Monday, September 18, 2017

"Why Did a Federal Judge Sentence a Terminally Ill Mother to 75 Years for Health Care Fraud?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this recent law.com article about a notable (and notably harsh) federal sentencing.  Here are some of the details, with some commentary to follow:

A federal judge in Texas sentenced a terminally ill woman to 75 years in prison last month for bilking Medicare — an apparent record sentence for the U.S. Department of Justice for health care fraud.

Marie Neba, 53, of Sugar Land, Texas, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon of the Southern District of Texas on eight counts stemming from her role in a $13 million Medicare fraud scheme.  Neba, the owner and director of nursing at a Houston home health agency, was convicted after a two-week jury trial last November.  At the sentencing on Aug. 11, the government recommended a 35-year imprisonment, said Michael Khouri, who started representing Neba as her private attorney shortly after the trial... 

The unusually lengthy sentence for what health care fraud legal experts call a relatively routine case has them scratching their heads, even in this recent era of the federal government’s crackdown on health care fraud.  Neba, the mother of 7-year-old twin sons, was diagnosed in May with stage IV metastatic breast cancer that has spread to her lungs and bones, according to Khouri, who has filed an appeal of the conviction and the sentence.  She currently is receiving chemotherapy treatments and is in custody in a federal detention center.  “Marie Neba is a mother, a wife and a human being who is dying. If there is any defendant that stands before the court that deserves a below-guideline sentence … it’s this woman that stands before you,” Khouri argued before Harmon at the sentencing hearing, according to a transcript recently obtained by ALM....

Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who heads the government interaction and white-collar practice group at Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale in Chicago, said given the circumstances, he would have expected Neba to receive a sentence of several years in prison.  “Nothing is surprising in that she went to jail and not for six months,” he said. “But how you get anything close to 75 years is beyond me and makes no sense at all.  In 35 years, I have never heard of the government’s [prison term] recommendation being doubled by the judge, particularly when the government is asking for a tough sentence anyway.”

Gejaa Gobena, a litigation partner at Hogan Lovells and former chief of the DOJ Criminal Division’s Health Care Fraud Unit, concurred. “We prosecuted hundreds of cases and never had a sentence approaching anywhere near this,” Gobena said.

Legally, the answer to how the long sentence came about is not that difficult: Harmon, applying several enhancements under the federal sentencing guidelines, imposed the statutory maximum prison term on each charge, and then ran them consecutively.  “I am not a heartless person. I think I am not. I hope I am not,” Harmon told Neba before announcing the sentence. “It must be a terrible experience that you are going through, Ms. Neba, and I don’t want you to think that by sentencing you to what I am going to sentence you to that I’m trying to heap more difficulties on you because I am not. … It’s just the way the system works, the way the law works. You have been found guilty of a number of counts by a jury, and this is what happens.”

Even so, historically, the case is highly unusual, breaking the previous record by 25 years.  Since a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in December 2007 that reaffirmed that the federal sentencing guidelines are merely advisory, federal trial judges have much greater latitude to impose what they think are appropriate sentences, even if the guidelines call for higher or lower sentences.  The longest health care fraud sentence prior to Neba’s came in 2011, when Lawrence Duran, the owner of a Miami-area mental health care company, was sentenced to 50 years for orchestrating a $205 million Medicare scheme that defrauded vulnerable patients with dementia and substance abuse. The next longest? Forty-five years in 2015 for a Detroit doctor who gave chemotherapy to healthy patients, whom federal prosecutors then called the “most egregious fraudster in the history of this country.”

According to court documents, Neba, from 2006 to 2015, conspired with others to defraud Medicare by submitting more than $10 million in false claims for home health services provided through Fiango Home Healthcare Inc., owned by Neba and her husband and co-defendant, Ebong Tilong. Using that money, Neba paid illegal kickbacks to patient recruiters for referrals and to Medicare beneficiaries who allowed Fiango to use their Medicare information to bill for home health services that were not medically necessary nor provided, and, all told, received $13 million in ill-gotten Medicare payments, the documents said.

Neba was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, three counts of health care fraud, one count of conspiracy to pay and receive health care kickbacks, one count of payment and receipt of health care kickbacks, one count of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments and one count of making health care false statements.

Four co-defendants, including Tilong, have pleaded guilty in the case. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 13....

Harmon, through her case manager, declined to comment on the case. The transcript, however, reveals several factors that influenced her decision to impose the lengthy prison term, including: “Most importantly,” Neba’s sentencing guideline range of life imprisonment (though Harmon was proscribed by statutory maximums from imposing a life sentence);..... Neba’s attempt to obstruct justice by telling a co-defendant, before arraignment in the federal courthouse, “to keep to her story,” specifically “not to tell anybody that she, [the co-defendant], was paying the patients.”

Neba’s decision to go to trial on the charges, rather than plead guilty and provide some sort of government assistance, also played a role in her sentence. Had she pleaded guilty to one or more of the charges “at the very beginning without obstruction of justice,” and received the highest credit for cooperation for doing so, Neba’s sentencing guideline range would have been 14.5 years, federal prosecutor William Chang told Harmon during the hearing. “Had the same thing happened and she received no [credit] whatsoever, it would be 21.8 years,” he added. “If she had gone to trial and been convicted, but no obstruction of justice, the sentence would have been 30 years on the calculation of the guidelines. So, we want the court to understand the United States’ principal position for what it seeks.”

Khouri, Neba’s attorney, said he plans to challenge on appeal the manner in which the sentencing guideline range was calculated and argue, among other matters, that the sentence is excessive.

I have quoted so much of this press report because the more details it provides, the more perverse the entire federal sentencing system seems along with the perversity of this particularly extreme sentence. For starters, though we supposedly have a federal sentencing system designed to sentence a defendant based principally on the seriousness of her offense, this defendant's guideline range ballooned from less than 15 years imprisonment to life imprisonment essentially because she put the government to its burden of proof at a trial and said the wrong thing to a co-defendant.

Trial penalty guideline calculations notwithstanding, now that the guidelines are advisory, a prosecutor and a judge would need to be able to justify such an extreme functional LWOP sentence based on all the 3553(a) statutory factors. No matter how seriously one regards health care fraud, I cannot fully understand how any of these factors (save the guideline range) can support this extreme sentence in this not-so-extreme case of fraud.  If reasonableness review has any substance whatsoever, and if the facts in this article are accurate, it seems to me that this sentence ought to be found substantive unreasonable.

September 18, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Saturday, September 16, 2017

"Criminalizing Race: Racial Disparities in Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Carlos Berdejó available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Most of the empirical research examining racial disparities in the criminal justice system has focused on its two endpoints — the arrest and initial charging of defendants and judges’ sentencing decisions.  Few studies have assessed disparities in the steps leading up to a defendant’s conviction, where various actors make choices that often constraint judges’ ultimate sentencing discretion.  This article addresses this gap by examining racial disparities in the plea-bargaining process, focusing on the period between the initial filing of charges and the defendant’s conviction.

The results presented in this article reveal significant racial disparities in this stage of the criminal justice system. White defendants are twenty-five percent more likely than black defendants to have their principal initial charge dropped or reduced to a lesser crime.  As a result, white defendants who face initial felony charges are less likely than black defendants to be convicted of a felony.  Similarly, white defendants initially charged with misdemeanors are more likely than black defendants to be convicted for crimes carrying no possible incarceration or not being convicted at all.

Racial disparities in plea-bargaining outcomes are greater in cases involving misdemeanors and low-level felonies. In cases involving severe felonies, black and white defendants achieve similar outcomes.  Defendants’ criminal histories also play a key role in mediating racial disparities.  While white defendants with no prior convictions receive charge reductions more often than black defendants with no prior convictions, white and black defendants with prior convictions are afforded similar treatment by prosecutors.  These patterns in racial disparities suggest that prosecutors may be using race as a proxy for a defendant’s latent criminality and likelihood to recidivate.

September 16, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

In sentencing filing, Anthony Weiner asks for probation and community service after guilty plea to transferring obscene material to a minor

As reported in this new Bloomberg piece, "Anthony Weiner, the former congressman and New York mayoral candidate whose career and personal life were wrecked in a series of sexting scandals, asked a judge for leniency when he’s sentenced later this month." Here is more about his sentencing filing and what prompts it:

Weiner pleaded guilty in May to sending sexually explicit messages to a 15-year-old girl, admitting to a single criminal count of transmitting obscene material to a minor. The guilty plea capped a stunning downfall that played a major role in the final days of the 2016 presidential election.

In a court filing late Wednesday, Weiner asked for probation and community service.  “In sum, a term of imprisonment would bring Anthony’s indisputably successful treatment for the sickness underlying his crime to an immediate and complete halt, and separate Anthony from the son who has motivated his recovery,” his attorneys wrote in the sentencing memo.

“Given the unusual circumstances of this offense and the ability of a sentence without incarceration to impose just and meaningful punishment while permitting continued treatment, a non-incarceratory sentence of the kind proposed above would be ‘sufficient but not greater than necessary’ to satisfy the goals of sentencing.”

Weiner faces as much as 10 years in prison when he’s sentenced Sept. 25. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors will seek a term of 21 months to 27 months, which isn’t binding on the sentencing judge. Weiner must register as a sex offender and will forfeit his iPhone. An FBI investigation into Weiner’s sexually explicit messages turned up emails that had been sent to his wife, Huma Abedin, then a top aide to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton....

Weiner “has already been punished in a meaningful way by the government, just not in a judicially sanctioned manner,” his lawyers wrote in the memo.  “What was supposed to be a confidential grand jury investigation into a personal offense was leaked by ‘law enforcement sources’ and then improperly injected into the presidential election by the then-FBI director.”

Prior related post:

September 13, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Brock Turner: Sorting Through the Noise"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper recent posted to SSRN authored by Michael Vitiello. Here is the abstract:

This article begins with a quick test. The author asks his readers to spend a few moments reacting to “Brock Turner.” In response, no doubt, many think, “Stanford rapist,” “white privilege,” “special treatment for an elite college athlete,” and perhaps, “illegal sentence."  Certainly, that reaction is not surprising, given racial bias in sentencing and special treatment for elite college athletes.

The public response to Judge Aaron Persky’s sentence was quite negative even before Stanford Law Professor Michele Landis Dauber, a family friend of the victim, began a recall effort. The recall efforts have kept the case in the public’s eye.  While some members of the public and profession have spoken out against the recall, it seems to be on pace to get on the ballot in the fall of this year.

As troubling as Turner’s sentence is for many observers, issues posed by a judicial recall are quite distinct.  The article challenges the media for its role in inflaming public opinion about the case.  While the sentence seems far too short in light of Turner’s conduct, an examination of California sentencing criteria, as well as the probation report that Judge Persky relied on in determining Turner’s sentence, makes the case more complicated than widely reported in the media.  Even assuming that one disagrees with Judge Persky’s sentence, the article argues that California has led the nation in over reliance on long prison sentences, the result of all-too-familiar-get-tough-on-crime rhetoric. That has led the state to spend unnecessary billions of dollars warehousing offenders who do not represent a serious public safety risk.  The article concludes that judicial recall will result in unnecessary additional years of imprisonment for criminal defendants because judges, consciously or unconsciously, may fear for their livelihood if vocal members of the public deem their sentences too lenient.

September 13, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

New op-ed and op-doc from New York Times takes on "A ‘Frightening’ Myth About Sex Offenders"

David Feige has a new op-ed and a short video documentary unpacking and attacking the notion that sex offender recidivism rates are extraordinarily high.  This op-ed is headlined "When Junk Science About Sex Offenders Infects the Supreme Court," and this op-doc is titled "A ‘Frightening’ Myth About Sex Offenders."  Here is how the op-ed starts and ends:

This month the Supreme Court will have a rare opportunity to correct a flawed doctrine that for the past two decades has relied on junk social science to justify punishing more than 800,000 Americans.  Two cases that the court could review concern people on the sex offender registry and the kinds of government control that can constitutionally be imposed upon them.

In Snyder v. Doe, the court could consider whether Michigan’s broad scheme of regulating sex offenders constitutes “punishment.”  The other case, Karsjens v. Piper, examines the constitutionality of Minnesota’s policy of detaining sex offenders forever — not for what they’ve done, but for what they might do.

And while the idea of indefinite preventive detention might sound un-American or something out of the film “Minority Report,” the larger problem is that “civil commitment,” like hundreds of other regulations imposed on those required to register, has been justified by assertions about the recidivism of sex offenders. But those assertions turn out to be entirely belied by science.

For the past 24 years, Minnesota has detained sex offenders released from prison in a “therapeutic program” conveniently located on the grounds of a maximum-security prison in Moose Lake.  The “patients” are kept in locked cells, transported outside the facility in handcuffs and leg irons, and subjected to a regimen that looks, sounds and smells just like that of the prison it is adjacent to.

But unlike prison, this “therapeutic” program, which aims to teach the patients to control their sexual impulses and was initially designed to last from two to four years, has no fixed end date. Rather, program administrators decide which patients are safe enough to release.  In the 24 years it has existed, not a single “patient” has ever been fully released.  There are now about 850 people in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, some with no adult criminal record, and others who, despite having completed every single program ever offered at the facility, have remained civilly committed for over 20 years.

While civil commitment is perhaps the most extreme example of punishments imposed on people convicted of sex crimes, it is by no means the only one. Driven by a pervasive fear of sexual predators, and facing no discernible opposition, politicians have become evermore inventive in dreaming up ways to corral and marginalize those forced to register — a category which itself has expanded radically and come to include those convicted of “sexting,” having consensual sex with non-minor teenagers or even urinating in public.

These sanctions include being forced to wear (and pay for) GPS monitoring and being banned from parks, and draconian residency restrictions that sometimes lead to homelessness.  In addition, punishments can include, on pain of re-incarceration, undergoing interrogations using a penile plethysmograph, a device used to measure sexual arousal.  They have also included requirements that those on the registry refrain from being alone with children (often including their own) and barred from holding certain jobs, like being a volunteer firefighter or driving an ice cream truck.

And when these restrictions have been challenged in court, judge after judge has justified them based on a Supreme Court doctrine that allows such restrictions, thanks to the “frightening and high” recidivism rate ascribed to sex offenders — a rate the court has pegged “as high as 80 percent.”  The problem is this: The 80 percent recidivism rate is an entirely invented number....

Now more than ever, Americans should be able to look to our highest court and expect decisions that are based on reason and grounded in science rather than fear.  The court must rule wisely and bravely, including being willing to acknowledge its mistake and finally correct the record.  More than 800,000 Americans have needlessly suffered humiliation, ostracism, banishment re-incarceration and civil commitment thanks to a judicial opinion grounded in an unsourced, unscientific study.  Simple decency and perhaps more important, intellectual honesty demands better.

A few prior recent related posts:

September 12, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Black Disparities in Youth Incarceration: African Americans 5X More Likely than Whites to be Held"

The title of this post is the title of this new fact sheet produced by The Sentencing Project. Here is some of the text to go along with its state-by-state charts:

Black youth were more than five times as likely to be detained or committed compared to white youth, according to data from the Department of Justice collected in October 2015 and recently released.  Racial and ethnic disparities have long-plagued juvenile justice systems nationwide, and the new data show the problem is increasing.  In 2001, black youth were four times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.

Juvenile facilities, including 1,800 residential treatment centers, detention centers, training schools, and juvenile jails and prisons held 48,043 youth as of October 2015.  Forty-four percent of these youth were African American, despite the fact that African Americans comprise only 16 percent of all youth in the United States.  African American youth are more likely to be in custody than white youth in every state but one, Hawaii.

Between 2001 and 2015, overall juvenile placements fell by 54 percent.  However, white youth placements have declined faster than black youth placements, resulting in a worsening of already significant racial disparity.

Nationally, the youth rate of incarceration was 152 per 100,000.  Black youth placement rate was 433 per 100,000, compared to a white youth placement rate of 86 per 100,000. Overall, the racial disparity between black and white youth in custody increased 22 percent since 2001.  Racial disparities grew in 37 states and decreased in 13.

In six states, African American youth are at least 10 times as likely to be held in placement as are white youth: New Jersey, Wisconsin, Montana, Delaware, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

September 12, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 11, 2017

Can a federal sentence really "be close to absurd" and yet also be affirmed as reasonable?

The peculiar and perhaps metaphysical question in the title of this post is prompted by a Second Circuit panel decision today in US v. Jones, No. 15‐1518 (2d Cir. Sept. 11, 2017) (available here). The Jones case get intricate thanks to the timing and uncertainties of criminal history litigation. The start of the panel opinion provides a flavor of the mess:

Defendant Corey Jones appeals from a sentence entered in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Garaufis, J.) following a jury trial conviction for assaulting a federal officer in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 111. He was sentenced as a career offender principally to 180 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release.  The primary basis for Jones’ appeal is that, in light of the Supreme Court’s holding in Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133 (2010) (Johnson I), New York first‐degree robbery is no longer categorically a crime of violence under the force clause of the Career Offender Guideline, U.S.S.G. §§ 4B1.1 and 4B1.2, and that the district court therefore erred in concluding that his prior conviction for first‐degree robbery would automatically serve as one of the predicate offenses for a career offender designation.

After oral argument in this matter, the Supreme Court decided Beckles v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 886 (2017), which held that the residual clause of the Career Offender Guideline — a second basis for finding a crime of violence — was not unconstitutional.  The Court reached this conclusion notwithstanding the government’s concession to the contrary in cases around the country that the residual clause, like the identically worded provision of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), was void for vagueness. In light of Beckles, we find that New York first‐degree robbery categorically qualifies as a crime of violence under the residual clause and therefore need not address Jones’ argument based on the force clause. We also find that his sentence is substantively reasonable and therefore AFFIRM the sentence imposed by the district court.

Judge Calabresi (my former boss) authors a separate concurring opinion in which he explains the various factors and fortuities which he thinks requires an affirmance of a sentence that seems technically sound by infused with problems of timing and equity. I cannot briefly recount he are the curious particulars, but this sentence captures Judge Calabresi's obvious frustration:

What is more — and this may be the true source of my sense of absurdity — there appears to be no way in which we can ask the district court to reconsider the sentence it ordered in view of the happenstances that have worked against Jones, and in view of its assessment of Jones’ crimes and of its downward departure.

For what it is worth, I think reasonableness review can and should be a very flexible and robust means for circuit courts to require resentencing whenever it has a basis for being concerned, procedurally or substantively, with any aspects of the proceedings below in light of the sentencing commands of 3553(a). Consequently, I think the Second Circuit could have said simply that "happenstances that have worked against Jones" since the time of his initial sentencing cast new light on the 3553(a) factors and thus his sentence is procedurally unreasonable and he should be resentenced.

September 11, 2017 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Notable data on marijuana case processing after Brooklyn DA pledge to limit prosecutions

Marijuana-cases-chart-07This WNYC piece provides some interesting data about local marijuana prosecutions in a part of NYC.  The piece's headline provides the essential highlights: "Brooklyn DA's Pledge to Reduce Marijuana Prosecutions Makes Little Difference." And here are some of the details:

In 2014, Brooklyn’s new District Attorney Ken Thompson made national headlines when he said his office would decline to prosecute low-level marijuana cases, so long as the defendant had no serious criminal record and wasn’t selling the drug.

Noting that two-thirds of these misdemeanor cases wind up being dismissed, Thompson said they did nothing to promote safety and wound up hurting people of color, in particular. “In 2012, over 12,000 people in Brooklyn were arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana,” he said, during his inauguration. “Mostly young black men.”

Thompson died of cancer last autumn. He was replaced (at his own request) by his first deputy, Eric Gonzalez, who continued the marijuana policy. But according to WNYC’s analysis, this supposedly groundbreaking change had less impact than many expected.

Using data from the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, WNYC found the Brooklyn DA was only slightly less likely to prosecute people for marijuana possession after Thompson took office in 2014. In 2010, almost 90 percent of arrests were prosecuted. That figure fell to almost 78 percent in 2014, and in 2016 roughly 82 percent of arrests were prosecuted. In other words, most people are still going to court because the Brooklyn DA only throws out about one out of every five low-level marijuana arrests.

“I expected to see the number to be higher,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports marijuana legalization.

WNYC also found racial disparities among those who benefited most from the DA’s policy. Last year, the Brooklyn DA declined to prosecute fewer than 20 percent of misdemeanor marijuana arrests involving blacks and Latinos. By contrast, that figure was more than 30 percent for whites and Asians.

Marijuana-cases-chart-08Scott Hechinger, a senior staff attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services, which represents low-income people, said he wasn’t surprised by any of this. “It still felt like the people who we were meeting were predominantly black and brown,” he said, when asked what changed after 2014. “And it still felt like an enormous waste of time, energy and money.”...

Gonzalez, the acting district attorney, has a theory for why most defendants are still prosecuted, like Iglesias. “One of the things about our marijuana policy was that it was limited to possession cases,” he explained in an interview with WNYC. “What we think may be happening is that a lot of these arrests is public smoking of marijuana.”

In other words, the district attorney's office still prosecutes those caught puffing a joint in a public place. That’s something many people didn’t fully grasp in 2014 when Thompson announced the policy change.

Both smoking and possession are classified by the state as the same misdemeanor (criminal possession in the fifth degree), the most common low-level charge. There was no way to separate smoking from mere possession from the data provided WNYC. (Several people WNYC interviewed at Brooklyn Criminal Court said they were arrested for smoking in public, including a 17-year-old boy who claimed the police nabbed him in a case of mistaken identity. All of the defendants we met were black or Latino and young.)

Gonzalez, who is running to hold onto his position this fall, said he was troubled by WNYC's finding that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be prosecuted. “I am committed to making sure my office does not contribute to racial disparities," he said. "If it takes me to be more aggressive in declining to prosecute more cases I’m willing to do that."...

Public defenders and legalization advocates now say there is only one way to correct the racial imbalance. They want the DA to stop prosecuting all marijuana cases. “This goes to a deeper need for us to talk institutionally about how the systems work for certain groups of people,” said Frederique.

But Gonzalez, the acting DA, argued that his policy is achieving positive results. Brooklyn declines to prosecute a greater share of cases than any other borough. He also said the DA’s policy put more pressure on the NYPD to make fewer arrests. Almost 17,000 people were arrested for low level marijuana possession in 2010. That number fell to 4,300 in 2016. “We’ve moved a long way,” he stated. “I’m committed to continuing to look at this issue and figuring out, can we have a system in which no one gets arrested for marijuana use where there’s no public safety value?”

Normally I would flag a story focused on marijuana over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, but the case-processing and prosecutorial discretion issues raised here are surely of interest to sentencing fans.  And this post also provides an excuse to review some recent posts of note from MLP&R:

September 10, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 08, 2017

Highlighting through St. Louis the enduring challenges of battling city crime with federal emphasis

Mark Obbie has this terrific lengthy new piece in Politico Magazine with full headline that captures its key themes: "Why Jeff Sessions’ Recycled Crime-Fighting Strategy Is Doomed to Fail: Funneling more gun criminals into federal prison won't reduce homicides. Just look at St. Louis." The article merits a full read, and here are its opening passages:

Newly minted Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in St. Louis, the latest stop on his tour to promote his muscular solution to what he called the “dangerous new trend” of the rising national violent crime rate.  Addressing a crowd of more than 200 federal and local law enforcement officials at the city’s towering federal courthouse in late March, he vowed to “use every lawful tool we have to get the most dangerous offenders off America’s streets.”

The Trump Justice Department has pushed a variety of strategies for reducing violent crime.  But the tool that Sessions prefers, the one he calls the “excellent model,” is to steer more gun-crime cases to federal court, where offenders face an average of six years in prison, compared with the lighter punishments that can result from state convictions — in Missouri, for instance, gun offenders charged under state laws generally get probation.  Sessions has instructed his U.S. attorneys to step up their gun-case loads, and they are heeding his mandate: In the second quarter of this year, federal firearms prosecutions jumped 23 percent over the same period in 2016.

In his St. Louis speech, Sessions praised the city’s U.S. attorney’s office for its aggressive pursuit of gun-law violators, framing its work as the first half of a tidy formula. “The more of them we put in jail,” he said, “the fewer murders we will have.”

But Sessions is dramatically overselling the effectiveness of his prosecution-heavy prescription, those who study gun violence say.  Researchers, in fact, long ago concluded that the long prison sentences and elevated incarceration rates that result from increasing federal prosecutions have scant influence on violent crime rates.  And St. Louis is a signal example of why Sessions’ strategy does not work as he promises.

No other city has already tried harder and longer to do exactly what Sessions is pushing for nationwide.  Since the 1990s, the St. Louis-based Eastern District of Missouri has remained in the top 10 federal court districts for per capita gun prosecution rates, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).  In more recent years, the St. Louis office has only increased its intake of gun cases, leading the nation in 2016.

At the same time, St. Louis’ rates of homicide and serious crimes of all types are the worst in the country, and have been stuck at or near the top of that dubious list for at least 20 years.  The city recorded 188 homicides in each of the past two years — a two-decade high.  During the first six months of 2017, murders kept pace with those brutal levels. Nonfatal shootings were up an alarming 22 percent.

If St. Louis shows why Sessions’ approach to gun violence is destined to fail, what is a more effective role for federal authorities to play in reducing violent crime?  Public safety scholars say that it starts with recognizing that no two cities’ crime problems are exactly alike.  The next step is to create a menu of interventions tailored to meet local needs — and support them with reliable funding.

September 8, 2017 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases big new analysis of Prez Obama's 2014 Clemency Initiative

I am excited to see that the US Sentencing Commission has this morning released this big new report titled simply "An Analysis of the Implementation of the 2014 Clemency Initiative." I hope to find the time in the coming days to dig into many of the report's particulars; for now, I can just reprint the text of this USSC overview page about the report and add a few comments:

Report Summary

This report analyzes the sentence commutations granted under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.  It provides data concerning the offenders who received a sentence commutation under the initiative and the offenses for which they were incarcerated.  It examines the extent of the sentence reductions resulting from the commutations and the conditions placed on commutations.  It also provides an analysis of the extent to which these offenders appear to have met the announced criteria for the initiative.  Finally, it provides an analysis of the number of offenders incarcerated at the time the initiative was announced who appear to have met the eligibility criteria for the initiative and the number of those offenders who received a sentence commutation.

Key Findings

The key findings of this report are:

  • President Obama made 1,928 grants of clemency during his presidency.  Of them, 1,716 were commutations of sentence, more commutations than any other President has granted.

  • Of the 1,928 grants of clemency that President Obama made, 1,696 were sentence commutations under the 2014 Clemency Initiative.

  • The commutations in sentence granted through the Clemency Initiative resulted in an average sentence reduction of 39.0 percent, or approximately 140 months.

  • Of the 1,696 offenders who received a commuted sentence under the Clemency Initiative, 86 (5.1%) met all the announced Clemency Initiative factors for consideration.

  • On April 24, 2014, there were 1,025 drug trafficking offenders incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors.  Of them, 54 (5.3%) received clemency from President Obama.

  • By January 19, 2017, there were 2,687 drug trafficking offenders who had been incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons when the Clemency Initiative was announced and who appeared to meet all the announced Clemency Initiative factors. Of them, 92 (3.4%) received clemency from President Obama.

Back in 2014 when the clemency initiative was announced and certain criteria emphasized (basics here), I had an inkling that the criteria would end up both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. I figured Prez Obama would ultimately not want to grant clemency to everyone who met the criteria announced and also would want to grant clemency to some who did not meet all the criteria. That said, I am still surprised that only 5% of those prisoners who got clemency meet all the criteria and that only about 5% of those prisoners who met all the criteria get clemency. (Based on a quick scan of the USSC report, it seems the vast majority of those who got clemency had some criminal history, which put most of the recipients outside the stated DOJ criteria.)

These additional insights and data points from the USSC report highlight what really seemed to move a clemency applicant toward the front of the line:

A review of the offenders granted clemency under the Initiative shows that at some point the Clemency Initiative was limited to drug trafficking offenders, as all the offenders who received commutations under the Initiative had committed a drug trafficking offense.  This focus was not identified when the Initiative was announced and no formal public announcement was made later that the Initiative had been limited to drug trafficking offenders....

Almost all Clemency Initiative offenders (95.3%) had been convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.  Most (89.7%) were charged in such a way that the mandatory minimum penalty that applied in the case was ten years or longer.  Indeed, most of the Clemency Initiative offenders (88.2%) received a sentence of 20 years or longer, or life imprisonment.

In the end, then, it appears the 2014 Clemency Initiative turned out to be almost exclusively about identifying and reducing some sentences of some federal drug offenders subject to long mandatory prison terms. Somewhat disappointingly, this USSC report does not appear to speak to whether and how offenders who received clemency were distinct from the general federal prison population in case processing terms. My own rough research suggests that a great disproportion of those who got clemency were subject to extreme mandatory minimums because they opted to put the government to its burden of proof at trial rather than accept a plea deal. Also, if the goal ultimately was to remedy the worst applications of mandatory minimum sentences, it is not surprising that a lot of clemency recipients had some criminal history that would serve to both enhance the applicable mandatory minimum AND make an otherwise lower-level offender not eligible for statutory safety-valve relief from the mandatory term.

September 5, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

New report spotlights concerns with background of 26 Ohio condemned scheduled for execution in coming months and years

In this post earlier this year, I reported on a significant report produced by the Fair Punishment Project (FPP) examining the background and case history of eight death row defendants in Arkansas who had approaching execution dates.  That March 2017 Arkansas report from FPP was titled "Prisoners on Arkansas’s Execution List Defined By Mental Illness, Intellectual Disability, and Bad Lawyering," and I am inclined to assert that the FPP report played a role in a few of these Arkansas defendants getting their executions stayed.

Now FPP has turned its eye to the Buckeye State now that Ohio has gotten its machinery of death operating again, and FPP's latest report here is titled "Prisoners on Ohio’s Execution List Defined by Intellectual Impairment, Mental Illness, Trauma, and Young Age." Here is how this report gets started:

On July 26, 2017, Ohio ended its three-year execution moratorium and put Ronald Phillips to death.  Phillips, 19 at the time he committed his crime, had the intellectual functioning of a juvenile, had a father who sexually abused him, and grew up a victim of and a witness to unspeakable physical abuse — information his trial lawyers never learned or presented to a jury.

Ohio intends to execute three more people in 2017 and then 23 more between 2018 and 2020.  We examined the cases of these 26 men, relying on available legal pleadings, court opinions, and where accessible, trial testimony.  We found that these men are among the most impaired and traumatized among us — a pattern replicated across America’s death rows.  At least 17 out of the 26 men experienced serious childhood trauma — horrifying instances of extensive physical and sexual abuse.  At least six men appear to suffer from a mental illness, and at least 11 have evidence of intellectual disability, borderline intellectual disability, or a cognitive impairment, including brain injury.  Three were under the age of 21 at the time they committed their offenses, a period during which an individual’s brain, especially the section related to impulse control and decision-making, is still underdeveloped.  Many of these men fall within several of these categories, which compounds the impairments.

We use the term “at least” because three of these men waived the presentation of mitigation at their trials.  And several had lawyers who conducted little to no investigation at both the trial and post-conviction phase or failed to seek the assistance of psychologists and other experts, despite the presence of familial mental illness, which is often hereditary. Therefore, in those cases, we know very little about existing impairments, even though execution dates are looming.

The Constitution mandates that the state restrict the use of the death penalty to only those “whose extreme culpability makes them ‘the most deserving of execution,’” regardless of the severity of their crimes. The individuals identified here have been convicted of horrible crimes, and they must be held to account.  But the evidence suggests that Ohio has not met its constitutional obligation.  It is instead planning to execute nearly two dozen individuals with substantial impairments, rather than reserving the punishment for those with the greatest culpability.

Below, we describe some of the stories we uncovered while researching these 26 Ohio cases.  We have grouped them by category of impairment which includes serious trauma, mental illness and intellectual disability, and youth.  These distinctions, however, are artificial — many of these men have heartbreaking stories falling within multiple categories. For each example of a debilitating impairment, we could have included many other equally terrifying stories about those facing a sentence of death.

August 30, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (14)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Supreme Court of Wyoming continues to interpret Graham and Miller broadly

A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss an interesting opinion handed down yesterday by the Supreme Court of Wyoming in Sam v. Wyoming, No. S-16-0168 (Wy. Aug. 24, 2017) (available here), involving the Supreme Court's juve sentencing jurisprudence.  Here are concluding passages from the majority opinion ruling for the defendant in Sam:

Mr. Sam argues that his consecutive sentences of a minimum of 52 years, with release possible when he is 70 years old, is unconstitutional....

In Bear Cloud III, we analyzed the United States Supreme Court case law leading up to Miller and concluded that the prohibition of life without parole sentences required a “‘meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.’” 2014 WY 113, ¶ 21, 334 P.3d at 139 (quoting Graham, 560 U.S. at 75, 130 S.Ct. at 2030). And we held that “‘[t]he prospect of geriatric release . . . does not provide a meaningful opportunity to demonstrate the maturity and rehabilitation required to obtain release and reenter society as required by Graham . . . .’” Bear Cloud III, 2014 WY 113, ¶ 34, 334 P.3d at 142 (quoting State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41, 71 (Iowa 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted)).   Since then, the United States Supreme Court has confirmed that the release for juveniles contemplated by the Roper, Graham, and Miller courts should allow them “hope for some years of life outside prison walls . . . .” Montgomery, 136 S. Ct. at 736-37. We held in Mr. Bear Cloud’s case that his sentence of a minimum of 45 years, with possible release when he is 61, was the functional equivalent of life without parole. Bear Cloud III, 2014 WY 113, ¶¶ 11, 33, 334 P.3d at 136, 142. In this case, the sentencing court has made the determination that Mr. Sam is not one of the juvenile offenders whose crime reflects irreparable corruption. An aggregated minimum sentence exceeding the 45/61 standard is the functional equivalent of life without parole and violates Bear Cloud III and Miller and its progeny. The sentence imposed on Mr. Sam of a minimum 52 years with possible release at age 70 clearly exceeds that. We therefore reverse and remand with instructions to the sentencing court to sentence Mr. Sam within the confines set forth in Bear Cloud III.

A dissenting justice in Sam took a distinct view, and here are conclusing passages from the dissenting opinion:

Mr. Sam did not act from impulse, immaturity, or at the invitation or inducement of others.  He intentionally prepared for his crimes, baited the victims into an ambush, committed multiple aggravated assaults on numerous victims, and culminated the spree with an execution-style murder.  Proportionality requires that those factors be considered in his sentence, as well as the remote possibility of rehabilitation.

The U.S. Supreme Court has not defined a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release.”  Nothing in any Supreme Court decision suggests that a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” must be the same for every defendant.  To the contrary, the proportionality required by the Eighth Amendment indicates that a more mature defendant who commits multiple crimes including murder should receive a lengthier sentence than someone who is less mature or commits only one crime.

In this case, the district court did all it was required to do in sentencing Mr. Sam.  It conducted a thorough individualized sentencing hearing and considered multiple times Mr. Sam’s youthful factors, family history, and participation in the crime as required by Miller and Bear Cloud III. It crafted a sentence it felt was appropriate based upon all of these factors, and it believed this sentence did not constitute a de facto life sentence.  It concluded that Mr. Sam deserved a longer sentence than if he had only committed the murder, or the murder and one additional aggravated assault.

The majority remands this case to the district court to impose an aggregate sentence of something less than the 45 years that was rejected in Bear Cloud III, concluding that Mr. Sam’s sentence denies him any meaningful opportunity for release before he is “geriatric.”  I disagree.  If Mr. Sam is motivated by the possibility of parole and comports himself well while in prison he will receive credit for “good time” under Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 7-13-420 (LexisNexis 2017) and Department of Corrections rules.  He will then be eligible for parole on the last of his sentences at about age 61.  I do not agree that release at that age deprives Mr. Sam of all meaningful portions of life.

August 25, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Eleventh Circuit upholds a 57-year sentence for federal juve offender for non-homicide crimes based in part of possibility of good-time credits

I just came across the interesting opinion handed down late last week by an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Mathurin, No. 14-12239 (11th Cir. Aug. 18, 2017) (available here), which rejects an Eighth Amendment challenge (and other challenges) to a 685-month sentence imposed for multiple armed robbery and carjacking crimes committed by the defendant just before he reached age 18.  The underlying facts and the sentencing dynamics in Mathurin are interesting, in part because an older defendant would have gotten a 300-year(!) prison sentence based on many applicable consecutive mandatory-minimum terms that went with the convictions in this case.  The defendant argued that his long prison term was still a functional LWOP term that violated the Supreme Court's Graham Eighth Amendment ruling, and the Eleventh Circuit had a lot of interesting things to say in response.  Here are snippets:

For purposes of this appeal, we will assume that Graham does apply to a non-parolable term-of-years sentence that extends beyond a defendant’s expected life span.  Applying Graham to a term-of-years sentence, however, then gives rise to another question: how does one measure the life expectancy of an individual....  [I]n resolving this case, we do not need to decide whether Defendant’s granular approach to calculating life expectancy should carry the day for purposes of a Graham analysis because even assuming the accuracy of his proffered lower life expectancy for black males in their mid-twenties, as opposed to the life expectancy of all males in their mid-twenties, we conclude that Defendant’s Graham challenge fails....

[A]lthough there is no parole for federal sentences, Defendant has it within his power to shorten his sentence by earning good-time credit. Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3624, Defendant can earn up to 54 days of credit towards his sentence for each year he serves in prison, “subject to determination by the Bureau of Prisons that, during that year, [he] has displayed exemplary compliance with institutional disciplinary regulations.” 18 U.S.C. § 3624(b)(1). The Government has calculated that if Defendant earns the maximum good-time credit available, Defendant can reduce his total sentence by over 7 years and be released when he is 67 years old.  Defendant has never disputed this calculation. Earning this credit means that Defendant would serve a remaining sentence of about 43.4 years, which is more than five years shorter than his own proffered life span for black males and almost ten years shorter than the projected life span for all males his age.  Thus, Defendant’s sentence provides him with a realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of his life, as required by Graham.

It is true that Defendant may not receive all of the above good-time credit if he misbehaves and thereby forfeits some of that credit.  But it is totally within Defendant’s own power to shorten the sentence imposed.  Graham does not require that a sentence “guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime.” Graham, 560 U.S. at 75.  It just requires that the offender have a chance to show that he has earned the right to be given a second chance at liberty.

August 20, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (25)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Two notable new commentaries on how we define violent offenders and what to do with them

My twitter feed yesterday was filled with links to these two notable new commentaries about violent offenders that are both worth the time to read in full:

Here is how Balko's piece wraps up:

[P]aroling more people convicted of violent crimes will inevitably, at some point, somewhere down the line, produce a repeat offender.  The data overwhelmingly suggest that such incidents will be rare enough to be drastically overwhelmed by the benefits of a more generous and forgiving parole policy.  But those rare incidents will be easy to exploit. Advocates should be prepared for them.

In the end, this is a question of what sort of society we want to be. We can be a punitive society that believes in retribution, no matter the costs.  We can be a society that believes in redemption, regardless of cost.  Or we can be a society of people who strive for a rational, data-driven system that will never be perfect, but that will strive to protect us from truly dangerous people while also recognizing that, as the attorney and activist Bryan Stevenson puts it, “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

August 15, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, August 14, 2017

More notable talk by Prez Trump about possible use of his pardon authority

As noted in this post from a few weeks ago, Prez Trump earlier this summer got more than a few media members and academic talking about the historic presidential clemency authority when he reportedly starting asking about his whether he could pardon folks potential caught up in the on-going Russia investigation.  Today brings more summer pardon talk from Prez Trump, but with a notably different (though also controversial) target.  This Fox News piece, headlined "Trump 'seriously considering' a pardon for ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio," provides the details:

President Trump may soon issue a pardon for Joe Arpaio, the colorful former Arizona sheriff who was found guilty two weeks ago of criminal contempt for defying a state judge’s order to stop traffic patrols targeting suspected undocumented immigrants.  In his final years as Maricopa County sheriff, Arpaio had emerged as a leading opponent of illegal immigration.

“I am seriously considering a pardon for Sheriff Arpaio,” the president said Sunday, during a conversation with Fox News at his club in Bedminster, N.J. “He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration.  He’s a great American patriot and I hate to see what has happened to him.”  Trump said the pardon could happen in the next few days, should he decide to do so.

Arpaio, 85, was convicted by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton of misdemeanor contempt of court for willfully disregarding an Arizona judge’s order in 2011 to stop the anti-immigrant traffic patrols. Arpaio had maintained the law enforcement patrols for 17 months thereafter.  The man who built a controversial national reputation as “America’s toughest sheriff” admitted he prolonged his patrols, but insisted he did not intend to break the law because one of his former attorneys did not explain to him the full measure of restrictions contained in the court order.

He is expected to be sentenced on Oct. 5 and could face up to six months in jail.  However, since he is 85 years old and has no prior convictions, some attorneys doubt he will receive any jail time.

Citing his long service as “an outstanding sheriff,” the president said Arpaio is admired by many Arizona citizens who respected his tough-on-crime approach.  Arpaio’s widely publicized tactics included forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and housing them in desert tent camps where temperatures often climbed well past 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  He also controversially brought back chain gains, including a voluntary chain gang for women prisoners.

Civil liberties and prisoner advocates as well as supporters of immigrants’ rights have criticized Arpaio for years, culminating in his prosecution.  He lost his bid for reelection last year. “Is there anyone in local law enforcement who has done more to crack down on illegal immigration than Sheriff Joe?” asked Trump. “He has protected people from crimes and saved lives.  He doesn’t deserve to be treated this way.”

Stopping the flow of undocumented immigrants across the southern U.S. border was a central theme of the president’s campaign. Arpaio endorsed Trump in January 2016. Trump indicated he may move quickly should he decide to issue a presidential pardon. “I might do it right away, maybe early this week. I am seriously thinking about it.”

Trump could decide to await the outcome of an appeal by Arpaio’s lawyers who contend their client’s case should have been decided by a jury, not a judge.  In a statement after the verdict, his attorneys stated, “The judge’s verdict is contrary to what every single witness testified in the case.  Arpaio believes that a jury would have found in his favor, and that it will.”

Reached Monday for reaction to the possible pardon, Arpaio expressed surprise that Trump was aware of his legal predicament. “I am happy he understands the case,” he told Fox News. “I would accept the pardon because I am 100 percent not guilty.”  The former sheriff said he will continue to be a strong supporter of the president regardless of whether he receives a pardon.  But he also voiced concern that a pardon might cause problems for Trump, saying, “I would never ask him for a pardon, especially if it causes heat. I don’t want to do anything that would hurt the president.”

Trump has not granted any pardons so far in his presidency.

While I was putting this post together, I received an email with a link to this ACLU comment on a possible Arpaio pardon.  The comment closes with these notably sharp statements:

ACLU Deputy Legal Director Cecillia Wang had this reaction to media reports that Trump may pardon Arpaio: “President Trump would be literally pardoning Joe Arpaio’s flagrant violation of federal court orders that prohibited the illegal detention of Latinos.  He would undo a conviction secured by his own career attorneys at the Justice Department.  Make no mistake: This would be an official presidential endorsement of racism.”

August 14, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

A reminder of why an active death penalty system in the US now seems so unlikley

Arguably the US has never had an active death penalty system, though there were a few hundred executions each year during the first decades of the 20th Century.  In the so-called modern death penalty era since 1976, the most completed executions in a single year was 98 (in 1999); there have been fewer than 50 executions in nearly every year over the last decades, and only 20 completed executions in 2016.  (This page from the Death Penalty information Center provides these recent details.)

As I have mentioned before, I find it notable that all the new law-and-order talk coming from the Trump Administration has not really included talk of ramping up use of the death penalty.  That, in my view, is a mark of a achievement by the abolitionist movement.  Another mark is the extraordinary difficulty these seems to be in securing death sentences, as discussed in this new Injustice Today piece headlined "Even in the deep red South, death sentences are on the decline." Here is an excerpt:

Twenty years ago, a brutal murder in a red state like Mississippi would likely guarantee a death sentence for a defendant.  But as last week’s sentencing of Scotty Lakeith Street illustrates, juries in the South and across the country continue to shift away from capital punishment.  In 1997, four people in Mississippi were sentenced to death; last year, 2016, not one person was. Street was sentenced to life without parole for stabbing retired teacher Frankie Fairley to death in 2014. The jury in Street’s trial, faced with a choice between the death penalty or life in prison, couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict, and split 10–2....

Those that opted for life without parole may have been swayed by Street’s extensive history of mental illness. As reported by WLOX, jurors heard testimony from his sister that Street had “been institutionalized so much, it’s beyond my count.” Street’s lawyers also presented testimony from a mental health provider who explained that Street suffered from schizophrenia and “needed to be in a group home with a caregiver.”  Street was also reported to have displayed “bizarre behavior,” including “putting plastic bags on his head to keep his brain from leaking out and running naked in public with objects tied to his scrotum.”...

Mental illness aside, death sentences are on the decline across the country.  Last year, 30 people were sentenced to death in the U.S., while in the mid-1990s, more than 300 people received capital sentences.  That decline in popularity is reflected in Street’s case, as well as in other Mississippi capital cases.  Though the death penalty’s legality remains alive and well, juries across the country are rejecting it.

August 10, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"Why are we sentencing children to life in prison without parole?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Newsweek commentary authored by Vincent Southerland and Jody Kent Lavy.  Here are excerpts from the start and end of the commentary:

The barbaric practice of sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole remains one of the most radically inhumane aspects of our criminal justice system.

For those of us who work daily to abolish this practice, the good news is that there are several recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that deem this brand of sentencing unconstitutional and attempt to limit its use.

The bad news is that despite these decisions and a national trend moving away from this practice, several outlier states and counties refuse to comply with the Supreme Court’s most recent mandate, which effectively banned life without parole for all children capable of rehabilitation.

The shameful news is that the United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and that children of color -- African American children in particular -- and children who have been abused and traumatized are disproportionately handed these sentences.

Taken together, these facts lead to a simple conclusion: The time has come to put an end to life without parole sentencing for children....

By tackling our most extreme sentences for children, and acknowledging that this harshest of punishments is imposed disproportionately on children of color coming from some of our most vulnerable communities, we must come to terms with the fact that race and socioeconomic status play a huge role in determining how much compassion the justice system will show a young person.

This should not be the case -- all children are created equal, and there is no such thing as a throwaway child. Our sentencing policies should reflect those truths.

State lawmakers would be well served to join the national trend abandoning the practice of sentencing children to life in prison without a hope of release.  It is imperative that together we work toward a justice system that offers the mercy that all children deserve.

August 10, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Guest post: "It’s Time to End Life without Parole for Children in the United States"

Guest-postI recently received a kind request to publish here a commentary authored by Rob Smith and Heather Renwick.  Rob is the Executive Director of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School, and Heather is Legal Director at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth in Washington DC.  Here is what they have to say:

Sweeping reform over the past five years has brought the United States to a critical tipping point in the movement to end the arbitrary and cruel practice of sentencing kids to life in prison without parole. The Associated Press just reported that the number of youth serving life without parole around the country has dramatically fallen in the past five years due to legislative reforms and judicial opinions that recognize sentencing kids to life in prison is unnecessarily harsh and unconstitutional in most, if not all, cases.

In 2012, only five states banned life without parole sentences for juveniles. Today, just five years later, the number of states that ban life sentences for children has nearly quadrupled, bringing the total to nineteen states and District of Columbia. Another four states do not sentence children to life in prison, despite the fact that penalty is technically available.

The states that ban or no longer use life without parole for children reflect geographical, political, and ideological diversity. For example, West Virginia enacted the most progressive law in the country in 2014, and Nevada’s Republican-majority legislature unanimously passed a law that provides parole eligibility for all children sentenced in adult court.

Even Pennsylvania, the historical epicenter of juvenile life without parole in the United States, is moving unequivocally away from the practice. In the past year, over 100 individuals sentenced as children to life without parole in Pennsylvania have been resentenced, more than 60 of whom have returned home so far.

When the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the juvenile death penalty in 2005 in a case called Roper v. Simmons, it looked to the number of states that legislatively or functionally abandoned the juvenile death penalty as evidence of national consensus. The rapid movement away from life without parole sentences for youth has far surpassed the pace of reform that preceded Roper

Yet a handful of states remain outliers in their treatment of young people convicted of serious crimes.  Virginia has flouted U.S. Supreme Court opinions limiting the imposition of life sentences on children, and in Michigan, children continue to be sentenced to life without parole at a rate that far outstrips the rest of the country. So whether a child is sentenced to life without parole is entirely dependent on the state in which he or she is sentenced.

Last year in a case called Montgomery v. Louisiana — a clarification of its 2012 opinion Miller v. Alabama — the U.S. Supreme Court said that a sentence of life without parole should not be imposed on a child in most, if not all, cases. The Supreme Court rooted these decisions in the understanding that even children who commit serious crimes are capable of positive growth and change.

Yet as the AP just reported, inconsistent implementation of these U.S. Supreme Court decisions means that “[t]he odds of release or continued imprisonment vary from state to state, even county to county, in a pattern that can make justice seem arbitrary.” And our nation’s kids deserve more than arbitrary justice.  It’s time for the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize what a rapidly growing number of states already have: that no child should be sentenced to life in prison without parole. 

August 6, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, August 04, 2017

Kentucky judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for all offenders under 21 years old

As reported in this local article, headlined "Fayette judge rules death penalty unconstitutional for man under 21," a Kentucky judge reached a significant constitutional conclusion this week. Here are the basic details:

The death penalty is unconstitutional for a defendant who was younger than 21 at the time of his offense, Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone ruled earlier this week. Scorsone issued an order declaring the death penalty unconstitutional in the case of 21-year-old Travis Bredhold. He was 18 years and five months old when he was charged in 2013 with murder and robbery in the fatal shooting of Marathon gas station attendant Mukeshbhai Patel.

Fayette County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn said in a statement Friday that she will appeal Scorsone’s order “because it is contrary to the laws of Kentucky and the laws of the United States.” Red Corn said two other cases eligible for the death penalty and pending before Scorsone will be affected by his ruling.... Red Corn’s statement said the judge’s ruling “will result in delays” in all three cases.

In a 2005 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of people who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes violated the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments.

Bredhold’s defense team asked Scorsone to extend that exclusion to people 21 and younger. Prosecutors argued that the death penalty is constitutional and argued that there is no national consensus with respect to offenders under 21.

Scorsone disagreed. “Contrary to the commonwealth’s assertion, it appears there is a very clear national consensus trending toward restricting the death penalty, especially in cases where defendants are 18 to 21 years of age,” Scorsone wrote.

The judge also cited research showing that 18- to 21-year-olds are less culpable for the same reasons that the U.S. Supreme Court found teens under 18 to be. The age group lacks maturity to control their impulses and fully consider risks, making them unlikely to be deterred by knowledge of likelihood and severity of punishment, the judge wrote. In addition, they are susceptible to peer pressure and emotional influence. And their character is not yet well formed, “meaning that they have a much better chance at rehabilitation than do adults,” the judge wrote.

“Given the national trend toward restricting the use of the death penalty for young offenders, and given the recent studies by the scientific community, the death penalty would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for crimes committed by individuals under 21 years of age,” Scorsone wrote.

An individual evaluation that Bredhold “operates at a level at least four years below that of his peers” further supports the exclusion of the death penalty for Bredhold, the judge concluded.

I cannot yet find a copy of Judge Scorsone's opinion, but I am looking forward to finding it and seeing what he cites to support the assertion that there is a national trend toward restricting application of the death penalty "especially in cases where defendants are 18 to 21 years of age.” I know a lot of death penalty opponents are eager to see Roper extended to older offenders, but I am not aware of any legislation in any state that has precluded those age 18 or older from the reach of the death penalty.

UPDATE:  I just found the full opinion in this case via the Death Penalty Information Center's website, and the court relies heavily on the overall decline of executions and death sentences in recent years to make the "objective" case that application of the death penalty to defendants aged 18 to 21 are in decline. 

August 4, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

Split DC Circuit finds unconstitutionally excessive 30-year mandatory minimum sentences for Blackwater contractors who killed Iraqis

A huge new DC Circuit opinion released today in a high-profile criminal case include a significant Eighth Amendment ruling.  The full 100+-page opinion in US v. Slatten, No. 15-3078 (DC Cir. Aug. 4, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:

Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard (“defendants”) were contractors with Blackwater Worldwide Security ("Blackwater"), which in 2007 was providing security services to the United States State Department in Iraq. As a result of Baghdad shootings that injured or killed at least 31 Iraqi civilians, Slough, Liberty and Heard were convicted by a jury of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using and discharging a firearm in relation to a crime of violence (or aiding-and-abetting the commission of those crimes); Slatten was convicted of first-degree murder. They now challenge their convictions on jurisdictional, procedural and several substantive grounds....

The Court concludes ...that the district court abused its discretion in denying Slatten’s motion to sever his trial from that of his co-defendants and therefore vacates his conviction and remands for a new trial. Moreover, the Court concludes that imposition of the mandatory thirty-year minimum under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), as applied here, violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, a holding from which Judge Rogers dissents. The Court therefore remands for the resentencing of Slough, Liberty and Heard.

The majority's Eighth Amendment analysis is really interesting, running more than 30 pages and covering lots of ground. And it wraps up this way:

The sentences are cruel in that they impose a 30-year sentence based on the fact that private security contractors in a war zone were armed with government-issued automatic rifles and explosives. They are unusual because they apply Section 924(c) in a manner it has never been applied before to a situation which Congress never contemplated. We again emphasize these defendants can and should be held accountable for the death and destruction they unleashed on the innocent Iraqi civilians who were harmed by their actions. But instead of using the sledgehammer of a mandatory 30-year sentence, the sentencing court should instead use more nuanced tools to impose sentences proportionally tailored to the culpability of each defendant.

Judge Rogers' dissent from this conclusion is also really interesting, and it concludes this way:

Although it is possible to imagine circumstances in which a thirty-year minimum sentence for a private security guard working in a war zone would approach the outer bounds of constitutionality under the Eighth Amendment, this is not that case.  The jury rejected these defendants’ claim that they fired in self-defense, and far more of their fellow security guards chose not to fire their weapons at all that day.  Yet as my colleagues apparently see it, Congress should have included an exception for all such military contractor employees, or, rather, it would have included such an exception if it had only considered the issue.  See Op. 72–74.  Perhaps so, but that is not the question before us. The district court judge made an individualized assessment of an appropriate sentencing package for each of these defendants, and the result is not disproportionate to the defendants’ crimes, let alone grossly, unconstitutionally disproportionate.

I think it possible (but not at all certain) that the feds will seek cert review of this Eighth Amendment decision, and I think it also possible (but not at all certain) that SCOTUS might be interested in this issue in this setting.

August 4, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Distinct sentencing advice from family members for teen guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging suicide

This local article, fully headlined "Conrad Roy’s aunt: Give Michelle Carter 20 years; Defendant’s dad wants probation," reports in the very different advice being given to a juvenile judge in Massachusetts in a high-profile case due to be sentenced today. Here are the details:

A grieving aunt of teen suicide victim Conrad Roy III is looking for a 20-year prison sentence for Michelle Carter tomorrow on the heels of her conviction in the blockbuster suicide-by-text case — but the girl’s worried dad is pleading for probation. “I believe she should be kept far away from society,” wrote Kim Bozzi, Roy’s aunt, in a statement she said she plans to read at Carter’s sentencing inside Taunton Trial Court.

“Take away the spotlight that she so desperately craves. Twenty years may seem extreme but it is still twenty more than Conrad will ever have,” Bozzi said in the written statement she gave to the Herald.

But David Carter, Michelle’s father, begged for probation and “continued counselling” in a July letter to Judge Lawrence Moniz. “She will forever live with what she has done and I know will be a better person because of it,” David Carter wrote in the signed letter, provided to the Herald. “I ask of you to invoke leniency in your decision-making process for my loving child Michelle.”...

The judge found that Carter caused the death of Roy, who killed himself in a Fairhaven Kmart parking lot in 2014 by filling his truck with carbon monoxide. Carter, 20, of Plainville, who had an almost entirely virtual relationship with Roy, goaded him into killing himself through a series of texts and calls. The Mattapoisett teen left the truck as it filled with deadly fumes, but according to testimony at Carter’s trial, she told him on the phone to “get back in.”

“I’m unsure when she decided to set her sick plan into motion or why, but when she did she did it relentlessly, it was calculated and it was planned down to a T,” Bozzi wrote in the victim-impact statement. “She preyed on his vulnerabilities, he trusted her, which in turn, cost him his life.” Bozzi, who attended every court appearance, told the Herald other family members are prepared to speak as well. She said Carter’s conviction was a relief and that “what happens next is up to God and a judge.”

Prior related post:

UPDATE:  Michelle Carter received a prison sentence of 2.5 years, but only half has to be actually served in prison as explained in this CNN article.  It starts this way:

Michelle Carter, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the 2014 suicide of her boyfriend, was sentenced Thursday to a two-and-a-half-year term, with 15 months in prison and the balance suspended plus a period of supervised probation.

"This court must and has balanced between rehabilitation, the promise that rehabilitation would work and a punishment for the actions that have occurred," said Bristol County Juvenile Court Judge Lawrence Moniz.

August 3, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

"Prosecutors’ Dilemma: Will Conviction Lead to ‘Life Sentence of Deportation’?"

The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing New York Times front-page article which indirectly highlights the realities and uncertainties of prosecutorial discretion and collateral consequences.  Here are excerpts:

Now that President Trump’s hard line has made deportation a keener threat, a growing number of district attorneys are coming to the same reckoning, concluding that prosecutors should consider potential repercussions for immigrants before closing a plea deal. At the same time, cities and states are reshaping how the criminal justice system treats immigrants, hoping to hopscotch around any unintended immigration pitfalls.

These shifts may inaugurate yet another local-versus-federal conflict with the Trump administration, which is already tussling with many liberal cities over other protections for immigrants. For prosecutors, such policies are also stretching, if not bursting, the bounds of the profession. Justice is supposed to be blind to the identity of a defendant. But, the argument goes, the stakes might warrant a peek.

“There’s certainly a line of argument that says, ‘Nope, we’re not going to consider all your individual circumstances, we want to treat everybody the same,’” said Dan Satterberg, the prosecuting attorney for Seattle and a longtime Republican, who instituted an immigration-consequences policy last year and strengthened it after the presidential election. “But more and more, my eyes are open that treating people the same means that there isn’t a life sentence of deportation that might accompany that conviction.”...

But many prosecutors remain wary, hesitant to meddle in what they regard as the federal government’s business and even more reluctant to depart from what they say is a bedrock principle of the system. “There’s probably hundreds if not thousands of issues that I suppose we could take into consideration,” said Brian McIntyre, the county attorney in Cochise County, Ariz., “and when we do that, we necessarily wind up not being as fair to someone else.”... If he made accommodations for an immigrant, Mr. McIntyre said, he felt that he would also owe a citizen in similar circumstances the same option, “because is he not being, essentially, negatively impacted by his U.S. citizenry?”

A criminal record often has different stakes for an immigrant than it does for a citizen. It can mean losing a green card or being barred from citizenship. Those who lack legal status can lose any chance to gain it. Those with legal status, as well as those without, can face automatic deportation.

In many cases, the city-and-state-level changes dovetail with broader criminal justice reforms that were already underway before Mr. Trump took office. But to the administration, policies that help noncitizens duck immigration penalties are tantamount to an assault on the rule of law. “It troubles me that we’ve seen district attorneys openly brag about not charging cases appropriately under the laws of our country,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in April.

The local efforts to help immigrants may not always work. The Trump administration has made clear that anyone without legal status may be deported, regardless of whether they have been convicted of a crime. But reducing criminal penalties can help immigrants by keeping them out of jail, which can make it more difficult for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find them, or by preserving their options in immigration court....

Prosecutors who take immigration status into account say this consideration will not be extended to serious or violent crimes. They argue that showing flexibility in nonviolent, minor cases will help build trust with immigrants in their communities, making them more likely to report crimes and serve as witnesses. The acting Brooklyn district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, went further than most in April, when he announced that his prosecutors would begin notifying defense lawyers about the potential immigration fallout of their clients’ cases and that he would hire two in-house immigration lawyers to consult on prosecutions.

Days later, the state’s attorney for Baltimore, Marilyn J. Mosby, said she had told her staff members to use their discretion when it came to cases with an immigration factor, considering defendants’ prior records and community ties. “There’s no set standard,” she said. “You have to base it on everything that’s in front of you.”

It is not yet clear what that will look like in Baltimore or Brooklyn. But in Santa Clara County, Calif., whose district attorney was among the first to outline an official policy, prosecutors often allow a noncitizen to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for more jail time or probation. “If we’re giving something, we’re going to get something,” said the district attorney, Jeff Rosen.

California law now requires immigration consequences to be factored into criminal cases. The state has also passed a law allowing people to erase or revise old convictions if they successfully argue that they were not advised at the time that a guilty or no-contest plea would endanger their immigration status.

August 1, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Eighth Circuit affirms exclusion of juve who moved from Nebraska's sex offender registry

As noted in this prior post last year, a federal judge has blocked Nebraska from putting a 13-year-old boy who moved to the state from Minnesota on its public sex offender registry. Yesterday, an Eighth Circuit panel affirmed this ruling via this opinion which starts this way:

The State of Nebraska, along with the Nebraska State Patrol (NSP) and various state officials (collectively, the State), appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment to A.W. and A.W.'s guardians, John and Jane Doe, enjoining it from applying to A.W. a provision of Nebraska's Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA).  That provision, Neb. Rev. Stat. § 29-4003(1)(a)(iv), applies SORA to any person who, on or after January 1, 1997, "[e]nters the state and is required to register as a sex offender under the laws of another village, town, city, state, territory, commonwealth, or other jurisdiction of the United States."  We hold that this provision does not apply to appellant A.W. and, accordingly, affirm the district court.

The full panel ruling is interesting for how it applied Nebraska's sex offender registry law, but a final footnote highlights some broader constitutional questions the panel saw implicated in the case. Here are excerpts from the footnote:

We note that even if we found "sex offender" to be ambiguous, leaving us with the choice of selecting between two reasonable constructions, one requiring conviction and one not, we would be strongly inclined to affirm the district court.  We believe the application of SORA and its public notification requirement to juveniles adjudicated delinquent in other jurisdictions but not in Nebraska raises serious constitutional concerns under the rights to travel and to equal protection of the laws.  Of the events triggering application of SORA under NSP regulations -- residency, employment, carrying on a vocation, or attending school in Nebraska, 272 Neb. Admin. Code ch. 19 § 003.02 -- it is highly likely a juvenile would be subject to SORA due to residency. This raises troubling implications under the third prong of the right to travel, arising from the Privileges and Immunities and the Privileges or Immunities Clauses of the U.S. Constitution..., as well as under the Equal Protection Clause.  Further, to the extent the purpose of § 29-4003(1)(a)(iv) is to prevent migration into the state of undesirable citizens, application of SORA to A.W. under that provision may raise other constitutional concerns as well. Saenz, 526 U.S. at 503 ("The states have not now, if they ever had, any power to restrict their citizenship to any classes or persons." (quoting Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36, 112 (1872) (Bradley, J., dissenting))). Given the choice between two reasonable constructions, we will generally avoid a construction that raises "grave and doubtful constitutional questions." Union Pac. R.R. Co. v. United States Dep't of Homeland Sec., 738 F.3d 885, 892 (8th Cir. 2013).

August 1, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, July 31, 2017

AP series looks deeply at a "patchwork of justice" for juve lifers after Graham and Miller

The AP has some new in-depth reporting on juvenile LWOP sentences and resentencings in this series labeled "Locked Up For Life."   This lead article published today is headlined "AP Investigation: A patchwork of justice for juvenile lifers," and here are some excerpts from the extended piece:

Five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole for juveniles in murder cases.  Last year, the court went further, saying the more than 2,000 already serving such sentences must get a chance to show their crimes did not reflect “irreparable corruption” and, if not, have some hope for freedom.

But prison gates don’t just swing open. Instead, uncertainty and opposition stirred by the new mandate have resulted in an uneven patchwork of policies as courts and lawmakers wrestle with these complicated, painful cases.  The odds of release or continued imprisonment vary from state to state, even county to county, in a pattern that can make justice seem arbitrary.

The Associated Press surveyed all 50 states to see how judges and prosecutors, lawmakers and parole boards are re-examining juvenile lifer cases. Some have resentenced and released dozens of those deemed to have rehabilitated themselves and served sufficient time.  Others have delayed review of cases, skirted the ruling on seeming technicalities or fought to keep the vast majority of their affected inmates locked up for life.

Many victims’ relatives are also battling to keep these offenders in prison.  They “already had their chance, their days in court, their due process,” says Candy Cheatham. Her father, Cole Cannon, was killed in 2003 in Alabama by Evan Miller, the 14-year-old whose no-parole sentence was the basis for the 2012 sentencing ban....

The AP’s review found very different brands of justice from place to place.  For years, officials in states with the most juvenile life cases were united in arguing that the Supreme Court’s ban on life without parole did not apply retroactively to inmates already serving such sentences. Now, states are heading in decidedly different directions....

The AP also found that while many states have taken steps to make former teen criminals eligible for parole, in practice, officials regularly deny release.  In Missouri, the parole board has turned down 20 of 23 juvenile lifers, according to the MacArthur Justice Center, which filed a federal lawsuit this year claiming the board is denying the state’s juvenile life-without-parole inmates a meaningful chance for release as required by the Supreme Court....  Maryland, meantime, has 271 juvenile lifers whose sentences have always given them a chance for release.  But no such prisoner has won parole in more than 20 years, prompting a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union....

The impact of last year’s Supreme Court ruling goes far beyond the 2,000-plus offenders who faced mandatory no-parole sentences as teens.  In many states, legal challenges are being mounted on behalf of juveniles sentenced to life without parole at the discretion of a judge or jury, or those who are legally entitled to parole but serving such lengthy terms they are unlikely to ever get out.  The latter group encompasses some 7,300 inmates, according to The Sentencing Project.  The Supreme Court didn’t specifically address these cases, however, and that’s led to different outcomes.

July 31, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Spotlighting BOP's continued curious failure to make serious use of "compassionate release"

Mike Riggs has this notable new piece at Reason headlined "Congress Wants to Know Why the BOP Won't Let Elderly Prisoners Go Home to Die: 'Compassionate release' is an excellent tool that the BOP refuses to use." Here are excerpts:

For years, federal prisoners and their advocates have begged the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to shorten the sentences of elderly and terminally ill offenders using a provision called "compassionate release."... In 2013, the BOP Office of Inspector General encouraged the BOP to send these kinds of prisoners home. In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission went so far as to expand eligibility for the program in hopes the BOP would use it more.

But the BOP has largely ignored those recommendations [and now] Congress demanded that the BOP explain why it continues to incarcerate geriatric and terminally ill prisoners who pose no threat to public safety and are unlikely to commit new crimes upon their release.

In a report accompanying the 2018 appropriations bill, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) ordered the BOP to turn over reams of data about the compassionate release program. Including:

  • the steps BOP has taken to implement the suggestions of the BOP Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Sentencing Commission

  • a detailed explanation as to which recommendations the BOP has not adopted, and why the number of prisoners who applied for compassionate release in the last five years, as well as how many requests were granted, how many were denied, and why

  • how much time elapsed between each request and a decision from the BOP

  • the number of prisoners who died while waiting for the BOP to rule on their application for compassionate release

Only 10 percent of America's prisoners are in federal prisons, but it is an increasingly old and sick population due to the disproportionately long sentences tied to federal drug offenses. As of June 2017, BOP facilities held 34,769 prisoners over the age of 51. More than 10,000 of those prisoners are over the age of 60.

Elderly prisoners pose financial and human rights problems. "In fiscal year 2014, the BOP spent $1.1 billion on inmate medical care, an increase of almost 30 percent in 5 years," BOP Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz wrote in prepared testimony to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. "One factor that has significantly contributed to the increase in medical costs is the sustained growth of an aging inmate population."...

Shelby's letter gives the BOP 60 days from the passage of the appropriations bill to submit its data to the committee. "Elderly and sick prisoners cost taxpayers the most and threaten us the least, and there's no good reason they should stay locked up or die behind bars because bureaucrats can't or won't let them go home to their families," Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in a statement. "It's time for someone to get to the bottom of why the BOP's answer is always no on compassionate release."

July 30, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Will (and should) OJ Simpson get paroled in Nevada this week?

This USA Today article, headlined "Why O.J. Simpson is expected to be paroled at July 20 hearing," reports on why an infamous state criminal defendant is expected to secure parole in Nevada after serving only about 30% of his imposed prison term. Here are excerpts:

O.J. Simpson, behind bars in a Nevada prison for almost nine years, is eligible for parole Thursday and one of his former attorneys thinks the matter is all but a foregone conclusion that the former football and TV star will be eligible for release on Oct. 1.

"He’s going to get parole," said Yale Galanter, who represented Simpson during the 2008 trial when Simpson was found guilty of 12 counts, including robbery and kidnapping, and sentenced to nine years minimum and 33 years maximum. "Parole in the state of Nevada is really based on how you behave in prison, and by all accounts he’s been a model prisoner. There are no absolutes anytime you’re dealing with administrative boards, but this is as close to a non-personal decision as you can get."

Four members from the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners will consider parole for Simpson at the board offices in Carson City, Nev., with the proceedings set to begin Thursday at 1 p.m. ET. Simpson, 70, will participate by video conference from about 100 miles away at Lovelock Correctional Center, where he has been imprisoned since December 2008.

Parole is largely determined by a point system, and how the commissioners feel about Simpson — or his acquittal in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman — can have no impact on parole, according to Galanter. "It really is based on points," he said. "How long have you served, what your disciplinary record is, what the likelihood of committing another crime is, their age, the facts and the circumstances of the case."

The parole board has rejected the idea that Simpson could be facing more conservative commissioners because he’s imprisoned in northern Nevada. In a statement published on its website, the parole board said all commissioners use the same risk assessment and guidelines, adding, "There is no evidence that the board is aware of that indicates that one location has panel members who are more conservative or liberal than the other location."... "Simpson, with the help of several other men, broke into a Las Vegas hotel room on Sept. 13, 2007, and stole at gunpoint sports memorabilia that he said belonged to him. More than a year later, on Oct. 8, 2008, he was found guilty by a jury on all 12 charges. He was granted parole in 2013 on the armed robbery convictions. Galanter called that "the clearest indicator" Simpson will be granted parole on the remaining counts Thursday.

Simpson is being considered for parole for kidnapping, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and the use of a deadly weapon enhancement. "It’s a fairly routine administrative matter," the attorney said. "It’s more like, 'Mr. Simpson, you’ve been a model prisoner, you have the points, congratulations, do you have anything to say, thank you very much, granted, Oct. 1.' "

Yet, it won’t exactly be routine. The parole board, for example, has said it will issue a decision Thursday so to minimize distractions. The results of some hearings, by contrast, take three weeks to reach the inmate. "The media interest in this one case is a disruption to our operation," the parole board said in its statement. "A decision (on Simpson) is being made at the time of the hearing so that the board’s operation can return to normal as soon as possible after the hearing."...

Simpson will have an opportunity to address the board by video conference as he did during the 2013 hearing. More than 240 media credentials have been approved, according to Keast, who said a dozen satellite trucks are expected at the sites in both in Carson City and Lovelock. If Simpson is paroled, the media figure to return in droves in Oct. 1, when he will be eligible for release from prison.

Notably, Gregg Jarrett at FoxNews believes strongy that OJ shoud not get parole; he explains in this commentary, headlined "O.J. Simpson, up for parole, should never be set free," how the California civil suit finding OJ responsible for wrongful deaths should be sufficient for the Nevada parole board to conclude he presents a risk to public safety.

July 19, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Bipartisan discussion of female incarceration issues at "Women Unshackled" event

My twitter feed was full of reports and links to a big criminal justice reform event yesterday which was given the title "Women Unshackled."  This Washington Post article, headlined "Officials from both parties say too many women are incarcerated for low-level crimes," reports on the event, and its coverage starts this way:

Democratic and Republic officials at a conference Tuesday said too many women are being incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, a troubling trend both groups said they were committed to tackling.

From Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Tex.) to Republican Rep. Mia Love (Utah) and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, there was bipartisan agreement that most of the women in jails and prison would be better served by drug rehabilitation and mental health services, rather than harsher sentences. They noted that most women in the criminal-justice system are victims of domestic abuse or sexual violence. And because most incarcerated women have small children, locking them away can destroy an already fragile family.

The discussion came during a day-long conference called “Women Unshackled,” presented by the Justice Action Network and sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, the Coalition for Public Safety and Google.

Some additional coverage of the issues and individuals involved in this event can be found in these recent press pieces:

July 19, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"Under the Cloak of Brain Science: Risk Assessments, Parole, and the Powerful Guise of Objectivity"

The title of this post is the title of this notable note by Jeremy Isard that was brought to my attention by a helpful reader. Here is the abstract:

This Note examines the adoption of two psychological risk assessment protocols used on “lifers” by the California Board of Parole Hearings in preparation for parole suitability hearings.  Probation and parole agencies employ risk assessment protocols across state and federal jurisdictions to measure the likelihood that an individual will pose a danger to society if released from prison.  By examining the adoption and recent reformulation of risk assessment protocols in California, this Note considers some of the myriad demands that courts and administrative agencies place on brain science.  Applying the California parole process as a parable of such pressures, this Note argues that brain science has a unique capacity to supersede legal inquiry itself, and thus should only be used in legal and administrative settings with extreme caution.  

July 18, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Missouri Supreme Court extends Miller to juvenile sentenced to mandatory life without parole eligibility for 50 years

The Supreme Court of Missouri yesterday handed down a notable ruling in State ex rel. Carr v. Wallace, No. SC93487 (Mo. July 11, 2017) (available here), which extends the reach of the US Supreme Court Miller ruling beyond mandatory LWOP sentencing.  Here is how the majority opinion in Carr gets going: 

In 1983, Jason Carr was convicted of three counts of capital murder for killing his brother, stepmother, and stepsister when he was 16 years old.  He was sentenced to three concurrent terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years.  His sentences were imposed without any consideration of his youth.  Mr. Carr filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in this Court. He contends his sentences violate the Eighth Amendment because, following the decision in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life without parole pursuant to mandatory sentencing schemes that preclude consideration of the offender’s youth and attendant circumstances.

Mr. Carr was sentenced under a mandatory sentencing scheme that afforded the sentencer no opportunity to consider his age, maturity, limited control over his environment, the transient characteristics attendant to youth, or his capacity for rehabilitation.  As a result, Mr. Carr’s sentences were imposed in direct contravention of the foundational principle that imposition of a state’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.  Consequently, Mr. Carr’s sentences of life without the possibility of parole for 50 years violate the Eighth Amendment.  Mr. Carr must be resentenced so his youth and other attendant circumstances surrounding his offense can be taken into consideration to ensure he will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  Habeas relief is granted.

Chief Justice Fischer dissenting from the decision, and here is the heart of his short opinion:

Carr's three concurrent terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years do not run afoul of Miller. Miller only applies to cases in which a sentencing scheme "mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile offenders." 132 S. Ct. at 2469.  Therefore, Miller does not require vacating Carr's sentences.  Nor are Carr's sentences inconsistent with this Court's or any of the Supreme Court's current Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Indeed, the principal opinion's holding that Miller applies to Carr's sentences is, undoubtedly, not just an extension of Miller, but also calls into question whether any mandatory minimum sentence for murder could be imposed on a juvenile offender.  Accordingly, I decline to concur with that implication and remain bound by this Court's unanimous decision in Hart to apply Miller only to cases involving a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

July 12, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, July 07, 2017

Split Third Circuit panel finds numerous problems with short federal sentences for child-abusing Army couple

A remarkable and unusual federal sentencing involving a child-abusing couple led yesterday to a remarkable and unusual federal circuit sentencing opinion in US v. Jackson, No. 16-1200 (3d Cir. July 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how the 80-page(!) majority opinion by Judge Cowen gets started:

John and Carolyn Jackson (“John” and “Carolyn”) were convicted of conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child and endangering the welfare of a child under New Jersey law— offenses that were “assimilated” into federal law pursuant to the Assimilative Crimes Act (“ACA”).  The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey sentenced Carolyn to 24 months of imprisonment (as well as three years of supervised release). John received a sentence of three years of probation (together with 400 hours of community service and a $15,000 fine). The government appeals from these sentences.

We will vacate the sentences and remand for resentencing.  Concluding that there is no “sufficiently analogous” offense guideline, the District Court declined to calculate Defendants’ applicable sentencing ranges under the Guidelines. Although we adopt an “elements-based” approach for this inquiry, we conclude that the assault guideline is “sufficiently analogous” to Defendants’ offenses of conviction. Furthermore, the District Court failed to make the requisite findings of fact — under the applicable preponderance of the evidence standard — with respect to this Guidelines calculation as well as the application of the statutory sentencing factors.  We also agree with the government that the District Court, while it could consider what would happen if Defendants had been prosecuted in state court, simply went too far in this case by focusing on state sentencing practices to the exclusion of federal sentencing principles. Finally, the sentences themselves were substantively unreasonable.

Here is how the dissenting opinion by Judge McKee gets started:

It is impossible for anyone with an ounce of compassion to read through this transcript without becoming extraordinarily moved by allegations about what these children had to endure. Had the defendants been convicted of assault, or crimes necessarily involving conduct that was in the same “ballpark” as assault as defined under New Jersey law, I would readily agree that this matter had to be remanded for resentencing using the federal guidelines that govern assault.  However, the district court held a ten and a half hour sentencing hearing in an extraordinarily difficult attempt to sort through the emotion and unproven allegations and sentence defendants for their crimes rather than the conduct the government alleged at trial and assumes in its brief. I believe the court appropriately did so pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §3553(a). Accordingly, I must respectfully dissent.

Before I begin my discussion, however, I must note that the defendants in this case were acquitted of the only federal offenses with which they were charged: assault with a dangerous weapon, with intent to do bodily harm, and assault resulting in serious bodily injury.  As I discuss more fully in Section II, these assault charges seem to drive the government’s argument and the Majority’s analysis.  In order to minimize confusion about the precise nature of the charges in this case and the conduct that was proven, a chart listing each of the charges and their outcomes is attached as an addendum to this dissent.

There are lots of lots of interesting elements to this unusual case, but the rarity of reversals of sentences as substantively unreasonable led me to read that part of the majority opinion most closely.  The majority here repeatedly finds flaws in how the district court weighed various permissible § 3553(a) considerations.  And the discussion begins by noting that the guidelines called for sentences of perhaps 20 or more years for these defendants so that "probation for John and 24 months’ imprisonment for Carolyn represented enormous downward variances, which require correspondingly robust explanations for why such lenience was warranted."

July 7, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Virginia Gov decides claim of delusional disorder does not justify halting scheduled execution of double murderer

As noted in this prior post, tonight's planned execution in Virginia of William Morva has brought renewed attention to the intersection of mental illness and capital punishment. That attention likely played a role in this decision by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to release this statement today explaining his decision not to prevent Morva's execution. Here is how the statement starts and ends:

Over the past several weeks, my staff and I have carefully considered the petition for clemency submitted by William Morva, who was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff Corporal Eric Sutphin and hospital security guard Derrick McFarland.  We have also reviewed extensive communications from family members of the victims, law enforcement officials, community leaders, and concerned observers from all over the world.

Consistent with the three previous petitions for commutation of a capital sentence that I have reviewed, I have evaluated Mr. Morva’s submission for evidence that he has been subjected to a miscarriage of justice at any phase of his trial that could have impacted the verdict or his sentence.  After extensive review and deliberation, I do not find sufficient cause in Mr. Morva’s petition or case records to justify overturning the will of the jury that convicted and sentenced him.

There is no question that, in a carefully orchestrated effort to escape custody while awaiting trial for burglary, robbery and firearms charges, Mr. Morva brutally attacked a deputy sheriff, stole his firearm and used it to murder Mr. McFarland, who was unarmed and had his hands raised as he was shot in the face from a distance of two feet.  The next day, Mr. Morva murdered Corporal Sutphin by shooting him in the back of the head.

Mr. Morva’s petition for clemency states that he suffers from a delusional disorder that rendered him unable to understand the consequences of his actions.

That diagnosis is inconsistent with the findings of the three licensed mental health professionals appointed by the trial court, including an expert psychiatrist who is Board-Certified in both Psychiatry and Forensic Psychiatry.  Two of these three experts were called by Mr. Morva’s own legal team.  These experts thoroughly evaluated Mr. Morva and testified to the jury that, while he may have personality disorders, he did not suffer from any condition that would have prevented him from committing these acts consciously and fully understanding their consequences....

I have determined that Mr. Morva was given a fair trial and that the jury heard substantial evidence about his mental health as they prepared to sentence him in accordance with the law of our Commonwealth.  In short, the record before me does not contain sufficient evidence to warrant the extraordinary step of overturning the decision of a lawfully empaneled jury following a properly conducted trial.

I personally oppose the death penalty; however, I took an oath to uphold the laws of this Commonwealth regardless of my personal views of those laws, as long as they are being fairly and justly applied. Thus, after extensive review and deliberation consistent with the process I have applied to previous requests for commutation, I have declined Mr. Morva’s petition. I have and will continue to pray for the families of the victims of these terrible crimes and for all of the people whose lives have been impacted.

UPDATE: This Reuters article suggests that Morva's execution was completed without difficulty Thursday night.

July 6, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

An amusing shout-out for the US Sentencing Commission's guideline simplification efforts

I just noticed an blog-worthy little concurrence by Judge Owens at the end of a Ninth Circuit panel decision last week in US V. Perez-Silvan, No. 16-10177 (9th Cir. June 28, 2017) (available here). The case concerned application of the "crime of violence" sentencing enhancement to a sentence for illegal reentry after deportation based on a prior Tennessee conviction for aggravated assault, and Judge Owen wrote this short opinion to praise the work of both his court and the US Sentencing Commission:

I fully join Judge O’Scannlain’s opinion, which faithfully applies controlling law to the question at hand.  But what a bad hand it is -- requiring more than 16 pages to resolve an advisory question.  I applaud the United States Sentencing Commission for reworking U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2 to spare judges, lawyers, and defendants from the wasteland of DescampsSee U.S.S.G. supp. app. C, amend. 802 (2016); U.S.S.G. § 2L1.2(b) (2016).  I continue to urge the Commission to simplify the Guidelines to avoid the frequent sentencing adventures more complicated than reconstructing the Staff of Ra in the Map Room to locate the Well of the Souls.  Cf. Almanza-Arenas v. Lynch, 815 F.3d 469, 482–83 (9th Cir. 2016) (en banc) (Owens, J., concurring); Raiders of the Lost Ark (Paramount Pictures 1981).

July 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Murderers admit they went on prison murder spree in order to get death sentences

Regular readers know that I think one of the hardest conceptual and practical issues for death penalty abolitionists is what to do about killers already serving life without parole sentences who go on to kill again while in prison. If the death penalty is completely eliminated, these offenders may conclude there is no real punishment if they kill again.  But this recent AP article, headlined "Inmate: I Strangled Prisoners to Try to Land on Death Row," reports on the awful reality that a pair of killers serving LWOP in a South Carolina prison apparently were inspired to go on a murder spree because of the presence of the death penalty. Here is the start of a horrible story:

One by one, Denver Simmons recalled, he and his partner lured inmates into his cell. William Scruggs was promised cookies in exchange for doing some laundry; Jimmy Ham thought he was coming to snort some crushed pills.  Over the course of about a half-hour, four men accepted Simmons' hospitality.  None of them made it out alive.

Calmly, matter-of-factly, the 35-year-old inmate told The Associated Press how he and Jacob Philip strangled and beat their blockmates to death and hid their bodies to avoid spooking the next victims. They had nothing against the men; one of them was even a friend, Simmons admitted.

Why did they do it? Convicted in the cold-blooded shootings of a mother and her teenage son, Simmons knew he would never leave prison alive.  Tired of life behind bars, a failure at suicide, he hoped killing these criminals would land him on death row.

Officials say Philip and Simmons have confessed to the April 7 slayings of Ham, 56; Jason Kelley, 35; John King, 52; and Scruggs, 44. But until Simmons talked to the AP, no motive had been made public. The South Carolina Department of Corrections doesn't allow in-person interviews with inmates.  So the AP wrote letters to the two men. Philip's attorney responded with an email: "Jacob is a severely mentally ill young man who has been so adjudicated by the court. Accordingly, I would ask that you make no further efforts to interview him or contact him."

Simmons, though, called the AP three times, once using another inmate's time slot. And he described a twisted compact between two men who had "a whole lot in common" from the moment they met — most important, both despair and a willingness to kill again.

"I'd always joke with him — from back in August and September and October of 2015 — that if we weren't going to kill ourselves, that we could make a name for ourselves, so to speak, and get the death penalty," Simmons, told the AP. "The end of March of this year, he was willing to do it. So, we just planned to do it. And we did it."

Each man was serving life without the possibility of parole for a double murder....  Both men were sent to Kirkland Correctional Institution, a maximum security facility a few miles from the state capitol in Columbia. They were being housed in a unit for inmates who need significant mental health help but whose conditions aren't serious enough to require hospitalization.

Simmons said spending the rest of his life in prison would be a meaningless life of fear and boredom. Inmates are always scheming to take advantage or hurt fellow prisoners and guards only see the men behind bars as numbers. "It's just not a good place to live, you know, day in and day out," Simmons said.

June 29, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Pennsylvania Supreme Court issues major Miller ruling declaring presumption against the imposition of LWOP on juvenile killers

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court yesterday handed down a major ruling on the application and implementation of the Supreme Court's modern Miller Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. The lengthy ruling in Pennsylvania v. Batts, No. 45 MAP 2016 (Pa. June 26, 2017 (available here), gets started this way:

Qu’eed Batts (“Batts”) was convicted of a first-degree murder that he committed when he was fourteen years old. His case returns for the second time on discretionary review for this Court to determine whether the sentencing court imposed an illegal sentence when it resentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After careful review, we conclude, based on the findings made by the sentencing court and the evidence upon which it relied, that the sentence is illegal in light of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (holding that a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, imposed upon a juvenile without consideration of the defendant’s age and the attendant characteristics of youth, is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution), and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016) (holding that the Miller decision announced a new substantive rule of constitutional law that applies retroactively and clarifying the limited circumstances in which a life-without-parole sentence is permissible for a crime committed when the defendant was a juvenile).

Pursuant to our grant of allowance of appeal, we further conclude that to effectuate the mandate of Miller and Montgomery, procedural safeguards are required to ensure that life-without-parole sentences are meted out only to “the rarest of juvenile offenders” whose crimes reflect “permanent incorrigibility,” “irreparable corruption” and “irretrievable depravity,” as required by Miller and Montgomery.  Thus, as fully developed in this Opinion, we recognize a presumption against the imposition of a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile offender.  To rebut the presumption, the Commonwealth bears the burden of proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the juvenile offender is incapable of rehabilitation.

Because Pennsylvania has a large JLWOP population impacted by Miller and because proving rehabilitation incapacity beyond a reasonable doubt seem to be perhaps close to impossible, this Batts ruling strikes me as a  big deal jurisprudentially and practically.  (And, for any remaining Apprendi/Blakely fans, it bears noting that the Batts opinion expressly rejects the defendant's contention that a "jury must make the finding regarding a juvenile’s eligibility to be sentenced to life without parole.)

June 27, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Could mental illness be the next big battle-front in debates over capital punishment?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Washington Post article headlined "He’s a killer set to die. But his mental illness has set off a new death penalty battle."  Here are excerpts:

Someone was trying to kill him. William C. Morva was certain of it.  He couldn’t breathe and he was withering away, he told his mother in a jailhouse call.

“Somebody wants me to die and I don’t know who it is,” he said.  “They know my health is dwindling, okay?” He sounded paranoid. His voice grew more frantic with each call over several months on the recorded lines.

“How much more time do you think my body has before it gives out?” he asked just months before he escaped from custody, killing an unarmed guard and later a sheriff’s deputy before his capture in woods near Virginia Tech’s campus.

Morva faces execution July 6 for the 2006 killings. With the date looming, Morva’s family, friends and lawyers are pressing for clemency from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in what has become a broader national push to eliminate capital punishment for people with severe mental illnesses such as Morva’s delusional disorder....

The Supreme Court in recent years has ruled that juveniles, whose brains are not fully developed, and people with intellectual disabilities are not eligible for the death penalty.  Lawmakers in eight states, including Virginia, Tennessee and Indiana, have introduced bills that would expand the prohibition to people with severe mental illnesses.

A vote on an Ohio measure pending in the state legislature is expected this fall.  It is backed by a coalition of providers of mental-health services, social justice groups, religious leaders, former state Supreme Court justices and former Republican governor Bob Taft.  The bills address punishment, not guilt or innocence.  If lawmakers in Columbus sign off on the measure, Ohio would become the first state to pass an exclusion for severe mental illness among the 31 that retain the death penalty....

Advocates for reform say the penalty was not intended for people who are incapable of distinguishing between delusions and reality, and that jurors often misunderstand mental illness.  The reformers’ efforts have met with resistance mostly from prosecutors and law enforcement officials who say jurors already can factor in mental illness at sentencing and that the exemptions are too broad.

June 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, June 23, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases its proposed priorities for 2017-18 amendment cycle

Download (1)Because of reduced membership and election transitions, as reported here, the US Sentencing Commission decided not to promulgate guideline amendments in the 2016-17 amendment cycle.  (For a variety of reasons, I think this was a wise decision even though, as noted in this post from December 2016, just before a number of Commissioners' terms expired, the USSC unanimously voted to publish some ambitious proposed amendments for 2017.)  The USSC still has a reduced membership — it is supposed to have seven members and right now has only four — but that has not prevented it from now releasing an ambitious set of proposed priorities for 2017-18 amendment cycle.  Nearly a dozen priorities appear in this new federal register notice, and here area few that especially caught my eye (with some added emphasis in a few spots): 

[T]he Commission has identified the following tentative priorities:

(1) Continuation of its multi-year examination of the overall structure of the guidelines post-Booker, possibly including recommendations to Congress on any statutory changes and development of any guideline amendments that may be appropriate. As part of this examination, the Commission intends to study possible approaches to (A) simplify the operation of the guidelines, promote proportionality, and reduce sentencing disparities; and (B) appropriately account for the defendant’s role, culpability, and relevant conduct.

(2) Continuation of its multi-year study of offenses involving MDMA/Ecstasy, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), synthetic cannabinoids (such as JWH-018 and AM-2201), and synthetic cathinones (such as Methylone, MDPV, and Mephedrone)....

(3) Continuation of its work with Congress and other interested parties to implement the recommendations set forth in the Commission’s 2016 report to Congress, titled Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements, including its recommendations to revise the career offender directive at 28 U.S.C. § 994(h) to focus on offenders who have committed at least one “crime of violence” and to adopt a uniform definition of “crime of violence” applicable to the guidelines and other recidivist statutory provisions.

(4) Continuation of its work with Congress and other interested parties on statutory mandatory minimum penalties to implement the recommendations set forth in the Commission’s 2011 report to Congress, titled Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System, including its recommendations regarding the severity and scope of mandatory minimum penalties, consideration of expanding the “safety valve” at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), and elimination of the mandatory “stacking” of penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The Commission also intends to release a series of publications updating the data in the 2011 report.

(5) Continuation of its comprehensive, multi-year study of recidivism, including (A) examination of circumstances that correlate with increased or reduced recidivism; (B) possible development of recommendations for using information obtained from such study to reduce costs of incarceration and overcapacity of prisons, and promote effectiveness of reentry programs; and (C) consideration of any amendments to the Guidelines Manual that may be appropriate, including possibly amending Chapter Four and Chapter Five to provide lower guideline ranges for “first offenders” generally and to increase the availability of alternatives to incarceration for such offenders at the lower levels of the Sentencing Table....

(9) Continuation of its study of alternatives to incarceration, including (A) issuing a publication regarding the development of alternative to incarceration programs in federal district courts, and (B) possibly amending the Sentencing Table in Chapter 5, Part A to consolidate Zones B and C, and other relevant provisions in the Guidelines Manual....

(11) Consideration of any miscellaneous guideline application issues coming to the Commission’s attention from case law and other sources, including consideration of whether a defendant’s denial of relevant conduct should be considered in determining whether a defendant has accepted responsibility for purposes of §3E1.1.

June 23, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Close examination of some JLWOP girls who should benefit from Graham and Miller

The latest issue of The Nation has two lengthy articles examining the application and implementation of the Supreme Court's modern juvenile offender Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  Both are good reads, but the second one listed below covers especially interesting ground I have not seen covered extensively before.  Here are their full headlines, with links, followed by an excerpt from the second of the pieces: 

"The Troubled Resentencing of America’s Juvenile Lifers: When SCOTUS outlawed mandatory juvenile life without parole, advocates celebrated — but the outcome has been anything but fair" by Jessica Pishko

"Lisa, Laquanda, Machelle, and Kenya Were Sentenced as Children to Die in Prison: Decades later, a Supreme Court ruling could give them their freedom" by Danielle Wolffe

The country’s approximately 50 female JLWOP inmates represent a small fraction of the juvenile-lifer population, but the number of women serving life sentences overall is growing more quickly than that of men, according to a study by Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project. The women interviewed for this article also told me that they felt less informed about what was going on with their cases legally than their male counterparts.

The culpability of girls in their commission of crimes is often entwined with their role as caretakers for younger siblings. They’re also more likely to suffer sexual abuse during childhood. A 2012 study found that 77 percent of JLWOP girls, but only 21 percent of juvenile lifers overall, experienced sexual abuse. Internalized shame made them easier targets for violence by male correctional officers. From my own conversations with these women, many were teenage mothers who were separated from their babies shortly after giving birth. Others were incarcerated throughout their viable childbearing years.

I have been traveling the country to interview female juvenile lifers. Every time I visited one of these women in prison, I was haunted by the things we had in common. We were all approaching middle age. As a young adult, I too had gone off the rails and done dangerous things—the sort of things that could easily have gotten me arrested, even killed. Yet unlike the women I was interviewing, I had the option of leaving those aspects of my past behind.

The women I spoke with represent a distinct minority among juvenile lifers. They do not fit a narrative that is often centered around young men. Their stories are rarely told, even when the law demands it. The Miller and Montgomery decisions call for consideration of a teenager’s upbringing and maturation in prison, but as these women describe it, their experiences are rarely explored in depth in the courtroom. Instead, women’s resentencing is all too often shaped by ignorance and sexism. By interviewing these women, I hoped to share their unheard stories with the public. I hoped, too, that their unconventional stories might help us to reconsider our attitudes toward juvenile crime and rehabilitation—attitudes that still pervade the resentencing process.

June 21, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Seventh Circuit panel again finds below-guideline sentence for abusive police officer unreasonable

Especially because it can sometimes seem that post-Booker reasonableness review of sentences has little bite, it still seems blogworthy whenever a circuit court finds a federal sentence unreasonable.  The work of a Seventh Circuit panel yesterday in US v. Smith, No. 16-2035 (7th Cir. June 19, 2017) (available  here), struck me as doubly blogworthy because it represents the second time the same sentence has been reversed and because the defendant here is an abusive local police officer.  Here is how the opinion gets started:

A jury convicted Terry Joe Smith, a police officer, of violating 18 U.S.C. § 242, by subjecting two men to the intentional use of unreasonable and excessive force, and violating their civil right to be free of such abuse.  The district court sentenced Smith to fourteen months’ imprisonment, less than half the low end of the applicable guidelines range. In the first appeal of the case, we affirmed Smith’s conviction but vacated the sentence and remanded for full resentencing, concluding that the court had failed to justify the below-guidelines sentence. United States v. Smith, 811 F.3d 907 (7th Cir. 2016).  On remand, the court again sentenced Smith to fourteen months’ imprisonment and once more failed to adequately explain or justify the below-guidelines sentence. We again vacate and remand for a complete re-sentencing.

Here are the essential basics from the opinion of the defendant's crime and recommended guideline punishment:

Smith was a police officer employed by the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department.  In two separate incidents, Smith violently assaulted arrestees who were already under control and not actively resisting arrest. At trial, Smith’s fellow police officers testified against him, describing the unwarranted [and brutal] attacks....

Smith’s guidelines range was thirty-three to forty-one months’ imprisonment. Smith was in Criminal History Category I, based on one prior conviction for misdemeanor battery of a three-year-old child and the child’s mother, who was then Smith’s wife.

The lengthy Smith opinion follows with lots of notable and interesting discussion about how the sentencing court justified a sentence of 14 months and why the circuit panel believe this below-guideline sentence was unreasonable even at a second sentencing with additional evidence.  And, as sometimes happens in the post-Booker world, the circuit panel officially ruled the sentence procedurally unreasonable, but it seems pretty clear that the panel was troubled by what it perceived to be a substantively light sentence under these circumstances.

June 20, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, June 16, 2017

You be the juvenile sentencing judge: what sentence for teen guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging suicide?

A high-profile state (bench) trial culminated this morning in a notable involuntary manslaughter conviction in the so-called in texting suicide case.  This Boston Globe article provides the basic details to set up the question in the title of this post:

Michelle Carter, who repeatedly urged her boyfriend to kill himself, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter Friday by a juvenile court judge, ending an extraordinary trial that explored a virtual relationship between teenagers that ended in a suicide.

Judge Lawrence Moniz delivered his verdict after deliberating for two days in the jury-waived trial in Bristol Juvenile Court where Carter [who was 17 at the time of the offense] was being tried as a youthful offender.  The trial riveted lawyers and the public alike as it delved into the painful interior lives of two teenagers who called themselves boyfriend and girlfriend though they had met in person only a few times....

Bristol prosecutors alleged Carter should still be held accountable for the death of Conrad Roy III even though she was not present when the 18-year-old with prior suicide attempts filled his truck with carbon monoxide on July 12, 2014.  Carter and Roy spoke for 47 minutes as he parked in the parking lot of a Kmart in Fairhaven.  When he told he was too scared and had left the truck, she ordered him to return, according to testimony at her trial. “Get back in,” she allegedly said.

Roy left a suicide note addressed to Carter that was made public during her trial.

Speaking from the bench, Moniz said that he concluded Carter was guilty of involuntary manslaughter, in part, for ordering Roy back into the truck in what she knew was a toxic environment where it would take him 15 minutes to die — and failed to notify anyone as required under Massachusetts law.  “Miss Carter had reason to know that Mr. Roy had followed her instruction and placed himself in the toxic environment of that truck,” Moniz said.  “Knowing that Mr. Roy is in the truck, knowing the condition of the truck. Knowing, or at least having the state of mind that 15 minutes must pass, Miss Carter took no actions … She called no one.  She did not issue a simple additional instruction: Get out of the truck.”

Moniz also said the case was not legally novel since 200 years ago, a state prison inmate was prosecuted for convincing a man facing the death sentence to hang himself in his cell six hours before he was to be executed.  Moniz also noted that Roy had a long and troubled psychiatric history that included multiple suicide attempts — but each time he stopped and sought out help from his family and friends.

Moniz set sentencing for Aug. 3.  She faces up to 20 years in prison if given the maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter.

I would be shocking if the judge here decided to impose a sentence anywhere near the applicable 20-year max. I am inclined to guess a prison sentence in the range of a year or two will be what the juvenile judge here will be considering. But I have not followed this case and the evidence closely, so I am really judge guessing here based on the nature of the crime and the offender. And I am interested to hear if others have more informed (or uninformed) views on what a fair and effective sentences in this case would look like.

June 16, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Notable prisoner makes notable case for prison education and programming ... only for some

I have been following the work an writings of Jeremiah Bourgeois, a juvenile offender sentenced to LWOP (but now eligible for parole) in Washington State, since he authored this thoughtful and personal essay for the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law a few years ago. His latest column for The Crime Report, headlined "Educate a Prisoner, Save a Life," begins by stressing that the reason for [his personal] change is not hard to find: the higher education courses [he has] been taking during my incarceration." As he goes on to put it: "It is amazing what an education can do. It can transform the violent and ignorant into the peaceful and intelligent."

But, intriguingly, while using his own story to make the case for "making higher education available in correctional facilities," his column also suggests that reform advocates and public officials need to urge "correctional systems [to] finally abandon[] efforts to change those who — quite simply — are content to continue the behavior which led them to prison in the first place." Here is part of his explanation for what he suggests should be a kind of modern prison programming triage:

I have never been able to wrap my mind around why correctional officials believe they can force change on those who are committed to wrongdoing. Nevertheless, they keep trying. One of the purposes of punishment in Washington State is to “offer the offender an opportunity to improve himself or herself.”  In practice, the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has transformed this legislative decree into a Don Corleone-esque offer that prisoners cannot easily refuse.

DOC uses a carrot and stick approach. Prisoners can earn a small reduction in their sentence for every month that they follow the dictates of the Facility Risk Management Team (FRMT), which is a group comprised of the prisoner’s counselor and other unit staff, and outlines the programs the prisoner must complete in order to receive this “earned time.” This is the carrot.  The stick involves disciplinary sanctions for refusing to abide by the expectations established by the FRMT. Enough of these, and the prisoner will be transferred to ever more secure facilities until, in the end, he is confined in long-term administrative segregation.

All of this is done in an effort to mitigate the risk that prisoners will commit crimes upon being freed.  The belief is that requiring prisoners to work or go to school or undergo treatment interventions will reduce their likelihood of re-offending. On its face, such policies are rational.  Nobody wants prisoners to rejoin society in the same sorry state they were in when removed from it.

But the fact remains that resources are often devoted toward recalcitrant prisoners whose words and deeds manifest their commitment to the criminal subculture.  Having watched the same people cycle through prison over and over again, it’s clear to me that this subset of individuals are a bad investment — with diminishing returns.  Moreover, history has demonstrated that even the rack-and-screw is no match against the conviction of true believers, and many prisoners are just stubbornly unwilling to repent for a life of crime.

You can spot them throughout the penitentiary, begrudging the policies that compel them to work or go to school or to participate in treatment programs meant to change them. He is the slacker in the dish tank talking about how much “paper” he used to make on the streets.  He is the 20-something in the Adult Basic Education classroom spending the school-day freestyle rapping and sleeping.  He is the man in chemical dependency treatment tweaking on methamphetamines....

The time has come for rehabilitative efforts to be devoted toward prisoners who have the most likelihood of being rehabilitated.  Once upon a time, correctional systems had the luxury of trying to change such men. But those days are over. There is no money left to continue such social experiments.

Arrogance and paternalism is a combination that is antithetical to fiscal responsibility and sound correctional policies.  The time has come for rehabilitative efforts to be devoted toward prisoners who have the most likelihood of being rehabilitated, rather than those who are most likely to re-offend.  Moreover, such programs should be made available to those who seek it rather than mandating prisoners to participate in them.

Take the University Beyond Bars (UBB) for example.  Every participant in the UBB is there because they want to be, for this higher education program at MCC is entirely voluntary. Even when college credit cannot be offered due to lack of funding, prisoners readily sign up simply for self-enrichment.  As a member of the Prisoner Advisory Committee for the UBB, I saw such men come to recognize their capacity to complete college studies; and, more importantly, conceive of living lives removed from criminality.

These are the prisoners worth saving.  It may seem cruel, but in an emergency, triage is about not wasting one’s time and efforts on the hopeless.  Correctional systems should adopt the same sense of mission and purpose.

The uniquely informed perspective behind this commentary makes me eager to endorse its notable message, and yet I wonder and worry about the ability of correction officials and other to fairly and effectively figure out which prisoners are "worth saving" and which are "hopeless."  Like so many sound and sensible suggestions in the arena of sentencing and corrections, the devil would seem to be in the details here if and when corrections officials only made prison education and programming available to those who appeared worthy of these resources.

June 13, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Swift and sensible sentencing justice for high-profile violent crime in Montana

As reported in this local article, headlined "Greg Gianforte gets anger management, community service after admitting he assaulted reporter," a high-profile crime and criminal got a non-prison sentence for a violent crime today.  Here are some of the particulars:

Republican congressman-elect Greg Gianforte will not spend any time in jail after he admitted a charge of misdemeanor assault Monday for “body slamming” a reporter on the eve of his election. “I just want to say I’m sorry,” Gianforte told Ben Jacobs, the reporter for the Guardian that he assaulted in Bozeman at a campaign event about 24 hours before polls closed on May 24.

Gallatin County Justice Court Judge Rick West ordered Gianforte to complete 20 hours of anger management counseling and 40 hours of community service. He was given a deferred six-month jail sentence.  If he does not violate the conditions of his sentence, the charge could be dismissed.

West initially tried to give Gianforte a sentence of four days in jail, converted to two days in a work program.  Work programs, which cut the time of a sentence in half, are not an option in assault cases, however. West said he felt anger management was necessary since Gianforte, who will go to Washington, D.C., under heavy scrutiny, could not handle questions from a single reporter.

Motioning around the courtroom, he said “It’s not a lot of cameras compared to what you’re going to see at the White House.”

"It is not my intent you spend four days in jail," West said to a small courtroom packed with journalists and some other members of the public. "I do not think that would serve the community or the taxpayers." West referenced Gianforte's charitable giving in the Bozeman community and around the state when deliberating the sentence, but also said Gianforte's unprovoked attack overshadowed that....

Jacobs, wearing a suit and new pair of glasses that replaced the ones broken in the attack, read to the court from a prepared statement. He spoke quietly enough the judge had to ask him to speak up. Jacobs described the day of the attack, saying he had entered a room to ask Gianforte a question.  "I was just doing my job," Jacobs said. "Mr. Gianforte's response was to slam me to the floor and start punching me." After the attack, Jacobs said Gianforte then sent an "inflammatory public statement in which he insisted this unprovoked ... attack was somehow my fault," Jacobs said.

When pressed by the judge, Gianforte at first did not give clear details on the assault but later said he grabbed for Jacobs' phone, ended up grabbing his wrists instead and a "scuffle" ensued where both men fell to the ground....  In his apology letter to Jacobs, Gianforte wrote “Notwithstanding anyone’s statement to the contrary, you did not initiate any physical contact with me, and I had no right to assault you.”  Neither Gianforte nor his staff have clarified why a false statement was sent out after the assault....

A handful of protesters were outside the Law and Justice Center after court ended.  They held up signs saying "Lock him up," "Shame" and "Justice vs. White Christian Privilege." Jackie Crandall drove up from Roberts that morning to protest. "I think Greg Gianforte got special treatment," she said.  "If he wasn't rich and powerful, he would be in jail. If he was black, he would be in jail."

As the title of this post suggests, I think a non-prison sentence for this violent crime seems quite sensible for a remorseful first offender who seems unlikely to be on a path to criminality (even though he is on a path to Congress).

June 12, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

"Are 18-year-olds too immature to face the death penalty?"

The question in the title of this post is part of a headline of this local Kentucky article describing an effort to extend the reach of the Supreme Court's Roper ruling. The article's headline continues with the phrase "Lexington attorney says yes." Here are excerpts from the article:

Fayette Circuit Judge Ernesto Scorsone will soon decide whether to exclude the death penalty for a murder defendant who was 18 when he was charged with murder and robbery.

In a 2005 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of people who were younger 18 at the time of their crimes violated the federal constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishments. The defense team for Travis Bredhold wants Scorsone to extend that exclusion to people 21 and younger. Bredhold, 21, was 18 when he was charged Dec. 13 with murder and robbery in the fatal shooting of Marathon gas station attendant Mukheshbhai Patel.

Police said surveillance camera footage indicates that Patel, 51, was trying to comply with a robber’s demand for cash when he was shot. He died later at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital.

Bredhold was “only five months and 13 days older than the limitation” established by the U.S. Supreme Court, public defender Joanne Lynch said. More importantly, Lynch said, research indicates that people’s brains don’t mature until they are in their mid-20s. The Supreme Court ruled that people who are young and immature and who are likely to be more impulsive are not as culpable as a group and shouldn’t be up for the death penalty.

Bredhold’s defense team is asking to extend the exclusion “because people under the age of 21 are almost completely like people under the age of 18. You really don’t mature until you are in your mid-20s,” Lynch said.

Fayette Commonwealth’s Attorney Lou Anna Red Corn argued during a hearing Friday that there isn’t a “national consensus” on whether to extend the death-penalty exclusion to defendants 21 and younger.

June 11, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (17)

Friday, June 09, 2017

"Measuring the Creative Plea Bargain"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking paper authored by Thea Johnson available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

A great deal of criminal law scholarship and practice turns on whether a defendant gets a good deal through plea bargaining.  But what is a good deal?  And how do defense attorneys secure such deals?  Much scholarship measures plea bargains by one metric: how many years the defendant receives at sentencing. In the era of collateral consequences, however, this is no longer an adequate metric as it misses a world of bargaining that happens outside of the sentence.  Through empirical research, this Article examines the measure of a good plea and the work that goes into negotiating such a plea.  Through in-depth interviews with twenty-five public defenders in four states, I investigate the ways in which collateral consequences impact the negotiation of the plea.  What emerges is a picture of creative plea bargaining that takes into account a host of noncriminal sanctions that fall outside of the charge and sentence.  Public defenders assess the priorities of their clients — regarding both the direct and collateral consequences of the case — and piece together pleas that meet these varied needs.  The length of sentence after a plea does not tell the full story about whether a defendant got a good deal because a successful plea now encompasses much beyond the final sentence.

These findings have broad implications for the way we think about assessing public defense offices and individual defenders.  Much of what goes into a plea — particularly at the misdemeanor level — is a product of the client’s desire to avoid certain collateral consequences, and those desires generally do not enter the formal record or off-the-record negotiations with prosecutors.  As a result, pleas that look bad on paper may actually be meeting the needs of the client.  Therefore, in order to assess pleas and the defenders who negotiate them, we must understand the limits of publicly available data and focus on creating a more robust data set by which to judge public defenders.  Additionally, this Article provides a fuller picture of prevailing professional norms at the plea phase after Padilla, Lafler, and Frye.  As courts grapple with the role of the defense attorney during plea bargaining, it is critical that they understand that in many cases lawyers achieve optimal outcomes by providing advice and advocacy for their clients on concerns outside of the immediate criminal case.  Finally, this Article serves as a renewed call for attention and funding for the holistic model of public defense.

June 9, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 08, 2017

"Facial Profiling: Race, Physical Appearance, and Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper authored by Brian Johnson and Ryan King.  Here is the abstract:

We investigate the associations among physical appearance, threat perceptions, and criminal punishment.  Psychological ideas about impression formation are integrated with criminological perspectives on sentencing to generate and test unique hypotheses about the associations among defendant facial characteristics, subjective evaluations of threatening appearance, and judicial imprisonment decisions.

We analyze newly collected data that link booking photos, criminal histories, and sentencing information for more than 1,100 convicted felony defendants.  Our findings indicate that Black defendants are perceived to be more threatening in appearance.  Other facial characteristics, such as physical attractiveness, baby-faced appearance, facial scars, and visible tattoos, also influence perceptions of threat, as do criminal history scores.  Furthermore, some physical appearance characteristics are significantly related to imprisonment decisions, even after controlling for other relevant case characteristics.  These and other findings are discussed as they relate to psychological research on impression formation, criminological theories of court actor decision-making, and sociological work on race and punishment.

June 8, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Judge Jack Weinstein talks through general deterrence and gang activity in federal gun sentencing

A helpful reader forwarded to me the latest interesting sentencing opinion authored by US District Judge Jack Weinstein. The full 25-page opinion in US v. Lawrence, No. 16-CR-243 (E.D.N.Y. May 23, 2017), is an interesting read for a lot of reasons, is not readily summarized and is available for download below. Here is how it gets started and ends to provide taste for the full opinion:

Defendant in the instant case pled guilty to a serious crime.  He is either a gang member or on the verge of becoming one.  He recklessly fired an illegally possessed handgun repeatedly down a public street, with the likelihood that a passing pedestrian might be hit: in fact he wounded his companion.

This case presents some of the critical difficulties in federal sentencing. It requires balancing general deterrence (and, relatedly, incapacitation) by a relatively long prison term with specific deterrence (and its other aspect, rehabilitation) by a relatively short term in prison. Both must be considered under section 3553(a)(2)(B) of section [1]8 of the United States Code.  By compromising, and reducing a somewhat draconian sentence (possibly less effective for general deterrence), or increasing the sentence (possibly less effective for rehabilitation), the sentence may risk frustrating either goal.

The subtle weighing of alternatives is made more difficult by the presence of numerous competing vectors (such as family or work or criminal history).  In the present case the court accepted, and acted on, testimony of an expert witness that increasing the length of incarceration does not proportionally increase general or specific deterrence....

The Guidelines do not consider gang membership as a factor in sentencing, except for defendants who are sentenced under 18 U.S.C. § 521 (pertaining to criminal street gangs), where the Guidelines provide for an upward departure. U.S.S.G. § 5K2.18.  Were gang membership a sentencing factor in cases other than those under 18 U.S.C. § 521, courts would give greater weight to this factor.  This court recommends that the Sentencing commission revisit the gang membership problem.

Download Lawrence - Judgment%2c Memo%2c and Order

June 8, 2017 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Spotlighting the continued challenges for juve lifers like Henry Montgomery even after SCOTUS victories in Miller and Montgomery

Mother Jones has this notable new article about Henry Montgomery and other juveniles who are still fighting to get relief after seemingly helpful recent Supreme Court Eighth Amendment rulings. The full headline of this piece is "The Supreme Court Said His Prison Sentence Was Unconstitutional. He’s Still Behind Bars. Despite a ruling in their favor, Henry Montgomery and other juvenile lifers are no closer to getting out."  Here are excerpts:

But although the Supreme Court often appears all-powerful, its clout is more limited than it seems. Nearly 18 months after his victory, Montgomery is still sitting in Angola, and there’s no guarantee that he — or many of the roughly 1,000 others serving similar sentences across the country — will ever get out....

Montgomery’s saga began in November 1963 in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, during a turbulent time of racial tensions, Ku Klux Klan activity, and cross-burnings. Montgomery, who is African American, was in 10th grade and playing hooky when he encountered the local sheriff, Charles Hurt, who was white. In a panic at being caught out of school, Montgomery allegedly shot and killed Hurt with his grandfather’s gun, which he had stolen....

[If sentenced today], Montgomery would be allowed to present evidence of mitigating circumstances, and his lawyers could argue that his youth and mental disability — he had an IQ of around 70 — should be grounds for a reduced sentence. Instead, a state appellate court upheld his mandatory life sentence, and that was the end of his contact with a lawyer for decades to come....

In 2012, the US Supreme Court offered juvenile lifers such as Montgomery a glimmer of hope. In Miller v. Alabama, a case of two men who’d been sentenced to mandatory life without parole for crimes they committed at the age of 14, the court ruled 5-4 that such sentences were unconstitutional. Mandatory life without parole violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the court said, because such sentences failed to recognize that adults differ from children, who have “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.” The court held that life-without-parole sentences should be used only for “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”

The decision set off a flurry of litigation by inmates incarcerated as children who argued that the Miller decision should be applied retroactively. Montgomery filed a petition to have his sentence overturned without the help of a lawyer, but the Baton Rouge public defender’s office eventually took up his case. The local district attorney fought him every step of the way, and he lost in all the state appeals courts. But in 2015, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.

In January 2016, the court ruled in Montgomery’s favor, with Kennedy writing that the decision, which gave juvenile lifers a shot at parole, “would afford someone like Montgomery, who submits that he has evolved from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community, the opportunity to demonstrate the truth of Miller’s central intuition—that children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change.”

But the decision was only the beginning of Montgomery’s fight.  The Supreme Court decision gave states a lot of leeway in how they handle cases like Montgomery’s and punted the details to lower-court judges and state legislators.  In Louisiana, a judge could reduce Montgomery’s sentence to life with parole, but that would leave his fate to Louisiana’s notoriously stringent parole board, which could deny him release.  The Supreme Court also left room for judges to simply resentence eligible inmates to life without parole by declaring them irreparably corrupt. And that’s exactly what the Baton Rouge district attorney pushed for in Montgomery’s case....

Montgomery’s case has languished in part because the state didn’t know quite how to handle Louisiana’s 300 juvenile lifers who’d won the right to resentencing.  Should an inmate have a full-blown sentencing hearing that would resemble those used in capital cases?  And who should decide the outcome, a jury or a judge?  The courts put Montgomery’s case on hold while the state Legislature considered a bill that would automatically grant juvenile lifers a shot at parole after they’d served 30 years in prison.  But the bill died last summer, and although it’s been taken up again this year, the courts have decided to move forward without any new legislation.  Some juvenile lifers have been able to win plea bargains that freed them, but they aren’t the majority.

Working against Montgomery is the fact that the adult children and grandchildren of his victim have been involved in the process and are opposed to his release....

Montgomery is one of many juvenile lifers whose sentences remain in limbo after the Supreme Court decision. Michigan, for example, has about 350 juvenile lifers behind bars. Since the Supreme Court decision in Montgomery, the state has begun resentencing them.  [Juvenile Law Center's Marsha] Levick says that in about 85 percent of those cases, prosecutors are again seeking life without parole.  In one jurisdiction, the local prosecutor is the same former judge who sentenced many of the inmates to life in the first place. She has requested new life sentences for 44 of 49 inmates serving life without parole for murders they committed before the age of 18....

Jody Kent Lavy, executive director of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, visited Montgomery in Angola earlier this year and says that because of the resistance of states like Louisiana and Michigan to implementing the Montgomery decision, the high court really “needs to take another step to bar life without parole [for juveniles] outright.”  She notes that local district attorneys are usually elected, and so the Montgomery decision “still leaves room for racially charged decisions, politically motivated decisions, as opposed to what is fair.  It keeps me up at night.”

A state court judge heard Montgomery’s case last month and promised a decision by late June.

June 7, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 02, 2017

Tracking state work on criminal justice and drug policy through Stateline

The Pew Charitable Trusts Stateline site does a great job tracking state-level developments on an array of criminal justice and drug policy issues. Here are some examples from recent weeks that caught my eye:

 

June 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Lots of notable new reporting and commentary from The Marshall Project

The always terrific Marshall Project always has many great pieces that should be must-reads for sentencing fans.  Though I rarely have the time or ability to give shout-outs to all of the great work done there, the last few days have seen the posting of these pieces or reporting and commentary that all struck me as particularly blog-worthy:

Tuesday brought this Commentary, authored by Mark Osler, headlined "The Problem with the Justice Department: It’s a building full of prosecutors."

Wednesday brought this News piece, authored by Justin George, headlined "What Are Inmates Learning in Prison? Not Much: A new survey of 2,000 federal prisoners reveals big gaps in teaching reentry skills."

Thursday brought this Feature piece, authored by Anat Rubin, "Downloading a Nightmare: When autism, child pornography and the courts collide."

The last of these pieces is especially lengthy, but should be especially interesting for sentencing fans who think about when and how offender characteristics should or should not impact sentencing decisions. Here is a portion of the piece:

The “autism defense” was thrust into the spotlight by the case of Gary McKinnon, who, in 2002, from an apartment in London, broke into computers at the Army, Air Force, Navy, Department of Defense and NASA, searching for evidence of a UFO cover-up.  In fighting his extradition to the United States, McKinnon’s legal team argued that his crime was the result of his autistic compulsions.  “And then we started to see an increase in other individuals coming forth and claiming that Asperger's was causal in their need to — and their compulsion to — download child pornography,” said Chad Steel, who conducts digital forensics investigations for the federal government.

Steel, who also teaches digital forensics at George Mason University, wrote a paper to help forensic psychologists and others in law enforcement gather evidence to refute the central assumptions of the autism defense in child pornography investigations. “A frequent argument we get is that the person was unable to control their impulses, unable to know it was wrong.  There have been some cases where that’s absolutely been true,” he said.  “But when you read ‘this person has high-functioning autism, they didn’t know what they were doing’ — that’s not necessarily true.”  He said before the McKinnon case, he was seeing defendants who were likely autistic, even if they didn’t have an official diagnosis. But since McKinnon, the disability is more likely to take center stage.

The autism defense can be a double-edged sword in court.  Arguing that the defendant has the social and emotional maturity of a child can backfire.  Prosecutors can use that information to argue the defendant is likely to reoffend.  More often, parents whose lives have been defined by their child’s disability find that, in the eyes of the criminal justice system, their child doesn’t seem disabled enough.

The Marshall Project reached out to state and federal prosecutors with experience in child pornography cases.  With few exceptions they were unwilling to discuss cases involving autism.

For all child pornography defendants, outcomes depend largely on geography.  Some judges stick close to the federally-recommended sentences, while others have spoken out against the increased punishments. But for autistic defendants, the outcomes seem also to depend on how autism is explained to the court.  “In cases where judges and prosecutors have really been informed on all the dimensions in which Asperger’s applies, they got drastically reduced punishments,” [defense attorney Mark] Mahoney said. “If they get the right information, there’s a good chance — a much better chance than defense attorneys imagine — that prosecutors will understand that this is a population that just doesn’t have the dangerousness we associate with the behavior.”

In arguing for diversion, Mahoney focuses on what prison is like for an autistic person.  Many people with autism are unable to understand the hidden social structure of a prison environment.  They sometimes tell on others who break the rules.  They are eager to please and easily manipulated.  Their behavior can be misinterpreted by prison staff, and they are often placed in isolation, either as a form of punishment or for their own protection.

June 1, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Random If Not 'Rare'? The Eighth Amendment Weakness of Post-Miller Legislation"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Kimberly Thomas and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

First, this Article surveys the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to analogize life without parole for juveniles to the death penalty for adults, and discusses the Eighth Amendment law regarding the parameters around death penalty statutory schemes.  Second, this Article examines the state legislative response to Miller v. Alabama, and scrutinizes it with the Court’s Eighth Amendment death penalty law — and the states’ responses to this case law — in mind.  This Article highlights the failure of juvenile homicide sentencing provisions to: 1) narrow offenses that are eligible for life without parole sentences; 2) further limit, once a guilty finding is made, the categories of offenders to the most likely to have demonstrated “irreparable corruption,”; and 3) provide for meaningful appellate review, among other deficiencies. 

May 31, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, May 29, 2017

"Predicting Sex Offender Recidivism: Using the Federal Post-Conviction Risk Assessment Instrument to Assess the Likelihood of Recidivism Among Federal Sex Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this new article available via SSRN authored by Thomas Cohen. Here is the abstract:

Sex offenses are among the crimes that provoke serious public concern.  The federal response to the problem of sex offending has resulted in an exponential increase in the number of sex offenders on federal post-conviction supervision; however, relatively few studies have explored whether and how well the actuarial risk instrument currently used by federal probation officers — the federal Post Conviction Risk Assessment instrument or PCRA for short — accurately predicts reoffending behavior among the federal sex offender population.

This study provided an exploration of the PCRA’s capacity to effectively predict subsequent recidivism activity for convicted federal sex offenders.  Results show that the PCRA accurately predicts recidivistic behavior involving the commission of any felony or misdemeanor offenses, violent offenses, and probation revocations for this population. However, the PCRA’s predicative capacities deteriorate when the instrument is used to assess the likelihood of sexual recidivism.  In addition, this study showed that offenders convicted of online child pornography offenses presented some challenges in terms of predicting their reoffending behavior because they manifested lower PCRA risk scores and recidivism rates compared to offenders convicted of other major federal sexual offenses that typically involve more hands-on behavior.

May 29, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)