 years to the day after delivering his closing argument in the Gotti trial, Judge Gleeson considered the fate of Jamel Dossie, whom he called “a young, small-time, street-level drug dealer’s assistant.”

Mr. Dossie was an intermediary in four hand-to-hand crack sales, for which he made a total of about $140.  Two of the sales exceeded, barely, the 28-gram threshold that allows prosecutors to call for a mandatory five-year sentence.  “Just as baseball is a game of inches,” Judge Gleeson wrote, “our drug-offense mandatory minimum provisions create a deadly serious game of grams.”

It is a curious game, one in which a participant rather than the supposed umpire can have the last word, Judge William G. Young of Federal District Court in Boston wrote in a ruling in another case a couple of weeks ago.  “Prosecutors run our federal justice system today,” Judge Young wrote.  “Judges play a subordinate role — necessary yes, but subordinate nonetheless.  Defense counsel take what they can get.”

The prosecutors’ decision to invoke the law calling for a mandatory sentence in Mr. Dossie’s case meant that Judge Gleeson had no choice but to send Mr. Dossie away for five years. Had his hands not been tied, Judge Gleeson wrote, “there is no way I would have sentenced” Mr. Dossie to so long a sentence.  “We had a ‘sentencing proceeding’ that involved no written submissions, no oral advocacy and no judging,” he wrote. “The proceeding had all the solemnity of a driver’s license renewal and took a small fraction of the time.”

The Dossiecase illustrates what some judges say is a common problem: Prosecutors’ insistence on mandatory minimum sentences for minor players in the drug trade has warped the criminal justice system and robbed judges of sentencing authority.... As for Mr. Dossie, the judge wrote, “no one could reasonably characterize him as a leader or manager of anything, let alone of a drug business.”

Judge Gleeson called on Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to implement a new policy at the Department of Justice. “D.O.J. should seek mandatory minimum sentences,” the judge wrote, “only in the cases for which Congress intended them: in cases against leaders and managers of drug enterprises, not the low-level offenders like Dossie who constitute the bulk of the federal drug docket.”

About 74 percent of defendants charged with crimes involving crack cocaine faced a mandatory minimum sentence in the year that ended in September, according to statistics compiled by the United States Sentencing Commission.  But only 5 percent of them led or managed a drug business.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said the administration supported the judicious use of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for some serious crimes.  In a 2010 report, Lanny A. Breuer, an assistant attorney general, said mandatory minimum sentences “remove dangerous offenders from society, ensure just punishment and are an essential tool in gaining cooperation from members of violent street gangs and drug distribution networks.”

Paul G. Cassell, a former federal judge who is now a law professor at the University of Utah, said Judge Gleeson’s proposal to have the Justice Department limit its use of mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases to defendants who played a leadership role was “a brilliant package.”  It was, he said, administrable, fair and “doable in this political environment” because it requires no action from Congress.

Jamel Dossie, meanwhile, is serving what Judge Gleeson called an onerous and disproportionate sentence.  “The only reason for the five-year sentence imposed on Dossie,” Judge Gleeson wrote, “is that the law invoked by the prosecutor required it. It was not a just sentence.”

Some recent related posts:

May 28, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Friday, May 25, 2012

Mandatory minimums require federal drug defendant's sentence of life + five more years in prison

This local story out of Iowa, headlined "Waterloo man given life plus 5 years in prison for drug charges," provides an amusing example of the crazy kinds of sentences that can be required by federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.  Here are the details:

A eastern Iowa man convicted in a drug distribution ring received a life sentence, plus five years. A U.S. District Court judge sentenced 38-year-old Lawrence Johnson of Waterloo after a jury found him guilty of conspiracy to distribute heroin, distribution of heroin, possession with intent to distribute heroin, possession of a firearm during a drug crime, and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Assistant U.S. Attorney, Peter Deegan, says the sentence is unusual, but is based on the sentencing guidelines for the crimes. “Because Lawrence Johnson had multiple prior felony drug convictions, he was subject to a mandatory life sentence on the drug conspiracy count. In addition, he was convicted of possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking offense, which also requires a consecutive sentence of five years. So he was ultimately sentence to a mandatory life sentence, plus an additional five years in prison,” Deegan explains.

