Saturday, March 28, 2015

Notable effort by "World’s Worst Mom" to take on sex offender registries

This new Salon piece provides an interesting Q&A with notable author who has become famous for criticizing overprotective parenting and who is now criticizing what she sees as ineffective sex offender registries.  The piece is headlined "Stop the sex-offender registry panic: 'A lot of those dots on the map would never hurt your kids'," and here is how the Q&A is introduced:

Lenore Skenazy came to fame for letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway home by himself.  Or rather, she came to fame by letting him ride the subway home alone and then writing about it for the New York Sun.

The piece led to an outcry — she was dubbed “America’s worst mom” — which, of course, meant that the essay had to become a book: “Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry).”  In the five years since its publication, the book has inspired a movement among parents who want to give their children the freedom to do things like walk home from school alone.  It’s a backlash to our age of “helicopter” and “bubble wrap” parenting. (If you suspect these monikers are exaggerations, consider that a Skenazy devotee recently had five police cars arrive at his house after his 10- and 6-year-old were seen walking alone.)  Now Skenazy has a show on the Discovery Life channel, “World’s Worst Mom,” which sees her swooping into homes and coaching overprotective parents in a style reminiscent of the ABC reality-TV show “Suppernanny.”

Recently, Skenazy has taken on a new, albeit related, cause: reform of the sex offender registry. Clearly, this lady is not afraid of controversy. On Sunday, she held a “Sex Offender Brunch” at her house to introduce “her friends in the press to her friends on the Registry.” One of her guests was Josh Gravens, who at age 12 inappropriately touched his 8-year-old sister and landed on the registry as an adult.... The materials accompanying her press release contend that the sex offender registry, which was created to “let people identify dangerous individuals nearby…has failed to have any real impact on child safety, and may actually do more harm than good.”  

She’s effectively flinging open the closet door and saying, “See? There’s no boogeyman in there” (or, if you will, flipping on the lights to offer assurance that the “monster” in the corner is actually just a lamp that made some mistakes when it was younger and means no harm).  This is entirely consistent with her “Free-Range Kids” activism, but she’s taking it a step further now, moving beyond just squashing parental fears about stranger danger to helping those who have been unfairly labeled as dangerous strangers.

March 28, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 26, 2015

"Mandating Discretion: Juvenile Sentencing Schemes after Miller v. Alabama"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely paper available via SSRN authored by Jennifer Breen and John Mills. Here is the abstract:

Miller v. Alabama established that “children are different” and it required profound changes in the way states adjudicate juveniles within the criminal justice system.  This Article moves beyond standard interpretations of this significant decision and argues that Miller requires much more than abolition of mandatory juvenile life-without-parole sentences.  In addition to that sentence-specific ban, Miller establishes a right for juveniles to have their young age taken into consideration during sentencing.

This holding demands individualized consideration of a child’s age at sentencing, akin to sentencing procedures demanded by the Court in death penalty cases.  At the very least, it is clear that states may no longer treat a juvenile defendant as an adult without any opportunity to consider the impact of youth upon the defendant.  Yet this Article identifies eighteen states that continue to utilize these now unconstitutional sentencing schemes, contravening the most basic holding of the Court in Miller: “[C]hildren are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.”

After contextualizing both the Miller decision and the process of transferring juveniles to adult court, this Article identifies a subset of states that fail to allow for consideration of the unique qualities of youth at any stage of the juvenile adjudication process.  These states are outliers and defy both the national consensus on juvenile adjudication and the Court’s mandate in Miller.  This Article concludes by proposing reforms to aid states in accommodating the implications of Miller while increasing reliability in juvenile sentencing. 

March 26, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Is it constitutional to "offer" juve offenders the alternative sentence of writing a bible essay?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article about a novel alternative sentence being utilized by a judge in Mississippi.  Here are the details:

Dozens of tickets are written every month in South Mississippi for minors in possession of alcohol. It is an offense that could not only cost the person charged hundreds of dollars, it could also cause them to lose their license for up to 90 days, and even worse; it can follow them the rest of their lives. "If you enter a plea of guilty, it's on your record," Harrison County Justice Court Judge Albert Fountain said.

Fountain knows everyone makes mistakes, and instead of letting one mistake follow a young person for the rest of their life, the judge has come up with an alternative way to sentence children charged with minor in possession of alcohol. "A 1,000 word essay on The Book of Revelations and also the effects from drinking alcohol," Fountain said. "I don't force them to do that. It's their choice. That's just my recommendation. They can write it on anything they want to."

He also takes their license for 10 days and places them on a 90 day non-reporting probation with conditions of good behavior. "It just felt like I had to do something different," Fountain said. "There is more to it than just sentencing someone, and I felt I needed to make a difference."

While he knows it can be considered controversial, Fountain feels it is right. "Separation of church and state is a big topic, and I understand some people have their beliefs, but I think what's wrong with the country today is that we've taken Christ and God out of everything," Fountain said.

The judge has been sentencing children this way for the past eight to 10 years. He said about one in every 20 children choose to write an essay on something other than The Book of Revelations. "Some of the things I have gotten from them is that the fear, really reading the essays, what they ought to face in the future if they don't do the right things," Fountain said. "It's pleasing to me to see that."

March 26, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

You be the judge: what federal sentence for modern sheriff playing Robin Hood?

ImagesIn the legend of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham is the tale's primary villain. But this sentencing story out of South Carolina raises the question of what federal sentence ought to be given to a local sheriff who was committing fraud as a kind of modern Robin Hood. The press report is headlined "Convicted Williamsburg sheriff asks for sentencing leniency," and here are the details:

The convicted former sheriff of Williamsburg County should be sentenced to less than the three years in prison recommended by federal officials because he succeeded despite a troubled upbringing and is being treated for a painkiller addiction, his lawyer said.

Ex-sheriff Michael Johnson faces a judge Wednesday to learn his fate after a federal jury convicted him in September of mail fraud. Prosecutors said Johnson created hundreds of fake police reports for a friend who ran a credit repair business so people could claim their identities were stolen and get out of credit card debt. The sentencing recommendation for Johnson is 30 months to 37 months in prison, according to court papers filed this week.

Johnson's attorney said that is too harsh for a man with no criminal record who cooperated with authorities. Johnson's request asks for a lesser sentence, but is not specific. Johnson has suffered from depression and anxiety the past four years. He also has migraines, high blood pressure and insomnia, lawyer Deborah Barber said in court papers.

The former sheriff also was raised in a broken home, saw his mother abused by a boyfriend and left at age 17 to relieve her of financial burden, Barber said. "He resided in a poverty-stricken area in Kingstree, South Carolina, with the family not having enough money to adequately survive," Barber wrote....

Johnson joined the Williamsburg County Sheriff's Office in 1997, two years after graduating high school and rose to chief deputy, becoming sheriff in April 2010 when the former sheriff, Kelvin Washington, was named U.S. Marshal for South Carolina.

He is one of nine sheriffs in South Carolina's 46 counties to be charged or investigated while in office since 2010. Seven have pleaded guilty or been convicted, and another died while under investigation. Only two of those sheriffs so far have been sentenced to prison.

Intriguingly, this long earlier article explains some of the details of the fraud, and it suggests that sheriff Johnson may not have made any money from the scheme designed to help people to (falsely) improve their credit rating. I am disinclined to assert that sheriff Johnson is as noble or heroic as Robin Hood, but it does seem like his fraud involved trying to help some folks down on their luck by pulling a fast one on the (big bad monarchy?) credit companies. Given that the federal sentencing guidelines still call for a prison term of at least 2.5 years, I am now wondering what the real Robin Hood might have been facing in a federal fraud guideline range if he were facing sentencing today.

March 25, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Should prison terms end once criminals seem "too old" to recidivate?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing recent New York Times piece headlined "Too Old to Commit Crime?".  Here are excerpts:

Dzhokar TsarnaevV is facing the death penalty or life in prison for the Boston Marathon bombing.  But what if, instead, the maximum prison sentence were just 21 years? That was the sentence that Anders Behring Breivik received in 2012 after killing 77 people, most of them teenagers attending a summer program, in Norway in 2011.  It was the harshest sentence available.  That doesn’t mean Mr. Breivik will ever walk free. Judges will be able to sentence him to an unlimited number of five­year extensions if he is still deemed a risk to the public in 2033, when he is 53.

The idea of a 21-­year sentence for mass murder and terrorism may seem radically lenient in the United States, where life without parole is often presented as a humane alternative to the death penalty.  Yet in testimony last week to a congressional task force on reforming the federal prison system, Marc Mauer, the director of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group, suggested exactly that approach.  He made the case for a 20­-year cap on federal prison terms with an option for parole boards or judges to add more time if necessary to protect the public.  Such a policy would “control costs” in a system that is now 40 percent over capacity, Mr. Mauer told the task force, and would “bring the United States more in line with other industrialized nations.”

This proposal has little chance of becoming law. But a compelling case can be made for it nonetheless. Research by American social scientists shows that all but the most exceptional criminals, even violent ones, mature out of lawbreaking before middle age, meaning that long sentences do little to prevent crime....

Some crimes are simply too physically taxing for an older person to commit. Regardless of why offenders age out of trouble, American sentencing practices are out of whack with the research on criminal careers. Between 1981 and 2010, the average time served for homicide and nonnegligent manslaughter increased threefold, to almost 17 years from five years. Over 10 percent of federal and state inmates, nearly 160,000 people, are serving a life sentence, 10,000 of them convicted of nonviolent offenses. Since 1990, the prison population over the age of 55 has increased by 550 percent, to 144,500 inmates. In part because of this aging population, the state and federal prison systems now spend some $4 billion annually on health care.... [A] sentence that outlasts an offender’s desire or ability to break the law is a drain on taxpayers, with little upside in protecting public safety or improving an inmate’s chances for success after release. Mr. Mauer’s proposal for a 20­-year sentence cap, applied retroactively, would free 15 percent of federal prisoners — some 30,000, except for those few whom judges or parole boards might deem unfit to re-­enter society.

This is much more aggressive than the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan proposal in Congress which would lower mandatory minimum sentences only for nonviolent drug crimes. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill keep mandatory minimum sentences of 20 or 25 years for third­-time drug offenders, and most of the bill’s provisions would not benefit current inmates. Of course, for many Americans the prison system is not only about preventing crime by getting criminals off the street, but also about punishment. Long sentences send a clear message that certain acts are unacceptable. Some conservatives who support sentencing reform say that Mr. Mauer’s proposal goes too far, offering a one­-size-­fits-­all leniency to even violent offenders.

Mr. Mauer responds that given the immense scale and cost of incarceration, “modest reforms” would be insufficient. “How much punishment is enough?” he asked. “What are we trying to accomplish, and where does redemption come into the picture?”

March 24, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, March 23, 2015

"A Commentary on Statistical Assessment of Violence Recidivism Risk"

The title of this post is the title of this timely paper by Peter Imrey and A. Philip Dawid now available via SSRN. The piece, as evidenced simply by the abstract, seems quite technical. But it seems that the piece is making an especially important technical point. Here is the abstract:

Increasing integration and availability of data on large groups of persons has been accompanied by proliferation of statistical and other algorithmic prediction tools in banking, insurance, marketing, medicine, and other fields (see e.g., Steyerberg (2009a;b)).  Controversy may ensue when such tools are introduced to fields traditionally reliant on individual clinical evaluations.  Such controversy has arisen about "actuarial" assessments of violence recidivism risk, i.e., the probability that someone found to have committed a violent act will commit another during a specified period.

Recently Hart et al. (2007a) and subsequent papers from these authors in several reputable journals have claimed to demonstrate that statistical assessments of such risks are inherently too imprecise to be useful, using arguments that would seem to apply to statistical risk prediction quite broadly.  This commentary examines these arguments from a technical statistical perspective, and finds them seriously mistaken in many particulars. They should play no role in reasoned discussions of violence recidivism risk assessment.

March 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Supreme Court takes up a replacement juve LWOP retroactivity case from Louisiana

As reported in this AP piece, the US Supreme Court this morning found a replacement for the prior resolved case (Toca) dealing with the retroactivity of its 2012 Miller decision.  Here are the basics:

The Supreme Court is adding a new case to decide whether its 3-year-old ruling throwing out mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles should apply to older cases. The court was scheduled to hear arguments in a case from Louisiana in late March, but the state released inmate George Toca after 30 years in prison.

The justices on Monday said they would consider a new Louisiana case involving a man who has been held since 1963 for killing a sheriff's deputy in Baton Rouge.  Henry Montgomery was a 17-year-old 10th grader who was playing hooky from school when he shot Deputy Charles Hurt at a park near the city's airport. The officer and his partner were looking to round up truants.

The case will be argued in the fall.... The case is Montgomery v. Louisiana, 14-280.

Some SCOTUS-related posts on the prior Toca case and Miller retroactivity:

March 23, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Sentencing Enhancement and the Crime Victim's Brain"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article now available via SSRN authored by Francis X. Shen. Here is the abstract:

Criminal offenders who inflict serious bodily injury to another in the course of criminal conduct are typically sentenced more harshly than those who do not cause such injuries. But what if the harm caused is “mental” or “psychological” and not “physical”?  Should the sentencing enhancement still apply? Federal and state courts are already wrestling with this issue, and modern neuroscience offers new challenges to courts’ analyses.  This Article thus tackles the question: In light of current neuroscientific knowledge, when and how should sentencing enhancements for bodily injury include mental injuries?

The Article argues that classification of “mental” as wholly distinct from “physical” is problematic in light of modern neuroscientific understanding of the relationship between mind and brain.  There is no successful justification for treating mental injuries as categorically distinct from other physical injuries.  There is, however, good reason for law to treat mental injuries as a unique type of physical injury.  Enhancement of criminal penalties for mental injuries must pay special care to the causal connection between the offender’s act and the victim’s injury.  Moreover, it is law, not science, that must be the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a sufficiently bad mental harm to justify a harsher criminal sentence, and of what evidence is sufficient to prove the mental injury.

March 21, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Sentencing judgment days this week in federal court for two pols behaving very badly

Two prominent politician faced federal sentencing for two distinct crimes this week.  Here are headlines reflecting the outcome for each on judgment day along with links to stories providing the details:

March 19, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Florida Supreme Court decides unanimously that Miller applies retroactively to all mandatory juve LWOP sentences

As reported in this local piece, the "Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that all of the state’s juvenile killers who received automatic sentences of life in prison must be resentenced under a law passed in 2014." Here is more: 

The long-awaited ruling answers the question of whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which effectively banned automatic life sentences for juvenile killers, applies retroactively. An estimated 250 state prisoners, 17 of them from Lee and Collier counties, are serving life sentences for murders committed before they turned 18.

Under Florida’s 2014 law, passed to conform with the U.S. Supreme Court decision, only juveniles who committed homicides after July 2014 were subject to a revised sentencing structure, which required a judge to consider several factors before determining a prison term. For about 20 years before the law’s passage, Florida mandated a life sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.

Since the state’s law was passed, Florida trial and appeal courts have grappled with whether juveniles who killed before July 2014 and received automatic life sentences should also receive the same consideration. After the state’s five appeals courts gave conflicting opinions, the Florida Supreme Court weighed in Thursday.

The seven justices found that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban “constitutes a development of fundamental significance,” the standard used to determine whether changes to Florida law apply retroactively. “The patent unfairness of depriving indistinguishable juvenile offenders of their liberty for the rest of their lives, based solely on when their cases were decided, weighs heavily in favor of applying the (U.S.) Supreme Court’s decision in Miller retroactively,” Justice Barbara J. Pariente wrote in the opinion....

Under Florida’s new law, juveniles can still receive life behind bars. That sentence, however, must be made after a judge considers several factors, including the juvenile’s personal background, maturity and criminal history. At a minimum, a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder who committed the homicide must receive 40 years in prison.

The full ruling in Falcon v. Florida, No. SC13-865 (Fla. March 19, 2015), is available at this link.

March 19, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, March 16, 2015

"How Prison Stints Replaced Study Hall: America’s problem with criminalizing kids."

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Politico magazine article.  Here are excerpts from the start of the piece:

Police officers in Meridian, Mississippi, were spending so much time hauling handcuffed students from school to the local juvenile jail that they began describing themselves as “just a taxi service.” It wasn’t because schools in this east Mississippi town were overrun by budding criminals or juvenile superpredators — not by a long shot.  Most of the children were arrested and jailed simply for violating school rules, often for trivial offenses....

For many kids, a stint in “juvie” was just the beginning of a never-ending nightmare. Arrests could lead to probation. Subsequent suspensions were then considered probation violations, leading back to jail. And suspensions were a distinct possibility in a district where the NAACP found a suspension rate that was more than 10 times the national average.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit to stop the “taxi service” in Meridian’s public schools, where 86 percent of the students are black.  The DOJ suit, still unresolved, said children were being incarcerated so “arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience.” We should all be shocked.

The reality, though, is that Meridian’s taxi service is just one example of what amounts to a civil rights crisis in America: a “school-to-prison pipeline” that sucks vulnerable children out of the classroom at an alarming rate and funnels them into the harsh world of police, courts and prison cells.

For many children, adolescent misbehavior that once warranted a trip to the principal’s office — and perhaps a stint in study hall — now results in jail time and a greater possibility of lifelong involvement with the criminal justice system.  It should surprise no one that the students pushed into this pipeline are disproportionately children of color, mostly impoverished, and those with learning disabilities.

The story of Meridian is more than an example of school discipline run amok.  It’s a key to understanding how the United States has attained the dubious distinction of imprisoning more people — and a larger share of its population — than any other country.  It’s one reason why the United States today has a quarter of the world’s prisoners—roughly 2.2 million people — while representing just 5 percent of its total population. And it helps explain an unprecedented incarceration rate that is far and away the highest on the planet, some five to 10 times higher than other Western democracies....

The origins of the school-to-prison pipeline can be traced to the 1990s when reports of juvenile crime began to stoke fears of “superpredators” — described in the 1996 book Body Count as “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters” with little regard for human life.  The superpredator concept, based on what some critics have derided as junk science, is now known to be a complete myth.  Former Princeton professor and Bush administration official John DiIulio, the Body Count co-author who coined the term, admitted to The New York Times in 2001 that his theory of sharply rising juvenile violence had been wrong.

But the damage had been done.  As these fears took root and mass school shootings like the one at Columbine made headlines, not only did states enact law laws to increase punishment for juvenile offenders, schools began to adopt “zero-tolerance” discipline policies that imposed automatic, pre-determined punishments for rule breakers.

At the same time, states across America were adopting harsh criminal laws, including long mandatory prison sentences for certain crimes and “three strikes” laws that led to life sentences for repeat offenders.  The term “zero tolerance” was, in fact, adopted from policing practices and criminal laws that focused on locking up minor offenders as a way to stem more serious crime.

Somewhere along the way, as local police departments began supplying on-duty “school resource officers” to patrol hallways, educators began to confuse typical adolescent misbehavior with criminality.  Schools became, more or less, a part of the criminal justice system. With police officers stalking the halls and playgrounds, teachers and principals found it easy to outsource discipline. Almost overnight, a schoolyard scuffle could now land a kid in a jail cell.

The results have been disastrous.

March 16, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"Trial Defense Guidelines: Representing a Child Client Facing a Possible Life Sentence"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report/guidelines from The Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth . As this webpage notes, these new guidelines draw from the ABA Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases in the capital context and the NJDC National Juvenile Defense standards in the juvenile court context. Here is the introduction to the report/guidelines:

The objective of these guidelines is to set forth a national standard of practice to ensure zealous, constitutionally effective representation for all juveniles facing a possible life sentence (“juvenile life”) consistent with the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2469 (2012) that trial proceedings “take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing [children] to a lifetime in prison.”

The representation of children in adult court facing a possible life sentence is a highly specialized area of legal practice, therefore these guidelines address the unique considerations specific to the provision of a zealous trial defense.  These guidelines set forth the roles and responsibilities of the defense team for the duration of a trial proceeding and outline child-specific considerations relevant to pre-trial, trial, and sentencing representation. Direct appeal and collateral review are not explicitly addressed in these guidelines.

These guidelines are premised on the following foundational principles: 

  • children are constitutionally and developmentally different from adults;

  • children, by reason of their physical and mental immaturity, need special safeguards and care;

  • children must not be defined by a single act; 

  • juvenile life defense is a highly specialized legal practice, encompassing the representation of children in adult court as well as the investigation and presentation of mitigation; 

  • juvenile life defense requires a qualified team trained in adolescent development; 

  • juvenile life defense requires communicating with clients in a trauma-informed, culturally competent, developmentally and age-appropriate manner; 

  • juvenile life defense is based on the client’s expressed interests, informed by meaningful and competent child client participation;

  • juvenile life defense counsel must ensure that child clients and their families are treated with dignity and respect;

  • juvenile life defense counsel must ensure that victims’ families are treated with dignity and respect;

  • juvenile life defense counsel must litigate for a presumption against life sentences for children; and

  • juvenile life defense counsel must litigate to ensure a meaningful individualized sentencing determination, in which defense counsel is able to fully and effectively present mitigation to the court.

March 11, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, March 09, 2015

What is SCOTUS reviewing in Hurst as it considers Florida's capital sentencing process?

As noted in this post, this morning the US Supreme Court today finally decided to decide whether Florida's capital sentencing scheme is constitutional in light of Apprendi and Ring.  But, as this new SCOTUSblog post about the cert grant spotlights, it actually is not entirely clear just what the Supreme Court has decided to decide:

The Florida death penalty case now up for review involves Timothy Lee Hurst of Pensacola, who faces a death sentence for the 1998 murder of a woman who was an assistant manager at a Popeye’s fast-food restaurant where Hurst also worked.

Hurst’s public-defender lawyers asked the Court to rule on two broad questions: one about the jury’s role when an accused individual claims a mental disability, and one about the jury’s role in the death-sentencing process, including an issue of whether its verdict must be unanimous. (His jury split seven to five in recommending death.) The second question was based on a claim that Florida courts fail to follow a 2002 Supreme Court decision on death sentencing, Ring v. Arizona.

In agreeing to rule on the case, the Court rewrote the question it will consider in an apparent attempt to simplify it: whether Florida’s approach to death sentencing violates either the Sixth Amendment or the Eighth Amendment “in light of this Court’s decision in Ring v. Arizona.”

Because the Ring decision is all about the Sixth Amendment, and the role of the jury in deciding whether a murder was committed in an “aggravated” form, it is not clear just what the Court had in mind in linking an Eighth Amendment issue to the Ring precedent. It could be, although this was not plain from the order, that the Court is looking at Hurst’s case on Eighth Amendment grounds on his claim of mental disability, on the lack of jury unanimity, and on the general fairness of a death sentence for this particular individual. Presumably, that will become clearer as the briefs are filed in the case in coming months.

Helpfully, this extended post at Crime & Consequences reviews some of the legal background and possible implication of the Hurst case, which includes these observations:

The U.S. Supreme Court only rarely specifies the question for review itself and that often occurs when the Court wants the latitude to consider overruling prior precedent. This case is on direct appeal from a re-sentencing trial at which Hurst challenged the constitutionality of Florida's capital sentencing procedure.  Therefore, there is no limitation on the Court's authority to create new law in this case.  The Florida capital sentencing procedure is substantially different from the procedure employed by most death penalty States.  Therefore, the Court's ruling in this case is not likely to affect death penalty cases in those other States.  However, we can expect that attorneys representing prisoners in capital cases will argue the contrary.

Because of the maelstrom of potential legal issues raised by this particular Florida case, I am not sure what to expect from the Justices. I am sure any and everyone who does not like how Florida does its capital sentencing (including the nearly 400 murderers currently on Florida's death row) may be inclined to present varied constitutional arguments to SCOTUS to urge a reversal of the death sentence in this intriguing new case.

March 9, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Profile of one (of thousands) of the juve LWOP stories full of post-Miller uncertainty

Thanks to How Appealing, I saw this interesting article from North Carolina about the history of an offender long serving an LWOP sentence for a juvenile murder who still awaits resolution of whether he can benefit from the Supreme Court's work three years ago in Miller v. Alabama.  The piece is headlined "Convicted of murder at 16, Anthony Willis is hoping a Supreme Court decision will overturn his sentence," and merits a full read for those following post-Miller developments closely. Here is an excerpt from the lengthy piece:

[I]f nothing else, prison gives a man time to reflect. Willis slowly came to realize — even though he was expected to die behind bars — that he needed his life to matter. The best way to do that, he decided, was to lean on God and to educate himself. After earning his GED, Willis began taking anger- and stress-management classes and attending prison fellowship seminars.

He earned back-to-back-to-back associate degrees from Western Piedmont Community College and a bachelor's degree from California Coast University. His mother attended his graduation ceremony for his first associate degree.  "That's my baby," Brenda Willis yelled as Willis walked down the aisle.  She was so proud of her son.

That's a big part of Willis' motivation today.  He wants his mother to know that his actions as a teenager were never her fault....  Now 35, his appearance and demeanor are nothing like one might expect from a man who has spent slightly more than half his life in prison. Most of the other prisoners call him Smiley, a nickname that has transferred with him from prison to prison.

Thin, polite, boyish and articulate, Willis seems to have been transformed by prison into a man who has gained respect by learning to stop following the herd.  Willis said he has found comfort in the Lord and teaches those virtues to other prisoners.  He said he regularly leads prison fellowship seminars and takes pride in his role as a mentor and recreational leader.  Willis said he often counsels new prisoners almost as soon as they get off the bus.  Most mistake his optimism for someone who is about to get released — anyone but a lifer....

Willis acknowledges that serving a life sentence isn't easy. "It's hard to hold onto hope in here," he said. "It's like holding onto a ledge by your fingertips." But he endures the best he can, buoyed by his faith, his new-found purpose in life and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling called Miller vs. Alabama.

On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life in prison without parole for people who committed murder as juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling effectively struck down laws in 28 states, including North Carolina....

The court did not bar mandatory life sentences without parole in all juvenile homicide cases. It said lower courts could impose such a sentence only after examining mitigating factors, including family environment, the circumstances of the offense and the possibility of rehabilitation.  But the court didn't make its order retroactive, so it does not apply to Willis and 87 other murderers convicted as juveniles and now serving life sentences in North Carolina.

In December, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the Miller ruling should be made retroactive in a Louisiana murder. But the case was resolved at the state level, leaving no issue for the federal court to hear. So making Miller retroactive remains in limbo, at least in North Carolina.

Less than two weeks after the Miller ruling, North Carolina's General Assembly responded by approving a law that requires a parole review after a juvenile murderer has spent a minimum of 25 years in prison.  But again, the law applies only to sentences handed down after the Miller ruling.  Courts in at least nine states — including South Carolina — have ruled that the ruling will be applied retroactively. Five other states have ruled that the decision is not retroactive.  North Carolina's appellate courts continue to consider the issue.

March 9, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Should there be a presumptive incarceration "retirement age" to deal with the graying of prisons?

The question in the title of this post is my latest provocative (but very serious) thought about how to deal with the aging US prison population and the costs that incarcerating the elderly places on taxpayers.  This thinking is prompted today by this new commentary from New York titled "Address the Graying of Prisons," which makes these points:  

In New York, roughly 17 percent of the state's prison population is elderly. By 2030, the aging are expected to account for one third of the prison population. This large-scale incarceration of the elderly is enormously expensive. The United States spends over $16 billion annually on incarceration for individuals aged 50 and older — approximately double the cost of incarcerating a younger person.

But cost is not the only reason to address this crisis. Prisons were not designed to meet the basic needs of elderly individuals. Wheelchair inaccessibility and bunk beds make daily life difficult for people with mobility impairment; cognitive impairments and hearing loss exacerbate the challenges. When the health ward proves incapable of providing care, prisoners must be cared for at an outside hospital — with expensive around-the-clock guards.

Weigh this against the following fact: many "long-termers" are so old, sick, and frail that they pose virtually no safety risk to the public, with a national recidivism rate of only 4 percent for those over 65.

But, if we release more of the aging, as we should (of the 2,730 requests for compassionate release in New York between 1992-2002, only 381 were granted), we will need to address the dearth of community-based services to support them. The majority of those released after serving long sentences face fading social and family networks, a struggle to access health care and housing, and a lack of skills required to live independently. Nursing homes often won't take them, they are ineligible for Medicare while on parole, and many haven't paid enough into Social Security to receive benefits....

And the solution cannot be left only to those of us in criminal justice and corrections. We need the fields of gerontology, mental health treatment and senior services, working together to develop better solutions to the complex, multifaceted problems faced by aging formerly incarcerated individuals....

Here in New York, the Osborne Association will soon begin a pilot project to provide discharge planning and case management support for elders released to New York City. It is a start. But ultimately, any systemic and sustained change is contingent upon our collective willingness to deal with the looming crisis of a graying prison population in ways that reduce costs and improve lives while recognizing the inherent dignity of all people.

Given that the recidivism rate for those over 65 is so low (and I suspect especially lower for elderly prisoners without a long criminal record and not previously involved in serious sex or drug offenses), why not a national policy that any and all prisoners who have already served a certain number of years in prison and reach 65 ought to be presumptively considered for immediate parole? We could have data-driven risk-assessment instruments that help officials decide which older offenders are likely to pose no real safety risks at their old ages.

Among other benefits, a national "presumptive prison release at 65 scheme" could and would bring all jurisdictions in compliance with the Eighth Amendment rules set forth in Graham and Miller. In addition, both offenders and victims (and lawyers and judges) could/would all know that "life" sentences really mean serving for sure in prison until the offender is 65 at which point the offender would have a chance to seek release.  And victims and others could plan and gear up to explain why they would oppose or support release at that date certain.

Especially in light of improving life expectancies, even for those imprisoned, I could image tweaking this proposal to set the presumptive prison retirement age at 70 or even 75.  But, whatever the selected retirement age, I think our sentencing and prison systems might be improved by having some national presumptive norms about being "too old to jail."   Indeed, just as many employers and employees believe it is not just or efficient to expect elderly individuals to work full-time until they drop dead, I suspect many prison officials and prisoners may believe it is not just or efficient to expect elderly individuals to remain imprisoned full-time until they drop dead.

March 5, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2015

Georgia scheduled to execute only female murderer on its death row

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "After weather delay, Georgia ready to perform rare execution of a woman," the Peach State appears poised this evening to end the life of a bad apple notable for her gender. Here are the details:

After getting a temporary reprieve when her execution was postponed because of winter weather conditions forecast to hit the state, the only woman on Georgia's death row is again set for execution Monday. Kelly Renee Gissendaner, 46, was scheduled to be executed Wednesday at the state prison in Jackson, but the Department of Corrections postponed it to Monday at 7 p.m., citing the weather and associated scheduling issues.

Gissendaner was convicted of murder in the February 1997 stabbing death of her husband, Douglas Gissendaner. Prosecutors said she plotted his death with her boyfriend, Gregory Owen.... Kelly Gissendaner repeatedly pushed Owen in late 1996 to kill her husband rather than just divorcing him as Owen suggested, prosecutors said. Acting on Kelly Gissendaner's instructions, Owen ambushed Douglas Gissendaner at the Gissendaners' home, forced him to drive to a remote area and stabbed him multiple times, prosecutors said

Owen pleaded guilty and received a life prison sentence with eligibility for parole after 25 years. He testified at Gissendaner's trial, and a jury convicted her and sentenced her to death in 1998.

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles, the only entity in Georgia authorized to commute a death sentence, on Wednesday denied Gissendaner clemency. A federal judge in Atlanta rejected a request to halt her execution, and her lawyers have appealed that decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

If Gissendaner's execution happens, she will be the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years. Lena Baker, a black maid, was executed in 1945 after being convicted in a one-day trial for killing her white employer. Georgia officials issued her a pardon in 2005 after six decades of lobbying and arguments by her family that she likely killed the man because he was holding her against her will. Baker was the only woman to die in the state's electric chair. P>Execution of female inmates is rare with only 15 women put to death nationwide since the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the death penalty to resume. During that same time, about 1,400 men have been executed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Prosecutors offered Gissendaner the same plea deal that was offered to Owen, but she turned it down. Post-conviction testimony from her trial lawyer, Edwin Wilson, gives some insight into why, Gissendaner's lawyers argued in a clemency petition. They quote Wilson as saying he didn't think a jury would sentence Gissendaner to death. "I guess I thought this because she was a woman and because she did not actually kill Doug," Wilson is quoted as saying, adding that he should have urged her to take the plea.

Victor Streib, a retired Ohio Northern University law professor and an expert on the death penalty for women, said it's clear that women are condemned to die far less frequently than men, but that there are so few cases that it's tough to draw any general conclusions. "Statistically, yes, if you've got two cases and everything about them is exactly the same and one case is a woman and the other case is a man, the man is more likely to be sentenced to death," Streib said, but added that he wouldn't count on that as a legal strategy.

One reason women aren't sentenced to death as often is that they don't commit as many murders and when they do they generally aren't the "worst of the worst" murders that lead to the death penalty, Streib said. Juries may also be more likely to believe a woman was emotionally distressed or not in her right mind at the time of a killing, which can spare them a death sentence, he said.

March 2, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Resentencing on tap in Ohio beard-cutting federal assault cases

As reported in this local article, headlined "Judge to re-sentence defendants in Amish beard-cutting case," today brings another sentencing proceeding in a high-profile civil-rights case prosecuted in Ohio's federal courts. Here are the basics:

Federal prosecutors believe that the 16 Amish people who will be re-sentenced by a federal judge this afternoon for a series of beard-cutting attacks in 2011 still have not shown that they understand the harm that they caused.

A memo filed Friday by Kristy Parker, deputy chief of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, reiterated that U.S. District Judge Dan Polster should give Bishop Sam Mullet and his followers the same sentences he gave them in February 2013, even if they do not stand convicted of carrying out religiously-motivated hate crimes because of an appellate court's decision.

"Simply put, there has also been no indication over the past two years that the time the defendants have served up to this point has in any way caused them to re-evaluate the propriety or the gravity of their behavior other than their acknowledgment that the government takes the matters seriously (even if they do not) and their obvious unhappiness at having been caught and punished," the filing says....

Polster will re-sentence all 16 defendants -- who come from the small farming community of Bergholz in Jefferson County -- at 1:30 p.m. at the federal courthouse in Cleveland. Eight of those defendants have already served out their original sentences, and Polster said in an email to attorneys last week that he intends to sentence them to time served.

At the original sentencing, the judge handed down prison terms ranging from a year and a day to 15 years for Mullet, the community's leader. Prosecutors are expected to ask for the same sentences today because Polster's original ones were lower than those recommended by the U.S. probation office. Defense attorneys are asking the judge to sentence the defendants to time served and to release the eight who remain in prison.

The defendants are members of a breakaway sect of the Amish community made up of 18 families. They were convicted of multiple crimes in September 2012 for carrying out five nighttime raids. In the attacks, members of the community rousted five victims out of bed and chopped off their beards and hair with horse mane shears and battery-powered clippers. The attackers documented the attacks with a disposable camera....

A sentencing memo filed for Mullet says that its unlikely that Mullet would ever do something similar again, and that the Bergholz Amish community is still shunned by other Amish communities because of the case and its surrounding publicity.

In a memo filed Friday, prosecutors say that "it is the defendants themselves who created these circumstances through their own lawless conduct, yet they continue to blame the government and their properly imposed prison sentences for the harms they feel they have suffered. "The defendants' sentencing memoranda leaves the impression that they are the victims in this case, not the people they violently assaulted during nighttime raids and orchestrated attacks," the memo continues.

Some related prior posts:

March 2, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, February 27, 2015

Split Connecticut Supreme Court works through Miller application issues

Images (3)As reported in this local AP piece, headlined "Connecticut court tosses 100-year sentence imposed on teen," the top court in the Nutmeg State issued a notable and significant ruling on juvenile sentencing in the wake of recent SCOTUS Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Here are the basics:

The Connecticut Supreme Court on Friday overturned a 100-year prison sentence that was imposed on a Hartford teenager in a murder case, saying juveniles cannot be treated the same as adults when being sentenced for violent crimes.

In a 5-2 ruling, justices ordered a new sentencing hearing for Ackeem Riley, who was 17 in November 2006 when he sprayed gunfire into a Hartford crowd from a passing car. Three bystanders were shot, including 16-year-old honor student Tray Davis, who died....

The Miller decision was one of three U.S. Supreme Court rulings since 2005 that “fundamentally altered the legal landscape for the sentencing of juvenile offenders to comport with the ban on cruel and unusual punishment,” Connecticut Justice Andrew McDonald wrote in the majority decision. The rulings also barred capital punishment for all juvenile offenders and prohibited life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases.

McDonald wrote in Friday’s ruling, which overturned a state Appellate Court decision, that it didn’t appear trial Judge Thomas V. O’Keefe Jr. adequately considered Riley’s age at the time of the shooting. “The court made no mention of facts in the presentence report that might reflect immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” McDonald wrote. “In the entire sentencing proceeding, only defense counsel made an oblique reference to age.”

Justices Carmen Espinoza and Peter Zarella dissented....

State lawmakers are now considering a bill that would revamp Connecticut’s juvenile sentencing rules to conform to the U.S. Supreme court rulings. A similar measure failed last year. There are about 50 Connecticut prisoners serving sentences of 50 or more years for crimes committed when they were under 18, and most are not eligible for parole. Defense lawyers say they expect more appeals involving the juvenile sentencing issue.

The extended majority ruling in Connecticut v. Riley is available at this link, and it gets started with these passages:

The defendant, Ackeem Riley, was seventeen years old when he committed homicide and nonhomicide offenses for which the trial court imposed, in the exercise of its discretion, a total effective sentence of 100 years imprisonment. The defendant has no possibility of parole before his natural life expires. In his certified appeal to this court, the defendant claims that his sentence and the procedures under which it was imposed violate Graham and Miller, and, hence, the eighth amendment....

We agree with the defendant’s Miller claim. Therefore, he is entitled to a new sentencing proceeding at which the court must consider as mitigation the defendant’s age at the time he committed the offenses and the hallmarks of adolescence that Miller deemed constitutionally significant when a juvenile offenderis subject to a potential life sentence. We decline, however, to address the defendant’s Graham claim. As we explain later in this opinion, the legislature has received a sentencing commission’s recommendations for reforms to our juvenile sentencing scheme to respond to the dictates of Graham and Miller. Therefore, in deference to the legislature’s authority over such matters and in light of the uncertainty of the defendant’s sentence upon due consideration of the Miller factors, we conclude that it is premature to determine whether it would violate the eighth amendment to preclude any possibility of release when a juvenile offender receives a life sentence.

The dissenting Riley opinion is available at this link, and it starts this way:

I disagree with the majority’s conclusion that the total effective sentence of 100 years imprisonment imposed by the trial court on the defendant, Ackeem Riley, violates the eighth amendment to the United States constitution. I agree with the Appellate Court’s conclusion that, "[b]ecause the court exercised discretion in fashioning the defendant’s sentence, and was free to consider any mitigating evidence the defendant was able to marshal, including evidence pertaining to his age and maturity"; State v. Riley, 140 Conn. App. 1, 4, 58 A.3d 304 (2013); the sentence complied with the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012), which held that "the [e]ighth [a]mendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders." (Emphasis added.) Id., 2469. To be clear, therefore, Miller applies only to mandatory sentencing schemes. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.

February 27, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Rape in the American Prison"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new Atlantic article about a part of the subjective experience of imprisonment for all too many prisoners despite notable efforts by Congress to address the problem of prison rape.  Here are excerpts:

In 2003, ... Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, now usually known as PREA. It was intended to make experiences [of rape in prison] far less likely.  But like many ambitious pieces of legislation, its promise has proved difficult to realize.  The law required studies of the problem that took far longer than initially intended, and adoption of the guidelines they produced has been painfully slow, resting on the competence and dedication of particular employees.  PREA has not been a complete failure, but it is also far from delivering on its promise....

Reports about prison rape by advocacy groups led to occasional efforts by federal lawmakers to address the problem. None of those initiatives gained any wide support until 2001, when Human Rights Watch released “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons,” which focused less on perpetrators than on failures by correctional staff and policies to prevent rape.  The report included harrowing first-person accounts.  “The opposite of compassion is not hatred,” wrote one Florida prisoner, describing the violence he’d endured. “It’s indifference.” The revelations brought together liberal human rights activists, government-distrustful libertarians, and Christian conservatives. PREA was passed unanimously....

After PREA passed in 2003, the bipartisan commission announced it would obtain data on prison rape, write a report, and recommend a set of policy proposals “after two years.” The complexity and scope of the problem proved daunting, and it took nearly six; the report was released in 2009.

The next stop was Attorney General Eric Holder’s Department of Justice, which spent three years (two more than they had initially planned) deliberating over the law and translating its recommendations into final standards....

PREA specifically barred the commission from recommending standards “that would impose substantial additional costs” for prison administrators, and many told the commission that placing youth who were convicted as adults in their own facilities would be impossibly expensive. “We must house adolescents and adults separately,” Martin Horn, head of the New York City Department of Correction, said at a 2006 hearing in Miami. “This takes time, this takes staff, and this takes money. And you must ask Congress to provide it.”

Today, states only have to promise that they’re working to comply with PREA’s many requirements, including the separation of youth under 18 from older prisoners.  If they fail to do so or simply refuse to certify their compliance, as the governors of seven states have done, they stand to lose 5 percent of their grant funding from the DOJ. While most states, including Michigan, are still assuring federal authorities that they are addressing prison rape, prisoners remain at risk.

February 25, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, February 23, 2015

"What rights do felons have over their surrendered firearms?"

The question in the title of this post is the substance of the title of this helpful SCOTUS argument preview of Henderson v. US authored by Richard Re over at SCOTUSblog.  Here are excerpts which highlight why I think of Henderson as an interesting and dynamic sentencing case:

Tuesday, the Court will hear argument in Henderson v. United States, a complex case that offers a blend of criminal law, property, and remedies, with soft accents of constitutionalism. The basic question is this: when an arrested individual surrenders his firearms to the government, and his subsequent felony conviction renders him legally ineligible to possess those weapons, what happens to the guns?

The petitioner, Tony Henderson, was a Border Patrol agent convicted of distributing marijuana, a felony offense. Shortly after being arrested in 2006, Henderson surrendered his personal collection of firearms and other weapons to federal agents as a condition of release during the pendency of his criminal case. According to Henderson, his weapons collection included valuable items that had long been in the family, as well as an “antique.” Moreover, the collection was and remains Henderson’s lawful property. So, starting in 2008, Henderson asked authorities to transfer his weapons collection to someone else. But prosecutors and courts alike declined. Understandably enough, Henderson didn’t want his collection to escheat to the government like so much feudal property. So he’s pressed his rights to the Supreme Court.

The legal issues start with a conflict between a procedural rule and a federal statute. Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41, the government usually has to “return” a defendant’s lawful property. But that can’t happen in Henderson’s case because a federal criminal law (18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1)) prohibits convicted felons, including Henderson, from possessing firearms. So if Rule 41 were allowed to operate according to its terms, Henderson would instantly be in violation of Section 922(g)(1). The courts below recognized that result as contrary to federal law and policy. (In a footnote in its merits brief, the federal government acknowledges that some of Henderson’s long-withheld weapons collection actually doesn’t consist of firearms at all. The government accordingly assures the Court that the “FBI is making the necessary arrangements to return the crossbow and the muzzle-loading rifle to petitioner.”)

To get around Section 922(g)(1), Henderson asked the government to transfer his firearms to third parties who are permitted to possess such items – specifically, either his wife or a friend who had promised to pay for them. Those proposed transfers, Henderson points out, wouldn’t result in his own possession of the firearms. And, critically, the proposed transfers would honor Henderson’s continued ownership of the weapons.... While Rule 41 by its terms may authorize only the “return” of property, Henderson argues that the federal district courts have “equitable” authority to direct transfers to third parties....

Without questioning that federal equitable authority operates in this area, the courts below apparently rejected Henderson’s transfer request in part based on the ancient rule of “unclean hands.” Under this venerable maxim, a wrongdoer (whose hands are figuratively dirty) may not seek relief at equity in connection with his own wrongful act. Based on a broad view of that precept, the courts below seemed to say that convicted felons are categorically barred from equitable relief as to their government-held property. Henderson contends that this holding revives ancient principles of “outlawry,” whereby criminals lose the protection of the law, while also running afoul of the Due Process Clause, the Takings Clause, and other constitutional provisions. However, the Solicitor General disputes that the decision below actually rested on this ground and — more importantly — has declined to defend it.

Instead, the federal government defends the result below on the ground that Section 922(g)(1) should be read to prohibit not just felons’ actual possession of firearms, but also their “constructive possession” of such weapons. On this view, impermissible constructive possession occurs when a convicted felon can exert some control over the next physical possessor of a particular item of property. Thus, Henderson would exert constructive possession – barred by federal law – if he could direct the transfer of his firearms to any particular person, including his wife or friend. Such direction, the government contends, would also create an unacceptable risk of letting the firearm find its way back to the felon. A permissible approach, in the government’s opinion, would be for it to transfer weapons to a licensed firearms dealer for sale, with proceeds going to the convicted felon.

Having gotten the federal government to endorse some remedial third-party transfers – a significant development in itself – Henderson asks why a convicted felon can’t at least nominate specific third parties, like a museum or a relative, to receive previously surrendered firearms that double as historical artifacts or family heirlooms....

While the ultimate outcome may turn in part on case-specific facts, the case touches on a number of important public debates. This becomes most obvious when the parties peripherally joust over the Second Amendment. The case has also drawn a number of amici. For instance, the Institute for Justice connects the case to public debate over forfeitures by asserting an aged canon against such forfeitures. Meanwhile, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Rifle Association of America respectively argue from the Excessive Fines Clause and, of course, the Second Amendment. The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the government’s only amicus, also joins issue.

February 23, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack