Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Eager for practitioner views (and others) on how the "Obama judiciary" may be transforming sentencing jurisprudence and practice
The request for comments, particularly from federal court practitioners, appearing in the title of this post is prompted by this recent Politico article headlined "Did Obama win the judicial wars? Liberals say he shied away from too many battles and ran into GOP roadblocks. But the result is still a transformation of U.S. courts." Here is one excerpt from the article highlighting its themes:
It’s not yet clear whether Obama’s judicial legacy will include a Justice Garland, who could swing the direction of the highest court for decades. But even if the Garland nomination stalls, Obama has already reshaped the judiciary, not only the Supreme Court but the lower courts that hear more than 400,000 federal cases every year. And the unprecedented move by Senate Republicans to deny Garland a hearing is just the most intense skirmish in a larger battle over Obama’s nominees, a battle that has transformed the politics of the judiciary in ways that will reverberate long after his presidency.
Ultimately, most of those battles over judges have really been about Obama, a nasty front in the larger partisan war that has raged throughout his presidency. And as with most of the foreign and domestic policy battles of the Obama era, the result, after a lot of bellicose rhetoric and political brinksmanship, has been a lot of change. Obama has already appointed 329 judges to lifetime jobs, more than one third of the judiciary, and they’re already moving American jurisprudence in Obama’s direction. He got two left-leaning women onto the Court: Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice, and Elena Kagan, his former solicitor general. He also flipped the partisan balance of the nation’s 13 courts of appeals; when he took office, only one had a majority of Democratic appointees, and now nine do. Just last week, two Obama appointees to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down some of North Carolina’s strict new election law, calling it a discriminatory effort to stop blacks from voting.
Obama is a political pragmatist and a public advocate of judicial restraint, so he hasn’t nominated the dream judges of the left. But he certainly hasn’t appointed the kind of Federalist Society conservatives that George W. Bush favored, so liberal activists — who have indeed put aside their misgivings and supported Garland — have mostly approved of his impact on the justice system. His appointees have already taken the progressive side in cases involving issues like gay marriage and transgender bathroom choices, as well as cases involving his own health reforms and carbon regulations. And they really are diverse; 43 percent of Obama’s judges have been women, shattering the old record of 29 percent under Bill Clinton, and 36 percent have been non-white, surpassing Clinton’s record of 24 percent. Obama has appointed 11 openly gay judges, when before him there was only one.
I have a lot of thoughts about a lot of aspects of Prez Obama's likely judicial legacy, but I am disinclined to discuss this legacy at length until we find out in the coming months if Merrick Garland becomes the next Justice. In the meantime, though, I would be eager to hear views from criminal justice practitioners who spend any time in the federal courts as to how big a different the 327 judges Obama has appointed to lower courts have impacted sentencing jurisprudence and practice. As the Politico article details, the federal judiciary looks a lot different thanks to the diversity of Prez Obama's appointment, and I am now eager to hear from informed persons whether it also feels a lot different when it comes to sentencing decision-making.
Reflections from those working hard to get their clients clemency
The National Law Journal has this notable new article headlined "Lawyers Reflect on Clemency Work After Obama Executive Action," and here are excerpts:
When President Barack Obama commuted the sentences last week of 214 nonviolent drug offenders, he changed the lives of many inmates who may never have expected to leave prison. The action also had a profound impact on defense lawyers involved in pursuing the clemency petitions that the president has now granted.
When criminal defense attorney James Felman calls down to the Coleman Penitentiary in Florida to inform his clients that their clemency petitions have been granted, he said the experience is sometimes a little awkward. Surrounded by guards in the warden's office — where prisoners are typically brought if they are in trouble or a loved one has died — the inmate may not exactly feel free to celebrate, Felman said. "It's not like they can start dancing," he said.
Felman, a partner at Kynes Markman & Felman in Tampa, saw five of his clients granted clemency on Aug. 3, when President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 inmates — the highest number a president has ever granted in a single day. The move comes amid a broader effort by the president to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Since 2010, Obama has granted 562 commutations and 70 pardons, more commutations than the last nine presidents combined.
Of Felman's clients to receive clemency last week, all were men convicted on nonviolent drug charges.... "You can't imagine a more rewarding experience as a lawyer," Felman said.
Felman, whose firm has successfully advocated for 12 clemency petitions, served as the chair of the American Bar Association Section of Criminal Justice from 2014 to 2015, and is a member of the steering committee for the Clemency Project 2014, a working group of lawyers who review clemency petitions. Through the project, inmates who qualify for clemency under the guidelines are assigned a lawyer, who works the case pro bono....
Marjorie Peerce, a New York partner at Ballard Spahr and a member of the project's steering committee, has been involved with the project since its inception, and supervises about 100 lawyers at her firm who work these cases. She estimated that the project had submitted about 1,500 petitions to the U.S. Office of the Pardon Attorney and had about 4,000 lawyers volunteering, both from criminal defense backgrounds and from unrelated fields. "The private bar really stepped up," Peerce said. Her firm had three clients granted clemency on Aug. 3, but she declined to discuss their cases specifically.
Sherrie Armstrong, a Washington environmental lawyer at Crowell & Moring, worked on behalf of Stephanie George, who had her life sentenced commuted in December 2013. Armstrong worked with George's sister to collect recommendation letters, including letters from a community pastor, an interested employer and George's children. Armstrong added that the writing style demanded by these clemency petitions differs from that of her normal style as an environmental lawyer. "You're not writing for a court. It's a more persuasive, emotional appeal," she said.
Tuesday, August 9, 2016
As federal prosecutors urged, former Gov Blagojevich resentenced to same 14-year prison term despite a few vacated convictions
As reported in this Wall Street Journal piece, a "federal judge on Tuesday refused to reduce a 14-year prison sentence handed down to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich" at his resentencing. Here are more details on why and how Blago was resentenced earlier today:
“The fabric of this state is torn,” said U.S. District Judge James Zagel, adding that “the fault lies with the governor and no one else” for his lengthy sentence. The former governor, 59, now will have 10 years left to serve of his prison sentence. Mr. Blagojevich — appearing via video feed from a prison in Colorado with his once-black hair turned grayish-white — appeared stunned and shook his head as the judge delivered his decision.
Mr. Blagojevich had appealed for a reduced sentence of just five years after an appeals court last year threw out five of the original 18 counts for which he was found guilty. In court on Tuesday, his lawyer Len Goodman argued that his case was “significantly different” after the appellate court’s ruling. Mr. Goodman also argued that Mr. Blagojevich wasn't acting inappropriately for personal gain, but to acquire political muscle and therefore should serve a shorter sentence.
“He never took a bribe,” said Mr. Goodman, speaking in court. “He bought his own clothes; he bought his own baseball tickets.” Mr. Blagojevich, speaking to the court via a blurry video feed, apologized for his mistakes and for his actions in his time as governor. “I recognize that it was my words and my actions that have led me here,” he said, with his family present in court. “I’ve made mistakes and I wish I had a way to turn the clock back.”...
Both his children addressed the court Tuesday, saying that their father was a good man and that their family was suffering greatly from his absence. They both broke down in court upon hearing the judge’s sentence. Mr. Goodman also submitted a series of letters to the court written by prisoners who were serving time with Mr. Blagojevich, all of whom said he was an inspiration who was helping them through their sentences and teaching them useful skills, including how to prepare for a job interview.
Judge Zagel said that Mr. Blagojevich’s good behavior in prison was “not especially germane” to his decision and that the same circumstances remained from when he rendered the sentence in 2011.
Speaking after the sentencing, Patti Blagojevich, the former governor’s wife, said that his family finds the sentence “unusually cruel and heartless and unfair.”
“I am dumbfounded and flabbergasted at the inability of the judge to see that things were different” than before, she said.
I would assume that the former Gov may now appeal this newly-imposed 14-year prison term. Depending upon how the full sentencing record now shapes up, it seems at least possible that a Seventh Circuit panel might give a hard look at the reasons given by the district judge here for not changing the sentence at all this time around.
Some older related posts on the Blagojevich case:
- You make the sentencing call: What sentence should Blago get?
- Early buzz that feds think Rod Blagojevich's guideline range is 30 years to life in prison
- Feds asking for prison term of 15 to 20 years for Rod Blagojevich
- Insightful commentary questions why Blago is getting huge break from federal prosecutors
- "Prison is too good for Blago"
- Bold (and misguided?) prediction of 20-25 years in the federal pen for Blago
- Do would-be white-collar offenders actually "get the message" from long sentences?
- Blagojevich sentencing and the failings (and limits?) of the federal sentencing guidelines
- "Ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich sentenced to 14 years"
Finding (substantive?) due process violation, federal district judge refuses to apply statutory mandatory minimum made applicable by government stash-house sting
A helpful reader alterted me to a very interesting new federal sentencing opinion authored by Gerald Austin McHugh, Jr. in US v. McLean, No. 13-CR-487 (ED Pa Aug. 8, 2016) (available here). The full 29-page McLean opinion is a must-read for all persons interested in federal drug sentencing and dynamic views on sentencing limits that might be found in the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. The opinion's introduction highlights why this decision is so interesting (and might make for a very interesting case to watch if federal prosecutors appeal to the Third Circuit):
The latitude given to federal authorities in charging drug offenses has been described as creating a “terrifying capacity for escalation of a defendant's sentence.”1 [FN1: United States v. Barth, 990 F.2d 422, 424 (8th Cir. 1993).] This case exemplifies that reality, as a defendant caught by an undercover “sting” operation faces a Guideline sentence of 35 years to life imprisonment, with a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years, because of a professed willingness to rob a drug stash house that was invented entirely by Government agents, containing a fictional amount of drugs chosen by those agents. At sentencing, Defendant Clifton McLean argued that his sentence should be reduced because the Government improperly inflated his culpability by choosing a quantity of drugs — 5 kilograms of cocaine — that would trigger such a high mandatory minimum.
In an earlier opinion, I described the historical background of ATF “sting” cases, and concern among both judges and commentators over the consequences of this particular law enforcement tactic. United States v. McLean, 85 F. Supp. 3d 825 (E.D. Pa. 2015). Although I denied Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss the Indictment, resulting in his trial and conviction, as to this issue, I agree that imposing the sentence prescribed for the quantity of cocaine charged would violate his constitutional right to Due Process of Law on the facts of this case. I have as a result imposed a sentence that excludes consideration of the amount specified by the Government, imposing only two of the three mandatory minimums for the reasons that follow.
August 9, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
"Put Away The Pitchforks Against Judge Persky"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Politico commentary authored by Lara Bazelon, which carries this sub-headline "Yes, he gave Stanford rapist Brock Turner a break. But to recall him would be to overturn our legal system." Here is how the commentary, which merits a full read, gets started:
On this we can all agree: Brock Allen Turner, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, one-time All-American Stanford freshman swimmer, is stone cold, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt guilty of committing a violent sexual assault against an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Because what Turner did was brutal, criminal and depraved, and because of his utter lack of remorse—much less insight into his behavior—he should have gone to prison.
But the reaction to the lenient sentence given to Turner by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky is, frankly, frightening, dangerous and profoundly misguided.
In a charge spearheaded by Stanford law professor Michele Dauber — a close friend of the victim’s family — an effort is underway to recall Persky from office. Sixteen state legislators have demanded that the California Commission on Judicial Performance investigate Persky for misconduct. Over a million members of the feminist organization UltraViolet signed an online petition voicing their agreement. The group also hired a plane to fly over Stanford during graduation carrying a banner that said, “Protect Survivors. Not Rapists. #PerksyMustGo,” and paid for a billboard on a nearby, high-traffic freeway that sends the same message.
Earlier this summer, prosecutors filed a motion to disqualify Judge Persky from presiding over another sexual assault case involving an unconscious victim — a sedated patient allegedly fondled by a nurse. More recently, Persky came under fire once again for imposing a three-year sentence on a Latino man who committed an assault, that, on the surface at least, seemed similar to Turner’s. But unlike the Turner case, the sentence was imposed after the defense and the prosecution agreed to it. Nevertheless, the mob pounced. It was yet another sign, they said, of Persky’s bias toward white, affluent men — presumably the only kind of person he was able to relate to. Dauber told NPR, “Hopefully, a qualified woman will replace him.”
As a law professor well-versed in the vital importance of an independent judiciary, Dauber should know better. Removing a judge — never mind investigating him for misconduct — because of a single bad decision undermines the rule of law. It sends a chill down the spines of elected judges everywhere, which is nearly every judge in the state court across the United States.
I am pleased to see someone talking about rule-of-law concerns if/when folks get heavily invested in seeking to recall a judge for what is viewed as a bad ruling. But I actually think the Brock Turner case serves as even more of an object lesson in how hard it will be to fully address modern mass incarceration in the United States when there are still so many powerful and prominent Americans who are eager to devote time and energy to vindicate and operationalize the view that lengthy terms of incarceration are the only "fitting" form of punishment for many crimes and many defendants.
Some prior related posts:
- 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
- NY Times debates "Should an Unpopular Sentence in the Stanford Rape Case Cost a Judge His Job?"
- "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
- California legislators introduce bill seeking to mandate that any future Brock Turners face three-year minimum prison terms
Highlighting the notable absence of criminal trials in a high-profile federal district court ... thanks to the modern "trial penalty"
Yesterday's New York Times had this article on the modern reality of negotiated federal criminal justice headlined "Trial by Jury, a Hallowed American Right, Is Vanishing." Here are excerpts:
The criminal trial ended more than two and a half years ago, but Judge Jesse M. Furman can still vividly recall the case. It stands out, not because of the defendant or the subject matter, but because of its rarity: In his four-plus years on the bench in Federal District Court in Manhattan, it was his only criminal jury trial.
He is far from alone. Judge J. Paul Oetken, in half a decade on that bench, has had four criminal trials, including one that was repeated after a jury deadlocked. For Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who has handled some of the nation’s most important terrorism cases, it has been 18 months since his last criminal jury trial. “It’s a loss,” Judge Kaplan said, “because when one thinks of the American system of justice, one thinks of justice being administered by juries of our peers. And to the extent that there’s a decline in criminal jury trials, that is happening less frequently.”
The national decline in trials, both criminal and civil, has been noted in law journal articles, bar association studies and judicial opinions. But recently, in the two federal courthouses in Manhattan and a third in White Plains (known collectively as the Southern District of New York), the vanishing of criminal jury trials has never seemed so pronounced. The Southern District held only 50 criminal jury trials last year, the lowest since 2004, according to data provided by the court. The pace remains slow this year.
In 2005, records show, there were more than double the number of trials: 106. And decades ago, legal experts said, the numbers were much higher. “It’s hugely disappointing,” said Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a 20-year veteran of the Manhattan federal bench. “A trial is the one place where the system really gets tested. Everything else is done behind closed doors.”
Legal experts attribute the decline primarily to the advent of the congressional sentencing guidelines and the increased use of mandatory minimum sentences, which transferred power to prosecutors, and discouraged defendants from going to trial, where, if convicted, they might face harsher sentences. “This is what jury trials were supposed to be a check against — the potential abuse of the use of prosecutorial power,” said Frederick P. Hafetz, a defense lawyer and a former chief of the criminal division of the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, who is researching the issue of declining trials.
Julia L. Gatto, a federal public defender, recalled the case of Oumar Issa, a Malian arrested in Africa in a 2009 sting operation on charges of narco-terrorism conspiracy, which carried a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence, and conspiring to support a terrorist organization, which had no minimum. Although Ms. Gatto and her client believed that elements of the case were weak and that there were strongly mitigating circumstances, Mr. Issa concluded that the risk of going to trial was too high. He pleaded guilty in 2012 to material support, with prosecutors dropping the other charge. He received 57 months in prison. “It was the only thing he could do,” Ms. Gatto said. “His hands were tied.”
In 1997, according to federal courts data nationwide, 3,200 of 63,000 federal defendants were convicted in jury trials; in 2015, there were only 1,650 jury convictions, out of 81,000 defendants....
Judge P. Kevin Castel, who helped to organize the court’s 225th anniversary celebration in 2014, recalled taking a friend, Mary Noe, a legal studies professor at St. John’s University, to see an exhibit of courtroom illustrations documenting Southern District trial scenes of past decades. But as they reached the end, Professor Noe observed that the sketches of more recent defendants, like Bernard L. Madoff and the would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad showed them pleading guilty. “I was like, what happened to the trials?” she recalled.
Judge Analisa Torres said she had felt the difference ever since joining the federal bench in 2013. Judge Torres, a former state court judge who handled about two dozen criminal trials a year in Manhattan and the Bronx, said she has since had just a few such trials. “It’s day and night,” she said. On the state bench, she said, she spent her entire day in the courtroom but for the lunch hour. “Now, I am in chambers all day long.”
This article rightfully suggests that the vanishing jury trial is a sentencing story related to the distinctive severity of federal statutes and guidelines and the impact of the modern "trial penalty" in federal courts. Competent defense attorneys have to tell their federal clients that the decision to test the government's evidence at trial will almost always risk adding years, if not decades, to any eventual federal sentence on any charge that produces a conviction.
It is ironic, but not really surprising, that this problem has only gotten worse since the Blakely and Booker SCOTUS rulings a decade ago made much of a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Had the Booker court adopted a "jury trial" remedy to "fix" federal guideline sentencing rather than the advisory remedy, we likely would have seen an increase in jury trials focused on specific guideline enhancements (especially in fraud and other kinds of high-profile cases more common in the Southern District of New York). In addition, modern federal sentencing doctrines that diminish the need for and significance of jury determinations — like guideline anhancements based on "acquitted conduct" and "uncharged conduct" and "relevant conduct" — would be no more.
It is also disconcerting, but not surprising, that federal district judges are now so quick to lament the lack of jury trials, but are still so slow to explore their powers and opportunities to encourage more trials. Though subject to some legal uncertainty (and sure to generate some federal prosecutorial pushback), federal judges still could today consider requiring limited jury trials to aid the resolution of any major factual disputes that have major guideline sentencing consequences. Notably, in other high-profile settings, especially with respect to the death penalty and fraud sentencings and collateral consequences, SDNY federal district judges have been willing to test the reach and limits of thier judicial authority to move the law forward as they see fit. If these judges really lament the vanishing criminal trial so much, they can and should be more aggressively exploring just what they might be able to do about this problem.
August 9, 2016 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)
Monday, August 8, 2016
Great coverage and analysis of Prez Obama's recent clemency work at Pardon Power
Regular readers and/or hard-core clemency fans know that P.S. Ruckman over at the Pardon Power blog is a must-read whenever President Obama's gets his clemency pen out. Here are just some of many recent posts discussing the historic number of commutations that Prez Obama issued last week (basics here), and responding to some notable recent criticisms of what the Prez is up to:
Split en banc Fifth Circuit limits reach of Johnson vagueness ruling while debating what makes for a "constitutional sockdolager"
Especially while traveling and being engaged with lots of other projects, I have not been able to keep up fully this summer with many lower federal court cases exploring the application of the Supreme Court's Johnson ACCA vagueness ruling to other comparable provisions of other federal sentencing statutes and guidelines. Helpfully, though, an en banc ruling by the Fifth Circuit late last week in US v. Gonzalez-Longoria, No. 15-40041 (5th Cir. Aug. 5, 2016) (available here), provides something of a primer on developments in one notable context. Here is how the en banc majority opinion (per Judge Higginson) gets started and a key part of its analysis:
This case presents the question whether the “crime of violence” definition provided by 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), when incorporated by reference into United States Sentencing Guidelines § 2L1.2(b)(1)(C), is unconstitutionally vague on its face in light of Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), in which the Court struck as unconstitutionally vague the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii). We hold that 18 U.S.C. § 16(b) is not unconstitutionally vague....
The [textual] distinctions [in how “crime of violence” is defined in § 16(b)] mean that the concerns raised by the Court in Johnson with respect to Armed Career Criminal Act’s residual clause do not cause the same problems in the context of 18 U.S.C. § 16(b). While there might be specific situations in which 18 U.S.C. § 16(b) would be vague — although Gonzalez-Longoria does not suggest any in particular — it is certainly not a statute that “simply has no core.”
And here is how the dissenting opinion (per Judge Jolly) gets started and key parts of its analysis (with emphasis from the original):
I am in agreement with the majority’s framework for deciding this case. Specifically, I agree that Johnson “highlighted two features of the [Armed Career Criminal] Act’s residual clause that together make the clause unconstitutionally vague [and that] 18 U.S.C. § 16(b) shares these two features.” I also agree that “neither feature causes the same level of indeterminacy in the context of 18 U.S.C. § 16(b).” The majority, however, drifts from reason — and into the miasma of the minutiae — when it determines that these vagaries suffice to distinguish § 16(b) from the residual clause. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent....
I can agree that [a textual distinction] provides a shadow of difference, but hardly a constitutional sockdolager. This difference between the two statutes is particularly slight because, through judicial interpretation, § 16(b) not only contains an example, it contains the very example that most troubled the Johnson Court....
These statutes read extremely similarly. The majority of circuits to have considered the question have held that these two similar texts must suffer the same constitutional fate. The majority, engrossed by thinly sliced and meaningless distinctions, adopts the minority view and errs by losing track of the entirety: these statutes, in constitutional essence, say the same thing.
Broad perspectives on the narrowness of recent federal clemency and sentencing reform efforts
Two of my favorite lawprof colleagues, Erik Luna and Mark Olser, remind me why they are among my favorites through this new Cato commentary titled "Mercy in the Age of Mandatory Minimums." Here are excertps:
Recently, we stood in a backyard eating barbecue with a man named Weldon Angelos. He was only a few weeks out of federal prison, having been freed some four decades early from a 55-year sentence for selling a small amount of marijuana while possessing firearms. Weldon was not among the 562 inmates whose sentences were commuted by President Obama, including Wednesday’s historic grant of commutation for 214 nonviolent prisoners. Instead, Weldon’s release was made possible through a negotiated motion by the government that, alas, cannot be replicated in other cases.
For a dozen years, Weldon had been the poster boy of criminal justice reform for liberals and conservatives alike. His liberation is cause for celebration for those who believed the punishment did not fit the crime. Nonetheless, the Angelos case remains a cautionary tale about both the inherent ruthlessness of “mandatory minimum” terms of imprisonment and the ineffectiveness of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative.
Mandatory minimum laws bar the consideration of facts upon which a sentencing judge would normally rely. In Weldon’s case, the law compelled a 55-year sentence. It didn’t matter that Weldon was a first-time offender with no adult record or that he was the father of three young children. Nor did it matter that he never brandished or used the firearms and never caused or threatened any violence or injury....
Most of all, it did not matter that the sentencing judge — a conservative Bush appointee known for being tough on crime — believed that the punishment was “unjust, cruel, and irrational.” Ultimately, the judge was bound not only by the mandatory minimum statute but also the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, which largely acquiesces to prosecutors’ charging decisions while providing almost no check on excessive prison terms.
Absent a doctrinal reversal by the Supreme Court (don’t hold your breath), any meaningful safeguard against misapplication of mandatory minimums will have to come in the form of legislation from Congress or from the president through the application of the clemency power. As for the former, lawmakers are considering several [reform] bills... [that] are entirely laudable, but they are also quite modest. Indeed, the Senate bill passed in April expands some mandatory minimum provisions and adds a couple of new ones to the federal code....
The positive aspects of the reform bills should be supported all the same. Sadly, legislative efforts appear to be mired in an intramural fight among Republicans, as well as hindered by Democratic intransigence toward another worthy reform, namely, a requirement that law enforcement prove a culpable mental state rather than holding defendants strictly liable. Until lawmakers can agree on a means to prevent draconian sentences, clemency will remain the only remedy for such miscarriages of justice.
Unfortunately, the federal clemency system is also dysfunctional. Weldon’s petition for clemency was filed in November 2012 — and it then sat, unresolved one way or another, for three-and-a-half years. The support for the petition was unprecedented, spanning activists, academics and experts from every political camp imaginable. While Weldon is not wealthy and could not afford high-priced lobbyists or attorneys, the facts of his case drove the story onto the pages of leading news outlets. Yet nothing happened. Even when the Obama administration launched the “Clemency Project 2014” and Weldon’s case was accepted into that program, he languished in prison as the petition slogged through the seven vertical levels of review any successful clemency case must navigate.
Clemency is meant for cases like Weldon’s, where the requirements of the law exceed the imperatives of justice. The fact that a case like his cannot receive clemency from an administration dedicated to expanding the use of this presidential prerogative lays bare the root problem we face — too much process and bureaucracy coursing through a Department of Justice that bears a built-in conflict of interest....
It was thrilling to see Weldon free, eating off of a paper plate in the light of a Utah evening. He is just one of many, though, and systemic reform of both mandatory minimums and the clemency process should be an imperative for this and the next administration.
August 8, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, August 7, 2016
"Norway Proves That Treating Prison Inmates As Human Beings Actually Works"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy recent Huffington Post piece drawn from a book about prisons around the world authored by Baz Dreisinger. Here are excerpts:
Bastoy is an open prison, a concept born in Finland during the 1930s and now part of the norm throughout Scandinavia, where prisoners can sometimes keep their jobs on the outside while serving time, commuting daily. Thirty percent of Norway’s prisons are open, and Bastoy, a notorious reformatory for boys converted in 1982 to a prison, is considered the crown jewel of them all....
Nothing represents the Norwegian way like its prison system, which has adopted a “principle of normality,” according to which punishment is the restriction of liberty itself and which mandates that no one shall serve their sentence under stricter circumstances than is required by the security of the community.
Criminologist John Pratt summed up the Scandinavian approach using the term “penal exceptionalism,” referring to these countries’ low rates of imprisonment and humane prison conditions. Prisons here are small, most housing fewer than 100 people and some just a handful. They’re spread all over the country, which keeps prisoners close to their families and communities, and are designed to resemble life on the outside as much as possible.
An incarcerated person’s community continues to handle his health care, education and other social services while he’s incarcerated. The Norwegian import model, as it is known, thus connects people in prison to the same welfare organizations as other citizens and creates what’s called a seamless sentence ― a person belongs to the same municipality before and after prison. Sentences here are short, averaging an estimated eight months, as compared to America, where the estimated average sentence was 4.5 years in 2012. Almost no one serves all his time, and after one-third of it is complete, a person in prison can apply for home leave and spend up to half his sentence off the premises.
And the most highly touted aspect of the humane Norwegian prison system is the fact that it seems to work. Crime rates are very low, and the recidivism rate is a mere 20 percent.
Two midsummer New York Times editorials lamenting federal sentencing nightmares
In Act 1 of Scene 1 of The Bard's famous summer comedy, Lysalnder notes that "The course of true love never did run smooth." And in Act 4 of Scene 1 of his play set in a watery city, Portia explains that "The quality of mercy is not strained." These two literary references came to mind after I saw these two New York Times editorials, which might be headlined "The course of sentencing reform has not run smooth" and "The Justice Department has strained to show quality mercy." Here are the editorial's true headlines and key passages:
An opportunity to pass the most significant federal criminal justice reform in a generation may be slipping away — despite the tireless efforts of many top Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as a rare exhortation from President Obama during last month’s State of the Union address....
The sentencing reform legislation is not perfect, but it represents remarkable progress in what is often a harsh, oversimplified debate about crime and punishment in America. It should not be weakened, either by narrowing its reach or by sneaking in an unrelated mens rea provision.
Throughout all of this, red and blue states around the country continue to take big, bold steps to reduce state prison populations by shortening sentences and giving inmates returning to society a real chance to succeed. Congress should be racing to catch up.
The country needs a variety of mechanisms for reducing unreasonably long sentences. And the Justice Department, which has considerable latitude in these matters, needs to do more within the course of its regular operations to deal with the legacy of sentencing policies that have been recognized as destructively unfair....
The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 authorizes the bureau to ask a federal judge to reduce an inmate’s sentence when there are “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for doing so.
That provision is typically used for elderly or gravely ill inmates. But the bureau has the ability to define the term as it sees fit, which means that the program could cover people who were unfairly sentenced as well. The agency has, however, done virtually nothing on this front. The Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General was sharply critical of the bureau in a 2013 report, noting that the agency did not “have clear standards on when compassionate release is warranted,” which led to ad hoc decisions.
The United States Sentencing Commission took up this issue in April, when it broadened compassionate-release criteria. Under the amended policy, federal inmates may be eligible for compassionate release for reasons of age, medical condition, family circumstances or “other extraordinary and compelling reasons.” The commission also urged the prison bureau to take cases back to court when the defendant meets the criteria laid out in the new policy.
A more broadly conceived compassionate-release mechanism would not by itself cure the problem of unfair sentencing. But the Justice Department should be using every tool it has to mitigate unfair sentences. A system that funnels this problem to the president’s office is not enough.
Saturday, August 6, 2016
New research suggests nature videos can help reduce prison violence
This new science article reports on notable new research on prison violence under the headline "Nature Documentaries May Help Ease Aggression in Prisons." Here are excerpts:
Violent altercations in prisons can be dangerous for inmates and prison staff alike. Now, a new small study suggests that showing nature documentaries to inmates may help to ease aggression in prisons.
The study took place in the Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon, in a maximum-security unit housing 48 inmates. Over a year in which half of the inmates had an opportunity to watch nature videos projected in a recreation yard, those who saw the videos were involved in 26 percent fewer violent infractions than those who didn't.
"This is equivalent to 13 fewer violent incidents over the year," study researcher Patricia Hasbach, a clinical psychotherapist in a private practice, said ... at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. The reduction is important, Hasbach said, as most violent altercations end in injury for either inmates or staff....
The videos showed everything from oceans to African savannas. Surveys revealed that 80 percent of the inmates who saw the videos said they felt calmer after viewing them, Hasbach reported. Seventy percent said they remembered the nature videos later, in times of stress, and were able to calm themselves down. The researchers could find no downsides of the videos — everyone surveyed disagreed, for example, that the videos made them more agitated. In in-depth interviews, inmates spoke of the benefits of the nature imagery....
The researchers didn't test whether other types of videos would have had similar effects, Hasbach said, but previous research in health care settings has found nature videos to be more mentally beneficial than other content, such as daytime television, urban scenes and abstract art. Other psychological research has found that nature-based activities improve function in kids with attention deficit disorder and that outdoor activities boost self-esteem. Just the color green may boost mood and motivation during exercise.
Prison officials are now transferring the nature videos to other parts of the facility, Hasbach said, and a lower-security women's prison in Oregon is also starting the same program. Prisons in six other states have contacted the researchers for information on how to institute similar video programs in their own correctional facilities, she said.
Interesting results from survey of crime victims suggests they support "smart on crime" reforms
This Washington Post article, headlined "Even violent crime victims say our prisons are making crime worse," reports on this results of an interesing survey of crime victims. Here are excerpts:
A first-of-its-kind national survey finds that victims of crime say they want to see shorter prison sentences, less spending on prisons and a greater focus on the rehabilitation of criminals. The survey, conducted in April and released Thursday by the Alliance for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform group, polled the attitudes and beliefs of more 800 crime victims pooled from a nationally representative sample of over 3,000 respondents....
"Perhaps to the surprise of some, the National Survey on Victims’ Views found that the overwhelming majority of crime victims believe that the criminal justice system relies too heavily on incarceration, and strongly prefer investments in treatment and prevention to more spending on prisons and jails," according to the report.
By two-to-one, victims said the criminal justice system should focus more on rehabilitating people who commit crimes, as opposed to punishing them. By similar margins, the victims preferred shorter prison sentences over keeping criminals incarcerated "as long as possible."...
More recent surveys have uncovered overwhelming support for eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for federal crimes. But congressional efforts to implement policies like these have often been stymied by "tough-on-crime" senators, including Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who are skeptical of many reform efforts. They often cite the experiences of crime victims and their families in their arguments against reform. For instance, in 2009 Feinstein and Republican Sen. Jon Kyl argued in an op-ed that "for too long, our court system has tilted in favor of accused criminals and has proven appallingly indifferent to the suffering of crime victims." In 2014, Grassley argued on the Senate floor that "lower mandatory minimum sentences mean increased crime and increased victims. Why would we vote to increase crime and create more crime victims?"
But the new survey suggests that crime victims' interests don't always align with those of the tough-on-crime lawmakers who invoke their names. The survey suggests this may be because many crime victims don't see prison as an effective tool for reducing the crime rate and preventing others from being victimized.
In the survey, 52 percent of victims said that prison makes people more likely to commit crimes again. Only 19 percent said that prison helps rehabilitate people into better citizens. This skepticism of prisons is in line with most social science research, which has generally shown that mass incarceration causes more crime than it prevents, that institutionalizing young offenders makes them more likely to commit crime as adults, and that spending time in prison teaches people how to be better criminals....
The survey report quotes Judy Martin, an Ohio woman whose son was shot and killed in a parking lot. "The way our criminal justice system is set up currently doesn’t allow for redemption," Martin says. "We must treat each other, even those among us who have made serious mistakes, with more humanity. It’s the only way forward."
The full report, which is titled "Crime Survivors Speak," is available at this link.
Friday, August 5, 2016
"Behind the Olympics: Brazil's Dirty Incarceration Secret"
I thought this Ozy article, which has the headline that I am using as a post title, woud make a fiting and timely posting in light of tonight's Opening Ceremonies. Here are excerpts:
“Brazil’s prisons are illegal, and if I wanted to, I could set thousands of prisoners free,” Luis Carlos Valois declares. It is both a comment on the power of judges in Brazil to interpret the law at will, and an insight into Valois’ rebelliousness. Seated behind his huge wooden desk, with an enormous flag of Brazil posted nearby, he cuts an imposing figure. But his shaved head, muscles and tattoos make Valois resemble the Brazilian jujitsu champion he was in 1995 more than an establishment man.
OK, he concedes, he would end up behind bars himself if he really unleashed thousands of prisoners into the streets. But he’s serious about using the system to do just that. His work agitating for better prison conditions and offering lenient sentences for petty drug offenses has earned him at least one death threat and a flurry of bad press. Under Brazilian and international law, prisons in Brazil are supposed to provide inmates access to healthcare, individual cells and protection from death threats. In reality, however, prisons in Manaus are two to three times more crowded than they should be, Valois says, with scores of inmates sharing the same cell. Access to basic healthcare was described as “inadequate” in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report. Inmates sleep in hammocks or in corridors, with cockroaches and rats scuttling past. A study in Rio de Janeiro last year found 54 percent of those in pretrial detention may be innocent.
The conditions recall America’s prison system, overcrowded and rife with drug offenders. Brazil trails only the U.S., China and Russia in size of prison populations, according to Human Rights Watch. The homicide rate among the prison population — totaling half a million — reaches 150 for every 100,000, says Ilona Szabó of think tank Igarapé Institute. Additional terrifying stats: More than half of prisoners are 18 to 29 years old, many of whom are incarcerated for carrying small amounts of drugs. Those young men often remain in prison for five to 15 years. In rural locales, men and women sometimes share cells. Oh, and race: “It seems like they lock up more poor and Black people every time,” Valois says with a sigh. “Many are more afraid of someone who has stolen a cellphone than a politician who has stolen millions from the people.” (This in a nation embroiled in its own debates over the 2,000-plus people, many of them Black, killed by police in 2013, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum.)...
Meanwhile, Brazil has increased its prison population by 74 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to the UNDP; the charitable explanation of the hard-on-crime stance is chalked up to a society fed up with violent crime and the increasing power and presence of drug gangs across Brazil. A “bullet bench” of mainly ex-military or law enforcement officers is busy whipping up popular hard-line laws lowering the age of criminal responsibility. Yet Valois drives a car that isn’t bulletproof, letting state-funded security men care for his two children instead. He is best seen as local cartoonist Jack Cartoon depicted him: with a gavel in one hand and a bunch of flowers in the other — a pacifist at heart.
Are sex offender registries uniquely harmful to the LGBTQ community?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Advocate commentary headlined "Injustice: How the Sex Offender Registry Destroys LGBT Rights." The piece is more focused on youths placed on registries than on the broader issues of registries and the LGBTQ community, but the article still highlights many important intersectional elements of age, sexual orientation and registries:
It’s hard to believe that until recently, there were still laws on the books that made it illegal to be gay. Our legal system may no longer explicitly prohibit same-sex relationships, but we have found new ways to criminalize queer kids. We label them as sex offenders.
Across the country, children are put on sex-offense registries for behaviors that range from “playing doctor” to streaking to having consensual sex with peers a few years apart in age. The statistics are scary: out of 800,000 people on registries, one out of four — more than 200,000 — are under the age of 18. A child as young as 8 years old can be labeled as a “deviant.” Additionally, initial investigations show a disproportionate number of these youth are queer.
To be clear, kids do commit serious harm. Regardless of the behavior, though, two decades of research have shown that registration does not reduce recidivism or prevent harm in the first place. And the LGBTQ disparity isn’t a reflection of justice — or public safety. It’s an indication of the implicit and explicit bias woven throughout the legal and welfare systems and all the more reason to make eliminating the practice of registering youth a priority.
A report, called "Give the Kid a Break — But Only if He’s Straight," found that LGBTQ young people are given harsher punishments than their straight, gender-conforming counterparts. In the study, participants suggested disciplinary consequences for an older teenager having sex with a 14-year-old. A 16-year-old straight culprit was much less likely to end up on the registry than a gay 16-year-old....
Even the laws themselves can be blatantly discriminatory. In the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex sodomy; however, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion included this single negating phrase: “[the] present case does not involve minors, which this comment will refer to as “the minor exception.’” Kennedy was referring to adult-on-minor sexual conduct, but states have used it as a loophole. Texas law, for example, considers sexual contact with a minor under the age of 17 a felony, unless both participants are under 18, no more than three years apart, and they are of different sexes.
Once young people are on the registry, the trauma grows. Children are ostracized, socially isolated, and often physically banished from their homes and communities by child safety zones. Their life becomes a struggle for employment, and they must regularly check in with law enforcement; if they fail to report even a minor change in their lives, they can be sent to prison with a felony. LGBTQ youth in prison can also be both the targets of sexual abuse and homophobia. One out of five youth on the registry have attempted suicide. Queer youth already have high rates of suicide, so this adds to the risk.
The laws created to protect our children from harm have potential to be very harmful, potentially fatal, and definitely life-altering. Registering youth is contrary to public safety and a costly burden to law enforcement, but it is our LGBTQ youth who are paying the high prices. While they have shown great resilience and courage, this debt is not theirs to pay. As a society, we need to redress this miscalculation and eliminate youth registration laws.
Thursday, August 4, 2016
After inquiries by members of Congress, Oregon US Attorney agrees to drop federal marijuana charges against Native American teen
I reported in this post last week about the suprising federal prosecution in Oregon of Devontre Thomas, 19-years-old Native American subject earlier this year to a one-count federal misdemeanor charge for possessing "about a gram" of marijuana. The press coverage of this case prompted members of Congress from Oregon, as reported in this local piece, to inquire about this prosecution:
Three members of Oregon's congressional delegation are demanding U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams explain why his office is prosecuting a Native American teenager for allegedly possessing a gram of marijuana. In letter [sent August 4, 2016], U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, all Oregon Democrats, ask Williams to give them a full list of the marijuana crimes his office has pursued since 2014, when Oregon voters legalized recreational cannabis.
"Marijuana possession charges have declined in Oregon over the past few years, and we hope to see that trend continue," the delegation writes. "We hope that your office continues this focus on dangerous criminal activity, rather than pursuing crimes involving a substance legal in Oregon."
Now, and surely not coincidentally, this piece from Marijuanapolitics.com reports in its headline that federal prosecutors are "to Drop Charges Against Oregon Teen Devontre Thomas." Here are the latest details:
Even those that don’t support legalizing cannabis were hard pressed to support the federal government threatening Oregon teen Devontre Thomas with a year long prison term over about a gram of marijuana. Drug War reform advocates and concerned citizens across the nation were frankly appalled of such a harsh sentence facing a nonviolent teenager in a state that had legalized cannabis with over 56% of the vote in 2014.
Thomas’ attorney, Ruben Iniguez worked tirelessly for his client and he left me a message stating that the charges would be dismissed in 60 days so long as Thomas stayed out of trouble and stayed employed and/or in school, conditions he was confident the teen would fulfill. Iniguez thanked advocates for reaching out and offering to help with Thomas’ case.
"A New Era for Expungement Law Reform? Recent Developments at the State and Federal Levels"
The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Brian Murray and now available via SSRN. Here is the abbstract:
In the past decade, due to heightened interest in criminal law reform, several states have enacted specific laws attempting to expand the range of expungement remedies available to individuals with publicly available criminal records. This article evaluates these efforts.
It begins with a discussion of the pervasive availability of arrest and conviction records, both publicly and privately. It then surveys the myriad collateral consequences that enmesh individuals who have made contact with the criminal justice system and details how jurisdictions have responded with somewhat unambitious expungement regimes. It notes that while these remedies were crafted with good intentions, they were often limited by skepticism of the soundness of their legal basis.
The article proceeds to evaluate a few legislative efforts at the state level that are geared towards increasing relief, discussing the texts of the laws in depth and comparing them with previously existing remedies. The article also evaluates recent federal legislative efforts and efforts in the federal courts to allow for expungement at the federal level. The piece concludes by situating these recent reforms within a broader discussion about how to alleviate the effects and collateral consequences of criminal records.
State public defender, lamenting funding issues, appoints Mizzou Gov to represent indigent defendant
As reported in this local article, headlined "Missouri's head public defender assigns case to Gov. Nixon, cites overburdened staff," Missouri's head public defender as ordered the state's Governor to put his mouth where his money isn't. Here are the details and context:
Fed up with what he says is the governor’s failure to properly fund his overwhelmed office, the state’s lead public defender ordered Gov. Jay Nixon this week to represent a poor person in Cole County this month. Michael Barrett said he was using a provision of state law that allows him in extraordinary circumstances to delegate legal representation “to any member of the state bar of Missouri.” He’s starting with the state’s highest-profile lawyer: Nixon.
Barrett says the governor has repeatedly declined to give the public defender system the money it requests and is withholding promised funding increases this year. “Providing counsel to poor people who face incarceration is the obligation of the state. It’s not fair to go after private attorneys who are trying to pay the rent when they had nothing to do with contributing to this,” Barrett said in an interview Wednesday.
Barrett never exercised this power before because he thought it was wrong to place the burden of public cases on private attorneys “who have in no way contributed to the current crisis,” he wrote in a letter to the governor dated Tuesday. “However, given the extraordinary circumstances that compel me to entertain any and all avenues for relief, it strikes me that I should begin with the one attorney in the state who not only created this problem, but is in a unique position to address it,” Barrett wrote, referring to Nixon, a Democrat who was a four-term attorney general before becoming governor.
Studies have found that the Missouri Public Defender System lacks the resources or staff to serve the state’s neediest. The system has struggled with high caseloads, high turnover, low salaries and tired, overworked attorneys for years. The Missouri constitution allows the director of the public defender system to assign cases to any lawyer in the state, regardless of whether the lawyer is a public defender, Barrett said.
Just this June, the legislature granted the public defender system a $4.5 million increase, which would’ve helped in hiring 10 more employees and some private attorneys on a contractual basis. The office currently employs more than 370 attorneys. Officials with the public defender’s office had asked for a $23.1 million boost, while Nixon recommended a $1 million increase.
Last month, Barrett and the Missouri State Public Defender Commission filed a lawsuit claiming that Nixon withheld $3.5 million of that $4.5 million increase. Barrett claims Nixon is targeting the public defender system for budget cuts while leaving more money for other programs he likes. Nixon’s office could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday night.
A 2014 study found that the state’s public defender system needs almost 270 more attorneys to meet its current case volume, which fluctuates between 70,000 and 100,000 cases every year. In 2009, Missouri’s was the second-lowest-funded public defender system in the country. Now, Barrett says that he has even fewer lawyers than when that study was done. He’s lost 30 lawyers because he doesn’t have the money to hire replacements as employees leave for private law firms. Meanwhile, the system’s caseload has gone up 12 percent over the past year to about 82,000 cases, Barrett said. Each of his lawyers has to handle 125 to more than 200 cases at a time.
The full letter that the state public defender wrote to Gov Nixon when appointing him is available at this link.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
Prez Obama commutes 214 more federal sentences
As reported here by Politico, "President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 people on Wednesday, bringing his total number of commutations to 562." Here is more about this latest encouraging clemency news, with some political context:
The president's biggest batch of commutations comes as Donald Trump touts a "law and order" message. But for advocates of sentencing reform, it's a sign that the administration isn't letting up on the 2014 Justice Department initiative to ease punishments for low-level drug offenders who received long sentences due to mandatory minimums. It includes 67 people who had been facing life sentences.
Obama has granted more commutations than his nine most recent predecessors combined, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston noted in a blog post on Wednesday. However, he added, “Our work is far from finished. I expect the President will continue to grant clemency in a historic and inspiring fashion.”
While criminal justice reform advocates have cheered the intention behind the initiative, they’ve complained that the pace of commutations has failed to meet expectations and that the process appears arbitrary. Eggleston promised to speed things up this spring, noting new resources for the Pardon Attorney, and in April, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote to a consortium of defense attorneys helping prisoners to submit applications, urging them to get applications in by May....
This latest batch of commutations comes at a politically sensitive time, just two weeks after Trump stressed a “law and order theme” at the Republican National Convention, with warnings of danger in the streets fueled by attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.... The focus on policing issues has drawn public attention away from the broader criminal justice reform agenda. Though there is bipartisan support for changes that would reduce mass incarceration, and the House is expected to vote on sentencing reform when it returns in September, advocates acknowledge that prospects for full passage before the election look grim.
The chart reprinted above comes from the White House blog posting by Eggleston, which also includes these statements of note:
Today began like any other for 214 federal inmates across the country, but ultimately became a day I am confident they will never forget. This morning, these individuals received a message from the President: your application for clemency has been granted.
This news likely carries special weight to the 67 individuals serving life sentences – almost all for nonviolent drug crimes – who, up until today, could only imagine what it might be like to once again attend a loved one’s birthday party, walk their child to school, or simply go to the grocery store. All of the individuals receiving commutation today, incarcerated under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws, embody the President’s belief that “America is a nation of second chances.”...
To date, President Obama has granted 562 commutations: more commutations than the previous nine presidents combined and more commutations than any individual president in nearly a century. Of those, 197 individuals were serving life sentences. And, today’s 214 grants of commutation also represent the most grants in a single day since at least 1900.....
In each of these cases, the President examines the application on its individual merits. As a result, the relief afforded is tailored specifically to each applicant’s case. While some commutation recipients will begin to process out of federal custody immediately, others will serve more time.
For some, the President believes that the applicant’s successful re-entry will be aided with additional drug treatment, and the President has conditioned those commutations on an applicant’s seeking that treatment. For others, the President has commuted their sentences to a significantly reduced term so they are consistent with present-day sentencing policies. While these term reductions will require applicants to serve additional time, it will also allow applicants to continue their rehabilitation by completing educational and self-improvement programming and to participate in drug or other counseling services. Underlying all the President’s commutation decisions is the belief that these deserving individuals should be given the tools to succeed in their second chance.
The individual nature of the clemency process underscores both its incredible power to change a person’s life, but also its inherent shortcoming as a tool for broader sentencing reform. That is why action from Congress is so important. While we continue to work to act on as many clemency applications as possible, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system. It is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to work on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President's desk.
"It's Silicon Valley vs. law enforcement on California death penalty"
The title of this post is the title of this local press report on the alignment of various participants in the debate over the future of the death penalty in California, where voters will be considering reform initiatives this fall. Here are the details:
Two competing November ballot measures that aim to abolish or expedite California’s long-dormant death penalty each raised more than $3 million through the first half of the year, according to state campaign finance records, and largely drew their funding from a narrow group of major donors: Silicon Valley executives and law enforcement unions.
Proposition 62, which would replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, led its rival campaign with nearly $4.1 million raised through June 30, filings show. Proponents argue that executions are costly, inhumane and bound to kill wrongly convicted people.
The dozen top contributors, each of whom gave at least $50,000, are nearly all affiliated with the technology industry in the Bay Area. They include Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, venture capitalist John O’Farrell, and data management company Integrated Archive Systems, which was founded by major Democratic donor Amy Rao. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Nicholas McKeown, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University who has started several technology companies, have each given $1 million to the effort so far. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Y Combinator CEO Paul Graham both put in $500,000.
Supporters of Proposition 66, an initiative to speed up the death penalty by putting the California Supreme Court in charge of a revised appeals process with strict time limits, raised almost $3.5 million through June 30, according to financial records. It currently can take decades for a death row inmate to exhaust their appeals, though California has not executed anyone since 2006 because of legal challenges to its lethal drug cocktail.
Nearly 80 law enforcement groups have given to the campaign, led by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association with $325,000, the Peace Officers Research Association of California with $305,000, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen with $250,000 and the Los Angeles Police Protective League with $225,000. Among the largest contributors, twenty of whom have donated more than $50,000 to the campaign, are a handful of individuals, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, Orange County businessman Henry T. Nicholas III, and A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former CEO of Univision....
California voters last weighed in on capital punishment in 2012, when another initiative to repeal the death penalty narrowly failed. A January Field Poll showed an even split, with 48 percent of respondents supporting speeding up the process and 47 percent favoring abolishing it. If both Proposition 62 and Proposition 66 pass in November, whichever has a higher number of votes will become law.
Prior related posts:
- California voters in November to have "mend it or end it" death penalty initiative options
- California initiative to reform death penalty officially qualifies for ballot (and will compete with repeal initiative)
- California DA makes the case for mending rather than ending California's capital punishment system
- "California Votes 2016: An Analysis of the Competing Death Penalty Ballot Initiatives."
Does the weather and MLB baseball impact federal sentencing outcomes more than racial factors?
The seemingly somewhat kooky question in the title of this post is prompted by this seemingly somewhat kooky empirical paper now available via SSRN and authored by a group of data researchers and titled "Events Unrelated to Crime Predict Criminal Sentence Length." Here is the paper's abstract (with a key sentence emphasized to explain my post title query):
In United States District Courts for federal criminal cases, prison sentence length guidelines are established by the severity of the crime and the criminal history of the defendant. In this paper, we investigate the sentence length determined by the trial judge, relative to this sentencing guideline. Our goal is to create a prediction model of sentencing length and include events unrelated to crime, namely weather and sports outcomes, to determine if these unrelated events are predictive of sentencing decisions and evaluate the importance weights of these unrelated events in explaining rulings.
We find that while several appropriate features predict sentence length, such as details of the crime committed, other features seemingly unrelated, including daily temperature, baseball game scores, and location of trial, are predictive as well. Unrelated events were, surprisingly, more predictive than race, which did not predict sentencing length relative to the guidelines. This is consistent with recent research on racial disparities in sentencing that highlights the role of prosecutors in making charges that influence the maximum and minimum recommended sentence. Finally, we attribute the predictive importance of date to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Booker, after which sentence length more frequently fell near the guideline minimum and the range of minimum and maximum sentences became more extreme.
Based on a quick scan of the paper, I came to the conclusion that one would need to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of both federal sentencing patterns and empirical methods to assess the soundness of the analysis here. Still, the paper's penultimate paragraph reinforces that this analysis led to some notable conclusions (with my emphasis again added):
A justice system reasonably aspires to be consistent in the application of law across cases and to account for the particulars of a case. Our goal was to create a prediction model of criminal sentence lengths that accounts for non-judicial factors such as weather and sports events among the feature set. The feature weights offer a natural metric to evaluate the importance of these features unrelated to crime relative to case-specific factors. Using a Random Forest, we found several expected crime related features appearing within the top 10% most important features. However, we also found defendant characteristics (unrelated to the crime), sport game outcomes, weather, and location features all predictive of sentence length as well, and these features were, surprisingly, more predictive than the defendant’s race. Further investigating this predictive ability would be of interest to those studying the criminal justice system.
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
In wake of Hurst, Delaware Supreme Court declares state's death penalty unconstitutional
The post-Hurst hydra took an especially big bite out the the death penalty in the First State this afternoon: as reported in this local article, via "a landmark decision, the Delaware Supreme Court has ruled that the state's death penalty statute is unconstitutional." Here are the basics:
A 148-page opinion released Tuesday afternoon said that the current law is a violation of the Sixth Amendment role of the jury. The decision of whether and how to reinstate the death penalty should now be left to the General Assembly, the opinion said.
The question before the top state court arose after the U.S. Supreme Court found in January that Florida's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it gave judges – not juries – the final say to impose a death sentence. Delaware and Alabama are the only other states that allow judges to override a jury's recommendation of life....
The last execution in the state was in 2012, when Shannon Johnson, 28, was killed by lethal injection. All pending capital murder trials and executions for the 14 men on death row are currently on hold while the court considered the constitutionality issue.
The full 148-page opinion in Rauf v. Delaware is available at this link. A brief per curiam summary kicks off the opinion, starting this way:
The State has charged the Defendant, Benjamin Rauf with one count of First Degree Intentional Murder, one count of First Degree Felony Murder, Possession of a Firearm During those Felonies, and First Degree Robbery. The State has expressed its intention to seek the death penalty if Rauf is convicted on either of the First Degree Murder counts. On January 12, 2016, the United States Supreme Court held in Hurst v. Florida that Florida‘s capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." On January 25, 2016, the Superior Court certified five questions of law to this Court for disposition in accordance with Supreme Court Rule 41. On January 28, 2016, this Court accepted revised versions of the questions certified by the Superior Court and designated Rauf as the appellant and the State as the appellee.
In this case, we are asked to address important questions regarding the constitutionality of our state‘s death penalty statute. The Superior Court believed that Hurst reflected an evolution of the law that raised serious questions about the continuing validity of Delaware‘s death penalty statute. Specifically, Hurst prompted the question of whether our death penalty statute sufficiently respects a defendant‘s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.
Because answering the certified questions requires us to interpret not simply the Sixth Amendment itself, but the complex body of case law interpreting it, we have a diversity of views on exactly why the answers to the questions are what we have found them to be. But that diversity of views is outweighed by the majority‘s collective view that Delaware‘s current death penalty statute violates the Sixth Amendment role of the jury as set forth in Hurst. We also have a shared belief that the importance of the subject to our state and our fellow citizens, reflected in the excellent briefs and arguments of the parties, makes it useful for all the Justices to bring our various perspectives to bear on these difficult questions.
"The Effects of DNA Databases on the Deterrence and Detection of Offenders"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new empirical paper available via SSRN authored by Jennifer Doleac, Rasmus Landersø and Anne Sofie Tegner Anker. Here is the abstract:
Countries around the world use databases of criminal offenders' DNA profiles to match known offenders with crime scene evidence. The purpose is to ease police detection work and to increase the probability that offenders get caught if they reoffend, thereby deterring future criminal activity. However, relatively little is known about the behavioral effects of this law enforcement tool. We exploit a large expansion of Denmark's DNA database in 2005 to measure the effect of DNA profiling on criminal behavior. Individuals charged after the expansion were much more likely to be added to the DNA database than similar offenders charged just before that date.
Using a regression discontinuity strategy, we find that the average effect of the DNA database is a reduction in recidivism. By using the rich Danish register data, we further show that effects are heterogeneous across observable offender characteristics; it is mainly offenders initially charged with violent crime that are deterred from committing new crimes. We also find that DNA profiling has a positive detection effect, increasing the probability that repeat offenders get caught. Finally, we find evidence that DNA profiling changes non-criminal behavior: offenders added to the DNA database are more likely to get or remain married. This is consistent with the hypothesis that, by deterring future criminal behavior, DNA profiling changes an offender’s life course for the better.
Charleston mass murderer now making mass attack on constitutionality of federal death penalty
As reported in this BuzzFeed News piece, headlined "Dylann Roof Challenges Constitutionality Of Federal Death Penalty Law," a notorious mass murderer filed a notable motion in federal court yesterday in an effort to prevent being subject to the ultimate punishment. Here are the details:
Lawyers for Dylann Roof on Monday filed a motion challenging the federal government’s intention to seek the death penalty in his murder trial, arguing that the penalty is unconstitutional. “[T]his Court should rule that the federal death penalty constitutes a legally prohibited, arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments,” lawyers write in defense of Roof, who is charged with murder for the shooting deaths of nine people inside a historically black South Carolina church this past summer.
In the filing, the lawyers argue that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional, as is the federal death penalty law. “[T]he [Federal Death Penalty Act] may have been designed with as much care as possible under the circumstances, the capital sentencing process that the statute provides is constitutionally inadequate in practice,” the lawyers write. “The results of jurors’ good-faith grappling with the law — arbitrary, biased, and erroneous death verdicts — are intolerable as a matter of due process and proportional punishment.”
The challenge is only being brought, the lawyers write, because the federal government is seeking the death penalty in Roof’s case after rejecting his offer to plead guilty and accept multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole....
In addition to the two broad constitutional challenges, Roof’s lawyers are also challenging the jury selection process referred to as “death qualification” — finding a jury willing to impose the death penalty. As the lawyers note, “conscientious objectors to the death penalty are systematically excluded” from such juries. “Because the practice of death qualifying a jury has no constitutional or statutory underpinnings, distorts the jury function, introduces arbitrariness into capital sentencing and increases the influence of racism and sexism on the death determination, there is no justification for maintaining it,” the lawyers write.
The lawyers are also challenging related to the use of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) in the prosecution, noting that the legislation considered including the death penalty as a punishment but ultimately rejected it. “[D]espite Congress’s deliberate decision not to provide for the death penalty in HCPA prosecutions, the government has effectively amended the statute to permit a death sentence to be imposed,” the lawyers argue.
The full 34-page filing seeking to "strike the death penalty as a possinle punishment" is available at this link.
A few prior related posts:
- Should it be the state or feds (or both!?!) that capitally prosecute racist mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof?
- Thanks to death penalty, one of worst racist mass murderers gets one of best defense lawyers
- South Carolina prosecutors begin pursuit of death penalty again Charleston church mass murderer
- Attorney for Dylann Roof, Charleston church mass murderer, suggests plea to avoid death sentence
- "Why Dylann Roof is a Terrorist Under Federal Law, and Why it Matters"
- Federal prosecutors (FINALLY!) decide to pursue death penalty for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof
- Intriguing capital case tussle between South Carolina and feds in Dylann Roof prosecution
Monday, August 1, 2016
Quickly responding to (nonexistant?) problem, NY Gov bars paroled sex offenders from playing Pokemon Go
As reported in this New York Daily News article, headlined "Cuomo orders Pokémon Go prohibition for sex offenders on parole," the chief executive of a state has decided he must chiefly concern himself with who plays with a new video game. Here are the details (with one seemingly important fact from the story highlighted):
For sex offenders in New York, it will be Pokémon No Go. Gov. Cuomo Sunday ordered that the state make it a condition of parole for sex offenders that they stay away from Pokémon Go and similar interactive games, the Daily News has learned.
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is barring all registered sex offenders under supervision from downloading, accessing, or playing such Internet gaming activities, under the directive.
Roughly 3,000 predators currently on state parole will be immediately impacted, state officials said. The state will also be sending guidance to the counties around the state that supervise another 5,000 lower level convicted sex offenders urging them to adopt the new policy.
"Protecting New York's children is priority number one and, as technology evolves, we must ensure these advances don't become new avenues for dangerous predators to prey on new victims," Cuomo said. "These actions will provide safeguards for the players of these augmented reality games and help take one more tool away from those seeking to do harm to our children."
The Pokémon Go app sends players on a hunt to catch digital Pokémon characters. If a sex offender is caught playing the game in New York, it would be a violation of the terms of their parole and they could be returned to prison, a Cuomo aide said.
Cuomo also sent a letter to software developer Niantic Inc. to request assistance in keeping Pokémon Go out of the hands of sex predators. "The State has taken action to prohibit sex offenders from using this game, but we need your assistance to make certain that sex offenders will not continue to use Pokémon GO by technologically barring their use," Cuomo wrote in the letter. "Working together, we can ensure that this danger today does not escalate into a tragedy tomorrow."
The governor also directed the Department of Criminal Justice Services to provide Niantic with the most recent version of the state's sex offender registry in the hopes the company will use the list to keep people from having access to the app. The Department of Criminal Justice Services will also contact Apple and Google "to inform them of these public safety concerns and work with them to enhance user safety," Cuomo said.
The order and letter came two days after state Sens. Jeffrey Klein and Diane Savino released a report titled "Protecting Our Children: How Pokémon Go and Augmented Reality Games Expose Children To Sex Offenders." After sending staffers over a two-week period to more than 100 homes of level-2 and level-3 sex offenders in the city, the senators found that characters generated by the Pokémon Go app appeared 57% of the time. That figure rose to 73% when related items like PokeStops and Pokémon gyms are factored in, the report showed. The two senators called for passage of legislation that would keep young children and other players at least 100 feet away from a convicted sex offender's home.
Officials have also expressed concern that a feature of Pokémon Go called a "lure" can make it easier for sex predators to tempt potential victims to come to their homes. Savino on Friday said there's no evidence to any kids were sexually abused after being lured by the Pokémon app.
In light of the last line I have highlighted above, suppose New Yorkers should be grateful that state officials have been so quick to deal with the problem of "Poke Perves" even before such a problem even exists. Sigh.
Will there be fewer than 20 executions in 2016?
As I changed the month on my calendars, I thought to take a looks at the Death Penalty Information Center's list of recent executions and list of scheduled executions. These lists confirmed my sense that, after a notable number of executions a notable number of states in the first part of 2016 (a total of 14 executions in five different states through early May), there is now almost a de facto moratorium on executions throughout nearly all of the United States.
Specifically, there has been only a single execution in summer 2016 (a few weeks ago in Georgia), and Texas appears to be the only state right now with any serious execution dates scheduled for the rest of 2016. And if only a couple of the remaining 2016 scheduled Texas executions get delayed, there will be the fewest executions in the US this year in a quarter-century.
With highly symbolic votes on the death penalty's future in California and Nebraska in November, I have already begun thinking about 2016 as a possible "tipping point" year for capital punishment. But this year's execution realities highlights that, for most functional purposes, the death penalty is continuing to die a slow death throughout the United States.
Sunday, July 31, 2016
"Boot-Camp Prisons Find Their Time Running Out"
The title of this post is the headline of this new Wall Street Journal article. Here are is how it gets started:
At 5:30 on a misty morning in the Adirondacks, 180 prisoners leapt out of bed when a bugle call blasted over a loudspeaker. Fifteen minutes later, they were performing synchronized exercises while a drill instructor barked orders. “Motivated! Motivated! Motivated, sir!” the men shouted in unison between calisthenics.
These inmates are serving six-month sentences at Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, one of the last prisons in the U.S. that seek to “shock” inmates out of criminal behavior through a military-style boot camp. Inmates at the facility typically trade multiyear sentences for six-month stints.
Such programs used to be widespread, but fell out of favor in much of the country amid debate about their effectiveness. Only a handful remain and two of them are in New York, where correction officials say their brand of military-style training reduces recidivism and saves taxpayer money through shorter sentences. “It instills self-discipline,” said Boyce Rawson, a captain at Moriah. “Inmates take personal pride in themselves as well as their platoon.”
As recently as 1995, according to federal research, there were 75 state-operated boot camps nationwide for adult offenders, 30 for juveniles and 18 in local jails, including at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex. A 1994 federal crime bill allocated millions for such programs.
While the camps were popular with tough-on-crime politicians, reviews were mixed. One Justice Department analysis found the camps had a positive effect on inmates’ attitudes, behavior and safety while in prison. But that analysis and other studies found the programs had no notable impact on recidivism.
The programs gradually closed. The Federal Bureau of Prisons ended its boot camps in 2005. New York has closed two facilities in the past several years, leaving Moriah and Lakeview, in Chautauqua County, as the only ones left in the state. Other states have shifted their camps toward what they call more “evidence-based,” rehabilitative models.
Reviewing disconcerting realities when kids are put on sex offender registries
Eric Berkowitz has this notable New York Times commentary, headlined "Punishment That Doesn’t Fit the Crime," about juveniles and sex offender registries. Here are excerpts:
When Matthew Grottalio was 10 years old, he and his older brother initiated a touching “game” with their 8-year-old sister. “None of us knew what we were doing,” he said, and he soon forgot about the episode. But later that year, 1998, his sister’s teacher found out and notified the authorities. Just weeks after Matthew’s 11th birthday, police officers handcuffed him outside his fifth-grade classroom.
Matthew and his parents agreed to a guilty plea in exchange for two years of probation, which he spent in a foster home. (His brother also pleaded guilty.) When he returned to his family, they were stunned to learn that he was listed on the Texas sex offender registry website, and would be for 10 years. He was just 13 years old. Neighbors threw a Molotov cocktail at his house and shot and killed his family’s dog. Local newspapers listed him by name along with adult sex offender “monsters” in the area.
He soon “hated life, hated everybody.” Their sons’ ordeals shattered their parents’ marriage of two decades. Matthew dropped out of high school, ran away, was homeless for two years, sank into drugs and served time for burglary and parole violations. His decade on the registry had ended by 2011, but internet searches continued to show him on the list — and still do. Even worse, his parole included restrictions suitable to a serial child rapist. He was barred from any unsupervised and unapproved contacts with people under 17, and from any contact with his sister, who was by then an adult. (She says she never considered him a threat.) He also was barred from contact with the children of the woman he married in 2013. Even contact with the baby the couple had together was in limbo until he passed a sex offender evaluation....
Mr. Grottalio’s story is not unusual. In about 40 states, juveniles are listed on sex offender registries, often for their entire lives. In about 19 states, there is no minimum registration age. Prepubescent children are listed along with violent adult sex criminals. While precise data is unavailable, it appears that as many as 24,000 of the nation’s more than 800,000 registered sex offenders are juveniles, and about 16 percent of that population are younger than 12 years old. More than one-third are 12 to 14....
In her career as a criminal defense lawyer for juveniles and a researcher on juvenile sex offenders, Nicole Pittman, now a vice president at Impact Justice, defended or reviewed about 2,000 juvenile sex cases. Most involved what she called “normative” sexual behavior and “experimentation.” Nevertheless, on many sex offender websites, there are juveniles’ photos, names and addresses, and even maps to their homes....
2006, about 32 states had sex offender laws registering juveniles. That year, the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act mandated, for the first time, that certain youths 14 and over be registered in the state where the violation occurred. (Once that happens, the person also goes on the national registry.) The law also said that offenses such as indecent exposure and public urination had to be included. At least six states now require juveniles to be on the register for life. Given that state and federal laws have grown into an often conflicting tangle of requirements and penalties, there can be no end to some kids’ ordeals....
The expansion of sex offender laws to include juveniles was based on the assumption that kids who sexually transgress cannot be reformed. However, research has shown this assumption to be false. Only 1 percent to 7 percent of children who commit sexual offenses will do it again — much lower than the 13 percent recidivism rates for adult sexual offenders.
The policy seems to succeed only in making life difficult for offenders, subjecting them to harassment and isolation. Of the more than 500 youth sex offenders whose cases Ms. Pittman examined, about 100 had attempted suicide.... Knowing this, prosecutors like Vicki Seidl, the senior lawyer in the juvenile division of the Kent County district attorney’s office in Michigan, now push for pleas that keep youths off registries. Other prosecutors are following suit.
But that alone will not solve the problem. Juveniles, particularly ones under 14, need to be off the registries entirely. In 2011, the Department of Justice relaxed the requirement for registering juveniles, but legislators still fear that they’ll be accused of being “soft” on sex crimes.
Saturday, July 30, 2016
"Rethinking 'Death Row': Variations in the Housing of Individuals Sentenced to Death"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting report authored by a group at Yale Law School and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In 2015, individuals sentenced to death in the United States were housed in varying degrees of isolation. Many people were kept apart from others in profoundly isolating conditions, while others were housed with each other or with the general prison population. Given the growing awareness of the debilitating effects of long-term isolation, the placement of death-sentenced prisoners on what is colloquially known as “death row” has become the subject of discussion, controversy, and litigation.
This Report, written under the auspices of the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School, examines the legal parameters of death row housing to learn whether correctional administrators have discretion in deciding how to house death-sentenced individuals and to document the choices made in three jurisdictions where death-sentenced prisoners are not kept in isolation. Part I details the statutes, regulations, and policies that govern the housing of those sentenced to death and reviews prior research on the housing conditions of death-sentenced prisoners. Part II presents an overview of decisions in three states, North Carolina, Missouri, and Colorado, where correctional administrators enable death-sentenced prisoners to have meaningful opportunities to interact with others. Given the discretion that correctional officials have over housing arrangements, these states provide models to house capital-sentenced prisoners without placing them in solitary confinement.
Judge Jack Weinstein authors mega-opinion threatening to find sentence unconstitutional if offender not placed in certain prison(!?!?)
A number of helpful reader alerted me to this notable local story describing the latest remarkable (and legally suspect?) sentencing opinion by US District Judge Jack Weinstein. The piece is (inaccurately) headlined "Brooklyn judge says no prison for convicted child molester," and here are the reported details:
A Brooklyn federal judge on Thursday urged the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to hold a convicted child molester in a medical facility and said he would find the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence unconstitutional if the bureau doesn’t comply.
The apparently unprecedented move by U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, who said defendant “D.W.” — identified on the court docket as Darnell Washington — had mental problems and would be a suicide risk in the general prison population, reflected the judge’s long-standing criticism of mandatory minimums.
Weinstein said Washington, 27, of Brooklyn, a repeat offender convicted of both child pornography charges and sexual exploitation of a minor, had been abused as a child, raped during an earlier prison stint, identified as gay and was suicidal.
The judge said 15 years in a regular prison would make him “uniquely vulnerable” to abuse or solitary confinement, and amount to cruel and unusual punishment. He said the time should be served at the Federal Medical Center prison in Devens, Massachusetts, where sex-offender treatment is available, or another medical facility.
The Bureau of Prisons is not obligated to follow a judge’s preference, but Weinstein said if his recommendations were ignored and Washington was put in “general population of a medium or high security prison” he was “prepared” to find the sentence unconstitutional.
“The court is required . . . to impose a sentence of fifteen years in prison on this defendant,” Weinstein wrote in his 215-page ruling. “But, it has the responsibility and power to ensure that the sentence is carried out in a civilized way.”
Until I have an opportunity to review the 200+ page opinion in this case (which I cannot yet find on-line), I am not yet prepared to criticize Judge Weinstein's work here. Moreover, now that the judge has imposed the formal sentence, I am not sure he even has any proper jurisdictional basis to declare it unconstitutional if (and when?) prison official do not comply with his placement mandate.
UPDATE: A helpful reader sent me a copy of the full opinion in US v. DW for posting here: Download US v DW
Friday, July 29, 2016
Is it lack of conviction, lack of courage, or just lack of cleverness that leads Dems to be so weak on criminal justice reform advocacy?
In this post on Monday, I predicted we would hear a lot more this week about criminal justice reform from leading Democrats during the DNC than we had heard last week from leading Republicans during the RNC. I suppose that prediction was not entirely mistaken, as both Prez Obama on Wednesday and Prez candidate Clinton on Thursday each had a few lines about criminal justice reform in their speeches. For those who missed the brief mentions of criminal justice in their two+ hours of speechification, here is what was said:
From Prez Obama's speech: "We need to keep making our streets safer and our criminal justice system fairer.... If you want more justice in the justice system, then we've all got to vote, not just for a president, but for mayors and sheriffs and state's attorneys and state legislators. That's where the criminal law is made. And we've got to work with police and protesters until laws and practices are changed. That's how democracy works."
- From Prez candidate Clinton's speech: "We will reform our criminal justice system from end-to-end, and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."
I suppose I was foolish for thinking and really hoping that Democratic leaders would have much more to say than this relative pablum about criminal justice reform circa 2016. And the deliberative decision to prioritize polite CJ reform pablum over actual CJ reform advocacy prompts the (frustration-filled) question in the title of this post. Let me briefly unpack what I mean by this question, hoping to generate some serious and sober discussions on this front:
A lack of conviction?: In light of Prez Bill Clinton's "tough-on-crime" legacy and Prez Obama's milquetoast efforts to reverse course, I am growing ever more convinced that leading Democrats are perhaps just not all that troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct or a host of other persistent criminal justice problems that have nothing to do with the hot-button (dog-whistle?) topics of race or guns.
A lack of courage?: I sincerely want to believe that leading Democrats (as well as leading Republicans and independents) really are troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct and a host of other persistent criminal justice problems. But if leading Dems do want to see real reform in these arenas, why do they lack the courage to encourage serious discussion of serious reforms? Why thoughout the election season to date has (independent) Bernie Sanders been the only major candidate with the courage to keep talking forcefully about the probems of mass incarceration and to advocate for specific reforms like ending federal marijuana prohibition and the use of private prisons?
A lack of cleverness?: I am never sure if I am comforted or further depressed when thinking that leading Dems genuinely care about criminal justice reform but ultimately lack the ability to speak about these issues in clever and politically shrwed ways to build on (now bipartisan) political interest in significant reforms. For example, Prez Obama could have (and I think should have) added to his statement that he has been pleased to see many more "mayors and sheriffs and state's attorneys and state legislators" in red states as well as blue states committed to innovative justice programming seeking to reduce our nation's over-reliance on incarceration. Similarly, Prez candidate Clinton could have (and I think should have) added to her statement that she would be eager to draw on the work and wisdom of both Republican and Democratic Governors and Attorneys General to identify state-level reforms that have proved most effective at rebuilding needed "trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."
Thursday, July 28, 2016
"California Votes 2016: An Analysis of the Competing Death Penalty Ballot Initiatives."
The title of this post is the title of this lengthy report recently published by the Alarcón Advocacy Center at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles and co-authored by Professor Paula Mitchell, executive director of the Alarcón Advocacy Center, and Nancy Haydt, Board of Governors, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. The perspective on whether to end or mend the California death penalty is somewhat predictable based on the past work of the authors, and this overview from the document itself provides a summary of its analysis:
California voters will decide the fate of the state’s death penalty this November. There is now a broad consensus that California’s death penalty system is broken. Voters will be asked to choose between two starkly different proposals to address its dysfunction and failures. Competing ballot initiatives will ask voters either to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, or to double down on the failed system by spending millions more to modify and expand it.
Voters can either support YES on Prop 62, which will replace the death penalty with life without parole and save the state $150 million per year. Or, voters can support Prop 66 to keep the death penalty system and implement multiple changes to how it operates. Each proposition would make substantial and far reaching changes to California’s criminal justice system. But only one can pass into law: if both propositions receive more than 50% of the vote, then the one with most votes will become law and the other will not.
This Report analyzes the competing initiatives. It looks at the current state of the death penalty system in California and analyzes how each initiative will work in practice. In particular it looks at whether the initiatives will achieve their stated goals, and whether there would be other, perhaps unintended, consequences to their passage into law.
This Report concludes that Prop 66’s proposed “fixes” to the current system will cost millions more than the already expensive death penalty system and will not speed up executions. In fact, Prop 66 will only make matters worse by creating more delays and further clogging the state’s over-burdened court system. Prop 66 will add layers of appeals to a system already facing an insurmountable backlog of decades of death penalty appeals waiting to be decided.
Prop 66 contains other provisions that proponents claim will speed up executions, such as keeping the lethal injection protocols secret and out of the public’s purview, exempting them from the Administrative Procedures Act. This and other key features of Prop 66 will certainly be subject to litigation challenging the provisions on constitutional and other grounds, should Prop 66 pass, adding yet more delays to death penalty cases.
The Report further finds that Prop 66 fails to make the constitutional changes required to deliver the results it promises. At the same time, its proposals are so convoluted that they are likely to create many new problems that will not only complicate the administration of the death penalty system, but will also impact and harm the rest of California’s legal system.
This Report finds that Prop 62, by contrast, is straightforward and transparent. It replaces the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, saving the state $1.5 billion in the next ten years alone. Prop 62 requires inmates to work and increases the victim compensation rate. Prop 62 ensures that the state never executes an innocent person, without jeopardizing public safety.
US Sentencing Commission releases big new report urging reform of career offender enhancements
As detailed in this official press release, the US Sentencing Commission today released a big new report (running over 100 pages!) under the title "Report to the Congress: Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements." Here is how the press release summarizes this important new release from the USSC:
The United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”) issued a Report to the Congress: Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements, analyzing career offenders’ prior criminal history, incarceration terms and recidivism rates.
Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, stated, “The Commission’s research shows that there are important differences between violent career offenders and drug trafficking career offenders. Based on these findings, Congress should amend the statutory criteria such that career offender status would not be based solely on drug trafficking offenses.”
Currently, a defendant qualifies as a career offender if he or she: 1) is convicted of an offense that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense; and 2) has at least two prior felony convictions. Career offenders face longer incarceration terms, receiving an average sentence of more than 12 years (147 months). As a result of these longer sentences, career offenders now account for more than 11 percent of the total federal prison population. Yet, career offenders are increasingly receiving sentences below the federal sentencing guideline range, often at the request of the government. The research also shows that, compared to “drug trafficking only” offenders, violent career offenders generally have a more serious and extensive criminal history, recidivate at a higher rate, and are more likely to commit another violent offense in the future. In fiscal year 2014, 45% of “drug trafficking only” offenders received sentences that were reduced at the government’s request.
In fiscal year 2014, nearly three-quarters (74.1%) of career offenders were convicted of a drug trafficking offense. Drug trafficking offenders often face higher statutory maximum penalties, including life imprisonment. These offenders were also more likely to receive a sentence below the federal sentencing guideline range.
Earlier this year, the Commission voted unanimously to amend the definition of “crime of violence” in the federal sentencing guidelines, with an effective date of August 1, 2016. Chair Saris added, “Based on the report’s findings and recommendations, Congress should adopt a new, single definition of ‘crime of violence’ that is consistent with the Commission’s revised approach.”
"The Downstream Consequences of Misdemeanor Pretrial Detention"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new empirical paper available via SSRN authored by Paul Heaton, Sandra Mayson and Megan Stevenson. Here is the abstract:
In misdemeanor cases, pretrial detention poses a particular problem because it may induce otherwise innocent defendants to plead guilty in order to exit jail, potentially creating widespread error in case adjudication. While practitioners have long recognized this possibility, empirical evidence on the downstream impacts of pretrial detention on misdemeanor defendants and their cases remains limited. This Article uses detailed data on hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor cases resolved in Harris County, Texas — the third largest county in the U.S. — to measure the effects of pretrial detention on case outcomes and future crime.
We find that detained defendants are 25% more likely than similarly situated releases to plead guilty, 43% more likely to be sentenced to jail, and receive jail sentences that are more than twice as long on average. Furthermore, those detained pretrial are more likely to commit future crime, suggesting that detention may have a criminogenic effect. These differences persist even after fully controlling for the initial bail amount as well as detailed offense, demographic, and criminal history characteristics. Use of more limited sets of controls, as in prior research, overstates the adverse impacts of detention. A quasi-experimental analysis based upon case timing confirms that these differences likely reflect the casual effect of detention. These results raise important constitutional questions, and suggest that Harris County could save millions of dollars a year, increase public safety, and reduce wrongful convictions with better pretrial release policy.
I fear that most criminal justice researchers and reform advocates (myself included) pay much less attention to misdemeanor crimes and punishments than to so many other parts of the justice system. This article (and a few others noted below in prior posts) provides a reminder that we should not overlook this important element of modern justice systems.
Some prior related research and advocacy on misdemeanors:
- "Crashing the Misdemeanor System"
- Thoughtful discussion of too-often forgotten story of misdemeanors
- New ACS issue brief urges " diverting and reclassifying misdemeanors" to save big bucks
New Fair Punishment Project report laments frequent and persistent use of juve LWOP in one Michigan county
In this post earlier this year, I noted the new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP). And the first big project of the FPP was this interesting report highlighting the history of Philadelphia frequently using life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers. Now, as reported via this blog posting, FPP has another notabe report on this topic focused on another region another northern state. Here are the details (and links) via the start of the blog posting:
A new report [focused on Michigan juvenile sentencing realities] highlights Wayne County’s frequent use of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences, calling the county an “extreme outlier” in its use of the punishment. The report also criticizes D.A. Worthy’s decision, which was announced Friday, to again seek life sentences for at least one out of three individuals currently serving this sentence.
The report urges District Attorney Kym Worthy to adopt a new approach to dealing with juveniles in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which determined that the court’s prior decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth must be applied retroactively, and that the punishment is only appropriate in the rarest of cases where a juvenile is determined to be “irreparably corrupt.”
The report, Juvenile Life Without Parole in Wayne County: Time to Join the Growing National Consensus?, notes that Wayne County is responsible for the highest number of juvenile life without parole sentences in the country now that Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has recently announced that he will not be seeking LWOP sentences for any of the individuals previously sentenced to JLWOP there.
Currently there are more than 150 individuals serving JLWOP in Wayne County. While Wayne County has just 18% of the statewide population, it has at least 40% of the JLWOP sentences in the state of Michigan. Most incredibly, African-Americans are 39% of Wayne County’s population, but more than 90% of the individuals serving juvenile life with parole sentences from the county are Black. D.A. Worthy’s office obtained 27 JLWOP sentences during her tenure.
How much is federal prosecution of Native American teen for a marijuana offense in Oregon going to cost taxpayers?
The question in the title of this post is my effort to focus a bit more on the fiscal realities surrounding an interesting federal misdemeanor marijuana prosecution discussed in this lengthy local article from Oregon. The article is headlined "Devontre Thomas is 19. He Could Face a Year in Prison. For a Gram of Marijuana. How could this happen in Oregon?". The details here are so interesting for so many reasons, including a recent decision by the defendant not to agree to a plea to what seems to be federal charges less serious than might have been alleged. Here are some details:
Devontre Thomas is 19 years old. In a few weeks, he goes on trial in federal court in Portland. If he loses, he could go to prison for a year. For possessing an amount of cannabis that would fill one joint....
On April 7, 2016, the U.S. attorney for Oregon filed a one-count federal misdemeanor charge against Thomas for possessing "about a gram" of marijuana, according to his public defender, Ruben Iniguez. That's barely enough cannabis to dust the bottom of a Ziploc.
"I've never seen a case like this in my entire time practicing in federal court," says Bear Wilner-Nugent, a Portland criminal defense lawyer for 12 years. "It's outlandish." It's the first time in at least three years that the feds are prosecuting a weed crime in Oregon.
Since then, Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana. Anyone over 21 can walk into a store and buy up to a quarter ounce — 7 grams — of cannabis. In the first five months of recreational sales, the state collected $14.9 million in marijuana sales taxes. But weed isn't equally legal everywhere in Oregon.
Thomas is accused of screwing up like any other teenager. But his alleged mistake occurred at Chemawa Indian School, a boarding school in the state capital, Salem, operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, an arm of the federal government. Observers say Thomas' prosecution, first reported by KGW-TV, is a poster case for how the nation's drug laws are still stacked against minorities — especially Native Americans. "There's absolutely racial disparity in how these cases are charged," says Amy Margolis, a lawyer at Emerge Law Group, a Portland firm that specializes in cannabis cases. "[Thomas] had the bad luck of being where and who he was."...
The prosecution of Thomas raises questions about the priorities of U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams, the state's chief federal prosecutor. Among them: Why are federal prosecutors, who claim that Oregon is a den of heroin, meth and opioid trafficking, spending time and resources to go after a teenager for such a small amount of pot? After two weeks of declining requests for comment, Williams finally issued this statement to WW: "We look forward to addressing the facts of the case in an appropriate manner and, most importantly, within the judicial process."
But members of Oregon's congressional delegation say it's alarming that Williams would prosecute the case at all. "I think it's deplorable," says U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). "What are we doing? Where are our priorities? A kid? Turning his life upside down? They don't have anything better to do to protect young people or Oregonians? It's incomprehensible to me."
As bizarre as Thomas' pot case is in weed-happy Oregon, the place where his alleged offense occurred is just as much of an anachronism. Chemawa, a Native American boarding school, was founded in 1880 and is the longest continually operating boarding school for Native American youth....
Thomas arrived at Chemawa from Madras High School, where he spent his first two years before transferring. He is a member of the Warm Springs tribe, and grew up with his parents and grandparents on the tribe's reservation 105 miles southeast of Portland.... A parent of a fellow Chemawa student described the Thomases as "a good family." His friends say his childhood was that of a normal, loved boy: spending the night at friends' houses, playing basketball on the Madras High junior varsity team....
Rayvaughn Skidmore, 20, also attended Chemawa with Thomas.... Skidmore says Thomas "would always help out his peers and be a leader—showing them what's the right things to do." Skidmore says Chemawa staff members would sometimes drive kids into town to go shopping at Keizer Station Shopping Center or Lancaster Mall in Salem, and he thinks that's when some students would meet up with marijuana connections and bring the substance back to campus.
But when kids on campus were caught with marijuana in their possession, "they'd get sent home." Skidmore says those infractions never resulted in legal charges, even though he knew plenty of classmates who regularly smoked weed. "These other students who are highly abusing any type of marijuana — I don't see why those guys get sent home when they should be prosecuted," he says....
Thomas was never technically arrested for marijuana possession. On March 25, 2015, Iniguez says, a staff member at Chemawa found roughly a gram of marijuana in a student's backpack. That kid said Thomas had sold him the weed. The Marion County Sheriff's Office confirmed that it responded to a call on that date involving Thomas and a juvenile classmate for "delivery" of marijuana.
Nearly a year after a classmate ratted out Thomas, a Chemawa staff member and a police officer drove him to the federal courthouse in Portland to appear before a judge. Lawyers interviewed for this story say it's likely that Thomas is feeling outsized consequences because Chemawa Indian School is under federal jurisdiction....
Retired federal drug prosecutor John Deits says Thomas' case is probably being handled as a federal case because "it's the only jurisdiction that can respond to the charge."
"Nobody else has authority," Deits says. "Marion County doesn't have authority because it's exclusive federal authority. And Indian tribes don't have jurisdiction because it didn't happen on their land."...
The resulting prosecution of Thomas shocks national observers. "He's 19. This is going to potentially haunt him the rest of his life," says Alison Holcomb, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national Campaign for Smart Justice in Seattle. It's also a stark reminder that the War on Drugs isn't over — even in Oregon.
Observers find it bizarre that the feds have continued to pursue Thomas' case. But U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has been vocal about her desire to keep pot illegal. Local responsibility for prosecuting Thomas falls to Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon.... "We are committed to just outcomes in every case," he says. "We look forward to exploring whatever the defense ask that we consider before determining what we believe is an appropriate outcome."
Other federal officials are critical of the prosecution. "The federal government hasn't prosecuted a marijuana-possession case in Oregon in five years," says U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). "Situations like this are best left to be handled by the state."
Blumenauer, who as an Oregon congressman has become one of the nation's loudest voices for marijuana legalization, is enraged. "It is such a powerful symbol of a waste of resources and the inequity of the system," says Blumenauer, "because you and I can walk around in Portland, or in states where it is illegal, and find people using it. To single him out, to proceed with this, to ignore real problems that are killing people…" He pauses. "I'm sorry," he finally says. "I'm getting carried away. It's incomprehensible to me. I'm just sorry that Mr. Thomas is caught up in it."
The people surrounding Thomas in the federal courthouse in Portland on July 8 — Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Martin, U.S. District Chief Justice Michael Mosman, three functionaries and a probation officer — expected Thomas to plead guilty to drug possession and enter a six-month diversion program. But a few moments earlier, Thomas' public defender, Iniguez, hustled into the courtroom with Thomas to announce a change of plans.
"He's not going to be pleading guilty today," Iniguez said. Martin, the prosecutor, looked shocked. "We want to go to trial?" she asked, flummoxed. "If we're making a federal case out of it," said Iniguez, sneaking in a smile, "we'll make a federal case out of it."
Holcomb, of the national ACLU, speculates that Thomas' last-minute decision not to plead guilty may show a steadfastness on his part to prove that he's no different from any other Oregon teenager who messed around with pot. "Devontre's response, to me, indicates a genuinely felt sense of unfairness," Holcomb says. "That it is unfair that he's being charged in federal court for this. It's the latest in a string of dramatic examples of how deeply people are feeling about unfairness and inequality…it sounds like that bubbled up for Devontre."...
Thomas is scheduled for trial Sept.13.
Like nearly all federal prosecutions that become media stories, I sense that this press account is revealing only the tip of an iceberg backstory. For starters, though subject formally only to a federal misdemeanor possession charge, the facts described here suggest that the defendant could have (and some might even say should have?) been subject to a federal felony marijuana distrubution charge. In addition, it seems the feds were seemingly eager to resolve the case through a plea that would prevent the defendant from serving any time or having a felony record. But now it seems that the defense may be gearing up for contesting the charges factually or perhaps constitutionally (or perhaps even via jury nullification if other avenues of defense falter).
I probably could go on and on about this case, and it is certainly one I will be keeping an eye on in the coming months. But, as suggested in the title of this post, whatever else one thinks about this case, I cannot help but wonder how many federal taxpayer dollars will end up being spent on this (minor?) matter.
July 28, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
John Hinkley now to be freed from a psychiatric hospital, now 35 years after his crime and verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity
As reported in this Reuters piece, "John Hinckley Jr., who wounded U.S. President Ronald Reagan and three other people in a 1981 assassination attempt prompted by his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, can be freed from a psychiatric hospital to live with his mother, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday." Here is more about this notable ruling in perhaps the highest-profile insanity case of all time:
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said Hinckley, 61, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a 1982 trial, no longer posed a danger to himself or others. He said Hinckley could be released from St. Elizabeth's, a government psychiatric hospital in Washington, as soon as Aug. 5, subject to nearly three dozen conditions. "Since 1983, when he last attempted suicide, he has displayed no symptoms of active mental illness, exhibited no violent behavior, shown no interest in weapons, and demonstrated no suicidal ideation," Friedman said of Hinckley in a 103-page opinion.
In addition to Reagan, Hinckley's attack wounded presidential press secretary James Brady, a policeman and a Secret Service agent. It helped launch the modern gun control movement, as Brady and his wife, Sarah, founded what is now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence after he was left permanently disabled. The Bradys' support helped the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act become law in 1993, imposing federal background checks on gun purchases and a five-day waiting period.
The Hinckley verdict also led several states to rewrite their laws making it more difficult to use the insanity defense while the U.S. Secret Service tightened its protocols for presidential security.
Upon his admission to St. Elizabeth's, doctors diagnosed Hinckley with depression and psychosis - two maladies they say have been in remission for years. Friedman said Hinckley will be required to spend at least a year living with his mother, Jo Ann, 90, in Williamsburg, Virginia, about 130 miles (210 km) south of Washington, where he has been making increasingly long furlough visits for several years.
If Hinckley's treatment team approves, he may then move into his own residence by himself or with roommates, Friedman said. He also said if Hinckley's mother becomes unable to monitor him in her home, his brother or sister will be required to live there with him until the hospital determines an alternate plan. In a May story about Hinckley's life, Washingtonian magazine cited neighbors in her gated community who liked Mrs. Hinckley but did not want him living there.
Hinckley had unsuccessfully sought jobs in Williamsburg at places such as Starbucks and a Subway sandwich shop and tried to become involved in volunteer programs in the town, Washingtonian said. He eventually took a volunteer job in the library of a psychiatric facility in Williamsburg. Hinckley's behavior during his furlough visits has been unimpeachable aside from a few occasions, the judge wrote. Twice in 2011, Hinckley lied to hospital staff about where he had been.
Friedman's order imposes nearly three dozen conditions, including a requirement that Hinckley meet with his psychiatrist in Washington monthly and notify the Secret Service when he travels for the appointment. He is barred from making contact with Foster or her family, Reagan's family and relatives of the other victims, and he is required to either work or volunteer at least three days per week. He is restricted to a 50-mile radius of Williamsburg and must make information about his mobile phone, vehicle and Internet browsing history available to his treatment team and law enforcement.
The petition for release from Hinckley was supported by his doctors but opposed by U.S. prosecutors. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Hinckley lawyer Barry Levine. Hinckley was a 25-year-old college dropout with vague aspirations of a musical career when he fired at Reagan. He had become obsessed with Foster and the Martin Scorsese film "Taxi Driver" in which she played a teenage prostitute. Hinckley began to identify with the film's main character, Travis Bickle, who planned to assassinate a presidential candidate, and spent several years trying to make contact with Foster, who was a student at Yale University in Connecticut.
On March 30, 1981, Hinckley wrote Foster a letter detailing his plans to kill Reagan in an effort to win her over. Later that day, Hinckley approached Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel and opened fire. Reagan suffered a punctured lung but recovered relatively quickly. Brady's death in 2014 was attributed to his wounds but federal prosecutors said the following year they would not charge Hinckley with his murder.
Foster has refused to comment publicly on Hinckley since addressing it in 1981, and a publicist for the Academy Award-winning actress did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
The full 103-page opinion in US v. Hinckley is available at this link.
Some prior related posts:
- Three decades after shooting the President, John Hinckley's freedom still debated
- As fights over John Hinckley's fate continue three decades after his violent crime, what are enduring CJ legacies or lessons?
July 27, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
"Give felons and prisoners the right to vote"
The title of this post is the title of this new commentary in the Washington Post authored by Gideon Yaffe. Here is how it starts and ends:
This week, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vowed to sign individual orders restoring the voting rights of more than 200,000 convicted felons living in the state. His pledge followed the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling that the mass clemency McAuliffe issued in April overstepped his power under the commonwealth’s constitution. Republicans complained bitterly — think of all those Democratic votes from the many African Americans who stand to benefit! — and promised to scrutinize every order for errors.
But the GOP has it wrong. Not only is McAuliffe doing the right thing, but also he should push further. Prisoners, too, should be allowed to vote, no matter their crimes. While only Vermont and Maine currently grant prisoners the vote, felon disenfranchisement fundamentally undermines the democratic rationale of our criminal laws. We cannot hold citizens to account for violating our laws while denying them a say over those laws.
In a democracy, it can fairly be said that when the state does something unpleasant to you — locks you up, forces you to pay taxes, takes your property — that injury is self-inflicted. Since it’s your government, whatever it does to you is something you do to yourself. And it’s your government because you have a say over what it does: You have the vote. But when the state brings down the hammer on a disenfranchised, recidivist felon, the punishment he receives is not self-inflicted. His punishment might as well be levied by a foreign government.
Most felons — whether in prison, on probation or parole, or entirely free of state supervision — are citizens. They should not be treated like foreigners. First of all, they have no other geographic home: They cannot be deported, because citizens have a right to be here. But felons also have no other political home. Nowhere else can they live under a government whose actions are their actions. In this way, they are importantly different from immigrants, who (if they come from a place governed by the rule of law) are granted a say over the behavior of some government somewhere....
In a democracy, felon enfranchisement should not be a partisan issue. Both Republicans and Democrats ought to be held to account for their crimes by a government whose actions they can own. We should give the vote to citizens, in or out of prison, whom we wish to hold responsible for violating laws that are not just ours but also theirs.
Spotlighting the travesty of how the Eleventh Circuit is handling Johnson claims
I highlighted in this post here last week the potent opinions by a number of Eleventh Circuit judges explaining why they think the Circuit's precendents for dealing with prisoner petitions based on the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), are so very wrong and unjust. A helpful reader made sure that I did not miss this recent Bloomberg commentary on this topic authored by Noah Feldman headlined "This Is What 'Travesty of Justice' Looks Like." Here are excerpts:
Call it Scalia’s revenge. In one of the last cases that he authored before he died in February, Justice Antonin Scalia convinced his colleagues to strike down a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act because it was unconstitutionally vague. As a result, thousands of convicted felons are now asking courts to have their sentences reduced.
The legal rules for considering such post-conviction requests are tricky and technical. But in most of the country, prisoners are getting another day in court to have their ACCA convictions reviewed in the light of the new legal principle. In the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Alabama, Georgia and Florida, the process has gone badly awry [and] a judge on the circuit's court of appeals cried foul, calling for a fundamental change in how its handling these cases....
Before a prisoner can go back to the district court for what’s called a “second, successive” post-conviction petition, he or she needs special permission from a federal court of appeals. The stakes are high for the prisoners. In some cases, the difference might be between the 15-year minimum imposed on felons with three prior convictions, and a sentence of 10 years or less for fewer convictions.
Consequently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has been immersed in the time-consuming process of figuring out who should be allowed a second chance to file a petition in District Court seeking review of their sentence. It's studying presentence reports to ascertain whether any of the prior convictions should still count, and, if so, how that might change the petitioner's sentence. Yet no other court of appeals appears to be engaging in this kind of case-by-case analysis. They’ve been approving the requests automatically and allowing a federal district court to sort out the details.
Judge Beverly Martin of the Eleventh Circuit issued an unusual and stirring opinion ... declaring that the process in her court wasn’t working. Martin asserted that among the thousands of applications and hundreds of denials, her court has been making mistakes -- mistakes that, by their legal nature, can't be appealed. “A court of appeals is simply not equipped to construct a new basis for a prisoner’s old sentence in this way,” she wrote.
To make matters worse, the Eleventh Circuit gives itself 30 days to rule on each request. The presentence report can be inadequate or misleading, and there are no attorneys involved to explain what it means. And most prior convictions are under state law, which varies from place to place and have technical details that are hard for the court to determine without a lawyer’s help.
What's more, the Eleventh Circuit had rejected petitions for reconsideration before the Supreme Court said its Johnson ruling applied retroactively.
The upshot is that something very like a travesty of justice is happening in the Eleventh Circuit. And as you know if you’re still reading this, the issue is sufficiently technical that it’s hard to draw attention to the problem. But real people are spending potentially many extra years in prison on the basis of an unconstitutional law. That’s wrong. In the spirit of Justice Scalia, the Eleventh Circuit should change course and start allowing district courts to review post-Johnson ACCA petitions the way the other circuits do.
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Does Hillary Clinton really have a "bold vision" for criminal justice reform, as claimed by former AG Holder?
I predicted in this prior post that we all would likely hear at least a bit more about criminal justice reform at the DNC this week than we heard at the RNC last week. Perhaps unsurprisingly, former AG Eric Holder devoted his DNC speech to asserting Prez candidate Hillary Clinton would be committed to criminal justice reform, and these passages addressed some sentencing/prison issue (with my emphasis added):
At a time when our justice system is out of balance, when one in three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, and when black defendants in the federal system receive sentences 20 percent longer than their white peers, we need a president who will end this policy of over-incarceration. As Attorney General, I launched sweeping reforms of our federal criminal justice system and reduced its reliance on draconian mandatory minimum sentences. As a result, we cut the federal prison population and the crime rate — together — for the first time in more than 40 years.
That's right: despite the fiction and fearmongering you've heard from the other party's nominee, violent crime has gone down since President Obama took office.
As President, Hillary will go even further. She fought, as a Senator, against sentencing disparities and racial profiling. She used her first major speech, as a candidate, to lay out a bold vision for criminal justice reform. As a presidential candidate she has talked about systemic racism in a way that no one else has. And she will help our nation summon the courage to confront racial injustice — and face down the legacies of our darkest past.
I recall blogging about Clinton's big criminal justice speech back in April 2015, and I do not remember that it included any dramatic statements about criminal justice reform, let alone a "bold vision." Then again, I suppose it is in some sense "bold" for a Clinton to talk about criminal justice reform at all, so maybe I am being too tough on Holder for his account of what Clinton has said about reform.
Prior related posts:
- Candidate Hillary Clinton to call for criminal justice reforms that would “end the era of mass incarceration”
- Candidate Clinton laments mass incarceration, but proposes only a "national debate" to address it
District Court explains reasons for disallowing penile plethysmograph and visual response testing for child pornography offender
A helpful reader altered me to a notable sentencing opinion handed down last week by District Judge John Kane in US v. Cheever, No. 15-cr-00031-JLK (D Colo July 18, 2016) (available here). The first part of the opinion provides a thoughtful account of the sentencing judge's accounting of application of the 3553(a) sentencing factors to defendant Shawn Cheever after his plea to a single count of possession of child pornography, but an "addendum" to the opinion is what makes it truly blog-worthy. In the addendum, Judge Kane explains why he is refusing to "authorize a treatment provider to require polygraph, plethysmograph (PPG) and visual reaction time measurements." His lengthy explanation merits reading in full, and here are a few of many interesting passages therein:
Proponents of using the penile plethysmograph correlate arousal data to deviant sexual behavior by assuming that individuals with a history of sexual offenses who respond to illicit sexual stimuli are likely to react in furtherance of their responses. There is no scientifically accepted data presented to justify this assumption, nor does it have any logical basis. Rather, just as with the polygraph (lie detector) machine, it is used as a tool of coercion by both law enforcement personnel and treatment providers. The plethysmograph is used to obtain inculpatory admissions, the reliability of which is at best equivocal. The patient or suspect may believe he can manipulate the results — and with a modicum of sophistication or psychopathy, he may well be able to do so. Or, the suspect or patient may succumb to the threat, overt or implied, that his refusal to submit to testing has negative implications that can result in further incarceration, withholding of privileges or being held back in the treatment or incarceration processes and therefore lie about his interests or past behavior. Moreover, it is not fanciful speculation that false test results can be conveyed to the individual in order to reduce resistance and gain inculpatory admissions....
[A]dministering a penile plethysmograph test necessitates the person administering the test to be engaged in the possession, use and distribution of child pornography. There is no exception in the statute to exclude therapeutic purposes or intent from culpability. The violation is per se. It is paradoxical that the government would mandate individuals subject to supervised release to join an administrator of the test in conduct so vile that it landed him in prison in the first place. The statute criminalizing the possession, use and distribution of child pornography has no exceptions. Both the administrator and the subject are violating the statute. Moreover, the well-established continuing damage inflicted on the child victims portrayed in the pornography derives from the fact that they are seen repeatedly by viewers and it makes not one shred of difference to the victims that the viewer is a pervert or a therapist....
Prohibiting courts, probation and parole officers and treatment facilitators and providers from using devices that fail tests of scientific validity is necessary, but a further comment about the line Judge Noonan describes so eloquently will perhaps provide a resolution to the underlying debility. Judge Noonan evokes the task of Orwell's "Thought Police" — and using what is "discovered" as a basis for further punishment or superficial rehabilitation. Justice Cardozo in Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 326-27 (1937) stated: "freedom of thought. . . is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom. With rare aberrations a pervasive recognition of that truth can be traced in our history, political and legal."...
The established traditions of our law embrace the ancient common law principle that liberty should not be impinged or threatened for what a person thinks, but only for what a person does. The maxim cogitationis poenam nemo patitur (no one is punishable solely for his thoughts) was written long before the invention of the plethysmograph or other machines intended to probe the recesses of the mind....
Penile plethysmograph tests rely on the heavy assumption that stimuli arousal is strongly related to the potential for recidivism. Inferences by the courts about a person's potential for sexual offense based on his innermost sexual desires fail to acknowledge that arousal data is not an ineluctable precursor to deviant behavior. This observation, a fortiori, illustrates the dangerous conflation of thought with behavior. Before administering the penile plethysmograph without questioning its obvious scientific shortcomings (not to mention its ethical implications), it is crucial that the courts, probation and parole officers and PPG evaluators recognize 1) the power of refrain; and 2) the difference between thought and action. The presuppositionless assumption is that any "arousal level" occasioned by the exposure to child pornography stimuli is deviant because convicted sex offenders are unable to resist or subdue their impulses. Urges, however, are not always overwhelming. Otherwise, there would be no opportunity for moral decisions or even so-called enlightened self-interest decisions to be made in the crucible of an experience.
UPDATE: Another helpful reader altered me that there is now this Denver Post article about the opinion in Cheever, which is headlined "Judge criticizes federal sentencing guidelines in pornography case: Kane said he would have given sex offender lesser sentence if permitted by law."
"The Death Penalty and the Fifth Amendment"
The title of this post is the title of this essay authored by Joseph Blocker and just published online by the Northwestern Law Review. Here is part of the introduction:
Can the Supreme Court find unconstitutional something that the text of the Constitution “contemplates”? If the Bill of Rights mentions a punishment, does that make it a “permissible legislative choice” immune to independent constitutional challenges?
The dueling opinions in Glossip v. Gross have brought renewed attention to the constitutionality of the death penalty. In a dissent joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer identified “three fundamental constitutional defects” with the death penalty.... Justice Breyer’s dissent marked the first time that two members of the current Court have announced a belief that the death penalty is likely unconstitutional “in and of itself,” and the opinion has justifiably been treated as a significant development.
In a blistering concurrence, Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Thomas) wrote that the dissent was full of “gobbledy-gook,” and that “not once in the history of the American Republic has this Court ever suggested the death penalty is categorically impermissible.” Justice Scalia argued that the Fifth Amendment afforded a textual basis for the capital punishment’s continued constitutionality.... Announcing his concurrence from the bench, Justice Scalia made the point even more strongly, saying that “the death penalty is approved by the Constitution.” He and many others have made some version of this point...
The Fifth Amendment contains prohibitions, not powers, and there is no reason to suppose that it somehow nullifies other constitutional prohibitions — most importantly, the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The real target of the Fifth Amendment Argument can only be the Court’s longstanding Eighth Amendment doctrine, which is not limited to the punishments considered cruel and unusual at the time of the Constitution’s framing. Unless and until that doctrine changes, the Argument itself carries no weight.
To be clear, the inverse argument would be equally faulty. The weakness of the Fifth Amendment Argument does not mean that the death penalty is unconstitutional, let alone “categorically” so, only that the “constitutional defects” Justice Breyer identifies cannot be dismissed out of hand. Glossip, along with other developments in law and practice, have made the continuing constitutionality of capital punishment a pressing question. That question should be answered without the distraction of the Fifth Amendment.
Looking at juvenile justice in a worldly way
Recenlty posted to SSNR are these two chapters from a recenly published book of essays titled "Juvenile Justice in Global Perspective":
One Theme or Many? The Search for a Deep Structure in Global Juvenile Justice by Franklin Zimring and Maximo Langer
Myths and Realities of Juvenile Justice in Latin America by Maximo Langer and Mary Beloff
Here is the abstract for the first of these chapters which serves as an introduction to the book:
This chapter uses the global portrait of juvenile justice found in the rest of this volume — that includes chapters on juvenile justice in China, Europe, India, Latin America, Muslim-majority states, Poland, Scandinavia, South Africa, and South Korea and Japan — to discuss possible explanations for the almost ubiquitous existence of separate juvenile courts around the world. After briefly analyzing the role that power, emulation, and structural factors have played in the global diffusion of the juvenile court, we discuss what theory of juvenile courts may underlie their actual practices. We argue that the main function that juvenile courts have performed has been letting juvenile offenders grow up out of crime and that such a function also provides the best justification for the continuing existence of these courts.
Monday, July 25, 2016
Increases in murders reported in many major cities from police chiefs
This new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Murders Rise in 29 of Largest U.S. Cities in First Half of 2016: Homicides in Chicago and Orlando, Fla., contribute to much of the increase," reports on the latest bad news about homicide totals for the start of 2016. Here are the details:
The number of murders in 29 of the nation’s largest cities rose during the first six months of the year, according to the results of a survey released by the Major Cities Chiefs Association on Monday.
Overall, homicides jumped 15% in the 51 large cities that submitted crime data, compared with the same year-ago period. But over half that increase was driven by spikes in two cities: Chicago, which has struggled with rising gang violence, and Orlando, where Omar Mateen fatally shot 49 people at a nightclub in June.
A continuing increase in some cities worries city officials who had been hoping last year’s surge was an aberration in the decades-long decline in the country’s murder rate. After peaking in the 1990s, violent crime rates in the U.S. have in recent years been at their lowest levels in four decades, according to FBI data.
Donald Trump seized on the murder rise in his speech at last week’s Republican National Convention, saying that “decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.”
But Darrel Stephens, executive director of Major Cities Chiefs Association, said it’s still too early to say if the numbers signal real change. “It’s going to take a bit more to say this trend of 20 years is being reversed,” said Mr. Stephens, adding that there may be a rise in a few cities, “but not on a national basis.”
Homicides in the first six months also declined in 22 cities, including some that saw big jumps in 2015, such as Milwaukee, where killings dropped 26%, according to the survey. In addition, New York City, which has seen a decline in homicides this year, and some other large cities weren’t included because they hadn’t yet submitted their data, Mr. Stephens said.
Increased gang violence is playing a role in places like Chicago, which saw 316 homicides in the first half of 2016, compared with 211 in the first half of 2015....
The rise in homicides in some large cities last year set off considerable debate between police officials and criminologists over what was behind the increase. Some have attributed increases to the “Ferguson effect,” a theory that increases in crime can be attributed to the reluctance of police to engage in confrontation in the face of protests around the U.S. since the 2014 killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer....
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, wrote in a Justice Department-funded study released in June that the Ferguson effect was a “plausible” explanation for the sudden jump in killings in 2015.
Mr. Rosenfeld also put forth a second version of the Ferguson effect, writing that the police killings in Ferguson and elsewhere “activated longstanding grievances” in minority communities about police and the criminal-justice system that led to a “legitimacy crisis” and a rise in crime. “Both may have contributed,” said Mr. Rosenfeld, who cautioned that more research and data is needed.
How much (and what kind of) criminal justice reform talk can we expect to hear at the DNC?
I am going to be off-line much of today, and thus I am genuinely interested in having folks spend the day discussion what I see as the most interesting criminal justice reform question for this work-week. I was not too surprised that we heard relatively little criminal justice reform discussion at the RNC last week, although arguably the emphasis by GOP Prez nominee Donald Trump on being the "law and order" candidate was an indication that the new GOP leader is inclined to get Republicans back to "tough-and-tougher" rhetoric and realities.
Meanwhile, Democratic Prez nominee Hillary Clinton seems likely to be eager to reach out (and motivate) voters interesting in significant sentencing (and police and marijuana) reforms, and these topics even were addressed this past weekend when she officially announced her VP pick Tim Kaine. Consequently, I am expecting to hear a lot more express and significant reform talk at the DNC than at the RNC. But how much, and what will be the main focus and more-frequent "talking points"?
In addition to hoping many folks will respond to this post with predictions about what we will hear at the DNC, I would also love to see folks explain just what they are hoping to hear. So if you could, for example, script two of three sentences that would be in the speech to be given by Clinton or Kaine or others, what would they be?
A few recent related posts:
- "Two Parties, Two Platforms on Criminal Justice: The Republicans nod to reforms, then take a sharp right turn."
- Why Donald Trump's "law and order" vision and voice is so important to advocates of sentencing reform (and marijuana reform)
"Does 'Ban the Box' Help or Hurt Low-Skilled Workers? Statistical Discrimination and Employment Outcomes When Criminal Histories Are Hidden"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Jennifer Doleac and Benjamin Hansen now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Jurisdictions across the United States have adopted “ban the box” (BTB) policies preventing employers from conducting criminal background checks until late in the job application process. Their goal is to improve employment outcomes for those with criminal records, with a secondary goal of reducing racial disparities in employment. However, removing information about job applicants’ criminal histories could lead employers who don’t want to hire ex-offenders to try to guess who the ex-offenders are, and avoid interviewing them. In particular, employers might avoid interviewing young, low-skilled, black and Hispanic men when criminal records are not observable. This would worsen employment outcomes for these already-disadvantaged groups.
In this paper, we use variation in the details and timing of state and local BTB policies to test BTB’s effects on employment for various demographic groups. We find that BTB policies decrease the probability of being employed by 3.4 percentage points (5.1%) for young, low-skilled black men, and by 2.3 percentage points (2.9%) for young, low-skilled Hispanic men. These findings support the hypothesis that when an applicant’s criminal history is unavailable, employers statistically discriminate against demographic groups that are likely to have a criminal record.
Sunday, July 24, 2016
Covering VP candidate Tim Kaine's history on crime and punishment issues (especially the death penalty)
The folks at FAMM now have this very helpful and timely webpage reviewing some recent and prior statements by Tim Kaine, the former Viginia Gov and current US Senator whom Hillary Clinton has now picked as her running mate. That page also provides this interesting accounting of "Kaine’s record on criminal justice issues"
- 1999: As Mayor of Richmond, Kaine was a supporter of Project Exile, a program launched in Virginia’s capital city as a response to rising crime rates that moved gun offenses involving drugs and convicted felons out of state courts and into the federal system, where gun offenders would face mandatory minimum sentences. Kaine claimed the program was restoring hope to the city, telling the New York Times, “In Richmond, there has been an intense need for people to become believers in their own community. High crime has been our psychological downer. But Project Exile is driving the crime rate down, and that is starting to make Richmonders believers again.”
- 2005: During his gubernatorial campaign, Kaine’s website highlighted the role of Project Exile in making Virginia’s capital safer: “Richmond’s success in reducing violent crime was built in part on Project Exile. Project Exile is based on a strong working relationship among federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to maximize the punishment of criminals who commit crimes with guns.”
- 2007: As Governor, Kaine blocked death penalty expansion bills that would allow capital charges to be brought against accomplices and those indirectly involved in first degree murders.
- 2012: During his senatorial campaign, Kaine said he would “continue Senator Jim Webb’s effort to focus attention on the overuse of incarceration in this nation, especially as applied to African-American males.”
- 2014: Senator Kaine supported the Smarter Sentencing Act, saying it “would reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders and give judges greater authority to determine the right sentence for the crime – saving billions in taxpayer dollars and putting faith back into our criminal justice system.”
- 2015: Senator Kaine supported the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, the most recent major bipartisan attempt at criminal justice reform. He said the country has “an embarrassingly high number of people in prison compared to other countries” and that he believed reform could “reduce the costs of incarceration and promote fairness within our criminal justice system without compromising public safety.”
In addition, a number of mainstream and new media sources have now run a number of articles about Kaine's criminal justice history (most of which, notably, are focused on the death penalty). Here are headlines and links:
From BuzzFeed News here, "Tim Kaine Has A Long, Complicated History With The Death Penalty"
From the Huffington Post here, "As Governor, Tim Kaine Stepped In To Halt The Execution Of A Mentally Incompetent Man"
From the New York Times here, "On Death Penalty Cases, Tim Kaine Revealed Inner Conflict"
From Reuters here, "Kaine's crime-busting past may hurt Clinton's outreach to blacks"
Two new US Sentencing Commission "Quick Facts" on federal gun sentencing
The US Sentencing Commission late last week released two new Quick Facts publications, which are designed to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format." Here are links to the latest publications and their summary description from the USSC:
In fiscal year 2015, there were 2,119 offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) accounting for 3.0% of all offenders sentenced under the guidelines. The number of offenders convicted of multiple counts of section 924(c) has decreased from 174 offenders in fiscal year 2011 (7.5% of all section 924(c) offenders) to 119 in fiscal year 2015 (5.6% of all section 924(c) offenders).
In fiscal year 2015, there were 4,984 offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) accounting for 7.0% of all offenders sentenced under the guidelines. The number of offenders sentenced under this statute has steadily decreased over the last five years from 5,761 in fiscal year 2011 to 4,984 offenders in fiscal year 2015.
Saturday, July 23, 2016
Split Virginia Supreme Court deems unconstitutional mass effort by Gov to restore felon voting rights
As reported in this local article, the "Supreme Court of Virginia on Friday struck down Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to 206,000 felons, dealing a severe blow to what the governor has touted as one of his proudest achievements in office." Here is more about the ruling:
In a 4-3 ruling, the court declared McAuliffe’s order unconstitutional, saying it amounts to a unilateral rewrite and suspension of the state’s policy of lifetime disenfranchisement for felons. The court ordered the Virginia Department of Elections to “cancel the registration of all felons who have been invalidly registered” under McAuliffe’s April 22 executive order and subsequent orders.
As of this week, 11,662 felons had registered to vote under McAuliffe’s orders. The court gave a cancellation deadline of Aug. 25.
McAuliffe, a Democrat, took the sweeping action in April, saying he was doing away with an unusually restrictive voting policy that has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans. In a legal challenge, Republican leaders argued McAuliffe overstepped his power by issuing a blanket restoration order for violent and nonviolent felons with no case-by-case review.
The court majority found that McAuliffe did indeed overstep his authority. “Never before have any of the prior 71 Virginia governors issued a clemency order of any kind — including pardons, reprieves, commutations, and restoration orders — to a class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request,” Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons wrote in the majority opinion. “To be sure, no governor of this commonwealth, until now, has even suggested that such a power exists. And the only governors who have seriously considered the question concluded that no such power exists.”
In response, McAuliffe said he will “expeditiously” sign roughly 13,000 individual rights restoration orders for people who have already registered to vote. He said he’ll continue until rights are restored for all 200,000 people affected by the original order.
“Once again, the Virginia Supreme Court has placed Virginia as an outlier in the struggle for civil and human rights,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “It is a disgrace that the Republican leadership of Virginia would file a lawsuit to deny more than 200,000 of their own citizens the right to vote. And I cannot accept that this overtly political action could succeed in suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women who had rejoiced with their families earlier this year when their rights were restored.”...
Republicans have attacked the order as a political power grab, accusing McAuliffe of trying to help his friend and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton win a swing state by adding thousands of Democratic-leaning voters to the polls. GOP leaders called the court’s ruling a victory for the rule of law. “He spent 90 days bragging about this being the high point of his governorship,” said Del. Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle, who’s running for attorney general in 2017. “And the court made it very clear that he acted unconstitutionally.”
In a joint statement, House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, and Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, said: “Our nation was founded on the principles of limited government and separation of powers. Those principles have once again withstood assault from the executive branch. This opinion is a sweeping rebuke of the governor’s unprecedented assertion of executive authority.” Howell and Norment were two of the plaintiffs behind the legal challenge. They argued that their future election bids could be tainted by participation of invalid voters.
Justices Cleo E. Powell and S. Bernard Goodwyn — the court’s two African-Americans — dissented from the ruling, arguing the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case. Justice William C. Mims also dissented over the issue of standing, saying the court lacked sufficient evidence — most notably the governor’s list of the 206,000 felons affected — to fully consider the order’s impact....
Republicans argued McAuliffe lacks the authority to issue blanket restorations, but Attorney General Mark R. Herring and top constitutional scholar A.E. Dick Howard said McAuliffe was on firm legal ground. “The majority’s opinion is terribly disappointing, especially for the thousands of Virginians who will be thrown off the voter rolls after experiencing the joy, excitement, and fulfillment of getting back their voice and their vote,” Herring said in an emailed statement.
McAuliffe’s Democratic allies blasted Republicans for celebrating a legal victory that will block thousands of Virginians from voting. “It’s a sad and disappointing day when the Virginia Supreme Court bows to political pressure from right-wing ideologues who would rather bar citizens from the polls than compete for every vote,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia. Scholl said the “deciding vote” was Justice Stephen R. McCullough, whom Republicans elected to the Supreme Court this year after refusing to approve McAuliffe’s interim pick, former Justice Jane Marum Roush, for a full term. McCullough sided with the majority....
The legal rebuke comes at an awkward time for McAuliffe, who is scheduled to speak at next week’s Democratic National Convention celebrating Clinton and her newly selected running mate, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. Clinton praised McAuliffe after the order in April. When he was Virginia’s governor, Kaine declined to issue a blanket rights restoration order like the one pursued by McAuliffe, despite pressure from activists. The Supreme Court ruling referenced Kaine’s position, saying Kaine “correctly understood” he did not have blanket restoration power.
The full opinion from the split Virginia Supreme Court is available at this link.
Michigan prosecutor wants 71-year-old "juve lifer" to still have no chance of parole
This local AP article, headlined "Prosecutor: No sentencing break for Michigan's oldest juvenile lifer," reports on the disinclination of a Michigan prosecutor to be open to considering even the possibility of parole for an elderly prisoner given LWOP more than a half-century ago. Here are the details:
Oakland County prosecutor Jessica Cooper said Friday she'll seek another no-parole sentence for a 71-year-old man who is the oldest so-called juvenile lifer in the Michigan prison system. Sheldry Topp has been in prison for nearly 54 years. He was 17 in 1962 when he ran away from a state hospital, broke into an Oakland County home and fatally stabbed the owner.
Life sentences with no chance for parole are no longer automatic for anyone under 18. Juvenile lifers have a right to new hearings as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Judges now have discretion and can consider an offender's childhood, education and a variety of other factors.
Prosecutors across Michigan are filing their sentencing proposals this week in more than 350 cases.
The prosecutor said she'll seek no-parole sentences again for 44 people who are in prison, including Topp. She declined to explain her position in Topp's case during an interview with The Associated Press, referring a reporter to a court filing, which wasn't available after business hours.
"When we talk about doing due diligence, we did an incredible amount of due diligence in these cases," said Cooper, a former judge. "The cases that we've been reviewing are not the kids who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. We're talking about stabbings, shootings and strangulations. ... I'm shocked."
Topp, who turns 72 in September, is in a prison in Muskegon. In a recent court filing, attorney Deborah LaBelle said he was in a hospital with heart problems. She couldn't be reached for comment Friday. In 1987 and 2007, the state parole board recommended that Topp's sentence be reduced, but governors declined.
Meanwhile, in Wayne County — the state's largest — prosecutor Kym Worthy said she would seek no-parole sentences again for at least 60 prisoners who were convicted of murder as teens.
Worthy said she'll ask that 81 people be given a certain number of years in prison instead of a no-parole sentence. That could lead to freedom for some who already have been locked up for decades.