Sunday, November 23, 2014
Reviewing the potential and pitfalls in a notable problem-solving court in NYC
Today's New York Times has this terrific lengthy account of the work of a unique "problem-solving court" in New York. The piece is headlined "In a Queens Court, Women in Prostitution Cases Are Seen as Victims," and here are small excerpts from an article that merits a read in full:
The Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens, which is marking its 10th anniversary next month, ... serves as a model for a statewide 11-court program that began last year. The intention is to change the legal conversation around the multibillion-dollar sex trade by redefining the women in it as victims instead of criminals. Most are offered a deal: Take part in a set number of counseling sessions, usually five or six, and the charges will be dismissed and the record sealed.
After 13 months, the five New York City courts are still a work in progress, their success tracked more in individual stories than statistics. “This court is not devised to solve the problems of trafficking,” Judge Serita said of the program, “but to address one of the unfortunate byproducts, which is the arrest of these defendants on prostitution charges.”
All defendants in the specialized courts are presumed to be victims at risk, the first of many assumptions made, in part, because of the silence surrounding sex trafficking. That silence also makes it tougher to shift social mores. Not only do the police and the justice system still treat prostitution as a crime, but the women themselves, most undocumented, often don’t define themselves as having been trafficked — whether out of fear, shame or choice....
At no point in the proceedings does the judge, the prosecutor or the defense lawyer ask if the defendants have been trafficked; nor is there a quid pro quo to give up a trafficker. It is rare, but the hope is that the women, perhaps after working with counselors, will feel comfortable describing the conditions that led them to prostitution....
On Fridays, Judge Serita usually hears more than 40 cases in three hours. “How are you today?” she asks each of the women, inquiring whether they take English classes and praising their progress. Several defendants said they noticed less that she was an Asian woman and more that she had a warm demeanor. On other days, she presides over the drug treatment and mental health courts in Queens.
The trafficking court, she acknowledged, is a Catch-22: For people to feel less like criminals, they must first go through the criminal justice system. Leigh Latimer, the Legal Aid Society lawyer assigned to Judge Serita’s court, agreed. “There is a somewhat more recent view that clients are potentially victims, but we’re still arresting them at a very rapid pace,” she said. “We’re trying to solve their problems through being arrested, which is not an affirming process.”...
On several Fridays, nearly a dozen women said during interviews in Mandarin that they did not feel like trafficking victims, but victims of the police. The women all spoke on the condition of anonymity because their cases were still pending. “My name has been tarnished,” said one woman, who was upset that her case was “lumped with all those others.” She denied performing a sex act, but the police report contradicted that, Ms. Affronti said.
Another woman explained that she was arrested at 4 a.m. on her sixth day of work. She and her sister, who quit after the second day because she sensed “something was not right,” owed more than $80,000 to friends and family members who raised the money for them to come to the United States from Fuzhou. That type of pressure to pay back smuggling agents — often with interest as high as 12 percent — is considered “debt bondage.” It is a more subtle condition of human trafficking, but is pervasive in New York’s Asian communities, lawyers say.
November 23, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Thursday, November 20, 2014
"Overcriminalization: Administrative Regulation, Prosecutorial Discretion, and the Rule of Law"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Ronald Cass now available on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Recently, both practical and doctrinal changes have significantly reduced the degree to which criminal punishment fits rule-of-law ideals. Although far from the only cause, the expansion of criminal sanctions as a by-product of an extraordinary explosion in administrative rulemaking that is backed by criminal liability has helped propel this change. While there are reasons to support criminal enforcement of administrative decision-making, the ways in which administrative rules are adopted, applied, and enforced and the scale of governmental law-making (including administrative rule-making) that has provided the grounds for potential criminal penalties have produced a massive increase in government power that risks serious erosion of individual liberty.
This change cries out for immediate attention ― and for changes to the law. This article explores differences between criminal law and administrative law, and between statutory and administrative rule generation and application, explaining how differences between administrative law and criminal law play out (problematically) with respect to much criminal enforcement of administrative rules.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Federal judge wonders if marijuana sentencing should be impacted by state reforms
As reported in this Oregonian article, a "federal judge in Portland last week delayed the sentencing of a convicted bulk marijuana runner from Texas, saying he needed to get a better read on the U.S. Department of Justice's position on the drug before imposing a sentence." Here are more details:
U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman, presiding on Thursday in the case of U.S. v. Bounlith "Bong" Bouasykeo, asked lawyers if the vote in Oregon and a similar vote in Washington, D.C., signal "a shift in the attitude of people generally towards marijuana."
"I guess I'm curious whether I ought to slow this down a little bit," he asked lawyers, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by The Oregonian. Under federal law, marijuana in any form or amount remains illegal.
Mosman wondered aloud if there was any move afoot to take a different position on marijuana enforcement in Oregon. This was not to suggest – he hastened to add – that he agreed on marijuana legalization. The judge wondered whether his position on sentencing ought to move a notch in the defendant's favor because of the nation's evolving view of pot.
"I'm not suggesting that what's on the table is that the whole case ought to go away or anything like that," the judge said. "But would something like that at the margins have some sort of impact on my sentencing considerations? I think I ought to take into account any evolving or shifting views of the executive branch in determining the seriousness of the crime?
"Should I delay this, in your view, or go ahead today (with sentencing)?" After hearing arguments from the lawyers, Mosman decided to delay Bouasykeo's punishment.
November 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Monday, November 10, 2014
Huzzah, Huzzah... all crime goes down again in 2013 according to new FBI data
As reported in this official press release, the "estimated number of violent crimes in the nation decreased 4.4 percent in 2013 when compared with 2012 data, according to FBI figures released today." What great news, and here is more:
Property crimes decreased 4.1 percent, marking the 11th straight year the collective estimates for these offenses declined.
The 2013 statistics show the estimated rate of violent crime was 367.9 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants, and the property crime rate was 2,730.7 offenses per 100,000 inhabitants. The violent crime rate declined 5.1 percent compared to the 2012 rate, while the property crime rate declined 4.8 percent.
I will have a lot more to say about these data later today, but for now I just want to celebrate the latest great news on crime rates.
Friday, November 07, 2014
Guest SCOTUS argument analysis: "Fish are apparently funny . . . and other quick thoughts on Yates"
Professor Todd Haugh was kind enough to send along for posting here this analysis of one of the notable federal criminal justice cases just heard by the Supreme Court:
The Supreme Court heard argument this week in Yates v. United States, the oddball case requiring the Court to determine whether the “anti-shredding” provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act applies to a fisherman who threw a crate of undersized grouper overboard after he was ordered not to by a federal agent. The precise issue was whether the fisherman, John Yates, had adequate notice that 18 U.S.C. § 1519’s “tangible object” provision covered fish along with financial records, which were the focus of SOX following the Enron and Arthur Anderson document-shredding scandal. Although there have been a number of comprehensive posts about the statutory interpretation aspects of the case, see here and here, I wanted to offer my quick reaction to the argument, which I attended.
Fish are funny. First of all, although this may be trivial for hardcore criminal law and sentencing buffs, this was one of the most jovial arguments I have seen, riotous even. The argument was interrupted numerous times by the gallery’s laughter — 15 times according to the transcript — which was prompted by both the litigants and the Justices. And this wasn’t all the Scalia show. Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, and Breyer all offered quips that gave the audience quite a show.
But overcriminalization is not. Part of the reason everyone was in a joking mood was the inherent absurdity of the underlying prosecution. Although Roman Martinez, the Assistant SG, tried to convey that Yates had not just tossed away a few fish, but had directly disobeyed a federal agent and then enlisted his crew to lie about it, the Justices weren’t buying it. At one point, Chief Justice Roberts interrupted Martinez, saying, “You make him [Yates] sound like a mob boss or something.” (Again, to great laughter.) In between the laughs, however, the Court conveyed a serious concern over the sweep of § 1519 and the government’s exercise of discretion. Justices Breyer and Alito, in particular, posed squirm-inducing hypotheticals to Martinez demonstrating that the only thing stopping this provision from criminalizing obviously trivial conduct is the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Martinez’s admission, solicited from Justice Ginsburg, that the U.S. Attorney’s Manual instructs prosecutors to bring the most severe charge available did not help the government’s cause. Justice Scalia, who had previously asked what kind of “mad prosecutor” brought the case and questioned whether it was the “same guy . . . that brought the prosecution in Bond last term,” said that if the government’s policy was to always prosecute so severely, the Court was “going to be much more careful about how extensive statutes are” and how much “coverage” to give them.
And neither is severe sentencing. Much of this was driven by the sentencing risk Yates faced — twenty years for destroying evidence of a civil infraction. A number of Justices questioned why Congress needed to enact another obstruction provision with a 20-year max when there were others available. The government tried to back its way out of the inquiry by explaining that the prosecutor had recommended a Guideline sentence of 21 to 27 months and Yates only got 30 days in jail, but Chief Justice Roberts highlighted that the issue was not the actual sentence received but the “extraordinary leverage that the broadest interpretation of this statute would give Federal prosecutors.” He specifically mentioned prosecutors using the risk of severe sentencing to force pleas, and Justice Scalia’s questions suggests he was troubled by the same thing.
Overcriminalization exacts real hams. I’m by no means a statutory interpretation wonk, so my interest in Yates is focused on how the case tees up the issue of overcriminalization (particularly in the white collar context). Overcriminalization exacts harms by making prosecutors lawmakers and adjudicators of the criminal code, which invariably leads to arbitrary enforcement. This is what so many of the Justices were reacting to during the argument. But overcriminalization’s real harm, which flows from that arbitrary enforcement, is that it lessens the legitimacy of the criminal law. The absurdity of the Yates prosecution, while making for a lively and fun argument, demonstrated the point. It’s fine to laugh, but when that laughter is directed at our criminal justice system, that’s a serious matter. The question is whether the Court will take this opportunity to provide a serious response.
Predicting a winner. Using the method of tallying questions to the litigants during argument as a way to predict the outcome — the party receiving the most questions from the Justices during oral argument is more likely to lose (see here for a discussion of the methodology) — I’ll go ahead and predict a winner. According to my notes, Yates’ attorney received approximately 29 questions (I say approximately because it’s hard to know how to count Justice Breyer’s three-part hypotheticals) to the government’s 36, which suggests Yates will prevail. The tone of the questions certainly point to the same conclusion, and it’s consistent with how other’s saw the argument — see here.
Thursday, November 06, 2014
Impact of California's Prop 47 already being felt ... by defense attorneys and police
This local article from California, headlined "Scramble to implement Prop 47 begins," spotlight the impact already being felt by the passage of the biggest criminal justice reform initiative of Election 2014. Here are the (already remarkable) basics:
Just hours after the last ballot returns were counted, the phone lines of defense attorneys across the state began to light up Wednesday morning with calls from inmates.
With the passage of Proposition 47, simple drug possession and property crimes valued under $950 are now misdemeanors, effective immediately. Punishment means, at the worst, up to a year in jail, no longer prison. It also means up to 10,000 inmates serving time for those crimes can begin to apply for shortened sentences, a process many were eager to get started.
“This morning at 8 a.m., we took 10 attorneys and put them on the phones,” said Randy Mize, a chief deputy at the Public Defender’s Office. “They were taking 200 calls an hour from inmates in county jail. These are people asking us to file petitions on their behalf.”
The scramble to put the new law into practice was starting to touch all corners of the criminal justice system Wednesday, from the City Attorney’s Office, which will have to handle 3,000 extra cases a year, to police officers who will have new protocols to follow for certain arrests.
At Juvenile Hall Wednesday morning, six kids were released because they had felony charges that are now classified as misdemeanors under Proposition 47, and legally minors can’t be detained longer than an adult would, authorities said. “I think the roll out today started fairly smoothly,” Mize said. He attributed much of that to the fact that criminal justice leaders from around the county — including prosecutors, public defenders, the sheriff and probation officers — have been meeting for the past month to prepare for this day....
The law is intended to ease prison overcrowding, and put most of the estimated $200 million saved in prison costs annually into drug and mental health treatment programs to staunch recidivism. The majority of law enforcement officials around the state and the county are skeptical it will have the desired effect, and fear less time behind bars will only contribute to the revolving door of the criminal justice system. But, officials say, they will do their best to make it work. “It’s still a work in progress,” Sheriff Bill Gore said Wednesday. “Our primary concern is clearly the public’s safety.”...
Law enforcement officers were reminded of the new law in police lineups around the county. As of Wednesday, six crimes that used to be felonies are now misdemeanors: drug possession for personal use, as well as five property crimes valued below $950, theft, writing bad checks, forgery, shoplifting and receiving stolen property.
One of the biggest differences when arresting someone on a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, is that the crime must have occurred in the officer’s presence, or be witnessed by a citizen willing to sign an affidavit saying so. Several training memos have been distributed in the past few weeks to prepare deputies on such arrests, Gore said....
The Public Defender’s Office has already identified about 200 state prisoners and 1,800 other offenders either in jail or under the supervision of probation who might be eligible to be resentenced under Proposition 47. The first set of petitions are expected to be filed within the next day or so, with priority given to those in custody. Once the application is filed in court, the District Attorney’s Office will review it to make sure the person is eligible, then a judge will OK it and hand down a new, shorter sentence. The process could be as quick as a few weeks for the first group of offenders, said Mize, with public defender’s office.