Deegan says the heroin distribution ring involving Johnson was widespread. “Including Detroit, Memphis, Chicago and then Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. He would bring about 10 to 20 grams of heroin per trip from Chicago to Iowa, and then it was cut — so that for instance the tens grams would become 30 grams — and he was distributing it into quantities that would be broken down into two-gram bags,” Deegan says.

Deegan says Johnson was facing a very long time in prison even if he hadn’t been sentenced to life plus five years. “Because he was what we call a career offender under the United States sentencing guidelines, he was subject to a recommended range of 360 months or 30 years to life anyway,” Deegan says.

May 25, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Extreme sentence in warning shot case drawing more criticisms of mandatory minimums

I am pleased to see that the extreme mandatory minimum sentence given to Marissa Alexander in Florida is continuing to generate controversy and criticism in the MSM.  This AP article, headlined "Critics hit mandatory-minimum law after woman gets 20 years in prison for firing warning shot," highlights some of the buzz:

Marissa Alexander had never been arrested before she fired a bullet at a wall one day in 2010 to scare off her husband when she felt he was threatening her.  Nobody got hurt, but this month a northeast Florida judge was bound by state law to sentence her to 20 years in prison.... Because she fired a gun while committing a felony, Florida’s mandatory-minimum gun law dictated the 20-year sentence.

Her case in Jacksonville has drawn a fresh round of criticism aimed at mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.  The local NAACP chapter and the district’s African-American congresswoman say blacks more often are incarcerated for long periods because of overzealous prosecutors and judges bound by the wrong-headed statute.  Alexander is black.

It also has added fuel to the controversy over Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which the judge would not allow Alexander to invoke.  State Attorney Angela Corey, who also is overseeing the prosecution of shooter George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, stands by the handling of Alexander’s case.  Corey says she believes Alexander aimed the gun at the man and his two sons, and the bullet she fired could have ricocheted and hit any of them.

At the May 11 sentencing, Alexander’s relatives begged Circuit Judge James Daniel for leniency but he said the decision was “out of my hands.” “The Legislature has not given me the discretion to do what the family and many others have asked me to do,” he said.

The state’s “10-20-life” law was implemented in 1999 and credited with helping to lower the violent crime rate.  Anyone who shows a gun in the commission of certain felonies gets an automatic 10 years in prison.  Fire the gun, and it’s an automatic 20 years.  Shoot and wound someone, and it’s 25 years to life.

Critics say Alexander’s case underscores the unfair sentences that can result when laws strip judges of discretion.  About two-thirds of the states have mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, mostly for drug crimes, according to a website for the Families Against Mandatory Minimums advocacy group. “We’re not saying she’s not guilty of a crime, we’re not saying that she doesn’t deserve some sort of sanction by the court,” said Greg Newburn, Florida director for the group.  Rather, he said, the judge should have the authority to decide an appropriate sanction after hearing all the unique circumstances of the case....

Victor Crist was a Republican state legislator who crafted the “10-20-life” bill enacted in 1999 in Gov. Jeb Bush’s first term.  He said Alexander’s sentence — if she truly did fire a warning shot and wasn’t trying to kill her husband — is not what lawmakers wanted.  “We were trying to get at the thug who was robbing a liquor store who had a gun in his possession or pulled out the gun and threatened someone or shot someone during the commission of the crime,” said Crist, who served in the state House and Senate for 18 years before being elected Hillsborough County commissioner....

“The irony of the 10-20-life law is the people who actually think they’re innocent of the crime, they roll the dice and take their chances, and they get the really harsh prison sentences,” Newburn said. “Whereas the people who think they are actually guilty of the crime take the plea deal and get out (of prison) well before.  So it certainly isn’t working the way it is intended.”...

Newburn says Alexander’s case is not an isolated incident, and that people ensnared by mandatory-minimum laws cross racial barriers.  In central Florida, a white man named Orville Lee Wollard is nearly two years into a 20-year sentence for firing his gun inside his house to scare his daughter’s boyfriend.  Prosecutors contended that Wollard was shooting at the young man and missed.

