Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Notable review of recent ups and downs in federal prosecutions
In this new posting over at the Pew Research Center, John Gramlich has assembled interesting data on federal modern criminal justice realities under the headline "Federal criminal prosecutions fall to lowest level in nearly two decades." Here are highlights:
After peaking in 2011, the number of federal criminal prosecutions has declined for five consecutive years and is now at its lowest level in nearly two decades, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of new data from the federal court system. The decline comes as Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated that the Justice Department will reverse the trend and ramp up criminal prosecutions in the years ahead.
Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against 77,152 defendants in fiscal year 2016, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. That’s a decline of 25% since fiscal 2011, when 102,617 defendants were charged, and marks the lowest yearly total since 1997. The data count all defendants charged in U.S. district courts with felonies and serious misdemeanors, as well as some defendants charged with petty offenses. They exclude defendants whose cases were handled by magistrate judges.
Prosecutions for drug, immigration and property offenses – the three most common categories of crime charged by the federal government – all have declined over the past five years. The Justice Department filed drug charges against 24,638 defendants in 2016, down 23% from 2011. It filed immigration charges against 20,762 defendants, down 26%. And it charged 10,712 people with property offenses such as fraud and embezzlement, a 39% decline.
However, prosecutions for other, less frequently charged crime types have increased slightly. For example, prosecutors charged 8,576 defendants with gun crimes in 2016, a 3% increase over 2011 (and a 9% single-year increase over 2015). And they charged 2,897 people with violent crimes such as murder, robbery and assault, a 4% increase from five years earlier.
Several factors may play a role in the decline in federal prosecutions in recent years. One notable shift came in 2013, when then-Attorney General Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors to ensure that each case they bring “serves a substantial federal interest.” In a speech announcing the policy change, Holder said prosecutors “cannot – and should not – bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal law.”
Sessions, who took office as attorney general in February, has indicated that the Justice Department will take a different approach under his leadership. In particular, he has pushed to increase prosecutions for drug- and gun-related offenses as part of a broader plan to reduce violent crime, which rose nationally in 2015 and in the first half of 2016, according to the FBI. (Despite these increases, violent crime remains far below the levels recorded in the 1990s.)...
Since 2001, the Justice Department’s prosecution priorities have changed. Immigration offenses, for instance, comprised just 15% of all prosecutions in 2001; by 2016, they accounted for 27%. During the same period, drug crimes fell from 38% to 32% of all prosecutions, while property crimes declined from 20% to 14%.
Such revisions by the Justice Department are not unusual. In 2013, for example, after two states legalized the recreational use of marijuana, the department announced new charging priorities for offenses involving the drug, which remains illegal under federal law. Federal marijuana prosecutions fell to 5,158 in 2016, down 39% from five years earlier.
Friday, March 24, 2017
Former Penn State Prez convicted of single misdemeanor court of child endangerment for role in Sandusky sex offense scandal
As reported in this local article, "Graham B. Spanier, the former Pennsylvania State University president once considered one of the nation’s most prominent college leaders, was convicted Friday of endangering children by failing to act on signs that Jerry Sandusky was a serial sex predator." Here is more (with key sentencing factors highlighted):
After nearly 12 hours of deliberation, the jury of seven women and five men found Spanier guilty of a single misdemeanor count of endangerment. He was acquitted of a second endangerment count, as well as a felony count of conspiracy.
Still, the guilty verdict was a stunning blow to Spanier, 68, who had long proclaimed his innocence, and to his supporters, who had fiercely defended him and accused prosecutors of overreaching and unfairly staining the university. Many, including his wife, Sandra, a Penn State English professor, were in the Dauphin County Courtroom to hear the verdict. Spanier didn't appear to react when the verdict was read in a hushed courtroom.
Prosecutors said he agreed in 2001 with two Penn State administrators at the time, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz, not to report assistant coach Mike McQueary's claim that Sandusky was caught after hours with a young boy in a campus locker-room shower.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who this year took over the office that spent had nearly a decade investigating and prosecuting the Sandusky case, said the verdict showed no one is above the law. "There are zero excuses when it comes to failing to report the abuse of children to authorities," he said.
Spanier's lawyer, Sam Silver, said they were heartened by the jury's acquittal on two counts and would appeal the guilty verdict on the third. That count had originally been a felony count, but jurors downgraded it to a misdemeanor.
Emails show that the three men knew Sandusky, a longtime assistant to head football coach Joe Paterno, had been investigated by university police after a similar claim in 1998. They first decided to report the 2001 incident to child-welfare authorites, but then changed that plan. Instead, they agreed to talk to Sandusky, bar him from bringing boys on campus, and share the report with the president of Second Mile, the charity Sandusky started for vulnerable children.
Sandusky sexually assaulted at least four more children after the 2001 incident, including another boy in a campus shower the next year, jurors were told. That victim was among the witnesses who testified this week. Both Schultz and Curley pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution, although a deputy attorney general told jurors in her closing argument that they were not the government's star witnesses.
Spanier opted not to testify. His lawyers argued that the prosecution didn't present any evidence that Spanier knew Sandusky was a child sex abuser or that he knowingly conspired to cover up a crime. Spanier, who rose to national prominence as Penn State's leader for 16 years, has maintained that he acted appropriately in 2001 based on the information he had at the time. He contends he was told by his lieutenants that Sandusky's behavior with the boy in the shower amounted to "horseplay."
Followers of federal sentencing know that a jury's acquittal on some but not all counts may sometimes not be a huge sentencing benefit to defendants given that sentencing guideline recommendations can be based on acquitted and uncharged conduct established by merely a preponderance of the evidence. But the impact of the split verdict in this high-profile state case is seemingly quite significant because the defendant is now only facing sentencing on a single misdemeanor count (which I presume means he could not get more than a year in jail).
I find it quite interesting (and somewhat curious) that a jury apparently has authority under Pennsylvania law to take a count that "had originally been a felony count" and decide it should be "downgraded to a misdemeanor." This strikes me as fundamentally a sentencing decision being made by a jury, and as an interesting way for the jury in this particular case to send a (mixed) message about the defendant and his criminal activity.
Friday, March 17, 2017
"Good, Bad and Wrongful Juvenile Sex: Rethinking the Use of Statutory Rape Laws Against the Protected Class"
The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Anna High that a helpful reader flagged for me. Here is the abstract:
This article considers the question of whether statutory rape laws can and should be used against members of the class they were designed to protect. Many commentators have argued that meaningfully consensual sex among similarly situated and sufficiently mature teenagers should be beyond the scope of strict liability rape laws, but the question becomes more fraught in the context of the “contested outer limits” of adolescent sexuality — sexual contact among children and adolescents that offends social norms, leads to harmful outcomes or appears to be exploitative. What are the implications of using statutory rape laws against minors to target “bad sex”?
I contend that even in relation to “bad sex,” there are serious policy and constitutional objections to the use of statutory rape laws against a member of the class they are designed to protect. In jurisdictions without all-encompassing age-gap provisions, the response to sex among adolescents needs to be reformulated to ensure that the use of statutory rape laws against minors is confined to cases involving wrongful, as opposed to mere bad, sex, and is predicated on a clear and objective definition of exploitation, as opposed to mere fornication, as the punitive target.
Taking a critical perspective on the work of former US Attorney for SDNY Preet Bharara
David Patton, executive director of the Federal Defenders of New York, penned this notable commentary for the Daily News concerning the work of fired SDNY US Attorney Preet Bharara. The piece is headlined "An honest assessment of Preet Bharara's record: Harsh prosecutions put more African-Americans and Hispanics behind bars," and here are excerpts:
Last week the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, was fired by President Trump, and the news media rushed to characterize his seven-year tenure. Was he the "sheriff of Wall Street" for his insider trading prosecutions, a "showy pragmatist" for his affinity for television cameras, or the drainer of political swamps for his political corruption cases? At least in part, he was surely all of those things.
But none of the tags do much to describe the actual work of his office and the overwhelming number of prosecutions it brings that have nothing to do with Wall Street or Albany. Federal criminal cases rarely involve the rich or powerful. Consistent with the rest of the country, 80% of federal defendants in the Southern District of New York are too poor to hire a lawyer. Seventy percent are African-American or Hispanic. The most commonly prosecuted offense type, by far, is drugs.
Last year, 45% of all federal criminal prosecutions in the Southern District were for drugs. Two other leading offense types are firearms and immigration. The firearms cases are mostly gun possession cases transferred from state prosecutions in the Bronx. They arise when NYPD officers search a car, apartment or person and claim they find a gun. Those arrested are plucked out of state court and brought to federal court for the express purpose of imposing lengthier sentences. The immigration cases, so-called "illegal re-entry" cases, are prosecutions of people who were previously deported from the United States and came back. Depending on their criminal history they typically face anywhere from two to seven years in prison before being removed from the United States again.
Bharara surely deserves credit for his efforts to clean up the financial industry and the political system. But federal prosecutors should be judged primarily on how wisely, or not, they use the awesome power of their office to impose the many years of imprisonment on the thousands of people they choose to prosecute.
And choose to prosecute they do. Unlike state and local prosecutors who largely react to police investigations and arrests, federal prosecutors have enormous discretion to decide who and what to prosecute. Their jurisdictions are wide-ranging and overlapping, and many of the people they charge would otherwise be prosecuted in state court under less punitive laws.
Judging Bharara by those standards, his tenure was decidedly mixed. His office greatly increased the prosecution of poor people of color using sprawling conspiracy and racketeering statutes to charge many low level drug dealers and addicts together with bigger players in the same indictments. Some of the people charged were already serving time in state prisons for the same conduct. Many others were caught up in "sting" operations in which the criminal conduct was initiated by agents and informants.
He also continued the programs begun by his predecessors in the Bush administration of prosecuting people for street crimes that were once considered the exclusive province of state courts. Once again, those charges are brought almost entirely against poor people of color from the Bronx. And across the board in drug and immigration cases, his office too often sought unnecessarily severe sentences....
When we evaluate the performance of top prosecutors, we should pay attention to whether they advance the goals of maintaining public safety while also reducing unnecessary and unequal terms of punishment. And we should spend a lot less time concerned about how they handle the small sliver of cases that make the headlines.
Monday, February 27, 2017
Ohio Secretary of State reports that 82 non-citizens have recently cast votes in Ohio
Because I continue to be intrigued by Prez Trump's claim that millions of persons committed a crime by voting illegally in our last election, I find interesting this new story about illegal voting in Ohio headlined "82 non-citizens voted in Ohio, Husted says." Here are the details:
Nearly 400 non-citizens are registered to vote in Ohio — 82 of whom have managed to cast ballots in at least one election since 2015, Secretary of State Jon Husted said Monday. Husted, a Republican and likely candidate for Ohio governor, said his office discovered the 385 registrations from non-citizens on a biennial review of the state's voter database. In total, 7.9 million people were registered to vote in Ohio as of the November election, so the non-citizens make up fewer than 1 in every 20,000 registered voters — far from the widespread voter fraud President Donald Trump has claimed.
Husted is sending law enforcement the names of the 82 non-citizens who voted, so officials can investigate and decide whether to prosecute. His office will send letters to the non-citizens who registered but never voted, requesting they cancel their registration. If they fail to do so, they could ultimately face prosecution. Election fraud can carry a fifth-degree felony charge in Ohio.
As Trump has alleged voter fraud in last year's election, Husted has countered that election fraud isn't a common problem. Still, his office has boasted of its three reviews of the voter rolls to look for non-citizens, the first such reviews conducted by an Ohio secretary of state. “In light of the national discussion about illegal voting it is important to inform our discussions with facts. The fact is voter fraud happens, it is rare and when it happens, we hold people accountable,” Husted said Monday in a statement.
Husted didn't say how which elections the 82 non-citizens had voted in, but even if they all voted in November 2016, they couldn't have swayed Ohio's presidential result, for instance. Eighty-two votes would have amounted to 0.0015 percent of the state's November voters. None of the non-citizens cast a vote in a race that was tied or decided by one vote, Husted said....
The secretary of state's office began the biennial review in 2013. Reviews that year and in 2015 uncovered a total of 44 non-citizens who voted in an election. Of those, eight people have been convicted of breaking the law and two other cases still are pending, spokesman Josh Eck said.
Trump continues to claim — without any evidence — that massive voter fraud marred the 2016 presidential election. On Jan. 23, the new president told congressional leaders between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes caused him to lose the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton. Trump won the election with a convincing victory in the Electoral College, even as Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes.
If the Ohio story is reasonably representative of the national story (as is often the case with bellwether Ohio), then we might reasonably suspect that there may have been between 3 thousand and 5 thousand illegal votes case in the 2016 election. Whether or not Ohio is representative of other states in this particular context, I am quite pleased to learn that the crime of voter fraud is not rampant in the great state of Ohio.
Will a Justice Gorsuch be a strong SCOTUS voice against over-criminalization?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent National Review commentary authored by C. Jarrett Dieterle and headlined "Gorsuch v. Over-Criminalization." Here are excerpts:
Much of the media attention to date surrounding President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch has centered on the judge’s views of originalism, separation of powers, administrative law, and related topics. Largely overlooked has been an area where Judge Gorsuch’s track record shows a keen awareness of another issue critical to the federal courts: America’s criminal-justice system.
The importance of criminal law is underscored by the breathtaking size of the federal criminal code. Nearly 5,000 federal crimes are on the books, not including the sort of regulatory crimes that likely push the number above 300,000. Worse yet, many criminal laws are written in vague terms that fail to clearly identify what constitutes a crime, leaving Americans in the dark about whether their conduct in many cases is criminal.
In a 2013 lecture for the Federalist Society, Gorsuch confronted the problem of over-criminalization, whereby criminal laws target conduct that is not inherently wrong. Using examples of obscure crimes, such as ripping off a mattress tag, Gorsuch argued that no American can possibly comprehend all the activities prohibited by federal law. “Without written laws, we lack fair notice of the rules we must obey,” as he puts it, adding that fair notice is also lacking when we have “too many written laws.”...
Gorsuch’s expressions of concern about over-criminalization haven’t been confined to speeches. In last year’s Caring Hearts Home Services v. Burwell decision, he had harsh words for a federal agency that forgot its own regulations and misapplied them to a home health-care provider....
Gorsuch has equally strong views on the issue of criminal intent. Under traditional common law, acting with mens rea (a guilty or criminal mind) is a core component of committing a crime. This understanding prevents individuals who inadvertently or accidently do something wrong from being branded criminals....
Gorsuch also has shown willingness to rely on another historical judicial doctrine, the “Rule of Lenity”: Courts that confront ambiguous and vague criminal statutes are urged to interpret those laws in favor of defendants. Gorsuch applied this rule — also a favorite of the late Justice Antonin Scalia — in United States v. Rentz (2015), a case involving a law that imposed heightened penalties on individuals who “use” a gun to commit a violent crime or drug offense.... “Our job is always in the first instance to follow Congress’s directions,” Gorsuch wrote. “But if those directions are unclear, the tie goes to the presumptively free citizen and not the prosecutor.”
Gorsuch’s principle that any “tie” should go to citizens over the government shows his wariness of the vast powers possessed by prosecutors in an over-criminalized society. His tendency to view criminal laws, especially vague ones, with a healthy measure of skepticism should give opponents of over-criminalization a much-needed ally on the nation’s highest court.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
"Accounting for Violence: How to Increase Safety and Break Our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Vera Institute of Justice authored by Danielle Sered. Here is an overview of the report from Vera:
In the United States, violence and mass incarceration are deeply entwined, though evidence shows that both can decrease at the same time. A new vision is needed to meaningfully address violence and reduce the use of incarceration — and to promote healing among crime survivors and improve public safety. This report describes four principles to guide policies and practices that aim to reduce violence: They should be survivor-centered, based on accountability, safety-driven, and racially equitable.
This two-page fact sheet sets out the "four principles" referenced above:
Principle 1: Responses to violence should be survivor-centered.
Principle 2: Responses to violence should be based on accountability.
Principle 3: Responses to violence should be safety‑driven.
Principle 4: Responses to violence should be racially equitable.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Repeat rape and murder for sex offender subject to monitoring shows limits of GPS as incapacitation tool
This article in my local paper about a local murder that has received a lot of attention provides a cold reminder that GPS monitoring typically cannot and will not alone serves as fool-proof crime prevention tool. The article is headlined "Ex-convict charged in slaying of Ohio State student was on GPS monitoring," and here are the details:
A sex offender who is accused of abducting, raping and killing an Ohio State University student was on GPS monitoring. Brian L. Golsby, 29, who was released from state prison on Nov. 13 after serving six years for robbery and attempted rape, had special conditions of supervision under his post-release control for five years.
"I can confirm that he was on GPS monitoring, which is not uncommon due to the fact that he did not have a permanent residence upon his release," said JoEllen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Golsby was living in a state-contracted residential housing program that granted him a temporary residence.
Grove City police arrested Golsby after 21-year-old Reagan Tokes' body was found on Feb. 9 near the entrance of Scioto Grove Metro Park. Detectives say Golsby abducted Tokes after she left work Feb. 8 in the Short North. He forced her to withdraw $60 from an ATM, raped her and fatally shot her twice in the head before dumping her body. Investigators already had Golsby's DNA from prior offenses and matched it to a cigarette butt left in Tokes' car. Tokes was set to graduate from OSU in May with a degree in psychology.
Smith said state law prevents her from going into details of the conditions Golsby had to follow. All offenders are prohibited from carrying guns, but it's unclear whether travel restrictions were placed on Golsby in addition to what sex offenders have to abide by. "DRC contracts with community providers for electronic monitoring and GPS services. The level of monitoring depends on the offender and circumstances for which the service is requested," Smith said.
She would not specify which vendors are used or describe the level of monitoring that offenders like Golsby could have. It's unclear whether he triggered an alert while wearing the bracelet, or, if he had discarded the monitor, how parole officers would have been notified. It's also unknown how often parole officers check the movements of offenders assigned to them, or how far back the monitor records travel. "DRC is not providing specifics relative to this case due to the ongoing criminal investigation," Smith said.
Columbus police have been looking at Golsby as a possible suspect in a series of attacks on women in German Village and near Nationwide Children's Hospital.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Hard-to-believe harshness in prosecution of Virginia teen receiving underage pics
This new Reason piece by Lenore Skenazy tell a tale about a teenager in Virginia prosecuted for a sex offense that seem truly hard to believe. The piece is fully headlined "Teen Girl Sent Teen Boy 5 Inappropriate Pictures. He Faced Lifetime Registry as a 'Violent Sex Offender' or 350 Years in Jail. Welcome to the world of teens, computers, and prosecutors who want to look tough on sex offenders." And here is the story:
Zachary, now 19, is in jail awaiting sentencing for five pictures his teenage girlfriend sent him of herself in her underwear. He faced a choice between a possible (though unlikely) maximum sentence of 350 years in prison, or lifetime on the sex offender registry as a "sexually violent offender" — even though he never met the girl in person. Here's what happened.
About two years ago, when Zachary was a 17-year-old high school senior in Stafford County, Virginia, a girl in his computer club invited him over to visit. She introduced him to her younger sister, age 13. This younger sister told Zachary he reminded her of a friend: this friend, also a 13-year-old girl, shared Zachary's love of dragons and videogames.
The two 13-year-olds started skyping Zachary together. Eventually Zachary and the dragon-lover struck up a online friendship, which developed into a online romance. By the summer, a month after Zachary turned 18, the girl sent him five pictures of herself in her underwear. Her face was not visible, nor were her private parts.
That's according to information provided by Zachary's parents, as well as an evaluation with Zachary conducted by a psychologist. Zachary is incredibly smart, according to the psychologist, though socially awkward and emotionally immature. Importantly, he does not possess "distorted" ideas about sex, according to the psychologist.
Even so, Zachary was arrested and charged with 20 felonies, including indecent liberties with a minor, using a computer to propose sex, and "child porn reproduce/transmit/sell," even though he did not send or sell the pictures to anyone. All this, from five underwear pictures. If convicted, Zachary's father told me, he faced a theoretically possible maximum sentence of 350 years.
Instead, he took a plea bargain. This is what prosecutors do: scare defendants into a deal. Zachary agreed to plead guilty to two counts of "indecent liberties with a minor." For this, he will be registered as a violent sex offender for the rest of his life. Yes, "violent" — even though he never met the girl in person.
Zachary's dad wrote to the authorities asking about this, and got a letter back from the Virginia State Police reiterating that, "This conviction requires Zachary to register as a sexually violent offender." The letter, which was obtained by Reason, added that in three years, "a violent sex offender or murderer" can petition to register less frequently than every three months. "How do you like that?" said the dad in a phone conversation with me. "Same category as a murderer."
As part of the plea, Zachary also agreed never to appeal. He will be sentenced on March 9. Until then, he remains in jail. If this sounds like a punishment wildly out of whack with the crime, welcome to the world of teens, computers, and prosecutors who want to look tough on sex offenders. The girl did not wish to prosecute Zachary, according to his dad. He told me the pictures came to light because she had been having emotional issues, possibly due to her parents' impending divorce. Eventually she was admitted to a mental health facility for treatment, and while there she revealed the relationship to a counselor. The counselor reported this to her mother, the police, or both (this part is unclear), leading the cops to execute a search warrant of Zachary's electronic devices where they found the five photos and the chat logs....
Outraged readers should root for two things. First, that this case prompts the Virginia legislature to review the laws that enable draconian persecutions like the one against Zachary.
Second, that Zachary be given a punishment that truly fits the crime. If you recall the case of another Zach — Zach Anderson, a 19-year-old who had sex with a girl he honestly believed was 17 (because she said so) but was actually 14 — he was originally sentenced to 25 years on the sex offender registry. But after public outcry, he got two years' probation instead, on a "diversion program." A program like this is sometimes available for first-time offenders. It sounds far more reasonable. Or maybe Zachary could do some community service — like speaking at high school assemblies to warn students that what seems like consensual teenage shenanigans could land them on the registry for the rest of their lives.
I have no basis to question the basic account of this case, but I cannot help but think there is more to this story given that the defendant he was charged with 20 felonies. I do not know Virginia law well, but really wonder just how five texted pics alone could provide the foundation for charging 20 felonies.
UPDATE: A helpful reader alerted me to this local article from last month with suggests that part of the crimes of the defendant here included trying to arranging a meeting for sex with the underage girl discussed above. This addition aspect of the story makes it a little easier to believe and understand, though it does not undercut the apparent reality that prosecutors here took a remarkably aggressive posture in a case involving essentially teen sexting.
"Maryland prosecutor sentenced for hotel sex acts in front of glass door in Ocean City"
The title of this post is the headline of this Washington Post article, which sort of has a Valentine's Day theme. I recommend the article if full in order to get the "full monty" details, but here are highlights from the start of the article and its update:
It’s Valentine’s Day, and the top prosecutor in Cecil County, Md., having already celebrated his love with his wife in full view of numerous others, will stand before a judge today and receive a criminal sentence for such public displays of affection.
Edward “Ellis” Rollins III (R) was arrested in June for indecent exposure and disorderly conduct, for having sex, standing naked and other related acts at the sliding glass door of his tenth-floor Ocean City, Md., hotel room, while four tourists, a security officer and two Ocean City police officers watched. He was convicted by a Worcester County, Md., jury after a two-day trial in December. Rollins, 61, likely will not face jail time for the two misdemeanor convictions.... He did remove himself from consideration for a circuit court judgeship, which he was scheduled to interview for with the governor shortly after his arrest, on a bench where both his father and grandfather served.
Rollins did not return phone and email messages Monday, and his attorney, Cullen Burke, also did not return a call. At trial, Rollins did not testify, but his lawyer did not deny that Rollins and his wife enjoyed various carnal relations next to the sliding glass door of their hotel room. Burke described Rollins and his wife, Holly Rollins, as “still newlyweds” after six years of marriage, according to the Cecil Whig, and Holly Rollins testified she had no idea anyone was watching from the adjacent condominiums. Burke said there was 172 feet between the two buildings and that the Rollins’ hotel room “was a speck” in the vision of the tourists’ apartment.
But the four Pennsylvania women who spotted the activity, on two different days, felt it was much more visible than a speck. They returned to Ocean City and testified in detail about Rollins’ actions. It really wasn’t the sex so much as Rollins’ naked dancing and posing at the sliding glass door that truly offended the visitors, according to the media reports of their testimony. “You’re just sickening,” one woman turned and said to Rollins during her testimony. “I have nightmares because of you. I argue with my husband because it’s all I can talk about.”
UPDATE, 2:02 p.m.: Worcester County Circuit Judge Brian Shockley imposed a $1,000 fine and a 90-day jail sentence with all time suspended for Ellis Rollins, along with 100 hours of community service, 18 months of supervised probation and mental health treatment. Worcester County State’s Attorney said he asked for a two-year sentence with 18 months suspended, which would have meant Rollins would have spent six months in the Worcester jail, but Shockley did not take that recommendation.
Monday, February 13, 2017
Major Ponzi schemer gets major break from guidelines ... but still subject to major prison time
This local article, headlined "Lexington Ponzi scheme founder, 70, gets nearly 15-year prison term for ZeekRewards," reports on a notable white-collar sentence handed down this morning in a North Carolina federal courthouse. Here are some details:
A federal judge Monday handed Paul Burks, founder of ZeekRewards.com, a prison sentence of 14 years and eight months for his lead role in the Lexington Ponzi scheme. Judge Max Cogburn Jr. agreed with U.S. attorneys' "fair and generous" sentencing recommendation, a minimum 15 years and eight months and a maximum 19 years and seven months for the 70-year-old Burks. Burks could have been sentenced to up to 59 years under federal sentencing guidelines.
ZeekRewards.com, founded in 2010, was one of the largest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history at $939 million, according to federal regulatory officials and prosecutors. The Lexington companies, which debuted in January 2011, were shut down and their assets frozen in August 2012. There were more than 800,000 victims worldwide.
Cogburn dropped Burks' sentencing by a year so that it would be about double the 90-month prison term handed to Dawn Wright-Olivares. Wright-Olivares and her stepson, Daniel Olivares, pleaded guilty in February 2014 to fraud charges after reaching agreements in December 2013 with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of N.C. Wright-Olivares cooperated with the federal government in its case against Burks. Wright-Olivares served as ZeekRewards' chief operating officer, while Olivares was senior technology officer. Olivares received a two-year prison term.
On July 21, a federal jury found Burks, of Lexington, guilty of wire and mail-fraud conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and tax-fraud conspiracy. Burks has been free on bond for the past 4 ½ years. The wire and mail-fraud conspiracy charge, the mail-fraud charge and the wire-fraud charge each carry a maximum prison term of 20 years and a $250,000 fine. The tax-fraud conspiracy charge carries a maximum prison term of five years and a $250,000 fine.
Burks opted not to speak on his behalf except to say he approved of the case being presented by his attorney, Noell Tin.... U.S. attorneys, citing Burks’ health and his role as caregiver to his wife, Susan, who has breast cancer, recommended 15.5 years to just short of 20 years. Tin asked Cogburn to set a sentence of no more than 11.5 years, also in consideration for the Burks’ health.
Cogburn and Kenneth Bell, the receiver for ZeekRewards, responded to Tin’s request by saying the U.S. attorneys’ sentencing recommendation was “fair and generous” given the level of crime involved in the Ponzi scheme. “This is a huge amount of money, which is why the sentencing guidelines run to such a large extent,” Cogburn said. “He is essentially facing a life sentencing given his health conditions.”
Tin said that among the health issues affecting Burks are hypertension, diabetes, heart illness, chronic renal failure, prostate cancer, the removal of his esophagus and mild dementia. Burks appeared in good health at the sentencing, though he walked with a slight limp.... The likely [prison] facility [for Burks] could be Butner, where fellow Ponzi scheme felony Bernie Madoff resides....
Cogburn and Bell cited the enormity of the Ponzi scheme and how Burks and other ZeekRewards officials misled and mispresented how the company generated money and how it paid “winners.” Cogburn compared Burks’ marketing strategy of capturing hundreds of millions of dollars to the Biblical story of Jesus of turning loaves and fishes into enough food to feed at least 5,000 individuals. “The scheme got out of hand, more than Mr. Burks may have thought was going to happen,” Cogburn said. “But anyone could have seen what was going to occur outside himself and his (marketing) cheerleaders.”
Saturday, February 11, 2017
A (crazy) harsh sentence for a voter fraud conviction in Texas
According to Prez Trump, voter fraud may be one of the most prevalent federal crimes in the United States (perhaps second only to marijuana use). In light of the President's claims in this regard, I have to think the crazy harsh sentence imposed by a state court in Texas reported in this New York Times article is intended to try to deter this rampant crime. The lengthy front-page NYT article is headlined "Illegal Voting Gets Texas Woman 8 Years in Prison, and Certain Deportation," and here are the interesting details:
Despite repeated statements by Republican political leaders that American elections are rife with illegal voting, credible reports of fraud have been hard to find and convictions rarer still.
That may help explain the unusually heavy penalty imposed on Rosa Maria Ortega, 37, a permanent resident and a mother of four who lives outside Dallas. On Thursday, a Fort Worth judge sentenced her to eight years in prison — and almost certainly deportation later — after she voted illegally in elections in 2012 and 2014.
The sentence for Ms. Ortega, who was brought to this country by her mother as an infant, “shows how serious Texas is about keeping its elections secure,” Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, said in a statement. Her lawyer called it an egregious overreaction, made to score political points, against someone who wrongly believed she was eligible to vote.
“She has a sixth-grade education. She didn’t know she wasn’t legal,” said Ms. Ortega’s lawyer, Clark Birdsall, who once oversaw voter fraud prosecutions in neighboring Dallas County. “She can own property; she can serve in the military; she can get a job; she can pay taxes. But she can’t vote, and she didn’t know that.”
The punishment was strikingly harsh for an offense that usually merits far less jail time, if any. A second fraudulent ballot case in metropolitan Fort Worth ended in 2015 with probation. Ms. Ortega insisted in court that she had been unaware that she was ineligible to vote and was confused by registration forms and explanations by election officials.
Prosecutors for Mr. Paxton and Tarrant County said that she had lied and that the same forms and conversations proved it. A jury convicted her Wednesday of two felony charges. Mr. Birdsall said Mr. Paxton’s office had been prepared to dismiss all charges against Ms. Ortega if she agreed to testify on voting procedures before the Texas Legislature. But the Tarrant County criminal district attorney, Sharen Wilson, vetoed that deal, he said, insisting on a trial that would showcase her office’s efforts to crack down on election fraud.
Both the attorney general’s office and the county prosecutor declined to comment on the specifics of Mr. Birdsall’s statement, citing privacy rules for plea-bargain negotiations. A spokeswoman for Ms. Wilson, Sam Jordan, said any negotiations were only “discussions,” a description Mr. Birdsall disputed....
Ms. Ortega’s case is unusual not just for its harshness but for its circumstances. Many fraud convictions that draw prison sentences — and some that do not — involve clear efforts to influence election results. Texas prosecutors won prison sentences for four men who moved into a hotel in 2010 to claim residency so they could sway a local election. A woman in Brownsville, Tex., was placed on five years’ probation for casting five absentee ballots under different names in elections in 2012.
Lawyers offered no clear motive for Ms. Ortega’s decision to cast ballots beyond her desire to participate in elections. Ms. Ortega, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, came to Texas with her mother when she was an infant. More than a decade later, the family was scattered after the mother was arrested and deported. Two brothers born in Dallas automatically gained citizenship; Ms. Ortega became a permanent resident and gained a green card, her brother Tony Ortega, 35, said in an interview.
As a Dallas County resident, she registered to vote and later cast ballots in elections in 2012 and 2014, her lawyer, Mr. Birdsall, said. While that was illegal, there was no attempt to break the law, he maintained: Some government forms allow applicants to declare that they are permanent residents, but the voting registration form asks only whether an applicant is a citizen. Lacking the permanent resident option, he said, she ticked the “citizen” box. When the county later mailed her a registration card, he said, she believed she “was good to go.”
Ms. Ortega moved to neighboring Tarrant County and again registered, but this time checked a box affirming that she was not a citizen. When her application was rejected in March 2015, the trial showed, she called election officials and told them that she had previously voted in Dallas County without difficulty. Told that she could not vote unless she was a citizen, she asked for another application, and returned it with a check in the box affirming citizenship. That raised questions, and law enforcement officials arrested her on fraud charges.
Jonathan White, an assistant attorney general who helped prosecute the Ortega case with Tarrant County officials, said the evidence of fraud was unambiguous. “She told the elections office she was a citizen,” he said. “She told everyone else she wasn’t,” including a recorded statement to prosecutors in which she said she was a citizen of Mexico.
Mr. Birdsall said the arrest and prosecution are punishing a woman for her own confusion over whether residency and citizenship confer the same rights. “She wasn’t trying to topple the country,” he said. “She was trying to make more serious decisions about our country than the 50 percent of the people who didn’t bother to vote in the last election.”...
Ms. Ortega is now in a Fort Worth jail awaiting transfer to a state prison. Her four children, ages 13 to 16, are being cared for by siblings and her fiancé, Oscar Sherman, 27, a trucker who said her arrest had scotched their plans to marry. The children’s fate is unclear. Mr. Sherman lacks legal custody; her siblings are still debating their options.
Ms. Ortega’s future is bleak. The federal government frowns on giving green cards to felons. “She’ll do eight years in a Texas prison,” Mr. Birdsall said. “And then she’ll be deported, and wake up blinking and scratching in a country she doesn’t know.”
Far-right websites have seized on Ms. Ortega’s conviction as proof that Mr. Trump is right about rampant fraud and efforts by Democrats to steal the November election. There is, however, at least one flaw in that story: Ms. Ortega was a registered Republican. “She voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama in the 2012 election. In 2014 she voted for our current attorney general, Ken Paxton,” Mr. Birdsall said. “And guess what? He’s the one responsible for prosecuting her.”
Monday, February 06, 2017
"A Theory of Differential Punishment"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by John Boeglin and Zachary Shapiro now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
A puzzle pervades the criminal law: Why is it that two offenders who behave identically are sentenced differently when one of them, due to circumstances beyond her control, causes a harmful result? Through first proposing a novel deconstruction of this question by separating theories of punishment into two broad categories (namely, offender-facing and victim-facing justifications for punishment), the Article demonstrates that results-based “differential punishment” in the criminal law can only be justified, if at all, by victim-facing theories.
The Article then makes its central claim: while victim-facing theories may be capable of justifying results-based punishment in respect to many types of offenses, there are three distinct classes of offenses for which everyone should agree that differential punishment is unjustified. We conclude by showing how applying our framework would reduce the unnecessary incarceration of a significant class of criminal offenders, without sacrificing any legitimate goals of the criminal justice system.
The hardest of cases for death penalty abolitionists: convicted murderer who keeps murdering while in prison
This local news report of an apparent murder by an Ohio inmate already convicted in two other murders serves as a reminder that there are limits on how much you can incapacitate some persons who seem intent on being violent. The article is headlined "Two-time murderer suspected of killing another inmate, " and here are the ugly details:
A two-time murderer is suspected of killing another inmate, a Franklin County man, aboard a prison transport bus while it traveled south on Rt. 23 from Columbus on Wednesday evening. The body of David L. Johnson, 61, was found in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction bus on Thursday evening when it stopped to deliver him to the Ross Correctional Institution, said Ross County Prosecutor Matthew Schmidt.
Johnson, who was serving an eight-year sentence for sexual battery, apparently was strangled; Casey Pigge, 28, is "absolutely the suspect" in the death, Schmidt said. Other inmates also were locked into a caged section of the bus with Johnson and Pigge, but apparently did not alert the guards and driver at the front of the bus of the assault, Schmidt said. The guards apparently cannot see back into all sections of the bus, he said. The inmates were wearing handcuffs, and perhaps belly chains, but could move around, the prosecutor said.
Inmates, including from the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville and the Ross Correctional Institution near Chillicothe, were taken aboard the bus to Columbus for medical treatment on Thursday and were on the return leg of the trip south when the apparent slaying occurred.
Pigge is serving a 30-year to life sentence at the Lucasville prison for the 2008 murder of Rhonda Sommers, 52, the mother of his then-girlfriend. Pigge was convicted of stabbing the woman and then setting her apartment on fire. Last week, Pigge pleaded guilty to using a cement block last year to repeatedly strike to kill his cellmate, Luther Wade, 26, of Springfield, at the Lebanon Correctional Institution in Warren County. Wade, serving a 10-year sentence for aggravated burglary, was repeatedly struck in the head. Pigge faces another life sentence in the slaying.
Schmidt... questioned Pigge having access to other inmates aboard the bus given his history of violence. Investigators are working to determine if Johnson died in Franklin County, Pickaway County or Ross Country as the bus traveled south, Schmidt said. "He crushed his cellmate's head with a cinder block. You would think the sensible thing to do would be to make sure he doesn't have free access to other inmates at any time. Apparently that is not an issue for the folks at DRC," Schmidt said.
Given that Pigge is seemingly due to get an LWOP sentence for previously having "crushed his cellmate's head with a cinder block," he would be essentially getting a "free" murder if he were not at least potentially subject to something worse than LWOP for his latest murder. Moreover, given than Pigge has now slaughtered two fellow inmates during his first decade of incarceration, the only real public safety options for him would seem to be long-term solitary confinement or the death penalty.
I am not asserting that folks like Pigge make the death penalty a must, but I am saying that it seems quite difficult to figure out what a just and effective punishment is for a murderer who seems keen and able to keep killing even while incarcerated.
"Why we should free violent criminals"
The title of this post is the headline of this Boston Globe commentary authored by By David Scharfenberg. Here are excerpts:
The drug war, [some experts] say, is not the major force behind America’s huge prison growth over the last several decades. In fact, less than 20 percent of the country’s 1.5 million prisoners are serving time for such offenses. Free them all tomorrow, and the United States would still have the largest prison population in the world — larger than Russia, Mexico, and Iran combined.
Violent crime is a much more important driver, with almost half of prisoners doing time for offenses like murder and robbery. To make a real dent in mass incarceration, experts say, the country will have to do the difficult work of freeing more of these criminals sooner. “We put all of our attention — almost all of our attention — on things that aren’t nearly as important as the things we ignore,” says Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff, author of the forthcoming book “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.”
Pfaff says the criminal justice reform movement had to start with talk of greater leniency for nonviolent offenders. It couldn’t leap right to a discussion of, say, cutting murderers’ sentences down to a European-style 10 years. But now, he says, it’s time for something more. Not all “violent crime” is as serious as the phrase would imply. In some states, burglarizing a house when no one is home is considered a violent offense. And what about the 18-year-old robber who was carrying a gun but didn’t actually use it?
As for long sentences, it’s true that they play a role in driving prison growth. “Three strikes” laws, mandatory minimums, and other tough-on-crime measures have increased time served for all kinds of offenders — pot dealers and violent criminals alike. A Pew analysis of state prison data showed that prisoners released in 2009 served 36 percent longer than those who were released in 1990.
But at three years, the average prison term is shorter than the conventional wisdom would suggest. Pfaff argues that the real concern is not sentence length, but serving any time in prison at all. Whether you serve 12 or 16 months, he says, the impact is the same. Upon release, convicted felons have a hard time getting decent jobs or good housing. And with the odds heavily stacked against them, they’re more likely to reoffend.
The criminal justice reform movement, Pfaff argues, needs a reorientation — and a willingness to show mercy for prisoners beyond the proverbial nonviolent drug offender. That means diverting more people — whatever their offenses — away from the system, thereby sparing them from a criminal record. And there’s only one way to do that, he says: Change the behavior of the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system, the prosecutor....
Over the last couple of decades, Pfaff’s research shows, they’ve become ever-more aggressive about seeking jail time. In the mid-’90s, prosecutors filed felony charges against about one in three arrestees. By 2008, it was more like two in three. Why are prosecutors getting more aggressive? Maybe because they’re more politically ambitious, Pfaff theorizes. They may think a tough-on-crime record can be parlayed into a run for higher office. Or maybe the police are developing stronger cases, using more surveillance-camera footage, for example.
Whatever the cause, the impact has been enormous. The push to file more felony charges, Pfaff writes in his forthcoming book, is the single most important factor in the growth in prison admissions since crime started dropping in the early-’90s. One solution: legislate a reduction in prosecutorial power. Pfaff suggests creating detailed charging guidelines that would force prosecutors to steer more offenders away from the prison system.
Getting that sort of thing on the books will be difficult though; prosecutors have substantial clout in state legislatures and don’t want to see their power diminished . Which is why advocates may have better luck urging district and state attorneys’ offices to change from within and produce more flexible prosecutors.
Friday, February 03, 2017
Oklahoma Governor's task force urging significant sentencing reform to deal with surging prison population
As reported in this lengthy local article, "faced with a rapidly growing prison population in a state with the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, a task force created by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a report Thursday calling for dramatic decreases in sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers." Here is more:
Without reform, Oklahoma is on pace to add 7,218 inmates over the next 10 years, requiring three new prisons and costing the state an additional $1.9 billion in capital expenditures and operating costs, the report said. But task members said those costs can be averted and the prison population can be reduced 7 percent over the next decade through a combination of sentence reductions and other reforms, including increased funding for alternative mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.
Oklahoma currently has 61,385 individuals in its overcrowded prison system. That includes 26,581 incarcerated in state facilities and private prisons, 1,643 awaiting transfer from county jails and 33,161 on some form of probation, parole, community sentencing or GPS monitoring, said Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.
Oklahoma's prison population, which is at 109 percent of capacity, has grown 9 percent in the past five years and is now 78 percent higher than the national average. Only Louisiana has a higher rate, the report said.
Oklahoma's female incarceration rate remains the highest in the nation, a distinction the state has held for 25 years, task members said. The state's female population grew 30 percent between 2011 and 2016 and Oklahoma now incarcerates women at a rate more than 2 1/2 times the national average.
In a 38-page report that contains 27 recommendations, the governor's task force on justice reform recommends a number of dramatic changes to stave off a looming state financial crisis, including sharply reducing sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers. The report also calls for sweeping changes in the parole system, including allowing many inmates to become eligible for parole after serving a fourth of their sentences. Currently, inmates typically serve about a third of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole for most nonviolent crimes.
Many of the task force's recommendations would require legislative action. The task force is recommending that the penalty for possession of methamphetamine, heroin or crack cocaine with intent to distribute be lowered to zero to five years for nonviolent first-time felony drug offenders, said Jennifer Chance, the governor's general counsel and a member of the task force. It is recommending that the penalty for manufacturing be lowered to zero to eight years.
Possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute currently carries a sentence of two years to life in prison for a first-time felony drug conviction, while possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute carries a term of five years to life and heroin seven years to life.
Oklahoma's criminal justice system has exacerbated the state's prison crowding crisis by repeatedly sentencing more nonviolent offenders — particularly drug offenders — to longer terms than neighboring states like Texas and Missouri, the report says. Many states have been far ahead of Oklahoma in reforming their justice systems, the task force found. "Since 2010, 31 states across the country have decreased imprisonment rates while reducing crime rates," the report states.
Reducing Oklahoma prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes is critical to reversing those trends because nearly a third of all Oklahoma prison admissions are for drug crimes and those prison sentences are often lengthy, the task force said.
Chance said most of the 21 task force members were in agreement with the group's findings, but acknowledged that the two district attorneys on the panel, David Prater and Mike Fields, have strong disagreements with some of the report's recommendations. Prater is the chief prosecutor for Oklahoma County, while Fields is the chief prosecutor for Canadian, Garfield, Blaine, Grant and Kingfisher counties and president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association....
If the state cuts prison sentences for drug manufacturing, distributing and trafficking without dramatically increasing funding for drug addiction treatment programs, Prater predicted it will lead to more home and auto break-ins and other crimes. "This is such a dishonest report," Prater said. "It's going to make Oklahoma a much more dangerous place."
Prater said the report's backers like to point to Texas as a state that has simultaneously reduced its incarceration and crime rates through similar justice reforms, but he noted that Texas appropriated $241 million up front in 2007 to pay for a package of prison alternatives that included more intermediate sanctions and substance abuse treatment beds, drug courts and mental illness treatment slots. Unless Oklahoma dramatically increases upfront funding for substance abuse treatment and parole supervision programs, the state's experience is more likely to parallel that of Utah, Prater said.
That state drastically cut sentences without providing sufficient funding for community programs and police officers and judges there have complained about offenders repeatedly being released out on the street with little or no supervision, he said. Critics of Utah's reform efforts have cited the January 2016 slaying of Unified police officer Doug Barney as a reason for re-evaluating changes that were made. Barney's shooter, Corey Henderson, went through the revolving door of prison and many have argued he shouldn't have been out of jail when Barney was killed....
The Oklahoma Attorney General's Office was noncommittal about the report. “The Attorney General's Office was invited to take part in the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, and members of our team were in attendance," Lincoln Ferguson, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, said in a prepared statement. "The AG's office takes no position on the merits or demerits of the proposal.”
The full report is an interesting read and is available here at this link.
Wednesday, February 01, 2017
"Say no to restorative justice for sex offenders"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary published in The Hill authored by Michael Dolce. Here are some of the details:
The debate around the Senate’s possible confirmation of Betsy DeVos, President-elect Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, should kick start a national discussion on how colleges and universities handle sexual assault. Recently, much of that conversation has revolved around “restorative justice,” programs that aim to respond to misconduct or crime by redressing the harm inflicted on victims and the community, rather than simply punishing offenders.
As a victim of childhood sexual abuse myself and an attorney who now represents sexual assault survivors every day, I can say without doubt that restorative justice is not only horribly insufficient for handling sexual abuse but, in many cases, actually serves to leave an offender free to offend again.
Whether as an alternative or a supplement to traditional discipline, restorative justice programs require offenders to make amends with victims — often with apologies and mediation — and participate in reformative programs like anger management or cultural sensitivity training, measures rarely imposed by the criminal justice system. In an education setting, employing these programs for offenses like racial harassment and alcohol misuse have had some success, leading to understandable calls from some criminal justice reform advocates and college administrators to expand their use to college sexual misconduct cases.
It’s true that our colleges and universities routinely fail victims of sexual assault, as last year’s abhorrent handling of the Brock Turner case at Stanford University reminded us. It’s also true, as the Chicago Tribune reported late last month, that the future of campus sex assault investigations under President Trump are “uncertain,” particularly since GOP convention platform calls for a reduced federal government role in investigations of campus sexual assault.
But, for several important reasons, restorative justice is not the answer for handling sex offenders. First, this method only works if offenders feel empathy when confronted with the impact of their misconduct.
According to prominent forensic psychology researchers Drs. Daryl Kroner and Adelle Forth, about half of convicted sex offenders exhibit psychopathology, meaning they are incapable of feeling remorse or empathizing with their victims. Sex offenders are often skilled at manipulating others into believing they are safe, which helps them gain their victims’ trust before attacking....
Second, advocates for restorative justice programs in this context often make the flawed assumption that sex offenders are similar to repeat offenders of other habitual offenses like drunk driving. But while underage drinking and alcohol abuse are certainly a common problem on university campuses, alcohol does not turn a college student into a sex offender. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, some offenders actually drink alcohol before committing sexual assault specifically to later justify their behavior. Relying on restorative justice to ‘treat’ this group would be a dangerous validation of their criminal deceit.
The third common argument – that schools might be safe relying on restorative justice methods in cases of sexual harassment that don’t involve physical assault – is risky at best. Those who sexually harass others are objectifying and dehumanizing their victims, behavior that is often a prelude to assaults....
The reality is that I believe the majority of sex offenders are largely incapable of empathy. Two-thirds of male sex offenders will re-offend if they are not treated and restrained as criminals. The consensus among mental health and criminal justice professionals is that most sex criminals cannot be reformed; they can only be monitored, controlled and contained.
These are people who look at the tears and agony on victims’ faces, show no mercy and then quickly move on to their next victim. Restorative justice can be a wonderful tool for certain types of offenses, but let’s not ask victims of sexual assault to suffer an even greater burden by making them take part in their attackers’ so-called “reformation.”
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
"Delaying a Second Chance: The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by The Sentencing Project. Here is the first part of the report's Executive Summary:
Amid growing public support for criminal justice reform, policymakers and criminal justice practitioners have begun to scale back prison sentences for low-level, nonviolent crimes. Although the results have been modest — a 5% reduction in the overall U.S. prison population between 2009 and 2015 — this shift follows almost four decades of prison expansion. But so far, criminal justice reform has largely excluded people in prison with life sentences. This growing “lifer” population both illustrates and contributes to the persistence of mass incarceration.
Most people serving life sentences were convicted of serious crimes. Their incarceration was intended to protect society and to provide appropriate punishment. But many were sentenced at a time when “life with the possibility of parole” meant a significantly shorter sentence than it has become today. Many remain incarcerated even though they no longer pose a public safety risk.
Researchers have shown that continuing to incarcerate those who have “aged out” of their crime-prone years is ineffective in promoting public safety. Long sentences are also limited in deterring future crimes given that most people do not expect to be apprehended for a crime, are not familiar with relevant legal penalties, or criminally offend with their judgment compromised by substance abuse or mental health problems. Unnecessarily long prison terms are also costly and impede public investments in effective crime prevention, drug treatment, and other rehabilitative programs that produce healthier and safer communities.
Despite this body of criminological evidence, the number of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984 — a faster rate of growth than the overall prison population. Even between 2008 and 2012, as crime rates fell to historic lows and the total prison population contracted, the number of people serving life sentences grew by 12%. By 2012, one in nine people in U.S. state and federal prisons — nearly 160,000 people — were there under life sentences. Two factors have driven this growth: the increased imposition of life sentences, particularly those that are parole-ineligible, and an increased reluctance to grant parole to the 110,000 lifers who are eligible. MO
January 31, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Sunday, January 29, 2017
"A Better Approach to Violent Crime"
The title of this post is the headline given by the Wall Street Journal to John Pfaff's extended weekend commentary about crime and punishment in the United States. The subheadline provides a better summary of the themes of the extended essay: "If we’re going to end mass incarceration in the U.S., it will mean figuring out better ways to prevent violent crimes and to deal with those who commit them." John's analysis of modern mass incarceration is always in the must-read category, and here are some extended excerpts from this latest piece that help highlight why:
If we are serious about ending mass incarceration in the U.S., we will have to figure out how to lock up fewer people who have committed violent acts and to incarcerate those we do imprison for less time.
There is an obvious rejoinder, of course: Don’t we need to keep people convicted of violence locked up for long periods? Isn’t this how we’ve kept the crime rate down for so long? The answer to both of those questions is, “No, not likely.” Simply put, long prison sentences provide neither the deterrence nor the incapacitation effects that their proponents suggest. (There may be moral arguments for long sentences, but that is a separate issue from public safety.)...
Violence is a phase, not a state. People age into violent behavior and age out of it: A 24-year-old is more violent than a 7-year-old or a 60-year-old. It’s true that some people are more prone to violence than their peers, but almost everyone exhibits some sort of bell-curved trajectory of violence over their lives. Young men are simply more prone to violence than any other demographic group.
It is almost impossible, however, to predict how violent a young person will be in the future. Imposing harsh sanctions for a first violent act needlessly detains many people who are not serious future risks. In addition — and somewhat counterintuitively — by the time a person in his 30s has generated a long criminal history suggesting that he poses a continuing risk, he is likely to have started “aging out” of crime, violent behavior in particular.
A prominent study of hundreds of at-risk men that tracked their behavior from ages 7 to 70, for example, found that most started to engage in crime in their late teens and began to stop in their mid to late 20s. Only about 10% continued to offend consistently into their 30s, and only about 3% did so at high rates.
California has tested this proposition. Since 2012, the state has granted early release to over 2,000 people convicted under its harsh three-strikes law, and their recidivism rate has been about a 10th of the state average (4.7% vs. 45%) — due in no small part to the fact that those released early are often in their 40s and 50s and thus no longer likely to offend.
Whether aimed at younger or older defendants, lengthy incapacitation often imposes substantial, avoidable costs — not just on prison budgets but on society at large, which loses many people who might otherwise be productive citizens. A long prison sentence also undermines someone’s ability to find the stabilizing influence of a job or a spouse, thus increasing the long-run risk that he will reoffend.
The good news is that a growing number of proven tactics can keep violent crime low, and perhaps reduce it even further, without relying as much on prison. If governments lock up fewer people for violent crimes, they can use some of the savings to help fund these alternatives.
One widely adopted approach is what experts call “focused deterrence,” which was first tried, with great success, in Boston in the mid-1990s. Aimed at reducing the violence associated with gang membership, the program brings gang members together with the police, social-service providers and respected members of the local community. They are told that if violence continues, the police will crack down quickly and severely. Those who agree to put violence behind them, however, are offered help with housing, education, drug and alcohol treatment and other services, and community leaders make a moral plea to them. Such programs have had a significant effect on street violence in many places. Nine of the 10 high-quality studies that have been done on focused deterrence report strong impacts — a 63% decline in youth homicides in Boston, a 35% decline in murders among “criminally active group members” in Cincinnati and so on.
A related but less conventional approach called “Cure Violence” has been tried in New York City and Chicago (and even as far afield as Rio de Janeiro and Basra, Iraq). This program treats gun violence as a public-health problem: If left “untreated,” a shooting will be transmitted to another victim, thanks to retaliation. The idea is to interrupt that cycle, relying on people like former gang members (as opposed to the police) to help shooting victims and their friends and family find other, nonviolent ways to resolve the conflict.
Like focused deterrence, this approach also seeks to provide at-risk youth with access to resources, ranging from housing to entertainment. In New York City, a study conducted between 2010 and 2012 found that areas where Cure Violence operated had experienced 20% fewer shootings as compared with similar areas. Conversely, shootings in Chicago began to rise sharply shortly after a stalemate over the state budget resulted in a drastic cut in funding for Cure Violence in March 2015. The biggest increases in lethal violence occurred in those neighborhoods where the program had been used most widely.
Another key tactic is “hot-spot policing.” Crime is generally concentrated in particular neighborhoods. Some studies have found that half of all urban crimes take place in under 10% of all city blocks. In Chicago, nearly 45% of the increase in murders between 2015 and 2016 occurred in only five neighborhoods, home to just 9% of the city’s population. Hot-spot policing identifies these high-crime blocks and significantly increases patrols and community involvement there.
It has produced significant results, even in nearby neighborhoods not subject to increased enforcement, which suggests that people are not simply changing where they commit crimes. The Philadelphia Foot Patrol Experiment, for example, identified 120 blocks that had high levels of violent crime and then assigned additional patrol officers to 60 randomly selected blocks for three months. Hot spots with extra patrols experienced a 23% drop in violent crime relative to those that didn’t. A comprehensive review of the hot-spot literature found that 20 out of 25 tests reported “noteworthy crime control gains.”...
Prison, in short, is by no means the only effective way to respond to violent behavior. In fact, compared with these programs, prison is likely one of the least efficient approaches that we have. The declines in incarceration over the past six years are worth celebrating. But they are modest, in no small part because politicians are understandably afraid to confront a fundamental source of prison growth: our shortsighted policies on violent crime.
If we really hope to scale back our sprawling prison system, we must send fewer people to prison for violent crimes and keep those we do lock up for less time. Fortunately, we can preserve the tremendous reductions of violence we have experienced over the past 25 years with smarter, safer and more humane approaches.
January 29, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)
Saturday, January 28, 2017
An object lesson in what not to do when you find a big bale of cocaine in the ocean
A helpful reader flagged this somewhat amusing though still very serious sentencing tale of a not-so-old man and the sea. The headline of the article provides the essentials: "Fla. fisherman who hauled in $500,000 worth of cocaine faces life in prison." And here are some of the particulars:
Cocaine, more so than any other narcotic, is the drug most frequently interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard. In late 2016, the Coast Guard announced it had seized about $2 billion worth of cocaine during a 10-week operation that began in October. (At 26.5 tons, the weight of the seized stimulant rivaled the bulk of four African bull elephants.) Water is the route of choice for drug runners. Some 95 percent of cocaine smuggling operations, a Coast Guard rear admiral told the BBC in 2015, involves traveling via boat.
In the Gulf Coast, a container vessel or freighter may serve as a mother ship, which offloads the drug to sailboats, go-fast cigarette boats, fishing boats and other smaller boats. “Fishermen are great mules because they know the waters and they don’t draw attention,” wrote journalist Erik Vance at Slate in 2013. “And if you have to chuck your haul overboard to avoid the military, other fishermen can dive to retrieve it.” And if the divers sent after the contraband cannot find it, perhaps someone else will.
In 2016, that someone else was Thomas Zachary Breeding. Breeding, 32, was a longline fisherman from Panama City, Fla. The fisherman had accumulated a few run-ins with the law, including drug and gun convictions, the Panama City News Herald reported. In 2012, a federal grand jury indicted Breeding for giving false statements to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Prosecutors also alleged he obstructed the agency’s investigation into why the fisherman had entered grouper spawning grounds, closed to fishing; Breeding, they argued, deliberately sought to catch a valuable species of fish called gag grouper. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
But, until Breeding found the 45-pound cocaine bale, the fisherman said that he had kept a previously clean slate when it came to the narcotics trade. “I do not know where the drugs came from and haven’t ever been involved in the drug trade before. I was just a hard-working, young commercial fisherman,” Breeding wrote recently in a letter to the News Herald, penned from Florida’s Washington County Jail. “I was working as a long line boat captain out of Panama City when I found a package containing 20 kilos of cocaine.”
It was a what-if scenario of the type that fuels Florida crime potboilers: A fisherman finds a package of drugs valued at a huge street sum, and makes a decision. In Breeding’s case, he was 50 miles south of Panama City when he found between $500,000 and $650,000 of cocaine floating in the gulf. As impressive as the sum was, in the annals of washed-ashore cocaine — white lobster, as villagers along the Central American coast euphemize it — its street value was not a record. In 2013, five fishermen found $2.5 million of cocaine in the waters off north Florida. A metal tube filled with an estimated $5 million worth of cocaine washed up in Ireland last summer.
But it was an object lesson in what not to do. In December, Mark “The Shark” Quartiano, a celebrity Miami fisherman, found a kilogram brick of cocaine. He promptly alerted the authorities. Breeding did not. He instead handed over the 45-pound haul to four other people, on the condition they would sell the cocaine and pay a cut to Breeding. All five were caught in the summer — Breeding, a felon, had a firearm in his car when he was arrested — and faced conspiracy charges for the distribution of a controlled substance. Breeding pleaded guilty Wednesday, the News Herald reported, as did the other members of the network; they are awaiting a Feb. 16 sentencing. Breeding may be punished with up to life imprisonment and a fine in the millions of dollars.
Thursday, January 26, 2017
"Strict Liability's Criminogenic Effect"
The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Paul Robinson now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
It is easy to understand the apparent appeal of strict liability to policymakers and legal reformers seeking to reduce crime: if the criminal law can do away with its traditional culpability requirement, it can increase the likelihood of conviction and punishment of those who engage in prohibited conduct or bring about prohibited harm or evil. And such an increase in punishment rate can enhance the crime-control effectiveness of a system built upon general deterrence or incapacitation of the dangerous. Similar arguments support the use of criminal liability for regulatory offenses. Greater punishment rates suggest greater compliance.
But this analysis fails to appreciate the crime-control costs of strict liability. By explicitly providing for punishment in the absence of moral blameworthiness, the law undermines its moral credibility with the community and thereby provokes subversion and resistance instead of the cooperation and acquiescence it needs for effective crime control. More importantly, the system's lost moral credibility undermines the law’s ability to harness the powerful forces of stigmatization, social influence, and internalized norms. Given the serious limitations inherent in the real-world application of general deterrence and preventive detention programs, the most effective crime-control strategy is to build the criminal law's reputation for being just, which means avoiding the use of strict liability.
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Is Prez Trump really ordering the Justice Department to conduct major voter fraud investigation?
Though it appears that Jeff Sessions will not be confirmed to serve as our next Attorney General until next week, his boss this morning was tweeting a new crime-fighting agenda for the Justice Department. This U.S. News & World Report article, headlined "Trump Calls for Voter Fraud Investigation: The president has previously declared that 3 to 5 million voted illegally in 2016," explains:
President Donald Trump called for a "major investigation" into voter fraud Wednesday. "I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and… even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!" the president tweeted from his personal account.
The call is a follow-up on comments from Trump and the White House. Trump said "millions" voted illegally in November, prompting him to lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. And shortly after being sworn in as president, Trump repeated the claim to lawmakers at a White House reception, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.
When asked if the administration would call for an investigation on the matter at Tuesday's briefing in Washington, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that it was a possibility. "Maybe we will," Spicer said.
He noted the president has continuously stated his concern on the issue before and "continues to maintain that belief" that voter fraud is a major problem, "based on studies and evidence people have brought to him." Spicer specifically cited a study "that came out of Pew in 2008 that showed 14 percent of people who voted were noncitizens."
Politico slammed the veracity of that study and claim, and several outlets, including CNN and the Associated Press, assert that the president and his team have provided essentially no evidence for these claims....
The White House is not fully going it alone, however. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, gave at least tacit backing to Trump on the issue Tuesday. "It does occur," McConnell told reporters. "The notion that election fraud is a fiction is not true… There are always arguments on both sides about how much, how frequent and all the rest."
But House Speaker Paul Ryan said he had seen "no evidence to that effect" and he's made his position on the matter "very, very clear."
Based on the reports and evidence I have seen marshaled by folks on both sides of the political aisle, the claim that millions (rather than perhaps just hundreds) voted illegally in the 2016 election is seemingly badly detached from reality. And it is useful to recall that we went down this road to some extent 16 years ago the last time a Republican took control of the Executive Branch. This lengthy New York Times article from 2007, headlined "In 5-Year Effort, Scant Evidence of Voter Fraud," review the last version of this story and it starts this way:
Five years after the Bush administration began a crackdown on voter fraud, the Justice Department has turned up virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections, according to court records and interviews. Although Republican activists have repeatedly said fraud is so widespread that it has corrupted the political process and, possibly, cost the party election victories, about 120 people have been charged and 86 convicted as of last year.
Friday, January 20, 2017
You be the judge: what federal sentence for "Dance Mom" star after her guilty plea to financial crimes?
I am not ashamed to admit that some years ago the reality show "Dance Moms" was a regular watch in the Berman home. My dancing daughters found engaging how the young dancers in the show stood up to the pressures created by teachers and parents; I was amazed at how the adult star, Abby Lee Miller, created a media sensation despite having no obviously distinctive talents. But now, as this local article highlights, headlined "'Dance Moms' TV star faces sentencing in federal court," Abby Lee Miller is now of interest to me for a very different reason. Here are the details:
“Dance Moms” TV star Abby Lee Miller, convicted of hiding assets from bankruptcy court and sneaking cash into the U.S. to conceal it, says she shouldn’t go to federal prison. Ms. Miller, whose real name is Abigale Miller, is asking U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti for probation.
But the government says she has shown no respect for the law — at one point she sent an email to her accountant using a vulgar term in referring to the bankruptcy judge handling her case — and deserves the two years to 30 months called for by federal sentencing guidelines.
Ms. Miller’s sentencing will start today. A second day has been set aside to finish it on Feb. 24. The unusual format was necessary because the sentencing is likely to be contentious enough to require two days and the judge also is handling the ongoing drug trial of former Pittsburgh Steelers doctor Richard Rydze.
Ms. Miller became a federal felon in June when she pleaded guilty to concealing assets from her TV show from federal bankruptcy court in Pittsburgh. She also admitted that she sneaked cash into the country in plastic bags stuffed into luggage after returning from dance trips in Australia. In pre-sentencing filings, Ms. Miller gave an accounting of her past, saying her family-run Penn Hills dance studio was in financial trouble in the late 2000s because of her lack of financial knowledge and a drop in enrollment caused by the global economic crisis and the decline of Penn Hills. She declared bankruptcy in 2010.
But when her reality TV show took off in 2011, she and her lawyer said, she suddenly became a star and didn’t know how to handle the fame that it brought. She soon became overwhelmed. “She was simply ill-equipped to manage her good fortune,” wrote attorney Brandon Verdream. He said she always intended to pay off her creditors at 100 percent and has admitted that what she did was wrong. “It was a foolish decision to skirt the law and she has accepted a felony conviction as the wages of her frivolity,” Mr. Verdream wrote.
He and Ms. Miller, who had been splitting time among homes in California, Florida and Penn Hills, also pointed to all of the people she has helped over the years as one reason she should not be jailed, including the 40-some dancers she has trained who went on to professional careers on Broadway and elsewhere. Mr. Verdream presented many letters on her behalf and asked Judge Conti to impose a “non-custodial” sentence.
But federal prosecutors say the guidelines don’t allow for probation and Ms. Miller’s calculated conduct warrants time behind bars. Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Melucci said that Ms. Miller had numerous opportunities during her bankruptcy to set the record straight about her assets, yet chose to lie repeatedly.
Among his exhibits are emails and texts she sent showing her contempt for the court and her intent to hide income even after warnings. After being dressed down by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Agresti in February 2013, for example, she sent an email to her accountant describing the judge using a derogatory term and complaining that he hated her because he was making her pay all of her creditors back at once.
Judge Agresti showed plenty of irritation at Ms. Miller as her schemes became apparent, Mr. Melucci said. At one hearing in 2012, he found out she hadn’t revealed her income from 2012 and had also struck TV show contracts without disclosing them in an amended bankruptcy plan. After she complained that she didn’t even know about the contracts, he’d had enough. “And she can shake her head and protest all she wants and go through her TV face, that’s not going to affect me, ma’am, and I’d prefer you stop it, OK?” the judge told her. “Let’s be a little stoic here. These are very serious problems you have, and a failure to disclose.”
Mr. Melucci also said her attempt to transport cash into the U.S. shows that she continued “her scheming ways” even after being caught hiding assets from bankruptcy. “It is apparent that Miller is not easily deterred by the threat of criminal prosecution,” he wrote, “even standing before a federal judge.” Judge Agresti discovered Ms. Miller’s fraud by chance. He said he was channel-surfing one night, came across her TV performances and realized she had more money than she was revealing in her Chapter 11 filings.
The U.S. Attorney’s office said she tried to hide about $755,000 from the bankruptcy trustee. In the other case, prosecutors said she did not report money that she transferred from Australia into the U.S. after trips there in 2014 to conduct dance instruction classes before large audiences. Mr. Melucci said she and her entourage brought back about $120,000 in cash tucked into Ziploc bags in amounts less than $10,000 and hidden in their luggage. Among the government’s exhibits is a photo of the cash bundles seized.
Thursday, January 19, 2017
"Dear President Trump: Here’s How to get Right on Crime, Part 2"
As noted in this prior post, the Marshall Project this week has a timely three-part series in which leading conservatives working on and advocating for criminal justice reform are setting out the conservative case for reforms. The first commentary was authored by Pat Nolan and carried the subheadline "Focus on intent, tailor the punishment to the crime, prepare prisoners for life after incarceration."
The second in the series here is authored by Vikrant Reddy and carries the subheadline "End overcriminalization, reward success, pay attention to the heroin crisis." Here are excerpts:
Criminal justice reform advocates are pessimistic about the prospects for federal sentencing reform under the new presidential administration. Federal sentencing, however, is only one component of America’s vast criminal justice system. There are several other areas where the administration and reformers could find common cause. Here are just three reforms widely supported by advocates which are also consistent with a “Trumpian” worldview. They should be at the forefront of a serious federal reform agenda over the next four years.
Scaling Back Overcriminalization
There are now over 5,000 obscure federal crimes, such as shipping lobster in plastic rather than cardboard boxes, that are more appropriately treated as administrative or regulatory matters. Furthermore, the mens rea or “state of mind” portions of many criminal statutes (which specify whether the conduct must be purposeful, knowing, reckless, or negligent) are frequently left out when laws are drafted. Reversing this “overcriminalization” has long been a priority for conservatives. Yet it has also been a priority for prominent progressive voices, such as the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and U.S. Representatives John Conyers and Bobby Scott....
One of the most widely-admired strategies for improving criminal justice outcomes is performance-incentive funding (PIF). The idea is simple: Governments should fund prisons (and community corrections programs, for that matter) based on outcomes achieved, not merely on the number of people incarcerated. A government that contracts for lower recidivism rates and increased restitution payments to victims is more likely to find that its prisons are encouraging education and job training behind bars. People from the business world who are more concerned with results than with ideologies — such as Donald Trump — are likely to understand this truth intuitively: You get what you pay for....
Combating Heroin Addiction
On Election Day, Trump performed unusually well in communities ravaged by heroin abuse. He seemed to understand that he owes it to these voters — his base — to take the issue seriously. His administration will likely pursue a law enforcement solution that attacks the “supply side” of the heroin problem, as Trump frequently promised on the campaign trail. There is also a “demand side” to the problem, however, and Trump must treat this side of the problem with equal urgency. This means redirecting scarce resources from incarceration to less costly and more effective diversion programs that treat addiction.
Prior related post:
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Making a provocative case for constitutional amendments to enable more executions to drive down crime
I just noticed this recent commentary by Karl Spence titled "How Donald Trump and Friends Can Crush the Great Crime Wave" with the subheadline "A law-and-order constitutional amendment would speed up the process of justice." The piece is provocative and meandering and a bit dated as it suggests that constitutional protections given to criminals, especially with respect to the death penalty, accounts for the nation's crime problems. I recommend the piece in full because of its notable range of historical and rhetorical flourishes, and here is a taste:
Between 1960 and 1991, the per capita murder rate doubled. Property crime tripled. Robbery and forcible rape more than quadrupled, and aggravated assault — boosted by the same advances in emergency trauma care that retarded the murder rate — more than quintupled. Even after receding from its crest of the early ’90s, violent crime remains twice what it was two generations ago. And today, the mayhem is resurgent.
In the last half-century, crime has killed more Americans than died in all our country’s wars combined, save the Civil War. Its toll dwarfs that of 9/11 — it even dwarfs that of the terrible Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004....
Enter Donald Trump. I was thrilled to hear him pronounce himself “the law-and-order candidate.” Such defiance of the PC gods helped him gain a convincing victory over Hillary Clinton. What remains to be seen is whether Trump will go from talking to thinking about crime, and then to actually doing what is necessary to reach the goal he set forth while accepting the party’s nomination: “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end.”...
For decades, some two-thirds of Americans have told pollsters they favor the death penalty for murder. Yet it’s capital punishment’s opponents who get their way nearly all the time. In the past half-century, fewer than 1,500 murderers have been put to death in America; murderers, meanwhile, have killed more than 900,000 of us.
How many of those 900,000 innocent lives were lost needlessly? How many could have been saved by a credible and effective deterrent? Studies have repeatedly shown that the death penalty can be such a deterrent when — and only when — it is actually enforced. Those studies have been rebutted but not refuted, and the stakes in the dispute are these: If the deniers of deterrence are mistaken, then their interference with capital punishment is itself a death sentence for future murder victims....
What of the fact that most criminals stop short of murder? ... How do you reach those people? With a rope. That’s because most robbers depend on the threat of murder to secure their victims’ compliance, as do many rapists. And aggravated assault is, in many if not most cases, simply unsuccessful murder. Hang murderers, and every hoodlum in the land will notice. And, like the outlaws who fled the vigilantes, they will change their behavior....
The ratification of such an amendment [to overturn Fifth and Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment precedents impeding capital punishment] would free the deep-red states to ramp up enforcement of the death penalty until they achieved results even more dramatic and unmistakable than those seen in Texas, where executions increased from zero in 1980 to a record 40 in 2000 — and the murder rate plunged by almost two-thirds, while murder in non-death-penalty states fell only 21 percent. Seeing crime collapse in places where death for murder had become the rule, people elsewhere would clamor for their states to follow suit, and liberals would immolate themselves in a vain attempt to preserve the crime-ridden status quo, with all its injustice, pain, and horror.
Call it the Madison-Roosevelt-Cardozo Amendment. Donald Trump may be fond of boasting, “I alone can fix it,” but if he really wants to restore law and order, “and I mean very soon,” he’ll need all the help he can get.
Thursday, January 12, 2017
"Mistakes and Justice — Using the Pardon Power to Remedy a Mistake of Law"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Paul Larkin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
American criminal law has never recognized a mistake-of-law defense. The principal rationale for rejecting it has been that the community knows what the criminal law prohibits. That may have been a reasonable rule when there were only a handful of crimes, and each one also violated the contemporary moral code, but that rule makes no sense today, given the use of the criminal law to enforce thousands of sometimes technical, arcane administrative regulations. Clemency, however, may be a perfect vehicle for the implementation of a mistake- or ignorance-of-the-law defense.
Throughout Anglo-American legal history, kings, presidents, and governors have used their pardon power as a vehicle to remedy injustices in the criminal justice system. The conviction of a person for conduct that no reasonable person would have thought to be a crime certainly qualifies as a miscarriage of justice. Presidents and governors should consider using their clemency authority to pardon legitimate cases of mistake or ignorance, which might particularly arise in connection with strict criminal liability or regulatory crimes.
Tuesday, January 10, 2017
Interesting new report on impact of Prop 47 on drug arrests in California
Via email I received notice of this notable new research report, titled "Declinining Drug Enforcement After Proposition 47," coming from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the Drug Policy Alliance. This executive summary provides the report's highlights:
In November 2014, California took a significant step toward reforming mass criminalization and over-incarceration by passing Proposition 47, a law that changed certain low-level crimes from potential felonies to misdemeanors, prioritizing drug treatment over punishment. Prop 47 reclassified three drug possession offenses (possession of a narcotic, concentrated cannabis, or a non-narcotic) and reinvested state savings in direct services. In 2015, the first full year after Prop 47, felony drug arrests fell by over 92,000 while misdemeanor drug arrests increased by only 70,000. Taken together, these shifts produced a 10 percent decline in total drug arrests.
In response to Prop 47’s reclassification statute, some law enforcement departments began redirecting drug enforcement resources to community policing or the enforcement of other, more serious, offenses. Critics of the policy, however, claim that it limits police authority and constrains the effectiveness of drug control, a contention that has led some law enforcement agencies to deemphasize the enforcement of Proposition 47-related offenses.
This report seeks to understand how enforcement and prosecution of drug possession offenses have changed after Prop 47 by analyzing arrests and citations made by Los Angeles and San Diego law enforcement, and charges filed by county prosecutors. Some of the findings include:
• Prop 47 reduced inconsistencies in the classification of drug possession offenses as felonies or misdemeanors. Prior to Prop 47, qualifying drug possession offenses could be prosecuted as misdemeanors, felonies, or “wobblers.” After the passage of Prop 47, these offenses are filed as misdemeanors, eliminating prosecutorial discretion and the presence of “justice-by-geography,” which can disproportionately impact low income communities and communities of color.
• Drug arrests and citations were increasing in the years immediately preceding Prop 47. From 2010-2014, arrests and citations for Prop 47 drug possession offenses increased in 72 percent of law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Between 2014-2015, 58 percent of agencies reported declines.
• Arrests and citations declined after Prop 47, but varied by county, city, and substance. For example, while both San Diego and Los Angeles counties experienced declines in arrests and citations, Los Angles reported a decrease of 45 percent while San Diego reported 7 percent decline.
Saturday, December 24, 2016
Louisiana appeals court find LWOP sentence unconstitutionally excessive for fourth minor offense
As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Appeals court vacates 'unconscionable' life sentence for New Orleans man over theft of $15 from 'bait vehicle'," this past week brought a notable state constitutional ruling from the Louisiana Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal. Here are the basics from the press report:
Walter Johnson was walking down a street in Uptown New Orleans a week before Thanksgiving in 2013 when he noticed a Jeep Cherokee with the driver's side window down. He glanced inside and saw a laptop and $15 in cash -- a $10 bill and a $5. Johnson snatched the bills. He left the computer.
As it turns out, the Jeep was a law enforcement "bait vehicle," and Johnson was the catch of the day. He was found guilty of simple burglary and illegal possession of stolen things at a trial in April 2015, and Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office promptly invoked the state's habitual-offender law.
Johnson, who had prior convictions for simple burglary, heroin possession and cocaine distribution, was deemed a four-time felon. Criminal District Court Judge Karen Herman sentenced him in October 2015 to a mandatory life prison term with no parole.
But on Wednesday, an appeals court panel threw out Johnson's life sentence, finding his street heist "shockingly minor in nature," the amount "extraordinary in its triviality" and Johnson's life sentence an "unconscionable" punishment that "shocks our sense of justice." The appeals court sent the case back to Herman, telling her to resentence Johnson "to a term that is not unconstitutionally excessive."
The 10-page opinion, written by 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Paul Bonin, marks the latest bid to limit the discretion that state law grants prosecutors to ratchet up sentences for low-level drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals with multiple convictions.
Judges have little control over such decisions, and the Louisiana Supreme Court has been loath to step on the Legislature's toes by overriding one of the nation's stiffest habitual-offender laws. The state's high court has ruled that departures below the law's mandatory minimum sentences must be limited to "exceedingly rare" cases.
But occasionally it has seen fit to do so. Last year, for instance, the Supreme Court found a 30-year sentence "unconscionable" for Doreatha Mosby, a 73-year-old New Orleans woman who was found with a crack pipe tucked in her bra. Yet in the case of Bernard Noble, a father of seven who was found with the equivalent of two joints of marijuana, the court found he wasn't unusual enough to allow a sentence below the mandatory 13-year minimum under the statute.
Both of those cases, as well as Johnson's, came out of Orleans Parish, where Cannizzaro employs the habitual-offender law far more than any other prosecutor in the state. In 2015, Cannizzaro's office sent 154 convicts off to long prison sentences under the statute — almost one of every four offenders who were shipped to state prisons from New Orleans that year, according to state data analyzed by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
"You're dealing with different crime problems, socioeconomic levels, and you're dealing with different judges, different sentencing dispositions," Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro's office, said in explaining the office's penchant for deploying the statute. "If you were dealing with a situation where a prosecutor feels probation is being given too freely, then the district attorney is required to use the habitual-offender law."
The full majority ruling in Louisiana v. Johnson is available at this link. Notably, the rule s based on the Louisiana state constitutional provision prohibiting "cruel, excessive, or unusual punishment." La. Const. art. 1, § 20. Here is one notable passage (with some cites removed) from the Johnson decision:
Despite its legality, however, we find the life-without-parole sentence imposed upon Mr. Johnson unconstitutionally excessive. Mr. Johnson reached into the open window of a bait-vehicle and took fifteen dollars. He is now condemned to die in prison for that crime.
We acknowledge that Mr. Johnson's life sentence, under the habitual offender law, is intended as punishment not only the current conviction, but all prior convictions as well. Legitimate sentencing goals notwithstanding, Mr. Johnson's status as a fourth felony offender "cannot be considered in the abstract." Solem, 463 U.S. at 296. As previously noted, the trial judge found that all his prior felonies were for nonviolent crimes. And the instant offense, the one which set in motion the habitual offender proceedings, is shockingly minor in nature. No person was harmed, nor any property damaged. Had Mr. Johnson taken the fifteen dollars but not by entry into a vehicle or other structure listed in the simple burglary statute, he would have been convicted of misdemeanor theft.
Reviewing the unique issues and challenges for sentencing ISIS sympathizers
A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss this interesting new Wall Street Journal article headlined "ISIS Sentences Pose Challenge for Judges." The subheadline highlights the main theme of the piece, "U.S. judges grapple with how to punish young Islamic State sympathizers who could become more dangerous after decades in prison," and here are excerpts:
Federal judges this year faced the unprecedented challenge of sentencing dozens of Islamic State supporters across the country, with punishments ranging from no prison time to decades behind bars.
In Minnesota, 20-year-old Khaalid Abdulkadir received three years probation for tweeting threats to kill federal law-enforcement officers after one of his friends had been arrested for providing support to Islamic State. In Ohio, 22-year-old Christopher Cornell received 30 years in prison for plotting to attack the U.S. Capitol in Washington on the terrorist group’s behalf.
The wide range reflects the difficult question at sentencing in many of these cases: Should judges give young Americans who support Islamic State a chance to turn their lives around, or a lengthy prison sentence to ensure public safety?
For the most part, judges are choosing to be cautious, although some have begun considering alternatives to prison. Of the 39 Islamic State defendants who have been sentenced so far, the average prison sentence has been 13 years, according to Fordham University’s Center on National Security.
Since 2014, more than 110 suspected Islamic State sympathizers have been prosecuted in the U.S. for a broad array of criminal activities, including making false statements to the government and traveling overseas to fight with terrorists. Roughly half of these cases have resulted in convictions, while the other half are pending, according to Fordham. Several sentencings are scheduled to happen next year, including one in Brooklyn, N.Y., for Tairod Pugh, who was the first Islamic State sympathizer in the U.S. to be convicted at trial.
No Islamic State supporter in the U.S. has received a life sentence yet. Most defendants are arrested before they commit violence and charged with providing “material support” to terrorists, which carries a maximum 20-year sentence....
More than a quarter of the sentences have occurred in Minneapolis, whose large Somali population has been a target in recent years for terrorist recruitment. In an unprecedented move, one federal judge there, Michael J. Davis, last summer asked six defendants to undergo an evaluation before sentencing to see if they could be good candidates for a “deradicalization” program.
Judge Davis ultimately allowed only one defendant, 20-year-old Abdullahi Yusuf, to be released to a halfway house, where he could receive counseling and family group therapy. For another defendant, 22-year-old Guled Omar, who was convicted at trial of conspiring to commit murder in Syria, Judge Davis imposed 35 years in prison, the harshest sentence so far in an Islamic State case.
The deradicalization effort has caught the attention of judges around the country. In Anaheim, Calif., a federal judge in October raised the possibility of assigning such a program to 26-year-old Muhanad Badawi, who was convicted at trial for helping a friend who wanted to join Islamic State overseas. Mr. Badawi ultimately received 30 years in prison.
Most Islamic State defendants are between the ages of 18 and 26 at the time of their arrest, which means many of them don’t have a criminal history and could become more dangerous after decades in prison, some lawyers say. On average, Islamic State supporters under the age of 21 have been receiving lighter sentences, according to Fordham.
Still, most judges tend to impose the harshest sentence possible under the law for terrorist defendants. Terrorism, unlike other types of violent offenses, is a crime in which law-enforcement officials feel there can be no room for error. No judge wants to be the one who gave a lenient sentence to someone who ends up committing a terrorist attack.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
Continuing to track a continuing rise in homicide rates and violent crime
This week brought two notable new data points to reinforce the disconcerting reality that homicide and violent crime are on the rise in significant portions of the United States. This Wall Street Journal article has a headline capturing the deadliest part of this story: "Homicides Rose in Most Big Cities This Year: Sixteen of the 20 largest police departments saw a year-over-year increase." This piece starts this way:
Homicides rose in most big American cities in 2016, continuing a worrisome trend for police and criminologists that began last year, even as murder rates in most cities are nowhere near the levels of two decades ago.
Sixteen of the 20 largest police departments reported a year-over-year rise in homicides as of mid-December, a Wall Street Journal survey found. Some notched minor increases, while Chicago has experienced one of the most dramatic jumps, with more than 720 murders — up 56% from 2015.
Chicago’s homicide count, greater than the considerably larger cities of Los Angeles and New York combined, marks a grim tally not seen since the violent drug wars of the 1990s. As the bodies in Chicago pile up — including that of Nykea Aldridge, cousin of basketball star Dwyane Wade, shot while walking with her baby in broad daylight — police are struggling to solve the killings, clearing only one in five homicides so far this year.
Nationally, 37 of the 65 largest police agencies, including ones in San Antonio, Las Vegas and Memphis, Tenn., reported year-over-year homicide increases as of Sept. 30, the Major Cities Chiefs Association said. In 2015, 44 departments reported increases, many for the first time in years.
The folks at the Brennan Center are also on this beat, as evidence by this new publication, titled simply "Crime in 2016: Updated Analysis," which is summarized this way:
In September, the Brennan Center analyzed available crime data from the 30 largest cities, projecting that by the end of 2016, these cities would see a nearly unchanged rate of overall crime and a slight uptick in the murder rate. That report concluded that while concerns about “out of control” crime rates were premature, the data “call attention to specific cities, especially Chicago, and an urgent need to address violence there.”
This report updates these findings, incorporating more recent data. Updated Tables 1 and 2 show conclusions similar to the initial report, with slightly different percentages:
The overall crime rate in the 30 largest cities in 2016 is projected to remain roughly the same as in 2015, rising by 0.3 percent. If this trend holds, crime rates will remain near historic lows, driven by low amounts of property crime.
The violent crime rate is projected to increase slightly, by 3.3 percent, driven by increases in Chicago (17.7 percent increase) and Charlotte (13.4 percent increase). This is less than the 5.5 percent increase initially projected in the September report. Violent crime still remains near the bottom of the nation’s 30-year downward trend.
The 2016 murder rate is projected to be 14 percent higher than last year in the 30 largest cities. Chicago is projected to account for 43.7 percent of the total increase in murders. The preliminary 2016 report identified some reasons for increasing violence in Chicago, such as falling police numbers, poverty and other forms of socioeconomic disadvantage, and gang violence. A similar phenomenon occurred in 2015, when a group of three cities — Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. — accounted for more than half of the increase in murders. This year Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are projected to see their murder rates decline, by 6 percent and 18.6 percent, respectively.
An increase in the murder rate is occurring in some cities even while other forms of crime remain relatively low. Concerns about a national crime wave are still premature, but these trends suggest a need to understand how and why murder is increasing in some cities.
I am pleased to see that the Brennan Center is not trying to wish away what is now a two-year uptick in homicides, and I share the view that "these trends suggest a need to understand how and why murder is increasing in some cities." This is whay I am very hopeful (but, candidly not all that optimistic) that Prez-elect Trump with follow-up on his campaign promise (noted previously here) to work with Congress to create a task force on violent crime during his first 100 days in office.
Monday, December 19, 2016
Judicial panel concludes judge committed no misconduct in the sentencing of Brock Turner
This new local article, headlined "Panel clears judge of bias in sentencing of Brock Turner," provides a notable postscript to what became a national sentencing story earlier this year. Here are the basics:
A commission cleared Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky Monday of misconduct in his light sentencing of a former Stanford student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman outside a college party.
The Commission on Judicial Performance had received thousands of complaints and petitions that Persky — who on June 2 sentenced Brock Allen Turner to six months in county jail, three years’ probation and lifetime registration as a sex offender — was biased in his sentencing decision. The district attorney’s office had asked for six years in state prison, while the defense had requested four months in county jail with up to five years probation.
“Neither the judge’s statements about the impact of prison and the defendant’s future dangerousness — factors that the judge was required to address on the record — nor any other remarks made by Judge Persky at the sentencing hearing constitute clear and convincing evidence of judicial bias,” the panel concluded unanimously. Based in San Francisco, the panel include six public members, two lawyers, and three judicial officers.
The 12-page panel decision is available at this link, and here is a key paragraph from its introductory section:
The commission has concluded that there is not clear and convincing evidence of bias, abuse of authority, or other basis to conclude that Judge Persky engaged injudicial misconduct warranting discipline. First, the sentence was within the parameters set by law and was therefore within the judge’s discretion. Second, the judge performed a multi-factor balancing assessment prescribed by law that took into account both the victim and the defendant. Third, the judge’s sentence was consistent with the recommendation in the probation report, the purpose of which is to fairly and completely evaluate various factors and provide the judge with a recommended sentence. Fourth, comparison to other cases handled by Judge Persky that were publicly identified does not support a finding of bias. The judge did not preside over the plea or sentencing in one of the cases. In each of the four other cases, Judge Persky’s sentencing decision was either the result of a negotiated agreement between the prosecution and the defense, aligned with the recommendation of the probation department, or both. Fifth, the judge’s contacts with Stanford University are insufficient to require disclosure or disqualification.
Some (of many) prior related posts on the Brock Turner case:
- Lots of seemingly justifiable outrage after lenient California sentencing of privileged man convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault
- Lots more mainstream and new media commentary on lenient sentencing of Stanford sex assaulter
- "The Stanford rape case demonstrates liberal hypocrisy on issues of basic fairness in the criminal justice system"
- Juror involved in trial of Stanford swimmer Brick Turner assails sentence given for sexual assault convictions
- Considering the potential negative consequences of the Stanford rape sentencing controversy and judge recall effort
December 19, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)
Tuesday, December 13, 2016
Announcing a "Call for Papers for the 2017 Innocence Network Conference"
I am happy to be able to provide this space for this announcement:
The Innocence Scholarship Committee of the Innocence Network is seeking high quality social science and legal scholarship for presentation at the 2017 Innocence Network Conference in San Diego, California on March 24-25.
Areas of research are open but should touch upon the multifaceted causes, implications, and/or remedies of wrongful conviction. International papers are welcome but must be submitted in English. Please submit a title and paper proposal to the Innocence Scholarship Committee at this Gmail account: firstname.lastname@example.org by February 1, 2017. Paper proposals must be no more than 200 words. Completed drafts must be submitted to the Committee by March 17, 2017.
The Innocence Scholarship Committee is actively seeking publication for those papers accepted for Conference presentations in a law review symposium edition. More information about that is forthcoming.
The Innocence Scholarship Committee is composed of the following Members: Professor Aliza Kaplan, Oregon Innocence Project, Lewis & Clark Law School, Portland, Oregon; Professor Valena Beety, West Virginia Innocence Project, West Virginia College of Law; Professor Keith Findley, Wisconsin Innocence Project, University of Wisconsin Law School; Professor Stephanie Roberts Hartung, New England Innocence Project, Northeastern Law School; and Associate Clinical Professor Paige Kaneb, Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara Law.
Monday, December 12, 2016
Another unanimous SCOTUS win for feds in bank fraud case
Last week, as blogged here, the Supreme Court handed down its first significant criminal justice ruling of the Term via a unanimous decision against a white-collar defendant in Salman v. US, No. 15-628 (S. Ct. Dec. 6, 2016) (available here). Today, brought another such ruling in Shaw v. US, No. 15-5991 (S. Ct. Dec. 12, 2016) (available here), which gets started this way:
A federal statute makes it a crime “knowingly [to] execut[e] a scheme . . . to defraud a financial institution,” 18 U.S.C. §1344(1), for example, a federally insured bank,18 U. S. C. §20. The petitioner, Lawrence Shaw, was convicted of violating this provision. He argues here that the provision does not apply to him because he intended tocheat only a bank depositor, not a bank. We do not accept his arguments.
Here is part of the substantive heart of the opinion for the Court and its closing flourish via Justice Breyer:
[F]or purposes of the bank fraud statute, a scheme fraudulently to obtain funds from a bank depositor’s account normally is also a scheme fraudulently to obtain property from a “financial institution,” at least where, as here, the defendant knew that the bank held the deposits, the funds obtained came from the deposit account, and the defendant misled the bank in order to obtain those funds....
The statute is clear enough that we need not rely on the rule of lenity. As we have said, a deposit account at a bank counts as bank property for purposes of subsection (1). Supra, at 2–3. The defendant, in circumstances such as those present here, need not know that the deposit account is, as a legal matter, characterized as bank property. Supra, at 4–5. Moreover, in those circumstances, the Government need not prove that the defendant intended that the bank ultimately suffer monetary loss. Supra, at 3–4. Finally, the statute asapplied here requires a state of mind equivalent to knowledge, not purpose. Supra, at 5–6.
Sunday, December 11, 2016
You be the federal sentencing judge: how long a prison term for convicted Philly US Representative? UPDATE: He got 10 years!
I find high-profile, white-collar sentencing cases to be among the most interesting and dynamic because they often require a judge (and others) to balance and calibrate competing punishment theories and goals. Because most white-collar offenders are not violent and often had a successful/productive life before getting into trouble, the need for severe punishment to incapacitate or specifically deter an offender from committing future crimes is often diminished. But because potential white-collar offenders are likely influenced by the deterrent impact emerging from the punishment of others like them, and also because white-collar offenders typically have had a relatively advantaged background, one can reasonably believe that crime control and just punishment concerns justify always throwing the book at any and all serious white-collar offenders.
With that backdrop, I am not surprised to have seen this past week a pair of articles reporting on lawyers are fiercely debating the federal sentences for a convicted politician from the City of Brotherly Love. The sentencing of Chaka Fattah takes place this Monday, and these two local articles, linked here and with their introductions, provide the basics for any wanna-be federal sentencing judge:
Chaka Fattah could spend the next two decades in prison if federal prosecutors get their way at the former congressman's sentencing hearing next week. In a memo filed with the court late Monday, government lawyers described the Philadelphia Democrat as "self-serving" and utterly unremorseful and urged U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III to sentence him within a range of 17 to 22 years in prison.
"Fattah understood the power and trust given to elected officials and that corruption benefits the few at the expense of the many," Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson wrote. "He chose to violate the trust of his constituents and the taxpayers to line his pockets and advance his personal and professional goals at their expense."
That punishment, if imposed, would far exceed those received by other Philadelphia-area politicians who ran afoul of federal corruption cases. State Sen. Vincent Fumo received five years after his 2009 conviction on 137 counts including conspiracy and fraud. But prosecutors noted that their recommended sentence for Fattah fell well within the federal sentencing guidelines for his crimes. What's more, they said, it tracks with other recent sentences for corrupt politicians, including former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, convicted of similar crimes.
Chaka Fattah's lawyers pushed back against prosecutors Thursday, calling the two-decade-long sentence they recommended for the former congressman "extreme" and "unnecessarily harsh." Such a punishment, they said in a court filing, would be the longest prison term ever received by a member of Congress for corruption.
Instead, the defense urged U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle III to consider a far shorter term and argued that the Philadelphia Democrat's misdeeds hardly compared to those of politicians found guilty in more serious cases. "While it is true that Chaka Fattah now stands before this court convicted of serious crimes, he is also a man that has dedicated his entire life to the service of others," defense lawyer Mark Lee wrote. "As a legislator, he made the education of disadvantaged youth his life's work. And as a mentor and role model, Chaka Fattah inspired countless young men and women to service and self-improvement."
The defense's sentencing recommendation followed one filed Monday by prosecutors, who argued that Fattah deserves a sentence of between 17 and 22 years under federal sentencing guidelines. Fattah's team, in its filing, countered that the correct guideline range was 11 to 14 years — and suggested a far shorter term than that.
Their back-and-forth set up what is likely to be a contentious court battle Monday when Fattah, 60, will become the first member of Pennsylvania's congressional delegation to be sentenced in a federal corruption case since 1996, when Pittsburgh-area Rep. Joseph P. Kolter was sentenced to six months for covering up his theft of thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds with vouchers that claimed he used the money to buy stamps for his office.
My own punishment views in these kinds of white-collar cases, which may be influenced both by my ivory-tower history and my past work for certain white-collar defendants, lead me to believe that a few years in federal prison (plus a big financial sanction) will usually be sufficient to achieve utilitarian and retributivist goals. Stated slightly differently and in terms of the key directive of federal sentencing law, I tend to view any prison sentence of more than a few years when the defendant poses no real continuing threat to public safety to be "greater than necessary" to achieve congressional punishment purposes.
UPDATE: This Politico article completes the sentencing story in its headline: "Fattah sentenced to 10 years in prison."
December 11, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)
Thursday, December 08, 2016
Fascinating accounting of considerable racial disparity in Florida sentencing
A helpful reader altered me to an extraordinary series of articles now in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune examining disparities in Florida's sentencing system, all under the heading "Bias on the Bench." The lead article is headlined "Florida’s broken sentencing system: Designed for fairness, it fails to account for prejudice," and it starts this way:
Justice has never been blind when it comes to race in Florida. Blacks were first at the mercy of slave masters. Then came Jim Crow segregation and the Ku Klux Klan. Now, prejudice wears a black robe.
Half a century after the civil rights movement, trial judges throughout Florida sentence blacks to harsher punishment than whites, a Herald-Tribune investigation found. They offer blacks fewer chances to avoid jail or scrub away felonies. They give blacks more time behind bars — sometimes double the sentences of whites accused of the same crimes under identical circumstances.
Florida lawmakers have struggled for 30 years to create a more equitable system. Points are now used to calculate sentences based on the severity of the crime, the defendant’s prior record and a host of other factors. The idea is to punish criminals in Pensacola the same as those in Key West — no matter their race, gender or wealth. But the point system has not stopped discrimination.
In Manatee County, judges sentence whites convicted of felony drug possession to an average of five months behind bars. They gave blacks with identical charges and records more than a year. Judges in the Florida Panhandle county of Okaloosa sentence whites to nearly five months for battery. They lock up blacks for almost a year. Along the state’s northeast shore, judges in Flagler County put blacks convicted of armed robbery away for nearly triple the time.
“It’s unconscionable,” said Wengay Newton Sr., a former St. Petersburg city commissioner and Democrat, who was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in November. “That’s like running a red light in a white car and your ticket is $100 and running a red light in a black car and your ticket is $300.”
The Herald-Tribune spent a year reviewing tens of millions of records in two state databases — one compiled by the state’s court clerks that tracks criminal cases through every stage of the justice system and the other by the Florida Department of Corrections that notes points scored by felons at sentencing.
Reporters examined more than 85,000 criminal appeals, read through boxes of court documents and crossed the state to interview more than 100 legal experts, advocates and criminal defendants. The newspaper also built a first-of-its-kind database of Florida’s criminal judges to compare sentencing patterns based on everything from a judge's age and previous work experience to race and political affiliation.
No news organization, university or government agency has ever done such a comprehensive study of sentences handed down by individual judges on a statewide scale. Among the findings:
• Florida’s sentencing system is broken. When defendants score the same points in the formula used to set criminal punishments — indicating they should receive equal sentences — blacks spend far longer behind bars. There is no consistency between judges in Tallahassee and those in Sarasota.
• The war on drugs exacerbates racial disparities. Police target poor black neighborhoods, funneling more minorities into the system. Once in court, judges are tougher on black drug offenders every step of the way. Nearly half the counties in Florida sentence blacks convicted of felony drug possession to more than double the time of whites, even when their backgrounds are the same.
• Florida's state courts lack diversity, and it matters when it comes to sentencing. Blacks make up 16 percent of Florida’s population and one-third of the state’s prison inmates. But fewer than 7 percent of sitting judges are black and less than half of them preside over serious felonies. White judges in Florida sentence black defendants to 20 percent more time on average for third-degree felonies. Blacks who wear the robe give more balanced punishments.
• There’s little oversight of judges in Florida. The courts keep a wealth of data on criminal defendants. So does the prison system. But no one uses the data to review racial disparities in sentencing. Judges themselves don’t know their own tendencies.
Without checks to ensure equality, bias reigns.
Here are links to the other pieces in the series:
- Tough on crime: Black defendants get longer sentences in Treasure Coast system
- Gainesville’s war on drugs: It’s fought in the hood – not on campus
- Race and politics influence judicial decisions: But Florida’s bench is a world of contradictions
December 8, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)
Tuesday, December 06, 2016
SCOTUS unanimously upholds broad interpretation of insider trading in Salman
The Supreme Court handed down this morning its first significant criminal justice ruling of the Term via a unanimous decision in Salman v. US, No. 15-628 (S. Ct. Dec. 6, 2016) (available here). Here is how the opinion authored by Justice Alito for a unanimous court gets started:
Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Rule 10b–5 prohibit undisclosed trading on inside corporate information by individuals who are under a duty of trust and confidence that prohibits them from secretly using such information for their personal advantage. 48 Stat. 891, as amended, 15 U.S.C. § 78j(b) (prohibiting the use, “in connection with the purchase or sale of any security,” of “any manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance in contravention of such rules as the [Securities and Exchange Commission] may prescribe”); 17 CFR § 240.10b–5 (2016) (forbidding the use, “in connection with the sale or purchase of any security,” of “any device, scheme or artifice to defraud,” or any “act, practice, or course of business which operates . . . as a fraud or deceit”); see United States v. O’Hagan, 521 U.S. 642, 650–652 (1997). Individuals under this duty may face criminal and civil liability for trading on inside information (unless they make appropriate disclosures ahead of time).
These persons also may not tip inside information to others for trading. The tippee acquires the tipper’s duty to disclose or abstain from trading if the tippee knows the information was disclosed in breach of the tipper’s duty, and the tippee may commit securities fraud by trading in disregard of that knowledge. In Dirks v. SEC, 463 U.S. 646 (1983), this Court explained that a tippee’s liability for trading on inside information hinges on whether the tipper breached a fiduciary duty by disclosing the information. A tipper breaches such a fiduciary duty, we held, when the tipper discloses the inside information for a personal benefit. And, we went on to say, a jury can infer a personal benefit — and thus a breach of the tipper’s duty — where the tipper receives something of value in exchange for the tip or “makes a gift of confidential information to a trading relative or friend.” Id., at 664.
Petitioner Bassam Salman challenges his convictions for conspiracy and insider trading. Salman received lucrative trading tips from an extended family member, who had received the information from Salman’s brother-in-law. Salman then traded on the information. He argues that he cannot be held liable as a tippee because the tipper (his brother-in-law) did not personally receive money or property in exchange for the tips and thus did not personally benefit from them. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that Dirks allowed the jury to infer that the tipper here breached a duty because he made a “‘gift of confidential information to a trading relative.’” 792 F.3d 1087, 1092 (CA9 2015) (quoting Dirks, supra, at 664). Because the Court of Appeals properly applied Dirks, we affirm the judgment below.
Sunday, December 04, 2016
Second Circuit hints that sentence reduction might well be justified whenever guideline range is increased "significantly by a loss enhancement"
I am grateful to Harry Sandick for alerting me to this seemingly little (and easily overlooked) opinion handed down by a unanimous Second Circuit panel late last week. Stephanie Teplin and Harry Sandick discuss the case in this thoughtful blog posting, and here are key passages from their coverage:
In United States v. Algahaim, No. 15-2024(L), the Second Circuit (Newman, Winters, Cabranes) upheld the conviction of two defendants for misconduct involving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), but remanded to the district court for consideration of a below-Guidelines sentence. The Court, in an opinion by Judge Newman, held that the outsize effect of the loss amount enhancement on the defendant’s base offense level — a sentencing scheme for fraud that is “unknown to other sentencing systems” — required the district court to reconsider whether a non-Guidelines sentence was warranted....
Judge Newman acknowledged that it was within the Sentencing Commission’s authority to construct a sentencing scheme that “use[s] loss amount as the predominant determination of the adjusted offense level for monetary offenses.” However, he observed that “the Commission could have approached monetary offenses quite differently. For example, it could have started the Guidelines calculation for fraud offenses by selecting a base level that realistically reflected the seriousness of a typical fraud offense and then permitted adjustments up or down to reflect especially large or small amounts of loss.”
The “unusualness” of the Guidelines system, the Court held, can be considered by a sentencing judge under Kimbrough v. United States. “Where the Commission has assigned a rather low base offense level to a crime and then increased it significantly by a loss enhancement, that combination of circumstances entitles a sentencing judge to consider a non-Guidelines sentence.” The Court did not hold that the sentences were in error, but remanded for the district court’s reconsideration of the sentences....
Judge Newman has long been a skeptic of the Guidelines approach to sentencing. In this short opinion, he cites the pre-Booker decision in United States v. Lauersen, 348 F.2d 329 (2d Cir. 2003), an opinion he authored at a time when the Guidelines were mandatory, except for downward departures. Lauersen held that where the cumulative impact of overlapping Guidelines enhancements (in that case, for loss amount and for defrauding a financial institution of more than $1 million) resulted in an overly long sentence, the district court could downwardly depart....
In Algahaim, Judge Newman carries this concept forward to the more open-ended sentencing regime given to us by Booker, Gall and Kimbrough. Many judges have stated that the Guidelines are not helpful in white-collar cases and that their emphasis on loss can lead to results that are “patently unreasonable.” E.g., United States v. Adelson, 441 F. Supp. 2d 506, 509 (S.D.N.Y. 2006) (Rakoff, J.). Practitioners have also advocated for shorter sentences in cases involving relatively low loss amounts or where the defendant had no prior record. See ABA Criminal Justice Section, “A Report on Behalf of the ABA Criminal Justice Section Task Force on the Reform of Federal Sentencing for Economic Crimes” (November 10, 2014) (last visited December 1, 2016). To the extent that district judges needed any further encouragement, Judge Newman’s decision lets district judges know that a Guidelines sentence need not be imposed where the “significant effect of the loss enhancement” leads to an unduly long sentence.
Because Judge Jon O. Newman was my very first boss as a lawyer (I served as his law clerk from 1993-94 starting just months after my graduation from law school), I am always partial to his opinions and especially as to his opinions about sentencing issues. And, as regular readers know, I am always partial to judicial opinions that thoughtfully explain whether and when the federal sentencing guidelines should or should not be followed. And so, perhaps my partiality is going to bubble over when I assert that Judge Newman is being especially astute and shrewd in his pro-discretion sentencing work in United States v. Algahaim, in part because the particulars of the loss enhancement in Algahaim are actually not all that major.
Specifically, in Algahaim, the two defendants who were appealing their convictions and sentences were subject to offense-level increases for loss of "only" 10 and 12 points under USSG § 2B1.1(b)(1). Though such loss enhancements certainly appear significant when added to a base offense level of 6, in many other fraud cases the loss enhancement under 2B1.1(b) can commonly add 16 or 20 or 24 or even up to 30 points. Despite those realities, the Second Circuit in Algahaim has now called just a 10-level loss enhancement in a fraud case "significant" and also has said this enhancement is alone large enough to merit serious consideration of a below-guideline sentence. For that reason, I would now expect lots of astute and shrewd future white-collar defendants throughout New York and elsewhere to be citing to Algahaim to bolster arguments for below-guideline sentences whenever the guideline range is moved up a lot by loss calculations.
December 4, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Two new headlines from the same paper highlighting (inevitable?) sentencing disparities
As I opened my Google News feed and turned to my sentencing section, these two headlines from the Washington Post jumped out at me:
Here are some key passages from each piece. First, the latest on serial/mass rapist Darren Sharper:
Former NFL star Darren Sharper was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Tuesday for drugging and raping two women in Los Angeles. The sentence came as part of a plea deal that saw Sharper sentenced to 18 years in prison in Louisiana in August for drugging and raping up to 16 women in four states, including California and Louisiana, as well as Arizona and Nevada. Sharper will serve the sentences simultaneously.
Tuesday marked the end of Sharper’s sentencing hearings, but the emotional trauma he inflicted upon the victims of his sexual assaults lives on. “I can only imagine myself lying there like a vegetable while he took advantage of my body without my permission,” one of the victims said at Tuesday’s hearing (via the Los Angeles Times). “I have lost every bit of self confidence I’ve ever had and am always in fear while alone. It doesn’t matter whether it’s day or night, I can see a guy and automatically in my head think, ‘What if this guy tries to rape me?’ ”
And now another dispatch from the never-ending federal drug war:
When Lori Clare Kavitz’s sons were 3 and 4 years old, ... her husband ... grabbed a gun and killed himself in front of her dad.... The aftermath was hard. “My emotional trauma and fear of not being able to provide for [my sons] led me to choices that I will always regret,” she says. Her regretful decision-making was not of an uncommon variety: After her husband’s death, she got involved with the wrong guy. He started dealing meth from their home, and when he was arrested, the state went after her, too, casting her as his assistant and charging her with conspiracy to distribute meth.
The man who sold them the meth cooperated with prosecutors, was sentenced to 14 years in prison, and is now out. Her boyfriend got 20 years. Lori Kavitz got 24 years. “She kept her mouth shut, didn’t say anything,” her son, Collin, tells the Watch. “He opened his mouth and tried to pin it all on her.”
Kavitz hasn’t seen her two sons in more than a decade because it’s too expensive for them to travel more than a thousand miles to visit her in prison in a different state. “I have 3 grandchildren that I have never met as I am serving my time in Florida and I am from Iowa. Too far for young struggling families to travel,” Kavitz writes. She’s one of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders hoping to have their sentences commuted by President Obama before President-elect Donald Trump replaces him in office — less than two months from now.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Making the case that the next Administration needs to demonstrate that "laws are not just for the little people"
Writing here in the National Review under the headline "A Memo for Attorney General Jeff Sessions," former Justice Department officials Robert Delahunty and John Yoo share some interesting advice for the likely next AG. I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here is just a taste:
Hillary Clinton’s alleged criminality was a centerpiece of the last election and may well have cost her the presidency. It was not very long ago that crowds at Trump rallies were chanting “Lock her up!” We can think of no earlier presidential contest in which a candidate’s alleged criminal wrongdoing was so central an issue in the voters’ decision-making. This is truly an unprecedented case.
Unless President Obama acts first to pardon Clinton, the task of balancing these considerations will be left to the new president and his attorney general. Our view is that President Trump should offer her a pardon. Just as with President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon, Clinton’s acceptance of that offer would be widely understood as a tacit admission, if not perhaps of proven criminal guilt, then at least of wrongdoing sufficient to justify prosecution. We think that the matter should rest there.
But even if that were to happen, there are, apparently, more ongoing criminal investigations into the affairs of the Clintons and their inner circle. The investigation that Comey suspended concerned Clinton’s use of a private server to transact governmental business involving classified materials. Media reports have indicated that there are no fewer than five other investigations under way. These include at least one investigation into whether the Clinton Foundation has committed financial crimes or been sullied by influence-peddling.
We believe that those investigations — which were begun under the Obama administration — should be pursued. And if in the end, the findings of those investigations justify bringing criminal charges against the vast network of Clinton helpers and aides, those charges should be brought and tried.... Trump is right to express a desire not to harm the Clintons: The criminal process should never be turned into a political vendetta or even appear to be one. But no one, and certainly not the powerful and politically connected, should be above the law — the Clintons included. Trump’s campaign pledges on that issue resonated with the American public. The law is not just for the little people, and the little people are watching....
Jeff Sessions will take the helm of a Justice Department that has been terribly compromised in other respects. He must act decisively to change its culture. Again, the Clinton “reverse Midas” touch — transforming gold into dross — was at work. Candidate Clinton publicly offered to retain Attorney General Lynch in office if she were elected, even while Lynch at the time was charged with overseeing criminal investigations into the Clinton e-mail and Foundation scandals. By not publicly declining that offer — in effect, a bribe — Lynch tainted the integrity of the investigations as well as the office of attorney general.
President Obama also undermined public confidence in the Justice Department. He maintained that he had learned of Clinton’s private server only when everyone else had. Yet later leaks revealed that he in fact had corresponded numerous times with Clinton through her off-the-record system. Obama also proclaimed Clinton not guilty of wrongdoing even while the investigation into the use of her private server was still open....
These incidents came towards the end of an eight-year period in which the honor of the Justice Department had been badly tarnished. Much of the damage occurred during the five-year stint of former attorney general Eric Holder, the first and only attorney general to be held in contempt of Congress. (Holder’s conduct was so egregious that even most House Democrats declined to vote against the contempt resolution.) Under Holder, the DOJ became thoroughly politicized, taking positions that were, frankly, absurd — on legal issues such as congressional voting representation for the District of Columbia, presidential recess-appointment power, or the War Powers Resolution. Holder’s Justice Department brought cases not on their legal merits but in order to target the administration’s perceived political or ideological opponents....
This election was about the place of law in American public life. The voters were rightly repelled by the performance of public figures, above all Hillary Clinton and her entourage, who acted as if they were above the law. Voters resented President Obama’s chronic refusal to enforce the law — whether in health care or immigration — when he found that it did not suit his political purposes. They seem to have forgiven Donald Trump for his alleged manipulation of the tax code because, even if dodgy, his actions were not illegal.
As president, Donald Trump owes it to his voters and to the American people as a whole to restore the public’s trust in its government. He must repair the contract between the people and its agents that his rival and his predecessor have shattered. And Attorney General Jeff Sessions needs to be a strong and stalwart presence at his right hand as the new president makes this happen.
November 29, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)
"Why Trump needs to roll back criminal penalties for noncriminal conduct"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary authored by Ronald Lampard, the director of the Criminal Justice Reform Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Here are excerpts:
Unauthorized use of Smokey the Bear's image could land an offender in prison. So can unauthorized use of the slogan "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute." While one may think the government would never initiate a criminal prosecution for either of these two "criminal" acts, there have been numerous examples of individuals being prosecuted under federal law for conduct that should not be criminalized.
For example, Eddie Anderson of Idaho took his son camping in the wilderness, searching for arrowheads. They didn't find any, but they were searching on federal land, which is prohibited by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. They both faced a felony charge, punishable by up to two years' imprisonment before they pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and were fined $1,500 each and placed on probation for a year.
Some of these criminal offenses are contained in federal statutes, which prescribe an estimated 4,500 crimes, according to a study by retired Louisiana State University law professor John Baker. To help put that number in perspective, the Constitution mentions three federal crimes by citizens: treason, piracy and counterfeiting. Around the turn of the 20th century, the number of federal criminal statutes was as low as dozens. Essentially, over the last hundred years, federal statutes carrying criminal penalties have grown at an exponential rate.
The number of criminal statutes — laws passed by both Houses of Congress and signed into law by the president — is dwarfed by the number of regulations carrying criminal penalties. The total number of these regulations is difficult to count, however, it is estimated to number roughly 300,000. Perhaps most disturbingly, these "criminal regulations" are written by unelected bureaucrats, yet still carry the force of law.
In order to stem the explosion of criminal regulations, President-elect Trump can begin the process of removing said regulations. Trump says in his first 100 days he wants to see two regulations removed for every one regulation created. Since these regulations were largely written by unelected bureaucrats who work for the executive branch, the Trump administration could start immediately....
Certainly, some of these regulations ought to deter certain conduct. However, this can be accomplished by making the penalty civil or administrative.... As John Malcolm at the Heritage Foundation said, "There is a unique stigma that goes with being branded a criminal. Not only can you lose your liberty and certain civil rights, but you lose your reputation — an intangible yet invaluable commodity … that once damaged can be nearly impossible to repair. In addition to standard penalties … a series of burdensome collateral consequences that are often imposed by … federal laws can follow an individual for life."
The federal government should proscribe criminal penalties only for conduct that is inherently wrong in order to protect public safety. Criminal statutes serve a crucial purpose in preserving law and order and establishing the rule of law. However, preserving law and order need not come at the expense of criminalizing conduct such as nursing a woodpecker back to health or shipping undersized lobsters in plastic bags instead of cardboard boxes.
Trump has a tremendous opportunity to reduce the number of actions criminalized by federal law. Such action would serve all Americans well and would be a great victory for both law and order and individual liberty.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Mississippi prosecutor to argue old Facebook post helps justify LWOP sentence for juve getaway driver
This local article about a forthcoming sentencing in a Mississippi state case, headlined "Facebook post to be used in sentencing," strikes me as a disconcerting example of the equivocal evidence some prosecutors will highlight in an effort to secure the most extreme of prison sentences even for offenders who seem to be anything but the most extreme of criminals. Here are the details:
Prosecutors will use a Facebook post from 2010 when Gerome Moore was 13 showing him in possession of a handgun and "arguably" displaying gang signs to try to show Moore should be sentenced to life without parole in the January 2015 shooting death of Carolyn Temple in Belhaven. Moore was convicted of capital murder in September, but his sentencing is on hold. A capital murder conviction had meant a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole, but a 2012 Supreme Court ruling said judges must consider the unique circumstances of each juvenile offender....
Moore was 17 at the time of the crime. He didn't shoot Temple, but his gun was used. He and at least two others were driving around that evening looking for someone to rob. Prosecutors say they followed Temple's vehicle, a Mercedes, to her boyfriend's house in Belhaven. Once she got out her car and went to the curb to retrieve her boyfriend's garbage can, two of the individuals tried to take her purse. She resisted and one of them shot her. Prosecutors believe Moore stayed in the car and was the getaway driver, although he provided the weapon.
In court filings, Assistant District Attorney Randy Harris said, "The cumulative resume of Gerome Moore qualifies him for that exact sentence of life without parole." Harris said Moore's unwillingness to abide by the decent standards of society and to abide by the criminal laws began long Temple's shooting. In addition to the Facebook post, by the time Moore was 17, he would tell investigators he never went riding without his gun, according to Harris. Harris also talked about other crimes Moore was involved in as well as escaping from the Hinds County Detention Center after his arrest. He was later recaptured.
"Truth is that Moore was two months shy of attaining 18 years of age when this capital murder was perpetrated," Harris said. "Had the crime happened merely two months later, this discussion of the propriety of life without parole would not even be taking place as there would be no argument that without parole was an appropriate and legislatively approved sentence."
Moore's attorney, Aafram Sellers, argues his client shouldn't receive a sentence of life without parole. "Clearly, a child who did not actually kill or intend to kill anyone will not be among the uncommon and rare juvenile homicide offenders who might permissibly receive the state's harshest prison sentence," Sellers said.
Sellers said punishment of life in prison without parole would be disproportionate to the sentence of the shooter in the case, Antwain Dukes, who received a sentence of 25 years to serve.
To review, after a robbery went bad and resulted in the shooting of the victim, the robber who actually killed the victim received a sentence of 25 years, but Mississippi prosecutors now want the robber who only sat in the car during the shooting to receive an LWOP sentence. And Mississippi prosecutors are citing to a Facebook post by the defendant at age 13 when arguing an LWOP sentence for the juvenile getaway driver is justified. Hmmm.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
"Trump will not pursue charges against Clinton, aide says"
The title of this post is the headline of this new FoxNews piece, which reports these details:
President-elect Donald Trump will not pursue charges against Hillary Clinton relating to the Clinton foundation or the former secretary of state’s use of a private email server, former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday.
In an interview with MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Conway said that while Clinton “has to face the fact that a majority of Americans don’t find her to be honest and trustworthy,” it would be a good thing if Trump can “help her heal.” "I think when the President-elect, who's also the head of your party…tells you before he's even inaugurated he doesn't wish to pursue these charges, it sends a very strong message, tone, and content,” she said.
The move is a significant break from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which included a warning that if he were president he’d get his attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her behavior. In the second presidential debate he quipped to Clinton that if he was president: “you’d be in jail.” Cries of “lock her up” were a common feature at Trump’s campaign rallies....
Trump's decision not to pursue charges against Clinton would not prevent congressional Republicans from opening investigations and referring them to the Justice Department for charges. Trump expanded on his decision at a meeting with reporters at the New York Times Tuesday afternoon, telling them "I think it would be very very divisive for the country" to prosecute the Clintons, although he hadn't taken it off the table entirely.
Though I am 99.9% certain nobody will fully understand the full basis for my first two reactions here, I will share them anyway: (1) I am a tiny bit disappointed, and (2) I hope congressional Republicans will at least do some investigation into the deleted emails and/or into pay-to-play with the Clinton Foundation while Hillary Clinton was serving as Secretary of State.
UPDATE: Kent over at Crime & Consequences has this post on this topic under the title "Amnesty for Hillary."
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Some sentencing question after Georgia jury verdicts of guiltly on all counts of murder, child cruelty and sexting for Justin Ross Harris
A horribly awful (and high-profile and very interesting) state criminal case resulted yesterday in a jury verdict of guilt on all counts. This new CNN article, headlined ""Jury finds Justin Ross Harris guilty of murder in son's hot car death," provides some details about the case that has prompted some sentencing questions for me. Here are excerpts (with emphasis added on points that prompt follow-up sentencing questions):
A jury in Georgia on Monday found Justin Ross Harris guilty of murder in the 2014 death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. Harris, 35, was accused of intentionally locking Cooper inside a hot car for seven hours. On that same day, Harris was sexting with six women, including one minor, according to phone records.
In addition to three counts of murder, Harris was found guilty of two counts of cruelty to children for Cooper's death, and guilty of three counts relating to his electronic exchanges of lewd material with two underage girls. "This is one of those occasions where actions speak louder than words," Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring said after the verdict. "He has malice in his heart, absolutely."
The trial, which spanned almost five weeks, was moved to the Georgia coastal town of Brunswick from Cobb County, outside Atlanta, after intense pretrial publicity. It was briefly interrupted by Hurricane Matthew. The Glynn County jury of six men and six women deliberated for 21 hours over four days. Jurors considered the testimony of 70 witnesses and 1,150 pieces of evidence, including the Hyundai Tucson in which Cooper died in a suburban Atlanta parking lot.
Justin Ross Harris waived his right to testify in his own defense. Cobb County prosecutors argued that Harris intentionally locked Cooper inside his car on a hot summer 2014 day because he wanted to be free of his family responsibilities. Harris' lawyers claimed the boy's death was a tragic accident brought about by a lapse in memory.
It was June 18, 2014, when Harris, then 33, strapped his son into a rear-facing car seat and drove from their Marietta, Georgia, home to Chick-fil-A for breakfast, then to The Home Depot corporate headquarters, where he worked. Instead of dropping Cooper off at day care, testimony revealed Harris left him in the car all day while he was at work. Sometime after 4 p.m. that day, as Harris drove to a nearby theater to see a movie, he noticed his son was still in the car. He pulled into a shopping center parking lot and pulled Cooper's lifeless body from the SUV. Witnesses said he appeared distraught and was screaming. "'I love my son and all, but we both need escapes.' Those words were uttered 10 minutes before this defendant, with a selfish abandon and malignant heart, did exactly that," said Boring in his closing argument.
The prosecution argued that Harris could see his son sitting in his car seat in the SUV. "If this child was visible in that car that is not a failure in memory systems," Boring argued. "Cooper would have been visible to anyone inside that car. Flat out." If Cooper was visible, Boring said, "the defendant is guilty of all counts." After the verdict, jurors told the prosecution that the evidence weighed heavily in their decision, Boring said.
Digital evidence showed that on the day his son died, Harris exchanged sexual messages and photos with six women, including one minor. State witnesses testified that Harris lived what prosecutors described as a "double life." To his wife, family, friends and co-workers, Harris was seen as a loving father and husband. But unbeknownst to them, Harris engaged in online sexual communication with multiple women, including two underage girls, had extramarital sexual encounters in public places and paid for sex with a prostitute.
Harris' defense maintained that his sexual behavior had nothing to do with Cooper's death. "The state wants to bury him in this filth and dirt of his own making, so that you will believe he is so immoral, he is so reprehensible that he can do exactly this," said defense attorney H. Maddox Kilgore during his closing argument. Kilgore argued that Cobb County police investigators focused only on matters that fit the state's theory and ignored all the evidence that pointed to an accident. "You have been misled throughout this trial," Kilgore told jurors. The defense lawyer continued to maintain his client's innocence after the verdict. He said he plans to appeal the verdict. "When an innocent person is convicted there's been some breakdowns in the system and that's what happened here," Kilgore told reporters outside the courthouse. "From the moment we met Ross Harris we've never, ever once wavered in our absolute belief that he is not guilty of what he's just been convicted of."
The defense's key witness was Harris' ex-wife and Cooper's mother, Leanna Taylor. "Cooper was the sweetest little boy. He had so much life in him. He was everything to me," Taylor recalled, as she seemed to fight through tears. For two days, Taylor told jurors private details of her married life with Harris, saying they had intimacy problems and recounting Harris' struggles with pornography. Marital struggles aside, Taylor described Harris as a "very involved" parent who loved their son. In her mind, she said, the only possible explanation was that Harris "forgot" Cooper and accidentally left him in the car. Boring said it did not matter that Taylor declined to speak with the prosecutor's office and testified for the defense. "As far as proving the case we did not need her," he told CNN.
Harris is expected to be sentenced December 5. He could face life without parole, though Boring said the prosecution will speak with the family to determine what kind of sentence to ask for.
Especially for sentencing scholars and advocates like me who worry a lot about about white criminals being treated more leniently than similarly-situated or less culpable minority criminals, I have three follow-up sentencing questions based on this case and its forthcoming sentencing in a Georgia state court:
1. Should we be troubled that the local prosecutor in this case apparently exercised his discretion not to pursue capital punishment in a case in which the white defendant was apparently guilty of intentionally boiling his 22-month son to death?
2. Should we be troubled that Georgia sentencing provisions, if I am understanding the law properly based on this "'Truth in Sentencing' in Georgia" document, requires a mandatory LWOP for an adult offender who commits two armed robberies, but only requires a mandatory 25-life for intentionally boiling a toddler to death?
3. Should we be troubled that the local prosecutor in this case, who already strikes me as unduly lenient for not even pursuing a capital charge, is now apparently willing (after a jury conviction on all counts) to exercise his discretion to seek a more lenient sentence from the sentencing judge based on the sentencing desires of the (white) wife of the murderer?
November 15, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)
Saturday, November 12, 2016
"How Prosecutors and Defense Attorneys Differ in Their Use of Neuroscience Evidence"
The title of this post is the title of this notable article authored by Deborah Denno now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Much of the public debate surrounding the intersection of neuroscience and criminal law is based on assumptions about how prosecutors and defense attorneys differ in their use of neuroscience evidence. According to some, the defense’s use of neuroscience evidence will abdicate criminals of all responsibility, while the prosecution’s use of that same evidence will unfairly punish the most vulnerable defendants as unfixable future dangers to society.
This “double-edged sword” view of neuroscience evidence demonstrates the concern that the same information about the defendant can either be mitigating or aggravating depending on who is raising it. Yet empirical assessments of legal decisions reveal a far more nuanced reality, showing that the public beliefs about the impact of neuroscience on the criminal law can often be wrong.
This Article examines how courts respond to neuroscience evidence in capital cases when the defense presents it to argue that the defendant’s mental state at the time of the crime was below the given legal requisite due to some neurologic or cognitive deficiency. Relying on data from my “Neuroscience Study” (which consists of all criminal law cases that addressed neuroscience evidence from 1992–2012), I examine thirty-nine capital cases in which the defense attempted to use neuroscience evidence to dismiss or diminish the defendant’s level of intent either at the guilt phase or the penalty phase, along with a corresponding rebuttal or counterargument from the prosecution. I use a range of case examples to show how courts’ differing perspectives on what constitutes mitigating and aggravating evidence suggests that the “double-edged sword” framework is simplistic and, at times, misleading.
This Article concludes that the lack of consistency and guidance among lower mens rea cases seemingly hinders a more effective application of neuroscience evidence in intent determinations. To remedy this problem, this Article endorses the “reasonable jurist” framework, which recognizes the value of case-by-case determinations and provides courts with a more realistic lens through which to assess the great variety of neuroscience factors.
Thursday, November 10, 2016
Reading closely the main criminal justice elements of "Donald Trump’s Contract with the American Voter"
I just had a chance for the first time to review closely this two-page document entitled "Donald Trump's Contract with the American Voter." I did not read this document whenever it was released during the campaign, but now I see these notable promises in the criminal justice arena from page two of this document (with my emphasis added):
I will work with Congress to introduce the following broader legislative measures and fight for their passage within the first 100 days of my Administration:...
End Illegal Immigration Act
Fully-funds the construction of a wall on our southern border with the full understanding that the country of Mexico will be reimbursing the United States for the full cost of such wall; establishes a two-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence for illegally re-entering the U.S. after a previous deportation, and a five-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence for illegally re-entering for those with felony convictions, multiple misdemeanor convictions or two or more prior deportations; also reforms visa rules to enhance penalties for overstaying and to ensure open jobs are offered to American workers first.
Restoring Community Safety Act
Reduces surging crime, drugs and violence by creating a task force on violent crime and increasing funding for programs that train and assist local police; increases resources for federal law enforcement agencies and federal prosecutors to dismantle criminal gangs and put violent offenders behind bars.
Because I generally think that mandatory minimum sentencing provisions often do more harm than good, I am troubled to see emphasis on such provisions in the first passage I have quoted. At the same time because I generally think out federal criminal justice system should be much more focused on violent crime and much less focused on nonviolent crime, I am actually a bit encouraged to see an particular emphasis on violent crime in the articulation of priorities in the second passage.
Wednesday, November 09, 2016
Could "mens rea" federal statutory reform become a priority for the next GOP Congress and for a Trump Administration?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by the fact that nearly all GOP members of Congress who have discussed an interest in federal criminal justice reform, as well as many right-leaning policy advocates and advocacy groups, have urged so-called federal "mens rea" reform. An articulation of these realities finds effective expression in this September 2015 "Legal Memorandum" authored by John Macolm, the Director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, under the titled "The Pressing Need for Mens Rea Reform." I blogged this document when it was released 14 months ago, and highlight its abstract and "Key Points":
One of the greatest safeguards against overcriminalization — the misuse and overuse of criminal laws and penalties to address societal problems — is ensuring that there is an adequate mens rea requirement in criminal laws. Sentencing reform addresses how long people should serve once convicted, but mens rea reform addresses those who never should have been convicted in the first place: morally blameless people who unwittingly commit acts that turn out to be crimes and are prosecuted for those offenses rather than having the harms they caused addressed through the civil justice system. Not only are their lives adversely affected, perhaps irreparably, but the public’s respect for the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system is diminished. That is something that should concern everyone.
1. Nearly 5,000 federal criminal statutes are scattered throughout the U.S. Code, and an estimated 300,000 or more criminal regulatory offenses are buried in the Code of Federal Regulations.
2 Not even Congress or the Department of Justice knows precisely how many criminal laws and regulations currently exist. Because many of them lack adequate (or even any) mens rea standards, innocent mistakes or accidents can become crimes.
3. Congress should pass a default mens rea provision that would apply to crimes in which no mens rea has been provided. If a mens rea requirement is missing from a criminal statute or regulation, a default standard should automatically be inserted, unless Congress makes it clear in the statute itself that it intended to create a strict liability offense.
Notably, as I lamented in this post in January 2016, I have long feared that Democratic opposition toward GOP eagerness for mens rea reform was a problematic impediment to any bipartisan federal statutory sentencing getting to Prez Obama's desk before he left the oval office. But the Election 2016 results mean that the next GOP Congress now need not have to worry too much about opposition to mens rea reform from Democratic members of Congress and also probably that such reform will have the support of our next President.
Of course, very few non-lawyers even understand what the term mens rea means, and I am certain that those who voted for Republican federal elected officials did not have mens rea reform in mind when voting. (Indeed, ironically, mens rea reform would generally make it harder to prosecute the kinds of crimes that has led to Hillary Clinton being investigated by the FBI.) Thus, I doubt anyone other than federal criminal lawyers and think-tank types would even notice if mens rea reform is or isn't part of the agenda of the next Congress and Administration. But I hope it is.
Some recent and older related posts:
- "The Pressing Need for Mens Rea Reform"
- "Our Voluminous Laws And The Need For ‘Mens Rea’ Reform"
- Might misguided mens rea reform concerns derail federal sentencing reform's momentum?
- Justified criticisms of Prez Obama's not-so-justified criticisms of proposed mens rea reform
- "How to solve the biggest issue holding up criminal justice reform: Republicans and Democrats can't agree on 'mens rea' reform. Here's a middle ground."
Tuesday, November 08, 2016
Is the likely federal sentencing guideline range for "Bridgegate" defendants convicted last week at least 3 to 4 years in federal prison?
As noted in this prior post, late last week a federal jury returned guilty verdicts against Bridget Anne Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff to NJ Gov Chris Christie, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey on seven federal criminal charges stemming from the so-called "Bridgegate" scandal. This Wikipedia page provides lots of background on the scandal, and this lengthy New York Times article about the convictions provides these hints about the federal sentencing issues to now be debated as a February sentencing for Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni looms:
A federal jury convicted two former allies of Gov. Chris Christie on Friday of all charges stemming from a bizarre scheme to close access lanes at the George Washington Bridge to punish a New Jersey mayor who declined to endorse the governor’s re-election. Though only the two defendants, Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni, were tried in the so-called Bridgegate case, the scandal surrounding the lane closings in September 2013 left Mr. Christie deeply wounded....
David Wildstein, who was installed as the governor’s enforcer at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge, pleaded guilty to orchestrating the lane closings and became the prosecution’s chief witness....
Facing about 50 reporters and television cameras outside the federal courthouse here on Friday, the United States attorney for New Jersey, Paul J. Fishman, said that his office brought charges against only the people it believed a jury would find guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. There was substantial documentary evidence, he said, to corroborate Mr. Wildstein’s testimony about Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni, once Mr. Christie’s top staff appointee at the Port Authority....
The convictions carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, but under federal guidelines, Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni are likely to get far less time. Mr. Fishman said Friday that under federal guidelines, Mr. Wildstein would be sentenced to 20 to 27 months in prison, but that he was likely to get “credit” from the judge for his cooperation. Prosecutors were likely to recommend longer terms for Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly, Mr. Fishman said, because they did not accept responsibility for their crimes and because prosecutors believe that they did not testify truthfully.
Judge Susan D. Wigenton set sentencing for Feb. 21.
I found at this link a copy of the plea agreement in which Mr. Wildstein agreed to plead guilty to two counts and to have his guideline calculation add up to an offense level 16 (including a three-point downward adjustment for acceptance of responsibility). Such an offense level for a first offender accounts for his applicable guideline range being set at 21-27 months before he gets any further cooperation credit for his substantial assistance in the prosecution of Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni. Assuming the same basic guideline calculations for Mr. Baroni and Ms. Kelly, but now without any benefit for acceptance of responsibility AND with a two-point enhancement for obstruction of justice based on testifying falsely, it seem they are facing an offense level of 21 (at least), and thus looking at an advisory guideline range of 37-46 months (at the lowest).
I can certainly imagine all sorts of arguments that could possibly be made by federal prosecutors to try to drive up the applicable guideline range further, but I suspect that USA Paul Fishman and his line prosecutors will be content to argue for a federal prison sentence in the range of three to four years. I would also expect that defense attorneys for Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni will look for ways to contest any guideline range enhancement and will also advocate forcefully under the provisions of 18 USC 3553(a) for a sentence below whatever the guideline range is calculated to be.
Because I am going to be turning this real case into a real-world teaching exercise in my sentencing class, I would be grateful to have informed (or even uniformed) folks provide any insights or ideas about how they expect the sentencing for Ms. Kelly and Mr. Baroni and Mr. Wildstein to play out in the week ahead.
Prior related post:
- "Bridgegate" now a federal sentencing story after two former New Jersey officials convicted on all federal counts after lengthy jury deliberations
November 8, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)
Sunday, November 06, 2016
Another big NYC white-collar sentencing produces another way-below-guideline sentence
This USA Today article, headlined "Wall Street fraud sentencing prompts tears and debate," provides the highlights of a high-profile federal fraud sentencing that took place in Manhattan on this past Friday. Here are some of the details:
It was an emotional federal court sentencing, with the future of an Ivy League-educated former private equity executive hanging in the scales of justice.
The prosecution said Andrew Caspersen, a scion of a wealthy business family, should get as much as a 15-year-plus prison sentence for executing a Ponzi-like scam that collectively bilked about a dozen of his clients, family members, and his investment company out of roughly $46 million. The defense said Caspersen never intended to steal and betray. Asking for leniency, his attorney, Paul Shechtman presented evidence to show the 40-year-old father of two had been gripped by a pathological gambling addiction.
On the bench in the 14th-floor Manhattan courtroom sat U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, a renowned legal independent and author of a recent essay that almost seemed to foreshadow the proceeding. "Distinctions of intent frequently determine, as a matter of law, the difference between going to prison and going free," Rakoff wrote in The New York Review of Books in his examination of neuroscience and the law. What ensued was a nearly three-hour debate over whether and how much gambling addiction should factor in the sentence — complete with references to "The Gambler," a short novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
By the end, Caspersen and his wife, Christina, wept as they held one another in the courtroom. Shechtman brushed away tears of his own. And Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a statement that noted Caspersen had been sentenced — but made no comment on the punishment.
The prosecution attacked the gambling addiction defense from the start. Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Magdo argued that 2014-2016 scam run by the Princeton University and Harvard Law School graduate had been carefully calculated. In a sentencing memo to the court, she noted that Caspersen fooled his roughly dozen victims by incorporating sham entities with names similar to real private equity firms.
The victims lost millions. Some, investment professionals themselves, declined to present victim statements by name, fearing the reputational loss of being fooled. Magdo added that Caspersen used much of the scam proceeds to pay the mortgage and two home equity credit lines on a Manhattan apartment, as well as a $3 million home in Bronxville, a wealthy suburb of New York City....
Shechtman submitted dozens of support letters to the court, including pleas for leniency from Caspersen's wife, friends, and even the doorman of his Manhattan co-op. The defense also turned to scientific and financial trading experts. Dr. Marc Potenza, a Yale University School of Medicine psychiatry professor and mental health expert on addiction, examined Caspersen and reviewed his health records in preparation for testifying at the sentencing hearing. "Mr. Caspersen suffered from a severe gambling disorder, a mental illness, and there is little doubt that it contributed substantially to him losing his own money and seek money by fraud from others to continue on the same destructive path," Potenza wrote in a letter to the court....
Citing the experts' conclusions, Shechtman urged Rakoff to weigh the "tragic dimension" of Caspersen's gambling addiction.... Caspersen fought back tears as he addressed the court before being sentenced. "I have committed serious crimes of fraud, and have no one to blame but myself," he said. "I stand before you asking for mercy."...
After more than an hour of testimony and questioning of Potenza, Rakoff said he deemed it "more likely than not" that gambling addiction existed and could be a mitigating factor. Still, he stressed it must be weighed with other factors in the case. "It was a substantial fraud," said the judge. "It was a fraud that involved the deception of people who had a lot of faith in the defendant."
Ultimately, Rakoff sentenced Caspersen to four years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, and nearly $28 million in restitution. "No purpose would be served by having him rot in prison for years on end," said the judge. He characterized federal sentencing guidelines that would allow the far longer sentence sought by prosecutors as "absurd." And, referring to the likelihood that some might question the leniency, Rakoff said outsiders didn't know all the facts of the case.
I cannot find any indication that Judge Rakoff has or plans to write up his sentencing conclusions in a formal opinion, but I sincerely hope he does. For consistent and cogent sentencing even after Booker made the guidelines advisory, it is critical in my view not only for federal district judges to consider thoughtfully all the 18 USC 3553(a) sentencing factors, but also for them to produce written opinions to explain how they weighed those factors in high-profile cases in which they significantly deviate from the ranges suggested by the guidelines.
November 6, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Friday, November 04, 2016
"Bridgegate" now a federal sentencing story after two former New Jersey officials convicted on all federal counts after lengthy jury deliberations
As regular readers know, I tend to avoid discussing high-profile criminal prosecutions unless and until they become interesting or important sentencing stories. And then, perhaps problematically, once they become notable sentencing stories, I tend to discuss the cases too much. These tendencies are going to be on full display now that the long-running so-called "Bridgegate" scandal this morning because a great sentencing story. This CNN piece explains, while concluding with an accurate and ridiculous sentencing point:
Two former officials linked to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's office were found guilty on all charges Friday in connection with the closure of lanes in 2013 on the George Washington Bridge in an act of alleged political retribution, the fallout for which has come to be known as Bridgegate. The news comes after nearly five days of deliberations from the jury.
Bridget Anne Kelly, the former deputy chief of staff to Christie, and Bill Baroni, the former deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, both faced seven counts of various charges including conspiracy, fraud, and civil rights deprivation.
The verdict is another setback in Christie's political career, following a controversy that spans nearly three years and put a significant dent in the Garden State Republican's presidential ambitions. Christie is heading planning behind Republican nominee Donald Trump's transition if he wins the presidency. CNN has reached out to the Trump campaign for comment and not yet gotten a response.
Prosecutors allege that the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge were part of a deliberate effort to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who did not endorse the Republican incumbent Christie in his 2013 re-election bid. Emails and text messages released in January of 2014 form the basis of the charges. In one particularly damning email, Kelly told former Port Authority official David Wildstein, "Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee." Kelly later said her messages contained "sarcasm and humor," and she claims that she had told Christie about traffic problems resulting from a study a day prior to sending the email....
Kelly and Baroni each face a maximum sentence of 86 years, according to Paul Fishman, the federal prosecutor in the case.
Though I am disinclined to accuse federal prosecutors of "overcharging" unless and until I know all the facts, the simple fact that the conviction on all counts here even presents the possibility of a sentence of 86 years in prison leads me to be more than a bit suspicious of how the feds approached this case. That concern aside, I feel pretty certain predicting (1) that now-convicted federal felons Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni are unlikely to be sentences to more than a few years in prison, and (2) that federal prosecutors are going to be inclined to ask for a pretty lengthy prison sentence for these two because they had the temerity to contest their guilt and put the feds through the bother of a lengthy trial, and (3) that a low-profile, high-impact legal question for Kelly and Baroni is whether they will be given bail pending what could be very lengthy appeals of their multiple convictions.
I have not followed this case closely enough to even begin to figure out what the advisory guideline calculations might look like in these cases, but I would love to hear from some informed folks about what they think Bridget Anne Kelly and Bill Baroni are now facing, formally or informally, as this long-running scandal becomes a fascinating federal sentencing case.
November 4, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10)
"If guilt is proven, should juries always convict?"
The title of this post is the headline of this very interesting new article appearing in my own local Columbus Dispatch. Here is the context and commentary that follows the headline:
No one denied that Edwin Sobony II savagely beat his wife’s heroin supplier with a baseball bat when the man visited the couple’s Hamilton Township home in December. Sobony admitted to investigators that he did it after repeatedly begging the man to stay away. At his trial in September on charges of felonious assault, his defense attorney told jurors that Sobony’s actions were “felonious as hell.”
Yet the attorney, Sam Shamansky, encouraged the jury to acquit his client anyway. “He assaulted him with this bat,” Shamansky said, holding the weapon aloft during his closing argument. “And you say to yourself, ‘You know what, that’s OK. That’s what I would have done.’ Because no one can challenge that opinion. You can go back in that jury room and believe that and vote for it and nobody can touch you. That’s the beauty of the system. It prevents these kinds of prosecutions from ruining lives.”
Shamansky also told jurors that they could acquit by finding that Sobony acted in defense of himself and his family. But he acknowledged last week that, in case they rejected the self-defense claim, he was trying to persuade them that they could employ what is known as jury nullification to find his client not guilty.
Jury nullification occurs when jurors acquit a defendant, despite the prosecution proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt, because they believe the law is unjust or has been unjustly imposed. It appeared to happen last week in Oregon, where a jury acquitted seven defendants who had armed themselves and occupied a national wildlife refuge during a 41-day standoff with federal authorities.
Shamansky’s arguments on behalf of Sobony didn’t work. The jury deliberated for less than three hours before finding the mail carrier guilty of one count of felonious assault. Sobony, 38, is scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday by Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Charles Schneider.
Not everyone agrees that nullifying a law is an appropriate option for juries. Ric Simmons, a professor of law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said jurors take an oath to follow the law and return a conviction if the prosecution meets its burden of proof. “In my view, jurors are under a legal obligation to follow the law,” he said.
However, jurors can’t be punished for their decisions, regardless of their reasoning, and their verdicts can’t be appealed. “So jury nullification exists, and we can’t do anything about it,” said Simmons, a former prosecutor.
Others say jury nullification is a time-honored tradition in the United States and was seen by the Founding Fathers as a check on abuse or overreach by the government. It was used by pre-Civil War juries to acquit those charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act. More recently, it’s been used to acquit those charged with what juries consider antiquated drug-possession laws.
“Jury nullification has played a huge role in the development of our laws,” said Clay S. Conrad, author of “Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine.” “For instance, it’s why we have a range of charges for murder, from manslaughter to capital murder. Juries didn’t want everyone to get the death penalty.”
Conrad, a lawyer based in Houston, said police, prosecutors and judges shouldn’t be the only ones allowed to use discretion in how they apply the law. “If a jury believes the prosecution’s idea of justice is wrong, they should have every right to reflect that with their verdict,” he said. “I think the problem we have with getting more juries to nullify in cases where it is appropriate is because so many people are unwilling to challenge authority.”
The leading advocacy group for jury nullification is the Fully Informed Jury Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 in Montana. The group works to educate the public about jury nullification and says that juries should be informed about it as part of jury instructions. “We’re trying to overcome a lack of information, but it’s more than that,” said Kirsten Tynan, the group’s executive director. “Jurors are almost always going to be misinformed. They’re told by the court that they must follow the law as it’s given to them. “We have to educate people that what they’re being told isn’t necessarily true.”
I got into a bit of a verbal fight with my friend and colleague Professor Ric Simmons about this issue just earlier this week (and thus I love seeing him quoted on this front). Readers may not be too surprised to hear that I am generally a fan and supporter of jury nullification. Indeed, I generally believe that juries should be instructed about their power and right to nullify, though I also believe that prosecutors should be able to explain to jurors why they think broad use of nullification powers could have an array of potentially harmful societal consequences.
In this setting and in many others dealing with jury trial rights and procedures, I suspect views are often influenced by one's broader perspectives on the operation of present (and future?) criminal justice systems (both personally and professionally). I have long viewed US criminal justice systems as bloated and inefficient, and thus I have always been inclined to embrace the jury's role as a critical "democratic" check on the criminal justice work of legislative and executive branches. (The late Justice Scalia's writings in cases like Blakely and other jury-respecting rulings have reinforced and enhanced these perspectives in recent years.) My colleague Professor Simmons obviously takes a different view, and I suspect he will not be surprised to know that I believe his views are at least somewhat influenced by his own professional history before he became an academic.