“There will be a few cases that the DA thinks should be excluded, and we don’t, and those will be litigated,” Mize said. There may also be a few offenders that prosecutors think are too dangerous to be released, and those cases will be argued. Inmates who can’t be resentenced are those who have prior convictions such as murder, attempted murder and violent sex crimes.
The public defender’s office has also identified nearly 200,000 other people who have been convicted since 1990 — that’s as far back as its database goes — of the crimes reclassified under Proposition 47. They can now apply to have their records show misdemeanor rather than felony convictions. Statewide, that could apply to millions of people. Said Mize, “It will certainly take a lot more work in the short term.”
Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:
- Inititative details and debates over California's Proposition 47 to reduce severity of various crimes
- Is California's Prop. 47 a "common-sense" or a "radical" reform to the state's criminal laws?
- Newt Gingrich helps explain "What California can learn from the red states on crime and punishment"
- Reviewing California's debate over lowering sentences through Prop 47
- Notable pitch for California Prop 47 based in mental health concerns
- New York Times editorial makes the case for California's Prop 47
- California sentencing reform initiative Prop 47 wins big getting almost 60% support
November 6, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Based on questions asked at SCOTUS oral argument, wins predicted for federal defendants in Johnson and Yates
As discussed in prior posts here and here, yestderay the Supreme Court heard oral argumentsin two notable federal criminal justices cases, Yates v. United States and Johnson v. United States. I am hoping soon to find the time to read the full arguments transcripts in both cases (which are available here and here). Fortunately, thanks to my old pal Professor Ed Lee and this post at ISCOTUSnow, I do not have to read the transcripts in order to have an informed guess as to who will prevail. Here is why:
I’m predicting the winners of the Supreme Court cases based on the number of questions asked during oral argument. Studies have shown that the advocate who receives more questions during oral argument is more likely to lose....
Yates v. United States asks whether Mr. Yates was deprived of fair notice that destruction of fish would fall within the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 1519—which makes it a crime for anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation—where the term “tangible object” is ambiguous and undefined in the statute, and unlike the nouns accompanying “tangible object” in section 1519, possesses no record-keeping, documentary, or informational content or purpose.
This is a close call. The Court was very active in questioning both sides. By my count, the Petitioner (Yates) received 49 questions and the Respondent (Solicitor General) 54 questions, which militates slightly in favor of the Petitioner.
But, if you break down the questions asked by Justice, the picture gets more complicated. Four Justices (Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) asked the Respondent fewer questions, while only three Justices (Roberts, Scalia, and Breyer) asked the Petitioner fewer questions. Justice Alito asked both sides an equal number of questions (3). Justice Thomas asked no questions.
My confidence level is not high in predicting the winner. It appears to be a very close case. The total number of questions slightly favors the Petitioner, while the questions per Justice slightly favors the Respondent. If I had to choose, I would give a slight nod to the Respondent (Solicitor General) based on the higher number of Justices (4) who asked the Respondent fewer questions.
The second case, Johnson v. United States, asks whether mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun should be treated as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act.
This case is easier to predict, even though the total question count per side was closer. The Court asked almost the same number of questions to each side: 36 to the Petitioner (Johnson) and 37 to the Respondent (Solicitor General). The questions asked by each Justice tells a different picture. Four Justices (Roberts, Ginsberg, Breyer, and Kagan) asked the Petitioner fewer questions. Only two Justices (Scalia and Alito) asked the Respondent fewer questions. Justice Sotomayor asked the same number of questions (5) to each side, while Justices Kennedy and Thomas asked no questions. Another noteworthy point: Justice Alito, in fact, asked 17 questions to the Petitioner — a high number of questions that is somewhat unusual for a Justice to ask one side during oral argument. Justice Alito’s questioning might have inflated the Petitioner’s total question count, in other words. Accordingly, I predict a win for the Petitioner (Johnson), who argued that mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun is not a violent felony under the ACCA.
Previous related posts:
- SCOTUS hears argument in two notable federal criminal justice cases this week
- Terrific SCOTUSblog previews of this week's SCOTUS arguments in Johnson and Yates
- SCOTUS preview guest-post: "Measuring the Dangerousness of Felonies for Sentencing Purposes"
- "Fish, Shotguns and Judicial Activism"
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
"Fish, Shotguns and Judicial Activism"
The title of this post is the title of this terrific new Bloomberg commentary by Noah Feldman spotlighting some connected issues in the two big federal criminal justice cases being heard today by the US Supreme Court. Here are extended excerpts that explain why jurisprudes, and not just criminal justice fans, ought to be watching these cases closely:
Is a fish a tangible object? Does a sawed-off shotgun pose serious risk of injury? Laugh if you must, but the U.S. Supreme Court is taking up these questions in a pair of cases that will form another chapter in the saga of our vastly expanding federal criminal law. Funny as the cases may seem -- both funny strange and funny ha-ha -- they illustrate how policy and law constantly interact for a court deeply divided about the nature of statutory interpretation.
The fish case, Yates v. United States, involves a Florida fishing boat that was boarded and found to have 72 undersized grouper aboard. Ordered to bring the fish back to port where they would be used as evidence, the skipper, John Yates, instead threw them overboard and tried to substitute fish that were over the legal size requirement.
The criminal nature of the act seems intuitive. The part that has reached the Supreme Court on appeal stems from Yates’s conviction under a provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that punishes anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object.” The government says that Yates destroyed a tangible object, namely the fish. Yates says the law, passed after the Enron scandal, is intended to prohibit shredding documents, not throwing fish into the sea....
Aristotle, followed by today’s purpose-driven interpreters such as Justice Stephen Breyer, believed the solution is to interpret the law as its authors would have intended had they only thought of the future case. Others, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, reject the idea that the judge should do anything but apply the law as it is written. Ordinarily, you could expect the case to come down to this division, and to come out 5-4, depending on what Justice Anthony Kennedy thinks of it.
In Yates’s case, things are more complicated. Breyer may well reason that the underlying purpose of the statute is not to protect documents from destruction but to protect evidence in federal cases from being destroyed by defendants. If so, he would uphold Yates’s conviction insofar as Yates was clearly trying to get away with a crime by getting rid of the evidence.
For his part, Scalia may find himself affected by a special principle that he applies only in criminal cases: the “rule of lenity,” according to which an ambiguous statute should be interpreted in favor of the criminal defendant. If Scalia were to follow this principle, he might overturn the conviction.
Of course, whether to apply the rule of lenity depends on whether you think the law is ambiguous. The government says it isn’t: You can hold a fish, so it’s a tangible object. If Scalia thinks the ambiguity -- if any -- derives from context, not language, then according to his own jurisprudence, he shouldn’t apply the rule of lenity, and should uphold the conviction.
The shotgun case, Johnson v. United States, is no less challenging -- and no less odd. Samuel James Johnson, founder of something called the Aryan Liberation Movement, was arrested after he made the mistake of telling an undercover federal agent about his plans for attacking various non-Aryan targets. He was in possession of weapons including an AK-47 -- and that possession was a felony that would ordinarily have gotten him roughly 10 years in prison. But Johnson had three prior convictions. And under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, a fourth conviction for a violent felony carries a minimum of 15 years.
The law defines “violent felony” to include a range of obvious crimes -- plus any “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” One of Johnson’s prior state convictions was for possession of a short-barreled shotgun. Did owning the illegal shotgun pose a serious potential risk?
You won’t be surprised to hear what the gun lobby thinks about that in its friend of the court briefs -- but that’s not really the important point here. The crucial question is, what’s the meaning of the so-called residual clause of the repeat offender law? How should the courts define what counts as a serious risk of potential injury?
The Supreme Court has been answering that question on a case by case basis -- a practice disliked by, you guessed it, Justice Scalia. He thinks the law is unconstitutionally vague, because it doesn’t provide defendants sufficient notice or the courts adequate guidance. It’s easy to see why the law worries Scalia. He wants the courts to follow the law’s literal meaning, not its policy aims -- but it’s almost impossible not to inject policy when the law tells you to evaluate “serious potential risk of physical injury.”
The purpose-oriented justices look at the interpretive issue and see business as usual. To them, the courts must always consider policy and purpose, whether the subject is tangible fish or injurious firearms.
Who’s right is a deep question of jurisprudence. But as a practical matter, the cases show that Scalia’s approach, devoted to opposing judicial activism, won’t work when Congress actively wants the judiciary to make the law up as it goes along. If Scalia wants to avoid relying on his own judgment, he has to strike down the law as unconstitutional. And that isn’t judicial restraint. It’s activism.
Some previous related posts:
- SCOTUS hears argument in two notable federal criminal justice cases this week
- Terrific SCOTUSblog previews of this week's SCOTUS arguments in Johnson and Yates
- SCOTUS preview guest-post: "Measuring the Dangerousness of Felonies for Sentencing Purposes"
California sentencing reform initiative Prop 47 wins big getting almost 60% support
As repoted in this Huffinton Post piece, "California approved a major shift against mass incarceration on Tuesday in a vote that could lead to the release of thousands of state prisoners." Here are the basics from a piece headlined "California Voters Deal Blow To Prisons, Drug War":
Nonviolent felonies like shoplifting and drug possession will be downgraded to misdemeanors under the ballot measure, Proposition 47. As many as 10,000 people could be eligible for early release from state prisons, and it's expected that courts will annually dispense around 40,000 fewer felony convictions.
The state Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that the new measure will save hundreds of millions of dollars on prisons. That money is to be redirected to education, mental health and addiction services -- a novel approach that reformers hope will serve as a model in the larger push against mass incarceration.
This official webpage with California ballot measure voting results reports that Prop 47 received 58.5% of votes in support. This big margin of victory strikes me as big news that can and should further propel the political narrative that, at least in some places, significant numbers of voters are significantly interested in significant sentencing reform.
Tuesday, November 04, 2014
Terrific SCOTUSblog previews of this week's SCOTUS arguments in Johnson and Yates
In this post this morning, I noted that the Supreme Court is finally due to get back around to working on important criminal justice issues with oral arguments scheduled in Yates v. United States, No. 13-7451 and in Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120. I now see that the always great SCOTUSblog now has up these two new posts providing detailed argument previews:
On Johnson from Rory Little, "Are there (finally) five votes to declare the residual clause of the ACCA unconstitutionally vague?"
On Yates from Lyle Denniston, "Can plain language be vague?"
In addition, as religious blog readers may remember, another view of the ACCA issues in Johnson was covered in this space a few weeks ago via this SCOTUS preview guest-post by Professor Stephen Rushin titled "Measuring the Dangerousness of Felonies for Sentencing Purposes."
SCOTUS hears argument in two notable federal criminal justice cases this week
Though today, Election Day 2014, is a big day for citizens to consider who gets to be in charge of making federal laws in Congress, tomorrow is a big day for SCOTUS Justices to consider the reach of some of those laws. Via SCOTUSblog, here are the basics of the two federal criminal justice cases being hear in the Supreme Court on Wednesday:
Issue: Whether Mr. Yates was deprived of fair notice that destruction of fish would fall within the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 1519, which makes it a crime for anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation, where the term “tangible object” is ambiguous and undefined in the statute, and unlike the nouns accompanying “tangible object” in section 1519, possesses no record-keeping, documentary, or informational content or purpose.
Issue: Whether mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun should be treated as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act.
Sunday, November 02, 2014
"Crashing the Misdemeanor System"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing article by Jenny Roberts recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
With “minor crimes” making up more than 75% of state criminal caseloads, the United States faces a misdemeanor crisis. Although mass incarceration continues to plague the nation, the current criminal justice system is faltering under the weight of misdemeanor processing.
Operating under the “broken windows theory,” which claims that public order law enforcement prevents more serious crime, the police send many petty offenses to criminal court. This is so even though the original authors of the theory noted that “[o]rdinarily, no judge or jury ever sees the persons caught up in a dispute over the appropriate level of neighborhood order” and that “a judge may not be any wiser or more effective than a police officer.” Prosecutors have largely failed to exercise discretion in misdemeanor cases, instead churning them through the already overburdened courts. Judges too have been complicit, failing to dismiss weak cases and to intervene when defenders represent their clients ineffectively. As a result, many cases end in a quick guilty plea with little or no jail time. The “broken windows theory” suggests that everyone benefits from such efficiency.
Yet the effect of misdemeanor convictions is anything but minor. A quick guilty plea appears advantageous for a disorderly conduct misdemeanor in exchange for the night already served in jail. But this conviction can, and does, lead to eviction from public housing. It can, and does, pose a bar to showing “good moral conduct” for citizenship. And it can, and does, make it difficult to find work in an era when employers routinely run criminal background checks. The many harsh collateral consequences of even a “minor” misdemeanor conviction create serious barriers to the most basic aspects of life. Mass misdemeanor processing thus harms the individual, his family, his community, and society.
Refusing to process individuals quickly would impose some of the real costs of mass misdemeanor processing on the justice system itself. Such a “crash” of the criminal justice system would not be dramatic. Instead, if defense counsel litigated some of the many factual and legal issues that misdemeanors present, the system would grind to a halt under its own weight. The representation would be nothing more than Gideon and its progeny require, but would shift the burden for mass misdemeanor processing to the prosecution and the courts from misdemeanor defendants. Under this weight, legislators might reduce the short- and long-term costs of mass misdemeanor policing. Prosecutors might exercise greater discretion, and police officers might maintain order without needless arrests.
Part I explores the idea of crashing the system as a potential response to the misdemeanor crisis. Part II describes the potential role for defense counsel in such an institutional response. Part III outlines specific strategies that specialized defender practice groups might pursue to crash the system. Part IV explores arguments for and against efforts to crash the existing misdemeanor system.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014
Back from dead, fugitive fraudster gets 30 years in federal pen
As reported in this AP piece, a "former Georgia investment adviser was sentenced to 30 years in prison Tuesday for committing fraud that fueled a bank's collapse, cost investors millions of dollars and turned the accused banker into a fugitive who was ultimately — and mistakenly — declared dead." Here is more on this notable white-collar case:
Aubrey Lee Price, 48, returned to U.S. District Court for sentencing after he pleaded guilty in June to bank, wire and securities fraud. Price lost much of the $40 million he raised from about 115 clients at his private investment firm. Prosecutors say he also misspent, embezzled and lost $21 million belonging to the Montgomery Bank & Trust in rural southeast Georgia, where Price served as bank director.
Price vanished in June 2012, a few weeks before the bank closed with its assets and reserves depleted, and he left rambling letters saying he planned to jump off a ferryboat. In December 2013, a year after a Florida judge declared him dead at his wife's request, Price was captured in a routine traffic stop near Brunswick on the Georgia coast.
Price cut a plea deal with prosecutors that called for a maximum of 30 years in prison and in exchange for his guilty pleas to three fraud counts. Price also agreed to pay tens of millions in restitution for bank and investor money that he lost, despite having convinced the court to appoint him a lawyer because he had no money to hire one.
Price gave rambling speech in front of the judge in which he acknowledged responsibility but also blamed other managers at the bank for its collapse. Still, he pledged to help recoup money, and officials say he is cooperating with their efforts to collect restitution. "These clients that are here today, and those who are not here, it's important for them to understand I'm trying my best to help them get their money back," Price said in court....
At his plea hearing June 5, Price told the judge he lied to clients and gave them phony financial statements to cover his tracks as he lost their money in speculative trading and other high-risk investments. He said his flight from the financial mess left him depressed. He said he tried smoking marijuana and methamphetamine and had tasted cocaine, but mostly self-medicated with the prescription amphetamine Adderall. Price said he also adopted at least five aliases, including Jason Rollins and Javier Martinez....
The plea agreement settled federal charges pending against Price in Georgia and New York. Prosecutors agreed to drop 16 related bank fraud counts in Georgia plus charges in Miami related to the Coast Guard's search for Price.
Saturday, October 25, 2014
Due to Alleyne, Kansas Supreme Court requires resentencing of murderer of abortion provider
As reported in this local article, headlined "Kansas Supreme Court vacates Roeder's 'Hard 50' sentence," the top court in the Sunflower State reversed a state mandatory minimum sentence in a high-profile murder case. Here are the details:
The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday upheld the premeditated first-degree murder conviction of Scott Roeder, convicted in the 2009 church killing of Wichita abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, but vacated his “Hard 50” life sentence.
In ordering Roeder’s sentence remanded to the Sedgwick County District Court, the Kansas high court noted the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that deemed a sentence of 50 years without the possibility of parole must be levied by a jury as opposed to the trial judge.
The Kansas court has vacated and remanded at least five other Hard 50 sentences in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alleyene vs. United States....
The court rejected all of Roeder’s other arguments in his bid for a new trial. Among those arguments was that Sedgwick County District Court Judge Warren Wilbert declined to allow Roeder to present a voluntary manslaughter defense based on the “imperfect defense of others” concept. Roeder never denied at trial that he intended to shoot and kill Tiller in the vestibule of the doctor’s Wichita church before services on Sunday, May 31, 2009, but said he did so to prevent the abortion provider from taking the lives of unborn children.
Roeder, who testified that his anti-abortion activities began after his 1992 conversion to Christianity, said his frustration grew after Tiller was acquitted in 2009 of 19 charges brought by former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline alleging that Tiller broke state law in performing late-term abortions. Roeder testified that upon learning of Tiller's acquittal, he believed that “nothing was being done” and the legal process had been exhausted....
But the district court ruled that Roeder wasn’t entitled to use a necessity defense, based in part on a previous Kansas Supreme Court ruling — also involving an anti-abortion case — that a person isn’t entitled to a such a defense if the activity they were trying to stop was a legal activity....
“Even for Roeder's professed purpose of stopping all abortions, not just illegal abortions, the Draconian measure of murder was not the only alternative,” Justice Lee Johnson wrote in the unanimous decision. The district court also ruled, and the Supreme Court agreed, that Roeder wasn’t entitled to a voluntary manslaughter defense because no imminent threat existed on that Sunday morning to justify the use of lethal force....
The Kansas Legislature, responding to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alleyene, rewrote the Kansas law on Hard 50 sentencing during a special session in 2013. The new law says a jury must determine whether special circumstances exist to impose the increased minimum sentence. But how such new sentencing will be conducted has yet to be determined, as none has yet been conducted in the cases where a Hard 50 sentence has been vacated. Sedgwick County District Attorney Mark Bennett said Friday after the Roeder decision that he intended to conduct such a hearing.
The full 50+ page opinion of the Kansas Supreme Court in Kansas v. Roeder, No. 104,520 (Kansas Oct. 24, 2014), is available at this link.
Friday, October 24, 2014
Split Minnesota Supreme Court rules lenient sentence in rape case was abuse of discretion
As reported in this local article, headlined "Minnesota Supreme Court criticizes probation sentence in rape case," the top appellate court in Minnesota recently took the unusual step of overruled a trial judge's sentencing decision as an abuse of discretion. Here are the details:
In a rare and harshly worded ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court said Wednesday that a lower court judge erred in sentencing a particularly violent rapist to probation rather than the recommended 12 years in prison.
Justice David Lillehaug opened his 21-page opinion by saying that district courts have a great deal of discretion in sentencing. And the state high court rarely holds that it has been abused, he said. “But rarely is not never,” he continued. “This is such a rare case.”
The state Supreme Court vacated the sentence of 30 years’ supervised probation given to Jose Arriaga Soto Jr. Polk County District Judge Jeffrey Remick now must conduct additional fact-finding on whether the recommended 12-year sentence should be imposed or if a departure from the guidelines is justified.
Soto was 37 when he beat and raped a woman for two hours after drinking all night in an East Grand Forks apartment in 2012. Soto pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal sexual conduct. A co-defendant who was involved in the rape to a lesser degree than Soto received 12 years in prison, the opinion noted in its many criticisms of the ruling.
A presentencing report said Soto had minimized his actions without taking responsibility and blamed the victim. At his sentencing, he apologized to her. The opinion notes, in a tempered outrage, the horrors of the assault for the victim: “Soto committed a forcible and violent assault against an intoxicated and thus particularly vulnerable person. The assault lasted approximately 2 hours and the victim was repeatedly subjected to multiple penetrations by two men. Soto slapped the victim’s face, choked her, and caused several injuries.”
The opinion noted the Legislature and the Sentencing Guidelines Commission have determined a sentence of 12 years in prison is “presumed to be appropriate” for someone with Soto’s criminal history who commits such a rape. The victim’s vulnerability, the multiple forms of penetration and other particular cruelty that may be involved suggests that an upward departure on the case could have been appropriate, the opinion says. The opinion also noted that Soto’s co-defendant, Ismael Hernandez, was “arguably less culpable than Soto — he left the room shortly after the sexual assault began,” but he went to prison for the presumptive sentence of 12 years....
Three of the seven justices dissented from Lillehaug’s opinion. Alan Page wrote that the district court relied on factors generally recognized by the higher court as potentially relevant considerations in determining whether probation was appropriate for Soto. “While another [district] court or the members of our court might have arrived at a different conclusion, that alone does not make this situation the ‘rare case’ warranting our intervention,” wrote Page, who was joined in his dissent by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and G. Barry Anderson....
Even though probation wasn’t recommended in Soto’s pre-sentence report by a probation officer or an evaluator from a sex offender treatment program, Remick placed him on supervised probation for 30 years. The judge emphasized Soto’s age, lack of serious criminal record and family support. He also said the crime was primarily caused by alcohol and that Soto’s attitude in court was largely respectful and that “this particular type of event seems largely out of character.”
Lillehaug’s opinion challenged all the factors Remick listed for Soto’s amenability to probation, finding that he drew false or inappropriate conclusions in considering them. He said the judge should have argued that Soto was “particularly” amendable, the legal standard used to justify the departure of staying a presumptive sentence.
The full majority and dissenting opinion in Minnesota v. Soto, No. A13-0997 (Minn. Oct. 22, 2014), can be accessed at this link.
October 24, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Does new DOJ appointee want to decriminalize all drug possession ... and would that be so bad?
The questions posed by the title of this post are prompted by this recent commentary authored by Cully Stimson and titled "The New Civil Rights Division Head Wants to Decriminalize Possession of All Drugs." Here are excerpts:
So who supports decriminalizing cocaine, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, ecstasy and all dangerous drugs, including marijuana? No, it’s not your teenage nephew. It’s President Obama’s new acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta. In 2012, Gupta wrote that “states should decriminalize simple possession of all drugs, particularly marijuana, and for small amounts of other drugs.” (Emphasis mine).
Last week, President Obama appointed Vanita Gupta to the position of acting head. According to the Washington Post, the administration plans to nominate her in the next few months to become the permanent assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. Her views on sentencing reform – a bi-partisan effort in recent years – have earned her qualified kudos from some conservatives. But her radical views on drug policy – including her opinion that states should decriminalize possession of all drugs (cocaine, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, marijuana etc.) should damper that support of those conservatives, and raise serious concerns on Capitol Hill....
To begin, she believes that the misnamed war on drugs “is an atrocity and that it must be stopped.” She has written that the war on drugs has been a “war on communities of color” and that the “racial disparities are staggering.” As the reliably-liberal Huffington Post proclaimed, she would be one of the most liberal nominees in the Obama administration.
Throughout her career, 39-year old Gupta has focused mainly on two things related to the criminal justice system: first, what she terms draconian “mass incarceration,” which has resulted in a “bloated prison population, and second, the war on drugs and what she believes are its perceived failures.
She is particularly open about her support for marijuana legalization, arguing in a recent CNN.com op-ed that the “solution is clear: …states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.”...
But Gupta does not stop with marijuana. In calling for all drugs to be decriminalized – essentially legalizing all dangerous drugs – Gupta displays a gross lack of understanding of the intrinsic dangers of these drugs when consumed in any quantity.
Heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and methanqualone are Schedule I drugs, which are defined as “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Cocaine, methamphetamine, Demerol and other drugs are Schedule II drugs, defined as “drugs with a high potential for abuse…with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.”
Sound public policy must be based on facts, not radical unsafe, and dangerous theories.
I concur 100% with the statement at the end of this commentary that "sound public policy must be based on facts," and that it why I am more than a bit troubled that this commentary quite false asserts that Gupta's seemingly reasonable suggestion that persons should not be deemed criminals for possessing a small amount of a narcotic is tantamount to advocacy for "legalizing all dangerous drugs."
The term "decriminalize" in this context means to treat in a less-serious regulatory manner like we treat traffic offenses. Nobody would assert that we have "essentially legalized" all speeding and other traffic offenses because we only respond to the offense with fines and limited criminal sanctions. Likewise, advocacy for decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts of drugs is not the equivalent of endorsing a fully legalized marketplace for drugs comparable to what we are seeing in a few states now with marijuana.
That all said, I think Vanita Gupta's suggestion that states decriminalize simple possession of drugs as a way to de-escalate the drug war, as well as Cully Stimson's obvious concerns with such a suggestion, are very legitimate issues for engaged political and public policy debate. (For the record, I would generally support most state drug-decriminalization efforts, though I also would generally advocate that criminal sanctions kick in based on possession of larger dealer-size quantities of certain drugs.) I am pleased to see this commentary, even in a effort to assail a new DOJ nominee, start to bring overdue attention to these important modern drug-war issues. But I hope in the future Mr. Stimson and others will make and understand the important distinction between advocating for decriminalization and advocating for full legalization.
October 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Bladerunner Oscar Pistorius sentenced to five years in prison for killing girlfriend
As reported in this lengthy CNN piece, "Oscar Pistorius' fall from grace culminated Tuesday with a five-year sentence in the shooting death of his girlfriend." Here is more:
The sentence was imposed for the charge of culpable homicide, which in South Africa means a person was killed unintentionally, but unlawfully. Under South African law, he will have to serve at least one-sixth of his sentence -- 10 months -- before he can ask to be placed under correctional supervision, usually house arrest, instead....
During his trial, the double-amputee sprinter often sobbed at the mention of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp's name. He insisted that he mistook her for an intruder when he shot her through a toilet door on Valentine's Day 2013. But there was very little visible reaction from Pistorius as the sentence was read out in the Pretoria court.
Speaking to CNN's Robyn Curnow in the last few weeks before his sentencing, Pistorius told her that he would respect and accept the decision of the court and that he was not afraid of imprisonment. He said he hoped to contribute while in prison by teaching people how to read or start a gym or running club. "Oscar will embrace this opportunity to pay back to society," his uncle, Arnold Pistorius, told reporters. "As an uncle, I hope Oscar will start his own healing process as he walks down the path of restoration. As a family, we are ready to support and guide Oscar as he serves his sentence."
The Steenkamp family's lawyer, Dup De Bruyn, said in a statement: "The family is satisfied. They are glad that it is over and are satisfied that justice has been done."
The prosecution had asked for a minimum prison sentence of 10 years for Pistorius. After the ruling Tuesday, South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority said it had not yet decided whether to appeal Judge Thokozile Masipa's verdict that he is not guilty of murder. Pistorius' defense had called for a sentence of house arrest and community service. There was no immediate reaction from the defense team on the sentencing. Both sides now have a 14-day period in which they can choose to lodge any appeal, according to CNN legal analyst Kelly Phelps....
Giving her reasoning Tuesday, Masipa emphasized that the decision on sentencing would be "mine and mine alone." She pointed out that sentencing is not an exact science but relies on an assessment of elements, including the nature and seriousness of the crime, the personal circumstances of the accused and the interests of society.
She said she would also take into account the factors in sentencing of retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation. In any case, she said, "sentencing is about achieving the right balance."
In her final remarks, Masipa dismissed evidence given by probation officer Annette Vergeer that prison would not be able to accommodate Pistorius' disability, saying her testimony was based on outdated information and sketchy. She said Pistorius would not present the prison system with an "insurmountable challenge."
The judge added that she felt that Pistorius' vulnerability had been overemphasized in the evidence given and that his excellent coping strategies -- shown in his ability to compete with able-bodied athletes -- had been overlooked. He would be able to continue treatment for physical problems and mental health issues while in prison, she said.
In terms of the seriousness of the offense, Masipa said Pistorius had shown gross negligence in shooting into a small toilet cubicle, knowing there was someone inside who could not escape. He also knew how to handle firearms, she said, adding that these were "very aggravating" factors.
On the other hand, mitigating factors include that Pistorius is a first offender and remorseful, Masipa said. She also mentioned his contribution to society in giving his time and money to charities and inspiring others with disabilities to believe they could succeed.
Perhaps seeking to preempt criticism from those who'd like to see either a tougher or more lenient sentence, Masipa pointed out that the purpose of the court is to serve the public interest, not make itself popular. She also indicated that her sentence wasn't affected by Pistorius' fame. "It would be a sad day for this country if the impression was to be created that there was one law for the poor and disadvantaged and another for the rich and famous," she said.
The judge also highlighted the loss suffered by Steenkamp's family, which has had a negative effect on her father's health. Steenkamp was young, vivacious and full of life at the time of her death, she said. "The loss of life cannot be reversed. Nothing I say or do today can reverse what happened," she said.
Previous related post:
October 21, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Sunday, October 19, 2014
Reviewing Alabama's (somewhat successful) use of sentencing guidelines to reduce prison growth
As highlighted in this lengthy local article, headlined "Sentencing reform has slowed, not stopped, inmate growth," sentencing and sentencing reform in Alabama has been a dynamic process that includes sentencing guidelines intended to steer more offenders away from prison. Here are some details:
The state's sentencing structure has a huge impact on the prison population, which is at about 190 percent the capacity it was designed for. A 24-member panel — the Prison Reform Task Force — is working with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to analyze the system and find ways to reduce overcrowding, reduce recidivism and improve public safety.
Andy Barbee, research manager of the CSG's justice center, said Alabama's switch in October 2013 to presumptive guidelines — which judges are required to use unless there's a mitigating or aggravating factor to be considered — has accelerated a downward trend in the number of sentences to prison and the lengths of those sentences. Those guidelines, however, only apply to drug and theft cases.
That trend started in 2006, when voluntary guidelines were made available for judges to use. Judges still had the option to choose existing sentencing laws, but had to acknowledge for the record that voluntary guidelines were considered, Barbee said. The state took those guidelines a step forward when they approved legislation in 2012 that established the presumptive guidelines....
The new guidelines use a point system that weighs factors such as past criminal history and facts of the crime to impose a sentence, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission. The commission is the research arm of the criminal justice system. It's responsible for implementing changes when laws change and making annual recommendations for improvements to the governor, Legislature, chief justice and attorney general.
Wright said the purpose of creating the presumptive guidelines was to provide uniform sentencing practices across Alabama counties, and to make sure the system is fair, effective and encourages community supervision for nonviolent offenders.
But because there are scarce drug rehabilitation and mental health resources and those vary county by county, more structured and uniform assessments of those in the criminal justice system need to be in place to make sure services are effective. "At some point, the state will have to make a bigger investment in community services and supervision programming," Wright said. "Matching offenders with the right services lowers the likelihood that they'll commit more crimes."
The presumptive guidelines are binding unless a judge decides to downgrade the sentence based on facts, or unless an aggravating factor that might warrant a harsher sentence is proved, Wright said. Barbee said the switch to presumptive guidelines was a bold move in the right direction that took political courage, but the next step is to make sure the structure in place continues to evolve. He said similar changes need to happen with parole.
Although the number of arrests, sentences to prison and lengths of sentence are decreasing, the prison population is still on the rise. However, the presumptive guidelines are projected to slow the tremendous growth that the prison population would have seen otherwise, Wright said. "The presumptive guidelines are not going to drastically lower the prison population," Wright said. "It would be a modest reduction at best, but more than likely, it would result in a stabilization. The point is, if you didn't have them, the prison population would just grow, grow, grow."
Much of the current prison population was punished under a set of laws that provided more serious punishments to a larger class of offenses, Barbee said. "Simply waiting on the guidelines to have an effect won't get the system where it wants to be until many years out," Barbee said. "Therefore it's critical, if the state wants to have a near-term impact on the crisis level of overcrowding, it looks beyond sentencing."
Barbee said there are some caveats with the state's sentencing guidelines. Burglary is considered a violent crime, regardless of whether anyone else was involved during the burglary.... He also said Alabama has one of the lowest felony theft thresholds in the country at $500. The threshold was recently raised from $250, he said, and most states are at about $1,000 or $2,000.
The fact that the state's laws don't consider weight or amount when it comes to drug crimes also makes it more likely that punishment might not match the crime. He said any amount of drug possession other than marijuana — whether it's one pill or a pound of cocaine — is a felony.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Author John Grisham says "we've gone nuts with this incarceration" of child porn downloaders
One of my (many) wonderful students alerted me to this notable UK press piece reporting on an interview with famous law author John Grisham who had some interesting (and likely-to-be-controversial) comments about tough sentencing for those who download child porn. The article is headlined "John Grisham: men who watch child porn are not all paedophiles," and here are excerpts:
America is wrongly jailing far too many people for viewing child pornography, the best-selling legal novelist John Grisham has told The Telegraph in a wide-ranging attack on the US judicial system and the country's sky-high prison rates. Mr Grisham, 59, argued America's judges had "gone crazy" over the past 30 years, locking up far too many people, from white collar criminals like the businesswoman Martha Stewart, to black teenagers on minor drugs charges and — he added — those who had viewed child porn online.
"We have prisons now filled with guys my age. Sixty-year-old white men in prison who've never harmed anybody, would never touch a child," he said in an exclusive interview to promote his latest novel Gray Mountain which is published next week. "But they got online one night and started surfing around, probably had too much to drink or whatever, and pushed the wrong buttons, went too far and got into child porn."
The author of legal thrillers such as The Firm and A Time to Kill who has sold more than 275m books during his 25-year career, cited the case of a "good buddy from law school" who was caught up in a Canadian child porn sting operation a decade ago as an example of excessive sentencing. "His drinking was out of control, and he went to a website. It was labelled 'sixteen year old wannabee hookers or something like that'. And it said '16-year-old girls'. So he went there. Downloaded some stuff — it was 16 year old girls who looked 30.
"He shouldn't ’a done it. It was stupid, but it wasn't 10-year-old boys. He didn't touch anything. And God, a week later there was a knock on the door: ‘FBI!’ and it was sting set up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to catch people — sex offenders — and he went to prison for three years."
"There's so many of them now. There's so many 'sex offenders' — that's what they're called — that they put them in the same prison. Like they're a bunch of perverts, or something; thousands of ’em. We've gone nuts with this incarceration," he added in his loft-office in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Asked about the argument that viewing child pornography fuelled the industry of abuse needed to create the pictures, Mr Grisham said that current sentencing policies failed to draw a distinction between real-world abusers and those who downloaded content, accidentally or otherwise. "I have no sympathy for real paedophiles,” he said, "God, please lock those people up. But so many of these guys do not deserve harsh prison sentences, and that's what they're getting," adding sentencing disparities between blacks and whites was likely to be the subject of his next book.
There are currently some 2.2m people in jail in the US — or more than 750 per 100,000 population — which makes the US by far the heaviest user of prison sentences in the world. By contrast, Britain imprisons just 154 per 100,000 population. However Mr Grisham’s remarks are likely to anger child-rights campaigners that over the past decade have successfully lobbied the US Congress to demand tougher sentences for those who access child pornography online.
Since 2004 average sentences for those who possess — but do not produce — child pornography have nearly doubled in the US, from 54 months in 2004 to 95 months in 2010, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. However the issue of sex-offender sentencing has sparked some debate in the US legal community after it emerged that in some cases those who viewed child porn online were at risk of receiving harsher sentences than those who committed physical acts against children.
A provocative article in the libertarian magazine Reason headlined "Looking v Touching" argued last February that something was "seriously wrong with a justice system in which people who look at images of child rape can be punished more severely than people who rape children". And in January this year the US Supreme Court was unable to resolve a debate over whether a man who viewed images of a child rape should be as liable to pay the same financial compensation to the victim as the original perpetrator of the crime.
UPDATE: As I expected, John Grisham's child porn sentencing comments has stirred controversy and he has already issued a formal apology. This CNN story provides the basics of the early aftermath:
Those comments and the nature in which Grisham discussed the very serious issue of child pornography incited a flood of hurt, disappointed and angry reactions from fans.
"The day that you came out in an interview and said that watchers of child porn get too stiff of a penalty for it (you said 10 years was too much) makes you someone that I cannot support nor no longer want to read," a reader named Kendra Benefield Lausman shared on Grisham's Facebook page; another posted that she's taken her entire Grisham library to her "burn barrel" with the intent to set the books on fire.
"How do you think child porn is made?" a poster named John Kelly asked on Grisham's page. "Someone is still getting hurt you imbecile. I'm sad to say that I will never purchase, nor consume, one of your books ever again. I am disgusted."
After the uproar began, Grisham issued an apology.
"Anyone who harms a child for profit or pleasure, or who in any way participates in child pornography -- online or otherwise -- should be punished to the fullest extent of the law," the author said in a statement. "My comments made two days ago during an interview with the British newspaper The Telegraph were in no way intended to show sympathy for those convicted of sex crimes, especially the sexual molestation of children. I can think of nothing more despicable. I regret having made these comments, and apologize to all."
That may not be enough for some of his former followers. "You clearly said in the interview that people (like your drunk friend) who look at child porn don't deserve severe punishment," Facebook user Raylene Jolly Wheeler posted in response to Grisham. "Not sure how you can backtrack that statement."
Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Does the Constitution limit the age at which a juve killer can be tried as an adult?
The question in the title of this post is promopted by this AP story emerging from Pittsburgh sent my way by a helpful reader. The story is headlined "Boy, 10, Charged As Adult In Death Of 90-Year-Old Woman," and here are the details:
A 10-year-old boy has been charged as an adult in the beating death of a 90-year-old woman over the weekend in northeastern Pennsylvania. Prosecutors in Wayne County said the boy was visiting his grandfather, the caretaker of Helen Novak, in Tyler Hill on Saturday, when county emergency responders got a call reporting her death.
District Attorney Janine Edwards said in a statement that the boy’s mother brought him in to the state police barracks at Honesdale the same afternoon and reported that her son had told her that he had gone into the woman’s room and she yelled at him. The boy told his mother that “he got mad, lost his temper and grabbed a cane and put it around Novak’s throat,” police said. Advised of his rights and interviewed by a trooper, he said he “pulled Novak down on the bed and held the cane on her throat and then punched her numerous times,” authorities said.
State police said the boy told them that he went to his grandfather and told him that the woman was “bleeding from her mouth” but denied he had harmed her, but later told him that he had punched the woman and put a cane around her neck. Police said an autopsy done Monday at Wayne Memorial Hospital in Honesdale indicated blunt force trauma to the victim’s neck, and the death was ruled a homicide....
The boy was charged as an adult with criminal homicide and aggravated assault, with the prosecutor’s office noting that the crime of homicide “is specifically excluded from the juvenile act” and therefore “a juvenile who commits the crime of homicide is charged as an adult.” The boy was held without bail pending an Oct. 22 preliminary hearing.
I am pretty sure that, prior to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller, this 10-year-old killer would have be facing a mandatory LWOP sentence under Pennsylvania law. Now, I believe, state law provides only a mandatory minimum of 20 or 25 years for this kind of killer. Especially for those still troubled by the Miller ruling and eager to have some juve killers get LWOP sentences (such as folks talking here over at Crime & Consequences), I wonder if they would assert that even a kid still in elementary school could and should never even have a chance to live outside a cage for a crime like this.