He rejected a plea deal that offered probation but no prison time.  Like Alexander, he took his chances at trial and was convicted of aggravated assault with a firearm.  Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen said he was “duty bound” by the 10-20-life law to impose the harsh sentence. “I would say that, if it wasn’t for the minimum mandatory aspect of this, I would use my discretion and impose some separate sentence, having taken into consideration the circumstances of this event,” Jacobsen said.

Recent related posts:

May 20, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Two notable forthcoming FAMM events

I am happy to spotlight two notable events put together by Families Against Mandatory Minimums described to me via an e-mail:

The first event is at the National Press Club in Washington DC on Thursday, May 24, from 10-11am: a panel will discuss Dafna Linzer’s shocking Washington Post article on the failures of the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) regarding Clarence Aaron’s commutation request.  The panel will include Dafna, former OPA staffer Sam Morison,  Debi Campbell (a former prisoner who did not receive a commutation), and Linda Aaron, Clarence’s mother.  FAMM is calling on Congress to investigate OPA.

The second event happens on-line on Friday, May 18 (tomorrow): with a focus on Florida laws and the 20-year mandatory minimum Marissa Alexander received for defending herself against her abusive husband, FAMM us trying a “Facebook forum.” FAMM's Florida project director, Greg Newburn, will be taking live Q&A on the topic. This event is a bit of an experiment, and FAMM is hoping for a good turnout (via this link).

May 17, 2012 in Clemency and Pardons, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Another obvious mandatory sentencing injustice in Florida "warning shot" case

As reported in this CNN story, headlined "Florida woman sentenced to 20 years in controversial warning shot case," another high-profile shooting case in Florida has produced a different kind of criminal justice controversy.  Here are the details:

Saying he had no discretion under state law, a judge sentenced a Jacksonville, Florida, woman to 20 years in prison Friday for firing a warning shot in an effort to scare off her abusive husband.

Marissa Alexander unsuccessfully tried to use Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law to derail the prosecution, but a jury in March convicted her of aggravated assault after just 12 minutes of deliberation.

The case, which was prosecuted by the same state attorney who is handling the Trayvon Martin case, has gained the attention of civil rights leaders who say the African-American woman was persecuted because of her race.

After the sentencing, Rep. Corrine Brown confronted State Attorney Angela Corey in the hallway, accusing her of being overzealous, according to video from CNN affiliate WJXT. "There is no justification for 20 years," Brown told Corey during an exchange frequently interrupted by onlookers.  "All the community was asking for was mercy and justice," she said.

Corey said she had offered Alexander a plea bargain that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence, but Alexander chose to take the case to a jury trial, where a conviction would carry a mandatory sentence under a Florida law known as "10-20-life." The law mandates increased penalties for some felonies, including aggravated assault, in which a gun is carried or used.

Corey said the case deserved to be prosecuted because Alexander fired in the direction of a room where two children were standing. Alexander said she was attempting to flee her husband, Rico Gray, on August 1, 2010, when she picked up a handgun and fired a shot into a wall.  She said her husband had read cell phone text messages that she had written to her ex-husband, got angry and tried to strangle her.

She said she escaped and ran to the garage, intending to drive away.  But, she said, she forgot her keys, so she picked up her gun and went back into the house. She said her husband threatened to kill her, so she fired one shot. "I believe when he threatened to kill me, that's what he was absolutely going to do," she said.  "That's what he intended to do. Had I not discharged my weapon at that point, I would not be here."...

A jury convicted Alexander in March and Judge James Daniel denied her request for a new trial in April.  Daniel handed down the sentence Friday after an emotional sentencing hearing during which Alexander's parents, 11-year-old daughter and pastor spoke on her behalf.

Several people had to be escorted from the courtroom after breaking out singing and chanting about a perceived lack of justice in the case, but Daniel made a point to say that he had no choice under state law. "Under the state's 10-20-life law, a conviction for aggravated assault where a firearm has been discharged carries a minimum and maximum sentence of 20 years without regarding to any extenuating or mitigating circumstances that may be present, such as those in this case," Daniel said.

Brown, the Jacksonville congresswoman, told reporters after the sentencing that the case was a product of "institutional racism."

"She was overcharged by the prosecutor.  Period," Brown said.  "She never should have been charged."  Brown has been more complimentary about Corey's work in the Trayvon Martin case, where her office filed second degree murder charges against neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the February 26 death of the unarmed African-American teen-ager.

It is sad, very disappointing and ultimately quite harmful that Rep. Corrine Brown is apparently so eager to assert that the injustice in this case reflects "institutional racism" and misuse of prosecutorial discretion.  It seems far more appropriate to complain that the injustice in this case reflects structural flaws in Florida's sentencing laws and mistakes by the state legislature to fail to provide a safety-valve from the application of broad mandatory sentencing provisions.

As the CNN story reveals, the prosecutor apparently had the ability and authority to prevent application of Florida's "10-20-life" sentencing law if Marissa Alexander had been wiling to forgo her constitutional right to trial to have the judicial system consider her self-defense claims.  But after Alexander decided to exercise her trial rights, then her conviction apparently deprived a judge or any other authority the ability and authority to sentence her to anything less than 20 years in prison.  Without knowing more about the case, I am not sure if the three-year term offered in the plea or even a lesser sentence would have been appropriate, but it seem obvious to me that a 20-year term is grossly excessive for Alexander's offense conduct.

Bemoaning this case as a reflection of "institutional racism" brings far more heat than light to this dark (but not uncommon) example of mandatory sentencing injustice.  A focus instead on the problems with letting only prosecutors and not judges decide if a case merits an exception to strict sentencing rules could help this case engender needed structural reforms rather than more racial polarization.  Helpfully, the folks at FAMM are effectively using this case to bring attention to these critical sentencing matters, but I fear that the eagerness of Rep. Corrine Brown to play the race card will eclipse FAMM's efforts to use this kind of case to foster sober and needed sentencing reforms.

Though I am not certain of the sentencing commutation authority of Florida's Governor, this case seems to cry out for executive clemency.  Though involving a very offense environments, I am reminded of the high-profile "border agent" case from a few years ago in which two federal border agents got saddled with a sentences of more than a decade after failed self-defenses claims due mandatory federal gun sentencing provisions.  On his last day in office, as detailed here, President George W. Bush justifably commuted the sentences of these border agents.  I hope Florida's Governor has both the power and the wisdom to use the same means to undue an obvious sentencing injustice in this case.

May 12, 2012 in Clemency and Pardons, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Former federal prosecutor urges "Mandatory minimums for kingpins only"

This recent National Law Journal commentary by Jim Walden, a former federal prosecutor in EDNY, voices support for US District Judge John Gleeson's recent recommendation in US v. Dossie, No. 11-CR-237 (EDNY Mar. 30, 2012) (discussed here), that federal prosecutors show much more restraint in their use of federal drug statutes that carry mandatory minimum sentencing terms.  Here are excerpts:

I support the war on drugs. Indeed, I can fairly be called a hawk. I spent most of my nearly nine-year career as a federal prosecutor attacking (largely white and Asian) drug-trafficking organizations and putting their members behind bars for long stretches. For every wide-eyed, liberal, young lawyer I meet who naïvely criticizes the wisdom and resources this "war" has entailed, I issue the same challenge: Read the daily papers and keep track of drug-related murders, assaults, robberies, break-ins and general violence for six months — and then explain to me why drug enforcement should not be one of our top enforcement priorities.

Cracking down on the street-level organizations, and stopping the collateral damage they inflict, is a laudable goal, an essential one.  Doing so at the expense of fairness and equity is not, and street-level traffickers should not face the same consequences Congress intended for kingpins.

No one would describe Judge John Gleeson of the Eastern District of New York as "soft" on drug crime, and some might describe him as fairly "hawkish" himself. His prestigious career as a federal prosecutor, spanning almost two decades, bears this out.... In a recent case, U.S. v. Dossie, Gleeson called on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to reform DOJ's inconsistent and irrational use of mandatory-minimum sentences in drug cases, reserving them for drug kingpins, as Congress intended.  In clear and terse prose, Gleeson described a system that works to "strip criminal defendants of the due-process rights we consider fundamental to our justice system."

The specific case concerned — of course — a young, black, street-level dealer, who turned to drug distribution to support his habit. This did not stop DOJ from seeking to enforce a harsh mandatory-minimum sentence.  Gleeson's conclusion is clear: "This case illustrates how mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases distort the sentencing process and mandate unjust sentences."  He respectfully urged the attorney general to reform DOJ's policy, reserving the use of mandatory-minimum penalties for the managers and leaders of drug enterprises whom Congress intended to target.

Eric Holder should listen to John Gleeson.

May 9, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, April 30, 2012

Do capital repeal and three-strikes reform initiatives help or hurt each other in California?

As noted in this prior post, it became official last week that Californians will get a chance to vote this fall on a ballot initiative to repeal the state's death penalty.  In addition, as reported in this effective press story from late last week headlined "Three Strikes Law initiative likely to qualify for Nov. ballot," it also now appears that voters at the same time will have a chance to reform the state's (in)famously harsh three-strikes sentencing law. Here are the basics on that front:

An initiative written by Stanford University professors to scale back California's tough Three Strikes Law has garnered more than 830,000 signatures of support, virtually ensuring the measure will make the November ballot and triggering the state's latest struggle over how harshly criminals should be treated.

California is the only one of the 26 states with three strikes laws to allow prosecutors to charge any felony as a third strike -- and then to lock up the offenders for 25 years to life. The proposed initiative would reserve that penalty for the baddest of the bad, including murderers, rapists and child molesters.

Supporters turned in more than 830,000 signatures to state election officials Thursday -- 504,760 more than needed. They also announced the endorsement of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley -- a Republican -- marking a crucial step toward a bipartisan coalition.

"The Three Strikes Reform Act is right for California," Cooley said. "It will ensure the punishment fits the crime. Dangerous recidivist criminals will remain behind bars for life, and our overflowing prisons will not be clogged with inmates who pose no risk to public safety."

Under the existing Three Strikes sentencing scheme, offenders who have committed such relatively minor third strikes as stealing a pair of socks, attempting to break into a soup kitchen to get something to eat and forging a check for $146 at Nordstrom have been sentenced to life in prison.

Cooley's support is particularly notable because he has taken a conservative position on two other criminal-justice controversies in California. He opposes a November ballot measure that would scrap the death penalty and has sharply criticized the Legislature's massive "realignment" program, which started in October to relieve prison overcrowding, for effectively reducing the amount of time low-level offenders spend behind bars.

But Mike Reynolds, a Fresno man who helped draft the Three Strikes Law after his daughter was slain in 1992 by two repeat offenders, said prosecutors like Cooley should have more discretion over how to charge anyone with two strikes on their record who commits another felony, no matter how minor. "It's easy if you live in Palo Alto, where Stanford is and where it's safe, to be for this," Reynolds said. "The only question voters need to answer is which of these offenders with at least two serious or violent convictions on their record would you like to have living next door to you? And if you wouldn't want them next door to you, why would you put them next to any California family?"...

The new measure would allow only certain hard-core criminals to be put away for life for any felony offense, including shoplifting, while restricting the third strike to a serious or violent felony for everyone else.  It also does not include changing the rules for second-strikers, which currently call for sentences to be doubled in many cases, even if the second offense is not serious or violent.  Although an effort to alter the law in 2004 required third-strikers whose last offense was nonviolent and nonserious to be resentenced, the new initiative would allow only third-strikers to ask the courts to resentence them.

District attorneys in the Bay Area are expected to support the initiative, though several were noncommittal about it Thursday.  A spokeswoman for Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said she doesn't take a position on pending initiatives. Steve Wagstaffe, San Mateo's top prosecutor, said he would "not be bothered if it won" because it already is extremely rare for his office to seek life sentences for people who commit nonviolent or nonserious offenses, with the exception of sex crimes.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said he'll make a final decision after a meeting in June of the California District Attorneys Association.  "I believe the Three Strikes Law should be reformed," Rosen said through a spokesman.  "The Stanford initiative contains some good ideas."...

Advocates predict the savings will prove persuasive, particularly with critical swing voters, though they also plan to frame the campaign in terms of public safety and fairness.  A previous measure in 2004 failed by about 3 percentage points after a last-minute media blitz by then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Gov. Pete Wilson. Brown has declined to comment on the current effort.

Opposition to the new measure is expected to come largely from the Central Valley and parts of Southern California.  The previous measure, Proposition 66, sought to limit felonies that trigger a third strike to violent or serious crimes in every case.

This latest effort to reform California's three-strikes law via inititative is fascinating and worth watching closely in its own right.   But the fact that this reform effort will appear on the ballot (and likely get less attention both nationwide and within California) at the same time as an inititative to repeal yhe state's death penalty adds an extra important (and distorting?) element to the public discourse. 

I can readily imagine some (many? most?) criminal justice reform advocates urging a "yes" vote on both the death penalty repeal and the three-strike reform initiatives. For example, this recent editorial from the San Francisco Examiner, headlined "Time to end the death penalty, reform three-strikes law," wastes little time getting on record support for both initiatives. 

But, as the report above highlights, there is reason to expect some (many? most?) California prosecutors will be fine with the three-strikes reform initiative but will oppose repeal of the death penalty.  In addition, I would not be surprised if some hard-core death penalty abolitionists will express no more than luke-warm support for three-strikes reform if (when?) any polling data suggest that voters may be likely to vote for only one and not both of these sentencing reform proposals.

For a whole bunch of reasons, I do not think these distinct California reform initiative should necessarily stand or fall together.  And yet, I will not be surprised if they do, and I also cannot figure out if this reality makes me extra excited or extra concerned about crime and punishment debates in California over the next sixth months. 

April 30, 2012 in Applicability of Blakely to FSG, Death Penalty Reforms, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Very different case provides a very different (sentencing) perspective on Florida gun laws

This new CNN article, headlined "Stand your ground law under scrutiny in domestic violence case," provides a very different view of Florida's criminal justice system and gun laws than comes via the Matin-Zimmerman case. Here are excerpts from the piece:

Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, pleaded for her freedom as an inmate in the Duval County Jail in Jacksonville, Florida. "This is my life I'm fighting for," she said while wiping away tears. She added, "If you do everything to get on the right side of the law, and it is a law that does not apply to you, where do you go from there?"

Alexander is referring to Florida's so-called stand your ground law, a law that has come under scrutiny since the killing of Trayvon Martin. Unlike the Martin case, which involved one stranger killing another, Alexander's case involved her gun and her abusive husband.

On August 1, 2010, she said her husband, Rico Gray, read text messages on her phone that she had written to her ex-husband. She said Gray became enraged and accused her of being unfaithful. "That's when he strangled me. He put his hands around my neck," Alexander said.

She managed to escape his grip but instead of running out the front door of their home, she ran into the garage, she said, to get into her truck and drive away. Alexander said that in the confusion of the fight, she forgot to get her keys and the garage door wouldn't open, so she made a fateful decision. "I knew I had to protect myself," she said, adding, "I could not fight him. He was 100 pounds more than me. I grabbed my weapon at that point."

She went back inside the house and when Gray saw her pistol at her side, she said he threatened to kill her, so she raised the gun and fired one shot. "I believe when he threatened to kill me, that's what he was absolutely going to do. That's what he intended to do. Had I not discharged my weapon at that point, I would not be here."

Alexander, however, said she did not aim the gun at her husband.  She said she fired into the air intending to scare him away and Gray quickly left the house with his two children. No one was hurt in the incident, but Alexander sits in jail facing a 20-year sentence on three charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon....

Alexander's attorney filed a motion for dismissal under the stand your ground law but at that proceeding her husband changed his story.  Gray said he lied during his deposition after conspiring with his wife in an effort to protect her.  At the hearing, he denied threatening to kill his wife, adding, "I begged and pleaded for my life when she had the gun." The motion was denied by the judge.

Alexander was offered a plea deal..., but she opted to go to trial. A jury found Alexander guilty in 12 minutes. She is baffled why invoking the stand your ground law wasn't successful in her case. "Other defendants have used it. What's so different about my situation that it doesn't apply to me?" she asked.

The local NAACP believes race may have played a role."There's a double standard with stand your ground," said Isaiah Rumlin, president of the Jacksonville Chapter of the NAACP. "The law is applied differently between African-Americans and whites who are involved in these types of cases," he added. Rumlin cited two shooting cases in Florida with white shooters: One was had a successful stand your ground defense and the other has yet to be charged with a crime....

Through a spokeswoman, State Attorney Angela Corey declined to comment on the case until after the sentencing. Alexander's attorney, Kevin M. Cobbin, is fighting for a new trial and that hearing is tentatively scheduled for next week. If that motion is denied, Alexander will receive a mandatory 20-year sentence with no possibility of parole.

In part because this case is garnering new media attention, the folks at Families Against Mandatory Minimums have released this notable new press release to spotlight the broader sentencing concern these kinds of cases implicate.  Here is how the press release begins:

FAMM President Julie Stewart today called on Florida lawmakers to repeal the state’s “10-20-Life” automatic prison sentence for assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill. The call comes as Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, prepares to be sentenced for a 2010 incident in which she fired a gun into the ceiling of her house to persuade her abusive husband to leave.

“A lot of attention has been paid to Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law and far too little to the state’s extreme, one-size-fits-all sentencing laws,” Ms. Stewart said.  “Less than three years ago, Orville Lee Wollard, a lawful gun owner, fired a warning shot in his home to chase off a young man who had been abusing his teenage daughter.  After Wollard rejected a plea deal and a jury rejected Wollard’s self-defense claim, a Florida judge was forced by the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing law for assault to send Wollard to prison for 20 years.  Mr. Wollard’s judge stated that he thought the sentence was excessive, but said his hands were tied.

“In the coming weeks, Marissa Alexander, who was also found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon, will likely be sentenced to the same 20-year mandatory minimum prison term. While reasonable people can disagree on whether Mr. Wollard or Ms. Alexander deserve any prison time for their conduct, no one can honestly believe that these were the types of cases the legislature had in mind when it passed the 10-20-Life automatic gun sentence,” Stewart said.

April 24, 2012 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Why I think defendants should win "fight about competing background rules" in Hill and Dorsey

Despite lots of travels and other commitments, I have had time now to review and reflect on the SCOTUS oral arguments earlier this week in the Fair Sentencing Act pipeline cases Hill and Dorsey (basics here, transcript here).  Though many parts of the argument merit discussion, here I will focus upon Miguel Estrada's crisp and spot-on statement that these cases ultimately are a "fight about competing background rules."  Specifically, I will explain why I think, as a matter of both doctrine and policy, FSA defendants ought to win the fight in this particular setting where all the FSA does is lower the trigger quantities of crack for applicable mandatory minimum prison terms.

Here I must start by channeling my inner Blackstone to note that the common-law abatement doctrine meant that even if and when a criminal statute was amended to increase penalties, the "background rule" was that defendants could not even be prosecutedfor criminal behaviors that took place prior to this statutory change.  So, for anyone drawn to common-law rules, and especially for those who believe in the statutory interpretation canon that statutes in derogation of the common law should be narrowly construed, the defendants have the common-law background in their favor.

Of course, Congress in 1871 passed the "Savings Statute" which reverses this common-law background rule with a new background rule providing that the "repeal of any statute shall not have the effect to release or extinguish any penalty, forfeiture, or liability incurred under such statute, unless the repealing Act shall so expressly provide, and such statute shall be treated as still remaining in force for the purpose of sustaining any proper action or prosecution for the enforcement of such penalty, forfeiture, or liability."  This statute sets out what might be called the Savings background rule and it is the rule that Estrada as the SCOTUS-appointed amicus argues should mean the defendants lose in Hill and Dorsey.

Notably, this Savings background rule has some indisputable import in these cases: absent this background rule, the common-law abatement doctrine would mean the defendants in Hill and Dorsey could not even be prosecuted for their crack offenses!  But nobody has argued that these defendants should now get this common-law windfall and be free of "any penalty, forfeiture, or liability" for their pre-FSA conduct.  Rather the dispute in these cases is whether they should be subject at a post-FSA sentencing to the pre-FSA mandatory minimum triggering levels for certain long prison terms for minor crack offenses.  And, as SCOTUS interpretation of the Savings background rule states, we are to look to the express text and the necessary implications of the new statute to figure out what laws apply to crack defendants being sentenced now.

Here is where the defendants can and have stressed another background rule, namely the Sentencing Reform Act's key provision, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(4)(ii), which calls for sentencing courts to apply the guidelines sentencing law "in effect on the date the defendant is sentenced."  This statutory provision is, functionally, an express reversal by Congress of the Savings background rule for sentencing purposes under modern guideline reforms. 

Congress in the FSA failed to include a specific provision referencing either the Savings background rule or the SRA law-in-effect-at-date-of-sentencing background rule.  But the SRA background rule would seem to be closer in both time and relevance to the FSA's new sentencing provisions AND all major crack offenders are necessarily getting the benefit of the SRA background rule (i.e., they are getting sentenced based on the reduced 18:1 crack sentencing provisions) because the guidelines and not the old (or new) mandatory minimums frame/define the sentences they realistically face.  It seems very weird to think Congress wanted the Savings background rule to sting lesser crack offenders, while the SRA background rule would benefit only more serious offenders.

In addition, the SRA has another important background rule, namely that sentencing judges are always required in every case to impose sentences "sufficient, but not greater than necessary" to achieve the purposes of punishment in the SRA.  This additional "background rule" ensures defendants should not get any  "sentencing windfall" from application of the new provisions of the FSA, but rather these provisions will merely allow judges to no longer be compelled (by now repealed mandatory minimums) to impose sentences for low-level crack offenders that they think are "greater than necesary" (a view Congress and the President has embraced as evidenced by the FSA's passage).

Further still, I think statutory construction canons like the rule of lenity and constitutional doubt provide still further "background rules" for an interpretation of the FSA to favor the defendants here.  Indeed, the very fact that SCOTUS had to appoint an amicus to make an argument for the Savings background rule and nobody else (including no member of Congress) has urged that background rule to prevail further contributes to my (admittedly biased) view that the defendants should win this "fight about competing background rules" in Hill and Dorsey.

A few recent posts on these SCOTUS cases:

April 19, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Taxpayers should demand cost-effective crime policies"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary published yesterday at The Hill's Congress Blog. It was authored by Julie Stewart, the president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and here are excerpts:

Last year, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, the Cato Institute’s director of criminal justice, Tim Lynch, and former Republican congressman and Bush administration DEA chief, Asa Hutchinson, joined me for a briefing to discuss the dozens of ways Congress and the administration could cut millions from wasteful anti-crime programs without jeopardizing public safety.  Some cost-cutting reforms, like allowing elderly and ill patients (who pose no threat to society) to leave prison early and serve out their punishment in alternate ways, are obvious and overdue.

Others, like eliminating wasteful mandatory minimum sentencing laws, are being approved by cash-strapped states across the country.  Governors and state lawmakers do not love their children any less, but they realize that locking up nonviolent criminals for decades is not a cost-effective way to keep their communities safe.  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) recently announced an ambitious plan to require treatment in lieu of prison for all first-time drug offenders in the Garden State.  Christie’s pitch?  Since treatment is a fraction of the cost of prison, his new policy will save money and lives.

Contrast this common-sense approach with federal law, where a mother like Sabrina Giles is sentenced to 12 years in prison for allowing her abusive boyfriend to run his meth dealing business out of her New Mexico house.  Ms. Giles, who had never even been arrested before, was gainfully employed and providing for her young daughter, despite struggling with substance abuse.  What she needed was drug treatment, but what she got was more than a decade in federal prison.  Her daughter was forced to grow up without the mother she loved and is now a teenager.

This isn’t tough on crime -- it’s just stupid.

Fortunately, some in Washington, D.C. are ready for reform.  Two years ago, anti-tax hero Norquist and former American Conservative Union president David Keene testified before the House Crime Subcommittee in opposition to federal mandatory minimum sentences.  Said Norquist, “The benefits, if any, of mandatory minimum sentences do not justify…[the] burden to taxpayers.”  The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) has long supported reform.  More recently, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) announced his strong opposition to mandatory minimums.  Paul’s position makes sense given his Tea Party roots and that coalition’s aversion to excessive federal spending.

Most encouraging, the American public gets it.  When asked by Pew if they agree with the statement, “Some of the money that we are spending on locking up low-risk, nonviolent inmates should be shifted to strengthening community corrections programs like probation and parole,” a remarkable 85 percent of voters agreed.

It’s time to stop wasting money on anti-crime programs and policies that don’t keep us safe, but make our tax bills higher.

April 18, 2012 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack