Monday, January 4, 2016
"Mr. Obama’s Trickle of Mercy"
The title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times editorial. Here is an excerpt:
After seven years in office, Mr. Obama has issued a total of 184 commutations and 66 pardons — more grants, as the White House wasted no time in pointing out, than the last six presidents combined. But that’s a pitifully low bar, since Mr. Obama’s most recent predecessors all but abandoned the practice.
Mr. Obama knows this is a far deeper problem than can be solved by a few dozen grants. There are 9,000 applications for commutations that have not been acted on. The administration solicited applications like these in 2014 as part of a sweeping clemency initiative aimed at federal inmates who have served at least 10 years of a sentence that would be shorter today because the law has changed. To be eligible, prisoners must also have been convicted of a lowlevel, nonviolent offense, have no “significant” criminal history, and have behaved while behind bars.
At the time, the initiative seemed a big step toward reversing some of the gravest injustices of the nation’s decadeslong drug war, most obviously for the thousands of inmates still serving time for crack cocaine offenses that are punished far less harshly today.
Less than two years later, however, the vast majority of applications remain in limbo. A coalition of volunteer defense lawyers working alongside the Justice Department has struggled to get basic information on applicants. The department itself is hopelessly mired in bureaucratic tangles and institutional conflicts of interest.
By the administration’s own estimates, as many as 10,000 people could be released under the new criteria, former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. told The Washington Post this month. So why is Mr. Obama continuing to make grants in the single or double digits?
One reason is the Justice Department; the clear solution is to run the process directly out of the White House. The president may also be wary of undercutting a package of bipartisan sentencing reforms making its way through Congress. But that legislation is far from a done deal, and may be on even shakier ground now that one of the leading Republican presidential candidates, Senator Ted Cruz, rejects reforms he previously supported.
Regardless of what Congress does, the presidential power of mercy is explicit in the Constitution, it is virtually unlimited, and presidents once used it far more freely to correct injustices. It is a “tool of public morality,” as one former federal prosecutor put it. If Mr. Obama truly wants to reinvigorate this moribund process, he has a year left to do it. The job requires only two things: a pen and the political will. There is no question that Mr. Obama has the pen.
A few recent related posts:
- Reviewing and reflecting on persistent problems with the federal clemency process
- Prez Obama commutes 95 federal prison sentences and grants 2 pardons
- An early set of takes on Prez Obama's clemency work to date
- "To forgive prisoners is divine — or as close as government gets"
- Highlighting how Chrismas clemency cheer brings a lump of coal for those left off Prez Obama's list
- "It’s Time for Obama to Go Big on Pardons"
Sunday, January 3, 2016
Florida prosecutors honoring Army vet by threatening 120-years mandatory imprisonment for firing two shots in air
This local story from Jacksonville, headlined "Trial set to begin for Jacksonville man facing 120 years in prison for firing 2 shots," highlights why I find so many mandatory minimum sentencing statutes troublesome and why I worry about the extreme sentencing powers that these kinds of provisions often give to local, state and federal prosecutors. Here are the details of a Florida criminal justice story with many factors that likely undermines the public's faith in the soundness, sensibility and efficacy of modern criminal justice systems:
A Jacksonville man scheduled for trial this week faces a 120-year sentence if convicted, although no one was hurt during the six aggravated assaults he was charged with using a deadly weapon. Under Florida’s 10-20-Life law, Circuit Judge Jack Schemer would have no choice but to sentence 58-year-old Randal Ratledge to 20 years for each count. Jurors likely would not be aware of the mandated sentence.
Defense attorneys say Ratledge, a military veteran, does not belong in prison for the rest of his life and are critical of prosecutors for not waiving the requirement. Attorney Bill Sheppard said he’d be willing to plead Ratledge guilty if prosecutors would waive 10-20-Life and let Schemer impose any sentence that the judge thought was just. But the best offer he’s gotten is 18 years in prison, and that’s essentially a life sentence for someone Ratledge’s age, Sheppard said.
“The problem with our system now is judges have no discretion,” Sheppard said. “Prosecutors decide the sentence, not judges.”
The state’s 10-20-Life law requires that anyone convicted of a crime involving the firing of a gun gets at least 20 years in prison, with the only exception being someone who fired a warning shot when they have a legitimate reason to feel threatened. The law requires a 10-year prison sentence when someone uses a gun during the commission of a crime, but doesn’t fire the weapon.
According to police reports, Ratledge was talking with friends and neighbors near his Panther Ridge Court home in August 2012 when he went into the house and came back with a gun. He fired a shot in the air, then ran at the people outside screaming profanities while firing a second shot in their direction.
State attorney spokeswoman Jackelyn Barnard said prosecutors have been in discussions with defense attorneys over the case. “While we cannot get into specifics pretrial, the state has considered all options which includes the waiving of the 20-year minimum mandatory,” Barnard said. The Legislature has given prosecutors discretion to waive a minimum mandatory in appropriate cases, and State Attorney Angela Corey used this discretion when she concluded it is appropriate, Barnard said.
Attorney Bryan DeMaggio, who also is representing Ratledge, said he fired two shots in the air and not in the direction of any of his neighbors. DeMaggio and Sheppard plan to argue that he was “involuntarily intoxicated” because he had a bad reaction to an Ambien pill and doesn’t remember firing the gun. “He remembers taking the Ambien, and then he remembers being in shackles,” DeMaggio said.
Ratledge didn’t understand what he was doing and is not responsible for his actions, DeMaggio said. Ambien is usually used to help someone sleep, often to help people suffering from insomnia. Prosecutors have previously argued that the six people next door were in fear for their lives and traumatized by the experience.
The jury that hears the case is not supposed to know Ratledge faces 120 years. Jurors usually aren’t advised what sentence a defendant faces and are told their only responsibility is to determine whether the defendant is guilty. Sheppard and DeMaggio asked Schemer to make an exception in this case and allow jurors to know, but the judge denied their request.
This is the second time Ratledge will go on trial. He was previously convicted of the same charges, but that conviction was thrown out before sentencing when Circuit Judge James Daniel ruled that Ratledge’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was violated during the trial. Officer C.R. Deal, who questioned Ratledge the night he fired the shots, testified in front of the jury that Ratledge told him “he made a mistake and that he did not want to talk about the incident.” Daniel found that the comment unfairly prejudiced the jury since they knew Ratledge had invoked his right to remain silent, and exercising that right should not be held against a criminal defendant.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday. Which could be bad timing for Ratledge. The Florida Legislature is considering a bill that would remove aggravated assault from the list of crimes that fall under 10-20-Life. The legislation unanimously passed criminal justice subcommittees in both the Florida House and Senate, but if it becomes law it will likely take until spring or summer.... DeMaggio said the legislation as it’s now written would not be retroactive, so if Ratledge is convicted this month his sentence would be unlikely to be overturned.
Sheppard said Ratledge is holding up well. He is out on bail but required to stay in his home most of the time. “He’s a soldier trained by the U.S. Army,” Sheppard said. “He was trained to deal with it.”
Among the aspects of this case that I find so frustrating is the way in which an extreme mandatory minimum sentencing statute is precluding the just and efficient resolution of a criminal matter seemingly because state prosecutors are unwilling to trust a judge to impose a fair and appropriate sentence on an Army veteran who, it seems, simply acted very badly when having a dispute with neighbors. Even if one thinks the defendant's "Ambien defense" is a bunch of BS, I am hard-pressed to understand why it would be appropriate for an Army vet to be facing decades in prison for foolishly firing some shots in the air in the midst of a summer squabble. And, critically, it seems that the defendant and his attorney have long been willing to resolve this case without the expense now of TWO criminal trials if prosecutors were just willing to let this case be resolved like most of us think cases ought to be resolved: with a neutral judge imposing a sentence after hearing advocacy from the prosecution and defense about what sentence would be fitting.
But for reasons that need not be explained in any way and that are not subject to any review, it seem a group of local prosecutors have decided that they want this Army vet to die in prison for his horrific acts of firing shots in the air one day in August 2012. And because of Florida's 10-20-Life mandatory minimum sentencing laws, these prosecutors have the exclusive power to demand that this vet essentially give up the rest of his life to resolve this case. Perhaps if prosecutors had to explain their charging and bargaining behavior in this case, I could better understand why they have taken such a seemingly ridiculously tough sentencing posture. But they do not, and that is my most fundamental gripe with mandatory minimum sentencing statutes: they not only give prosecutors extreme charging/bargaining/sentencing powers, but they enable prosecutors to exercise this power without being subject to any transparency, review or accountability. Grrr.
"Taking Another Look at Second-Look Sentencing"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article authored by Meghan Ryan and recently posted SSRN. Based on the abstract alone, I am a big fan of this paper because it appears to explore rigorously a sentencing topic which I believe merits much more attention in an era marked by a record-high numbers of LWOP and other lengthy prison sentences: whether, why and how a sentence imposed long ago can and should be reconsidered anew. Here is the abstract:
A historically unprecedented number of Americans are currently behind bars. Our high rate of incarceration, and the high bills that it generates for American taxpayers, has led to a number of proposals for sentencing reform. For example, bills were recently introduced in both the House and Senate that would roll back federal mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, and the Obama Administration has announced a plan to grant clemency to hundreds of non-violent drug offenders.
Perhaps the most revolutionary proposal, though, is one advanced by the drafters of the Model Penal Code, namely that judges be given the power to resentence offenders who have been serving long sentences on the ground that societal views about the seriousness of the offenses these individuals committed have changed. These evolved societal views, the drafters have asserted, might justify reducing the offenders’ sentences. The drafters of the Code have suggested that this position is based in part on retributivism — on what these particular defendants deserve as a result of committing these crimes.
But an offender’s desert ordinarily does not change as time progresses; it is societal views of desert that change. This raises a new question in criminal law about whether the original sentencer — the one imposing punishment at the time of trial — or a new sentencer — one imposing punishment over a decade after the offense was committed — is better positioned to determine the offender’s desert. The drafters of the Code have proffered that a new sentencer is best because it can be more representative of modern values. But the new sentencer does not represent the public against which the offense was committed. And the new sentencer may not be well positioned to assess the offender’s culpability or the harm he caused.
The new sentencer may be in a better position to know whether, as time has passed, the offender has been rehabilitated or whether he still poses a danger to society, but these factors are not based on the offender’s desert. While these other utilitarian considerations may certainly justify second-look sentencing, and while second-look sentencing may very well be a useful innovation, this new approach to sentencing overlooks the important desert-based restraints of limiting retributivism upon which the Code is based. Reliable assessments of an offender’s desert generally best lie with the decisionmakers in place around the time the crime was committed.
Saturday, January 2, 2016
Local prosecutor urges Wyoming legislature to "fish or cut bait" with capital punishment
As reported in this local AP piece, headlined "Casper prosecutor says Wyoming needs to reconsider death penalty," a district attorney in the Equality State is complaining that his state legislature seems unwilling to back the state's capital laws with sufficient capital. Here is the story:
A prosecutor who secured a death sentence against Dale Wayne Eaton for the murder of a woman nearly 30 years ago says the lingering appeal in the case shows the Wyoming Legislature must decide if it's willing to provide the resources necessary to handle capital punishment.
The call came from Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen, who prosecuted Eaton in 2004 for the 1988 killing of Lisa Kimmell of Billings, Montana. For years, Eaton was the only man on death row in Wyoming. His death sentence was overturned in November 2014. "You keep going, and you tell yourself that this is about what the man actually did," Blonigen said.
"But it seems the further we get removed from what he actually did, and out from his trial, the less and less that seems to matter," Blonigen said of Eaton. "Instead, we're tied up in all this other stuff that has nothing to do with the truth or untruth of any of the allegations made, but have everything to do with the procedure."
Kimmell disappeared while driving across Wyoming and fishermen later found her body in the North Platte River. In 2002, DNA evidence linked Eaton to the case while he was in prison on unrelated charges.
The Wyoming Supreme Court upheld Eaton's death sentence, but U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne overturned it last year, ruling that ruled that Eaton hadn't received an adequate defense. Johnson said the Wyoming Public Defender's Office had tried to scrimp on expenses and failed to follow American Bar Association staffing recommendations on providing qualified lawyers, an investigator and a mitigation expert.
Johnson gave the state the choice of allowing Eaton to serve life in prison or seeking the death penalty against him at a new sentencing hearing with the requirement that the state appoint lawyers for him not associated with the Wyoming Public Defender's Office. Blonigen began pressing in state court to hold a new death penalty hearing for Eaton.
But Johnson ruled this summer that the state had failed to follow his order by not appointing new lawyers for Eaton fast enough. In his order last week, Johnson prohibited the state from holding a new death penalty hearing while Eaton appeals aspects of the order Johnson issued last year. Eaton's current legal team is asking a federal appeals court in Denver to rule that too much time has passed for Eaton to get a fair death penalty hearing.
Gov. Matt Mead's budget recommendations, released before Johnson's order, called for the Legislature to appropriate over $1 million for the coming two-year state funding cycle to pay for Eaton's defense in state court. Mead also is calling for $25,000 to study whether prosecutors and the Public Defender's Office are receiving adequate funding.
Wyoming last carried out the death penalty in 1992, when it executed convicted murderer Mark Hopkinson. Several other death sentences have been overturned on appeal since then on the grounds of ineffective legal representation from the Public Defender's Office....
Blonigen said Eaton's case underscores the need for the state to provide adequate support if it wants to keep the death penalty on the books. "You've got to have the resources and have the commitment to it to carry through with it," Blonigen said. "I think the Legislature has to decide do we really want this or not. If we really want it, then we have to change some things."
"Throwaway Children: The Tragic Consequences of a False Narrative"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Catherine Carpenter now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Truth be told, we are afraid for our children and we are afraid of our children. The intersection of these disparate thoughts has produced a perfect storm. We have created increasingly harsh sex offender registration schemes to protect our children from sexual abuse. At the same time, fear of our children ensnares and punishes them under the very same laws that were designed to protect them. Yet, what compels action is premised on a false narrative that includes flawed studies on recidivism rates and misguided case decisions that embraced these findings.
In this article, I explore the inherently unfair and deeply flawed practice of mandatory lifetime registration for children who commit sex offenses. Examination reveals two fallacies in a system that condemns children to lifetime monitoring: the breadth of its ensnarement, and the presumption of a child’s continued sexual predatory behavior. Fueled by emotional rhetoric, both are tightly bound in a fundamentally false narrative that is unnecessary and wholly damaging for the child registrant.
The utility of an overly-simplified registration scheme comes with a hefty price tag: the acknowledgement that mandatory lifetime registration captures and shatters the lives of many non-dangerous children. It is a price tag we should no longer be willing to bear. In the face of overwhelming statistical evidence to the contrary, we must commit to changing the false narrative that children who commit sex offenses are presumed to become sexually dangerous adults. We must commit to replacing it with a narrative that acknowledges that recidivism rates are low and that mandatory lifetime registration is both unnecessary and devastating.
Friday, January 1, 2016
Federal criminal caseload highlights from Chief Justice's "2015 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary"
The Chief Justice of the United States always closes out a calendar year by releasing a year-end report on the federal judiciary. The 2015 version from Chief Justice John G. Roberts is available here, and it includes an Appendix on the Workload of the Courts with some notable federal criminal justice details. Here are those details:
In the 12-month period ending September 30, 2015, caseloads decreased in the Supreme Court, the regional appellate courts, the district courts, the bankruptcy courts, and the pretrial services system. Growth occurred, however, in the number of persons under post-conviction supervision....
In the regional courts of appeals, filings dropped four percent to 52,698. Appeals involving pro se litigants, which amounted to 51 percent of filings, fell four percent. Total civil appeals decreased seven percent. Criminal appeals rose three percent, as did appeals of administrative agency decisions, and bankruptcy appeals grew seven percent....
Cases with the United States as defendant dropped seven percent in response to fewer filings of prisoner petitions and Social Security cases. Cases with the United States as plaintiff went down 10 percent as filings of forfeiture and penalty cases and contract cases decreased.
Filings for criminal defendants (including those transferred from other districts) held relatively steady, declining one percent to 80,069. Defendants accused of immigration violations dropped five percent, with the southwestern border districts receiving 79 percent of national immigration defendant filings. Defendants charged with property offenses (including 15 fraud) fell six percent. Other reductions were reported for filings involving traffic offenses, general offenses, regulatory offenses, and justice system offenses. Drug crime defendants, who accounted for 32 percent of total filings, rose two percent. Increases also occurred in filings related to firearms and explosives, sex offenses, and violent crimes....
A total of 135,468 persons were under post-conviction supervision on September 30, 2015, an increase of two percent over the total one year earlier. Of that number, 114,961 persons were serving terms of supervised 16 release after leaving correctional institutions, a three percent increase from the prior year. Cases activated in the pretrial services system, including pretrial diversion cases, fell five percent to 95,013.
Thursday, December 31, 2015
An effective review of the 2015 year that was in criminal justice
As I reflect this day on the interesting and dynamic last twelve months in the field of criminal justice, I find myself wishing I could channel the brillance of Tom Lehrer to write an amusing and poignant song to tell the tale of the year that was. (For fellow Tomfoolery fans, here are some links to always timely Lehrer classics like A Christmas Carol (just a few days late) and Fight Feircly Harvard (for football fans) and Whatever Became of Hubert (for political fans) and Who's Next (for those concerned about the Iran deal).)
But because I lack the time and the talent of Lehrer, I am content to provide a review of the year that was via this effective Huffington Post piece authored by Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the Brennan Center for Justice. The lengthy piece is headlined "Criminal Justice Reform in 2015: Year End Review," and below are some excerpts from its start, end and some in-between mentions of some sentencing matters (with links from the original):
Criminal justice reform continued to build momentum this year within the inner sanctum of the Beltway and across the nation in a handful of states. It emerged as a significant issue in the presidential campaign, and looks likely to stay front and center into 2016. Some of the year’s most significant steps forward (and back) are highlighted here....
April: A significant number of candidates running for President contributed essays to a book on criminal justice reform, entitled Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice. New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker wrote, “The last time a Clinton and a Bush ran for president, the country was awash in crime and the two parties were competing to show who could be tougher on murderers, rapists and drug dealers. But more than two decades later, declared and presumed candidates for president are competing over how to reverse what they see as the policy excesses of the 1990s and the mass incarceration that has followed.”
With the streets still smoldering in Baltimore, Hillary Clinton gives a speech declaring, “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.”
July: Former President Bill Clinton concedes that the 1994 Crime Bill, which imposed harsh sentences for many crimes and provided incentive funding to states to build more prison beds, “made the problem worse.”...
July: President Obama takes three high-profile actions in one week, demonstrating that he wants criminal justice reform to be one of his legacies. On Monday, July 13, the president commutes the sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders, the greatest number of commutations issued in a single day since Franklin Roosevelt. The next day, President Obama gives a “passionate” address on criminal justice before the NAACP, flatly stating, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.” Then, on Thursday, July 16, President Obama becomes the first president to visit a federal prison when he tours a facility in Oklahoma. After chatting with six non-violent drug offenders for about 45 minutes, President Obama remarks, “There but for the grace of God.” And on the last day of the month, President Obama announces a pilot program allowing some prisoners to use Pell Grants for college courses, which Congress had banned in 1994....
November: President Obama uses his executive authority powerfully this year and signs an executive order to “ban the box,” prohibiting federal agencies from asking potential employees about their criminal records on job applications. The federal government, President Obama says, “should not use criminal history to screen out applicants before we even look at their qualifications.”
December: President Obama commutes the sentences of 95 federal prisoners and pardons two. The number of commutations granted exceeds those of the last four presidents combined....
October: In the most significant reform measure in recent history, the Senate Judiciary Committee votes 15-5 to send the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the floor. Although the measure does not eliminate mandatory minimum sentences entirely -- and in fact lengthens mandatory sentences for firearms and domestic violence offenses -- it reduces mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes. It also allows current inmates who qualify to cut their sentences by 25 percent, and sets limitations on juvenile solitary confinement. The Act is now pending on the Senate floor and is expected to be taken up in 2016.
November: House Judiciary Committee unanimously approves the Sentencing Reform Act, the House version of the Senate sentencing reform bill. The bill is expected to be taken up by the full House in 2016....
May: Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signs criminal reform legislation which is projected to cut the state’s prison population by 4,200 over five years. In reality, it’s not much of a trim -- the state’s prisons are already running at about 185 percent of capacity. Penalties for some nonviolent property and drug crimes are reduced, and more nonviolent offenders are to be diverted from prison. The state is expected to save a total of $380 million.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) signs criminal justice legislation, which is projected to cut the state’s prison population by 1,000 over five years. Despite having one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation, Nebraska’s prisons were operating at 159 percent of capacity at the end of 2014, and are projected to hit 170 percent by 2020. The state is expected to save a total of $300 million in corrections costs....
December: The Maryland Justice Reinvestment Coordinating Council, a creation of the state legislature to examine how to reduce Maryland’s prison population, releases its final recommendations. One of 25 proposals in the report is one that would create a major change in how drug offenders are sentenced, recommending sentencing guidelines that focus on treatment in lieu of incarceration for those charged with possession....
2015 proved an extraordinarily active year for criminal justice reform in both legislative changes and the public discourse. 2016 will certainly be a year to watch amid fear that some Presidential hopefuls will start to back away from their strong support of criminal justice reform. Already, Presidential hopeful and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) voted against significant criminal justice reform in the Senate Judiciary Committee, while this spring he supported efforts to reform the justice system. Robert Kennedy once said, "Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope." As we take stock of what was accomplished to improve the criminal justice system in 2015 and look ahead to 2016, a narrative of tiny ripples of hope emerges. And with President Obama working to ensure justice reform is part of his legacy, criminal justice reform will likely remain front and center.
Wednesday, December 30, 2015
"Shouldn't Criminal Defense Lawyers Prepare Clients for Prison?"
The question in he title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary authored by Jay Berger and appearing in The Legal Intelligencer: Here are excerpts:
I was an attorney in Pennsylvania for over 30 years. I was also, more recently, a federal prisoner for almost five years. In 2007, I was charged with one count of mail fraud affecting a financial institution (Title 18 U.S.C. Section 1341). I pleaded guilty and served my sentence in five facilities of varying security classifications from June 2008 until April 2013. During the entire time I was incarcerated, I do not recall hearing of a single instance, my case included, where the defense lawyer provided any meaningful prison preparation or counseling for his or her client as part of the representation.
What completely baffles me about that omission is that there is roughly a 97 percent conviction rate in today's federal criminal justice system, almost all of which derives from guilty pleas, and the outcome in most cases is incarceration. Because this inevitability of serving time in prison is known well in advance of actual confinement, there are numerous prison-related matters that can and should be addressed during that interim period....
To me the solution is fairly obvious. It must be the responsibility of the defense attorneys to provide prison preparation services to their clients. Having been both a lawyer and a criminal defendant, I understand how imperative it is for clients to feel they can look exclusively to their defense attorneys for guidance in all areas of their cases. This is especially true where one of those areas ultimately involves a journey through prison. Therefore, the attorneys must either acquire enough knowledge to offer these services themselves, or in the alternative, retain a legitimate prison consulting service to work closely in conjunction with them. I view the latter approach no differently than when a defense attorney deems it necessary to retain any reliable, independent expert to provide essential skills related to the case....
I submit that any defense attorney who offers clients the strategies they need to manage through confinement and emerge successfully would add substantial value to the legal representation provided. It would bring an element to a criminal defense practice that is not typically available, and there is no better testimonial for an attorney than former clients who are satisfied that they were well represented in all facets of their cases. Word would spread and potential criminal defense clients might just be inclined to gravitate to a law firm that provides a more comprehensive representation by including prison counseling. In my opinion, this would significantly set that particular criminal defense practice apart from its competitors.
Those of us who have taken that shameful and lonely walk through prison doors could have desperately used some help from our defense attorneys to prepare us for what we were about to encounter. I assure you that we would have been eternally grateful for the consideration given to this most important aspect of our cases.
How can a sex offender prove he is no longer a threat ... three decades after molesting a child?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local article about a state court ruling from New Hampshire headlined "Judge rules convicted sex offender must remain on registry until he can prove he is no longer a threat." Here is the interesting backstory:
A Manchester sex offender convicted 28 years ago will remain a lifetime registrant unless and until he proves he is no longer a threat, which, at least for now, he can ask to do at any time, a judge in Concord has ruled. The decision, issued last week and distributed Monday by Merrimack County Superior Court, caps the latest phase in a years-long campaign by the man, identified by the court under the pseudonym John Doe, to become eligible for public housing.
Doe’s real name is Norman St. Hilaire. He has long pressed to be removed from the state’s public registry of sex offenders, arguing that his conviction predated its creation. More recently, though, he asked the court to table that question and instead recognize that a recent state Supreme Court decision effectively lifts his lifetime status -- a smaller change, but one that could be enough to secure him housing eligibility.
In his new ruling, Judge Richard McNamara quickly rejected the request, writing that the higher court’s decision allows St. Hilaire to change his status only if and when he proves he is no longer a threat. “If he never succeeds in showing that he is not a danger to the public, he must continue to register,” McNamara wrote. “It follows that the only accurate way to describe his status at the current time is that of a lifetime registrant.”
St. Hilaire is currently a Tier III “lifetime” offender, the state’s highest sex offender category. His attorneys had claimed he should no longer be classified as such because he now has the chance to petition to get off the registry, a privilege unavailable to Tier III offenders convicted after the registry’s creation in the early 1990s. Tier III offenders convicted today have no opportunities to get off the list.
St. Hilaire’s case was scheduled for an evidentiary hearing in November, but he backed out shortly before, citing his victim’s request to testify. She and victims advocates suspect he was worried she would easily derail the effort by describing the abuse and possibly disclosing new allegations (though the statute of limitations on new charges involving her has passed).
McNamara’s ruling was only a partial win for state prosecutors, who not only objected to St. Hilaire’s petition but also asked that he be barred from bringing another request for five years. Like the Supreme Court, McNamara deferred to the Legislature on that question, saying it’s their responsibility to set parameters for how frequent the reviews should be.
Several state lawmakers are proposing new parameters, and hearings on their legislation, sponsored by Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley and two dozen others, are expected to begin next month. The bill prohibits offenders from getting off the list if they have been convicted of serious crimes since their original convictions. Among other things, it also requires that victims get the chance to address the court, and that offenders whose petitions have been denied wait five years before petitioning again.
Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public policy for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the proposed language mirrors the requirements in place for lower tiered offenders who want to be removed from the registry. Sexton called McNamara’s ruling “a big win for victims.”...
In arguing earlier this month for the five-year ban, Assistant Attorney General Dianne Martin said the victim, now in her 40s and living out of state, “had to go through preparation for this case, and she had to relive all the events that she suffered as a child.” She should not have to constantly wonder if and when St. Hilaire will bring another petition, Martin said.
Chapman countered that St. Hilaire, who is 66 and has physical disabilities, had no plans to request a hearing, but hoped to reserve the right to do so in case his physical condition deteriorates further. St. Hilaire has not been present for the court proceedings. He was arrested last month and charged with failure to register, a felony. Police have said he created a Facebook account but never reported it, as required. He is out on bail and was scheduled for an arraignment at the end of this month.
St. Hilaire was convicted three decades ago of molesting the woman when she was a young teen in Hooksett, once in 1983 at Lambert Park and again the next year at their home, where the woman’s mother and three other children also lived. He was placed on probation and ordered to attend sex offender counseling, which he did weekly for two years. In an interview last month, the victim said the abuse was far more pervasive than the convictions reflected. She said St. Hilaire sexually abused her numerous times over a decade, starting as a toddler and continuing into adolescence.
December 30, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (11)
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
Interesting Texas state sentencing realities surrounding the future sentencing of 'Affluenza' teen and his fugitive mother
I tend not to blog too much about sentencing stories that are already seemingly getting too much attention in the traditional media. Ergo, I have not recently posted about the fugitive status of Ethan Couch. Couch is the Texas teen who had 15-minutes of infamy in early 2014 when, after having killed four people in a drunken-driving crash, received a 10-year probation sentence from a juvenile judge who may have been influenced by a defense psychologist's statement that Couch suffered from "affluenza" as a rich kid whose parents did not set any limits on him. But now Couch has been caught while on the run in Mexico with his mother, and this new CNN article highlights some interesting sentence aspects concerning what he and his mother are facing under Texas law.
The CNN piece is headlined "'Affluenza' teen caught, but will he get off easy?", and here are excerpts that spotlight some Texas state sentencing details that strike me as now quite interesting:
Will Ethan Couch, the "affluenza" teen, get off lightly again?, Couch drew the ire of many after a judge sentenced the then 16-year-old to 10 years probation for a 2013 drunk driving crash that killed four people.
Those who felt the sentence too lenient felt validated when Couch violated his probation and fled. He was detained Monday in Mexico. But if you are expecting a judge to throw the book at him, be warned that the book might not be too heavy.
As of now, the most severe punishment Couch could face is 120 days in adult jail, Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson said at a press conference Tuesday. The district attorney explained the dilemma she faces at a news conference Tuesday:
• Ethan Couch was sentenced as a juvenile and violated his probation as ordered by juvenile court system.
• Under Texas law, Couch, now 18, would be punished for his violation in the juvenile system.
• The maximum sentence that a juvenile judge can dish out for a violation of his juvenile probation is imprisonment in a juvenile facility until Couch turns 19, which is April 11, 2016.
• The DA wants to transfer Couch's sentence to adult court. But since this violation happened in the juvenile system, Couch effectively would start with a clean slate in the adult probation system. That is, the adult court judge could not punish Couch for violations he committed as a juvenile.
• At the time a judge reassesses Couch's probation in the adult system, he has the power to put Couch in adult jail for a maximum of 120 days.
The 120 days in jail won't please those who think Couch deserves worse, but as the facts stand now, it is what the law allows. If Couch ends up on adult probation, Wilson said, and violates it as an adult, he could face up to 40 years in jail. Couch could also find himself behind bars for longer if he is found to have committed any new crimes and is charged and convicted as an adult for those crimes.
Ethan Couch's mother, Tonya Couch, has been charged with hindering the apprehension of a juvenile, and if convicted, faces between 2 and 10 years in jail, Wilson said. It's tough to explain the legal maze that stands to benefit Ethan Couch in the form of a light punishment for violating his probation.
The judge who hears the case "will throw the book at him, but the book is only a few more months because he turns 19," said Larry Seidlin, a former state court and juvenile court judge in Florida. "So the legal issue is: Can the prosecutor move this case to adult court and try to get adult sanctions, get some state prison time. It's a close question because double jeopardy is going to take effect. We've already gone through his case. We've already done a plea bargain."...
Couch is wanted by authorities in Tarrant County, Texas, for allegedly violating his probation. His mother, Tonya, was listed by Texas authorities as a missing person after her son's disappearance, and the authorities said they believed she was assisting him.
A warrant was issued in mid-December for Couch to be taken into custody after his probation officer couldn't reach him. He appears to have dropped off the radar after a video emerged that allegedly showed him at a party where alcohol was being consumed, according to authorities. Couch had been ordered to stay away from drugs and alcohol for the duration of his sentence probation.
His sudden disappearance reignited controversy over his case, which attracted widespread attention after a psychologist testified that Couch, who was 16 at the time of the crash, suffered from "affluenza," describing him as a rich kid whose parents didn't set limits for him. His lawyers argued that his parents should share some of the blame for the crash.
Prosecutors had requested that Couch be sentenced to 20 years behind bars. The juvenile court judge's decision to put him on probation for 10 years instead of sending him to prison outraged victims' families It also prompted many observers to question the term "affluenza," which isn't recognized as a medical condition in any formal sense. G. Dick Miller, the psychologist who said the word at the trial, later said he wished he hadn't used it. And Couch's lawyers have criticized what they say is the news media's narrow focus on the term in relation to his case.
As some regular readers know, I have long been troubled by and long complained about what I perceive as unduly lenient sentences too often handed out for serious and repeat drunk driving offenses. For that reason (and others), this high-profile sentencing case has always annoyed me because it seemed to me it was more reflective of our society's general tendency to treat drunk driving offenders too leniently than reflective of a tendency to give special breaks to serious crimes committed by rich white kids with lenient parents (though I certainly believe the general impact and import of rich white privilege at sentencing also merits attention).
Prior related posts around Couch's initial sentencing:
- Texas tough means probation for teen who killed four and injured more while drunk driving?
- Another round of "affluenza" discourse as juve judge order rehab for teen DUI that killed four
- NY Times debates "Sentencing and the 'Affluenza' Factor"
New BJS data show continued (very) slow decline in correctional populations in US
One of the many joys of the holiday season for data junkies is new releases of new official reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This latest one, excitingly titled "Correctional Populations in the United States, 2014," was released today at this BJS webpage where one can also find this summary of the report's basic coverage main findings:
Presents statistics on persons supervised by adult correctional systems in the United States at yearend 2014, including offenders supervised in the community on probation or parole and those incarcerated in state or federal prison or local jail. The report describes the size and change in the total correctional population during 2014. It details the downward trend in the correctional population and correctional supervision rate since 2007. It also examines the impact of changes in the community supervision and incarcerated populations on the total correctional population in recent years. Findings cover the variation in the size and composition of the total correctional population by jurisdiction at yearend 2014. Appendix tables provide statistics on other correctional populations and jurisdiction-level estimates of the total correctional population by correctional status and sex for select years.
- Adult correctional systems supervised an estimated 6,851,000 persons at yearend 2014, about 52,200 fewer offenders than at yearend 2013.
- About 1 in 36 adults (or 2.8% of adults in the United States) was under some form of correctional supervision at yearend 2014, the lowest rate since 1996.
- The correctional population has declined by an annual average of 1.0% since 2007.
- The community supervision population (down 1.0%) continued to decline during 2014, accounting for all of the decrease in the correctional population.
- The incarcerated population (up 1,900) slightly increased during 2014.
Would-be Prohibition offenders make huge donation to ACLU help real ex-offenders
Via The Marshall Project, I just saw this Washington Post story, headlined "Total Wine co-founder funding $15 million push to aid ex-convicts," on a notable private funding effort for a notable public cause. Here are the details:
A Maryland couple is donating $15 million to the American Civil Liberties Union to expand a campaign to cut prison populations and promote private initiatives to rehabilitate and employ ex-convicts, the ACLU announced. The grant from David Trone, co-founder of Bethesda-based Total Wine & More, and his wife, June, is among the largest in the ACLU’s history.
The Trones, both 60, join a growing cadre of wealthy businesspeople funding a coalition of liberal, conservative and libertarian groups pushing the Obama administration and Congress to unwind sentencing laws from the era of the drug war. Those advocates argue that draconian punishments have gone too far and cost too much, incarcerating 2.2 million Americans, pouring $80 billion a year into prisons and jails and hollowing out families — particularly in low-income and minority communities.
David Trone, of Potomac, cited Total Wine’s support of the “ban the box” movement — which seeks removal of the criminal-record check box from job applications — as a factor in his gift and an example of what private-sector partners can accomplish. “Yes, people make mistakes,” he said. “But if they paid the price and now want to build a better life, why should that mistake have to carry with them the rest of their lives?”
The Trones’ grant comes one year after George Soros’s Open Society Foundations pledged $50 million over eight years to the ACLU’s political arm to push for sentencing and other criminal-justice policy changes in local, state and national elections. Unlike Soros’s grant, the Trones’ gift will pay for traditional ACLU litigation and educational activities and is tax-deductible.
The six-year bequest will establish the Trone Center for Criminal Justice and boost state-level projects — including ones in the District, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana — where incarceration rates and the prospect of bipartisan cooperation are greatest, said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU.
Romero said that while attention is focused on a gridlocked Congress, momentum for change is growing among state and local governments, which house more than 90 percent of the nation’s prisoners and spend more than 90 percent of incarceration-related tax dollars. He likened the momentum to the push for same-sex marriage, where business leaders who threatened to leave hostile states added an economic argument to the moral and legal case for anti-discrimination laws. “If business leaders take a big stake in pushing these reforms, it ensures the sustainability of long-lasting reform,” Romero said. “If you can tie the power of the private sector to this sled, then Congress and the president will be dragged into taking real action.”...
The ACLU said David Trone will chair a new private-sector advisory council that will include business and university leaders. The council will promote efforts to return former prisoners to the workforce and reduce the stigma of employing past offenders, Romero said. It also may consider the value of education and economic incentives such as tax credits for workers and companies. Council members include Michael L. Lomax, president and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund, and Paul Lewis Sagan, former chief executive of Akamai Technologies, the Web- content delivery company.
Ex-prisoners face a variety of federal and state rules that restrict their ability to get jobs, housing, student and business loans, occupational licenses and public assistance, said another member, Mark V. Holden. Holden is general counsel at Koch Industries, whose billionaire founders, Charles and David Koch, are key sentencing reform backers....
David and June Trone, who are graduates of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, have been longtime ACLU supporters, giving more than $1 million since 1994. David Trone said the new gift was timed as he and his brother, Robert, co-founders of the Total Wine chain, are bringing on a new chief executive so they can step back from daily operations. Total Wine has stores in 18 states, with 4,000 workers and $2.1 billion in annual sales. Romero said Trone’s success and status outside the “usual suspects” of supporters gives him added credibility with businesspeople.
The Trones were disrupters of the liquor industry. Their “big box” model of beer and wine stores triggered bitter battles with competitors and drew scrutiny from regulators and criminal charges related to volume discounts. Cases against the family were dismissed. One of David Trone’s attorneys, Roslyn M. Litman, is an ACLU board member.
“I was lucky. I had the resources and the representation to fight an injustice and win . . . [but] there are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t,” David Trone said. With the gift, he said, he hoped the ACLU “can stand up for those who are silenced . . . and figure out how folks who have made mistakes can become great workers with great jobs and drop recidivism.”
As the title of this post highlights, I think an interesting (and likely easily overlooked) aspect of this story is the fact that the Trones made their fortune through innovation in an industry that was entirely a criminal enterprise (and the progenator of considerable violent crime) less than 100 years ago during the Prohibition era.
Monday, December 28, 2015
Defense argues veteran's mental problems should make him ineligible for Oregon death penalty
This interesting local article from Oregon reports on a notable and novel argument being made by defense attorneys for a defendant accused in a brutal group murder. The story is headlined "Lawyers cite client’s military service in arguing that death penalty should not be sentencing option if found guilty," and here are the interesting details:
Army veteran A.J. Nelson stands accused of playing a central role in a brutal Eugene murder that happened three years after his squad’s armored vehicle was destroyed by a roadside bomb during a combat tour in Afghanistan.
Nelson was badly hurt in the blast, and his attorneys say there’s a link between the mild traumatic brain injury he suffered and his alleged crimes. They are asking a judge to exclude the death penalty as a potential sentencing option in their client’s case due to his service-related injury. One of Nelson’s court-appointed lawyers, Laurie Bender of Portland, said in a telephone interview that she does not know of any prior capital case in which a judge has been asked to rule on a death penalty exclusion request made on behalf of a former soldier.
Nelson, now 25, is scheduled to go to trial in March. If he is convicted of aggravated murder in the slaying of Celestino Gutierrez Jr., prosecutors could ask a jury to sentence Nelson to death. Nelson was one of three people arrested and charged with kidnapping and killing Gutierrez, and then using his car to carry out an armed, takeover-style bank robbery in Mapleton in August 2012.
The plot’s mastermind, David Ray Taylor of Eugene, is now on Oregon’s death row after a jury convicted him in May 2014. The third defendant in the case, Mercedes Crabtree, is serving life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years. She pleaded guilty to the murder in 2013 and agreed to testify against both Nelson and Taylor.
Nelson’s lawyers said in a recent court filing that they intend to present evidence at trial of a mental disease or defect that interfered with their client’s ability to form the intent to commit the alleged crimes. In addition to the brain injury, the attorneys also assert Nelson has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Those two issues change the way people see and react to the environment, can lead to other psychological problems and produce “a greater propensity for aberrant and criminal behavior,” Bender wrote in a Dec. 15 motion to exclude the death penalty in Nelson’s case. “Nelson’s service-related injuries and illness do not exonerate him of the charged offenses but mitigate his culpability and the state’s standing to execute him,” Bender wrote...
The Dec. 15 filing includes copies of awards and commendations Nelson received as a result of his military service. They include the Purple Heart, given to soldiers who are injured or killed while serving.... Nelson’s lawyers say sentencing a war veteran with PTSD to death is unconstitutional, and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Veterans, the attorneys argue, deserve categorical death-penalty exclusions similar to those given to juvenile offenders and people with intellectual disabilities....
According to evidence presented at Taylor’s trial, Taylor came up with a plan to kill a stranger and take that person’s vehicle for use in a bank robbery.... Crabtree then obtained a ride from Gutierrez to Taylor’s nearby home. Gutierrez was slain at the house, where Taylor, now 60, and Nelson are said to have dismembered his body. Crabtree, who was 18 at the time of the incident, testified during Taylor’s trial that Nelson — at Taylor’s direction — bound Gutierrez with electrical wire and a belt, pushed a crossbow bolt through one of the victim’s ears and choked him.
After mocking Nelson for failing to kill Gutierrez swiftly, Taylor wrapped a metal chain around Gutierrez’s neck and pulled on it until the victim stopped breathing, Crabtree told the jury. Crabtree said Nelson went into a brief seizure as he and Taylor dismembered the body, and came out of it confused about what he had done.
It is well-established constitutional law that defendants can present mitigating evidence of all sorts, including evidence of mental battle scars of war, to argue to a jury not to impose a death sentence. But here it seems defense attorneys are pressing for a new categorical ban on the death penaty for veterans whose service-related injuries may have played a role in their capital crimes.
Some (of many) prior related posts:
- Should prior military service reduce a sentence?
- Prior military service as a sentencing mitigator gets a big boost from SCOTUS
- "Should Veterans With PTSD Be Exempt From the Death Penalty?"
- "Neuroscience, PTSD, and Sentencing Mitigation"
- Should there be a death penalty exemption for combat veterans with PTSD?
- "Military Veterans, Culpability, and Blame"
- Should honoring vets and PTSD call for commuting a death sentence?
- "Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty"
"It’s Time for Obama to Go Big on Pardons"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent New Yorker commentary authored by Jeffrey Toobin. Here are excerpts:
The orderly mind of Barack Obama appears to recoil at the vulgar world of pardons. The President is a consummate rationalist, a believer in systems and order. Pardons, in contrast, rely exclusively on the whim of the grantor. This Presidential power is descended from the concept known in Great Britain as the royal prerogative of mercy — three words that seem almost guaranteed to offend this President, singularly or especially aligned together.
But President Obama is starting to come around on pardons, or at least on commutations. (A commutation allows a convict to leave prison at a designated date; a pardon can also involve an end to a prison sentence but bestows a broader restoration of rights, like the right to vote or own a firearm.) Last week, the President announced that he had commuted the sentences of ninety-five federal prisoners and granted two pardons. In seven years, Obama has now issued a hundred and eighty-four commutations, more than his last six predecessors combined, but only sixty-one pardons, which is far less than most recent Presidents.... Obama is moving in the right direction, but he has a long way to go. There are roughly two hundred thousand people in federal prison in the United States. Do they all belong there? Should only a few dozen have their sentences shortened?
Those questions answer themselves, as Obama himself knows. He has made the reduction of mass incarceration one of the touchstones of his final years in office. As he said, in a recent speech to the N.A.A.C.P. national convention, “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.” No one can stop the President from doing at least that. Since 2011, Obama has been stymied by the Republican Congress from undertaking major legislative initiatives, but the pardon power is absolute and unfettered. The President can pardon everyone, and anyone, he chooses.
Obama is a democrat as well as a Democrat, and surely something in him rebels at exercising absolute power on a grand scale. One problem with pardons is that Presidents have considered them in secret, springing the decisions on the public only after they have been made. In high-profile cases, like Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton’s pardon of the fugitive financier Marc Rich, the political repercussions have been disastrous. But Obama could avoid this problem with some innovation — and sunshine. Over the last year of his Presidency, his Administration should publish the names of people being considered for pardons. In this way, members of the public can make their views known about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of letting each individual out of prison. All Presidents and governors (who also have pardon power) are haunted by the possibility that they might release someone who goes on to commit horrible crimes. (Former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas pardoned several people who did just that.)
This public airing might well save Obama from making some poor choices, but it will also guarantee him a measure of political protection. Opponents of pardons will be able to speak now, or they’ll forever have to hold their peace. If Republicans offer blanket objections to broad pardons, they’ll be demonstrating that they simply want more people in prison, regardless of the costs in dollars, public safety, or lost lives.
Most importantly, this process could allow the President to end or reduce the sentences of many more prisoners than he has done so far. Obama could make the case for pardons or commutations on an individual-by-individual basis, or he could establish a broader rule — that, say, every nonviolent drug offender with just a single conviction, or possession of a certain quantity of drugs, would be eligible....
Obama should be considering action on this vast scale. When it comes to mass incarceration, he has been content so far to work around the fringes. He has asked Congress to consider reducing sentences for certain crimes. He has told Attorney General Loretta Lynch to restrict the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. These are worthy, modest goals. But the pardon power, with its roots in the monarchy, allows a President to go big — and that’s exactly how Obama should go.
P.S. Ruckman at Pardon Power is not especially impressed by Toobin's work here, as evidence by this recent posting about this commentary headlined "Toobin: Still the Worst of the Worst."
A few very recent related posts:
- Reviewing and reflecting on persistent problems with the federal clemency process
- Prez Obama commutes 95 federal prison sentences and grants 2 pardons
- An early set of takes on Prez Obama's clemency work to date
- "To forgive prisoners is divine — or as close as government gets"
- Highlighting how Chrismas clemency cheer brings a lump of coal for those left off Prez Obama's list
Notable (lack of) big crime news emerging from the Big Apple
Sentencing and police reform opponents on the right and gun control advocates on the left have been making much of what appears to be a notable uptick in violent crimes using firearms in many cities. But even if there was strong and consistent data showing widespread increases in violent gun crimes throughout the US throughout 2015, I would be somewhat chary about using short-term crime data alone as the basis for drawing long-term conclusions about the pros and cons of various criminal justice reforms.
Ever the consequentialist, I do view serious violent crime rates as the single most important criminal justice metric for would-be criminal justice analysts and reformers. But I also believe lots of (hard-to-assess in real-time) social and practical factors can have a major short-term impact on how much crime is committed and reported. Consequently, I think it can be problematic and even dangerous for political and legal actors to over-react (positively or negatively) to any seemingly major short-term crime data changes.
That all said, this new New York Times article suggests that, at least in one major city, there may not be any major short-term crime data changes for political and legal actors to over-react to. The article, headlined "Anxiety Aside, New York Sees Drop in Crime," gets started this way:
Homeless encampments proliferated. Two officers, confronting armed men, were shot and killed. And many New Yorkers said they felt less safe. But fears that New York City was slipping back to a more dangerous time contrasted with reality.
As reflected in the reported levels of the most serious types of crime, the city in 2015 was as safe as it had been in its modern history. A modest decrease in reported crime is expected by year’s end.
The Police Department is reporting a 2 percent decline, as measured by seven major felonies that are tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation: murder, rape, robbery, serious assault, burglary, grand larceny and car theft. At the same time, arrests recorded by officers fell steeply, to 333,115 through Dec. 20, down 13 percent from 384,770 over the same period the year before. The number of criminal summonses dropped to 292,372 from 358,948.
There was a small rise in murders, to 339 as of Dec. 25, already more than last year’s historic low of 333. Still, the number is well below the 536 murders recorded five years ago. And despite an early increase in gun violence, the final tally of shootings for the year is set to come in slightly lower than last year’s figure.
“As we end this year, the City of New York will record the safest year in its history, its modern history, as it relates to crime,” said Commissioner William J. Bratton, summing up 2015 in an address to officers at a Dec. 17 promotion ceremony. But, he added, the past 12 months had also been “terrible” for the department because of the loss of four officers in the line of duty since late last December. “It has been a year of great contradictions,” he said, struggling for words.
The overall crime statistics, of course, do not capture the increasing presence of homeless people on the streets and in shelters that has bedeviled the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, while contributing to a creeping unease among New Yorkers.
But the disconnect may run deeper. Since summer 2014, the country has seen one protest after another over fairness in the criminal justice system, prompted by the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and other black people in confrontations with the police. The outcry, and the occasional outbreaks of protestrelated violence, have led some to argue that criticism of the police has undermined law enforcement, empowering criminals and sowing urban disorder.
Sunday, December 27, 2015
"Prisons as addiction treatment centers?"
The question in the title of this post is the headline of this local article from the Buckeye State. Here are excerpts:
With at least four of five inmates struggling with addiction, Ohio's prisons are beginning to look more like drug treatment centers.
Prisoners participate in group counseling sessions, visit with prison "alumni" who have remained sober after leaving incarceration and enroll in Medicaid to help pay for counseling and medication-assisted treatment after they are released. Money from the state budget, $27.4 million through June 30, is paying for more counselors to treat addiction inside Ohio's prisons, said Tracy Plouck, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
The concept is relatively simple: people addicted to drugs commit crimes like possessing drugs, selling drugs, stealing money or property to buy drugs and hurting others because they are under the influence of drugs. Take away the compulsion for drugs and alcohol, and these lower-level offenders might not return to prison, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction director Gary Mohr said. "What we’re attempting to do is reduce crime victims out in Ohio," Mohr said.
Before changes in July, Ohio prisons were releasing 8,000 to 9,000 people with serious addiction problems each year without treating half of them, Mohr said. Staying for less than six months? You weren't eligible. Too many inmates on the waiting list? There wasn't not enough staff to help. Now, people who will be released in three months can start counseling in prison and have their medical records sent to a halfway house when they leave. By signing released prisoners up for Medicaid, the insurance program might pay for medication-assisted treatment and counseling — a combination considered by many physicians to be the gold standard of treatment.
"I can tell you right now we are going to be treating thousands of people that we weren’t treating before," Mohr said. When an inmate enters prison, he goes to a short-term reception center, and takes a test designed to spot mental health and addiction concerns. From there, he is sent to the prison where he will serve out his term. If the inmate isn't a violent offender, he might participate in a therapeutic community, groups of 70 to 180 inmates who live together, attend group counseling sessions and commit to good behavior while in prison, or a reintegration unit, where inmates work eight to 10 hours a day to simulate life outside prison.
Plouck wants to triple the number of inmates in therapeutic communities by mid 2017 by expanding the number of communities from four to eight. Madison Correctional Institution and Noble Correctional Institution are next on the list. In 2014, 569 inmates participated; by 2017, prison officials hope to have 1,500 enrolled.
Mohr also wants to have every prison enrolling eligible inmates in Medicaid by the end of 2016. Currently, 10 of 27 prisons are enrolling inmates in the low-income insurance program expanded by Gov. John Kasich. About 2,400 people have signed up since the program began in earnest this fall, Mohr said. Medicaid can pay for counseling and medication-assisted treatment after prisoners leave incarceration....
A smooth transition from treatment in prison to treatment outside of prison is critical. It's easy to remain sober in prison with no access to drugs or alcohol. The challenge comes when they are released back to homes where relatives or friends might still be using drugs or alcohol, Plouck said.
Saturday, December 26, 2015
Hoping Californians get crisp "mend it or end it" capital initiative votes in 2016
This local article, headlined "Death penalty supporters seek to speed up executions," reports on efforts in California to give voters a chance to mend the state's broken capital punishment system by initiative. Here are the basics:
Death penalty supporters got the state’s go-ahead Thursday to collect signatures for a November 2016 ballot measure aimed at speeding up executions, raising the prospect that voters will be asked to choose between toughening California’s death penalty law and repealing it.
The new initiative would require the state Supreme Court to rule on capital cases within five years. It would also limit death penalty appeals, set strict deadlines for filing appeals and seek to expand the pool of death penalty lawyers. Any attorney who now accepts court appointments to represent impoverished defendants in criminal cases would also have to take on capital cases, regardless of experience.
Another provision would eliminate the currently required public comment period before the state can approve a new single-drug execution method, which officials have proposed to replace the current three-drug executions. Supporters of the measure say it would reduce by at least half the period, typically 25 years or more, needed to resolve death penalty appeals in California. Opponents disagree, noting that the initiative would not add funding for death penalty lawyers or court staff.
A rival initiative to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without parole was cleared for circulation last month. A similar repeal measure was defeated by four percentage points in November 2012. Both initiatives need 365,880 signatures of registered voters in 180 days to qualify for the ballot. Sponsors of the new initiative have raised more than $1 million so far and expect to collect the needed signatures, said Charles Bell, a lawyer for the campaign.
This article also notes that California has not carried out an execution in a decade thanks to lethal injection litigation, while still having the nation's largest death row with nearly 750 condemned murderers waiting to receive their jury-imposed death sentence. As readers may recall, the remarkable size and delay that has come to define California's dysfunctional capital system itself led to a (temporary) ruling of unconstitutionality in federal courts in recent years.
As the title of this post highlights, I am hopeful that both proposals to deal with California's capital system come before voters in 2016. If both do, voters will likely have a crisp "mend it or end it" set of policy choices, and there will also likely be considerable funding (both local and national) devoted to informing voters about what votes on these proposals would mean in an election year likely to be marked by high turnout. Through such a process, we should get some really good insights concerning what voters in a huge (left-leaning) state really want to do about the death penalty circa 2016.
Prior related post:
Thursday, December 24, 2015
Is it reasonable to ask Santa Claus to bring a certiorari grant on acquitted conduct sentencing?
The silly question in the title of this post is prompted by the terrific Christmas-week opinions authored by DC Circuit Judges Kavanaugh and Millett in concurrences to the denial of en banc rehearing in US v. Bell, No. 08-3037 (DC Cir. Dec. 22, 2015) (available here). Regular readers know that I have long been troubled by the use of so-called acquitted conduct in the calculations of an applicable guideline range, both opinions in Bell spotlight well some of the reasons why.
Interestingly, Judge Kavanaugh suggests he thinks Congress or the Sentencing Commission may need to act in order now to address problems with acquitted conduct. But Judge Millett's opinion in Bell provides, in the space of eight pages, a thoughtful and thorough accounting of why the Supreme Court should consider anew the constitutional validity of sentences enhanced dramatically on the basis of allegations that a jury considered insufficient for a lawful conviction. I will provide here an exceprt from the start and end of Judge Millett's opinion:
This case is one in an “unbroken string of cases” encroaching on the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury, Jones v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 8, 9 (2014) (Scalia, J., joined by Thomas & Ginsburg, JJ., dissenting from the denial of certiorari). The government indicted Gregory Bell for a “mélange” of crimes, “including conspiracy and crack distribution.” Panel Op. 2. Bell exercised his constitutional right to a trial by jury on those charges, and the jury acquitted Bell of ten of the thirteen charges against him, “including all narcotics and racketeering conspiracy charges.” Panel Op. 3. The jury convicted Bell of only three crack cocaine distribution charges that together added up to just 5 grams.
Because Bell had no significant criminal history and the amount of cocaine was relatively small, Bell’s Sentencing Guidelines range for the offense of conviction would have been 51 to 63 months. At sentencing, however, the district court found that Bell had engaged in the very cocaine conspiracy of which the jury had acquitted him, and sentenced Bell to 192 months in prison — a sentence that was over 300% above the top of the Guidelines range for the crimes of which he was actually convicted.
In a constitutional system that relies upon the jury as the “great bulwark of [our] civil and political liberties,” Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 477 (2000) (quoting 2 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States 540– 541 (4th ed. 1873)), it is hard to describe Bell’s sentence as anything other than a “perverse result,” United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 164 (1997) (Stevens, J., dissenting). The foundational role of the jury is to stand as a neutral arbiter between the defendant and a government bent on depriving him of his liberty. But when the central justification the government offers for such an extraordinary increase in the length of imprisonment is the very conduct for which the jury acquitted the defendant, that liberty-protecting bulwark becomes little more than a speed bump at sentencing....
While I am deeply concerned about the use of acquitted conduct in this case, I concur in the denial of rehearing en banc. That is because only the Supreme Court can resolve the contradictions in the current state of the law, by either “put[ting] an end to the unbroken string of cases disregarding the Sixth Amendment” or “eliminat[ing] the Sixth Amendment difficulty by acknowledging that all sentences below the statutory maximum are substantively reasonable.” Jones, 135 S. Ct. at 9 (Scalia, J., joined by Thomas and Ginsburg, JJ., dissenting from denial of certiorari). Though I am not certain Bell’s argument is directly foreclosed by Supreme Court precedent, my colleagues on the panel have done their best to navigate existing precedent, recognizing that the Supreme Court has thus far declined to address this issue. Going en banc would only delay affording the Supreme Court another opportunity to take up this important, frequently recurring, and troubling contradiction in sentencing law.
Despite seemingly having a number of sound vehicles for reconsidering Watts in the wake of Apprendi, Blakely, Booker et al., the Supreme Court has persistently dodged this acquitted conduct issue for well over a decade. Thus, we may need some of the holiday magic of Old Saint Nick in order to finally get the Justices to give needed attention to "this important, frequently recurring, and troubling contradiction in sentencing law."
December 24, 2015 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)
Highlighting how Chrismas clemency cheer brings a lump of coal for those left off Prez Obama's list
This Washington Post article, headlined "Obama’s clemency list brings joy to the lucky and anguish to the disappointed," notes the sadness felt by federal prisoners and their families when certain names fail to appear on the latest list of commutations. Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that gives special attention to the (in)famous case of Weldon Angelos:
The president wants to use his clemency power to undo past injustices, and on Friday, in the largest single-day grant of his presidency, he signed 95 commutations. They brought joy to families across the country.
“God be the Glory,” said Sharanda Jones, a 48-year-old Texas woman who was sentenced to life in prison without parole for a cocaine offense. She was a first-time, nonviolent offender. “I am overjoyed.”
But for thousands of other prisoners, who may also meet the president’s criteria, their exclusion was a hard blow. “It was a great day for those who won the lottery and one more disappointment for everyone in the pipeline who should be on the list,” said Amy Povah, a former inmate and the founder of the Can-Do Foundation, a clemency advocacy group.
criminal justice reform advocates of an irrationally severe system. He was sentenced in 2004 to a mandatory 55 years in prison without the possibility of parole after he was arrested for selling marijuana in three separate transactions with a Salt Lake City police informant, while possessing a firearm. Angelos never used or pulled out the gun, but the informant testified that he saw a gun when he made the buys, and that triggered a statute referred to as “gun stacking,” which forced the judge to give him a long sentence.
Angelos’s case has been widely championed, including by Families Against Mandatory Minimums and conservative billionaire Charles Koch. Former U.S. District Court judge Paul G. Cassell, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, has called the sentence he imposed on Angelos “unjust, cruel and even irrational.” Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries, said the failure to commute Angelos’s sentence Friday was “disappointing and devastating for Weldon and his family.”
“Think of anything in your life that you’ve waited for,” Holden said. “Everything else pales in comparison to this. It is unclear why Angelos failed to get clemency. A Justice Department spokeswoman said that officials do not discuss individual clemency petitions. Another official noted that the department is processing them “as thoroughly and expeditiously as we can.”
Each of the four times that the president has announced his commutations has been difficult for Angelos, but this time cut the deepest. And it’s not because it came around the holidays. It’s because this group of inmates will be released on April 16. “If I had been given clemency this time,” Angelos, a father of three, said in an interview at the Federal Correctional Institution at Mendota, “I would have been out for my oldest son’s graduation from high school in June.”
When he came in from the track, Angelos called his sister, Lisa. She had heard he wasn’t on the list, and she was crying. While talking to her, he looked up and saw Obama on the prison television set making his official announcement at his end-of-year news conference. “I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach,” he said.
Similar scenes were playing out in other federal prisons, said Angelos’s lawyer, Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and a co-founder of New York University’s Clemency Resource Center. He represents nine clients who are seeking clemency. “I dreaded the phone ringing,” Osler said in a blog post he called “Sunday Reflection: The sad call”: “I looked at the screen and it said what I feared it would: ‘Unknown,’ which is how calls from prison always come up. I let it ring once, twice, three times before pressing ‘answer.’ . . . And each time I talked to them about what had happened, how I did not know how they picked the lucky ones. They told me, in heavy voices, what they would miss: a son’s graduation, the last days of a mother in fading health. And each time I hung up and sat in silence.”
White House Counsel W. Neil Eggleston said last week that Obama, who has granted 184 clemencies, has already commuted the sentences of more individuals than the past five presidents combined. “We expect that the president will grant more commutations and pardons to deserving individuals in his final year in office,” Eggleston added.
But clemency advocates say that Obama has put himself in a different position than previous presidents. Instead of granting a moment of mercy to an inmate — much like the odds of being struck by lightning — Obama’s Justice Department set out eight specific clemency criteria, including having served at least 10 years, having no significant criminal history prior to conviction and demonstrating good behavior in prison. And he raised the hopes of thousands who believed they could qualify. “What the president announced was a categorical grant to people who met those eight criteria,” Osler said. “If it’s a categorical grant, we should be seeing consistency.”
I suspect there may well be a cruel irony to the decision not to have (my former pro bono client during his 2255 efforts) Weldon Angelos on the lastest list of commutation: I think Prez Obama and his advisors might reasonably fear that granting clemency to Angelos now could undercut some urgency in Congress to continue pressing forward with statutory sentncing reform. GOP Senator Mike Lee has often mentioned the Angelos case in his advocacy for federal sentencing reform, and the stacking of mandatory minimums that resulted in Angelos' extreme sentence would be fixed in the reform bills that have been slowly moving through Congress.
I suspect Prez Obama is especially eager to see Angelos get relief from a duly enacted law, and I remain hopeful that Angelos will appear on a clemency list before this time next year if Congress in 2016 proves unable to reform the problematic provision that led to Angelos receiving a mandatory 55 years for a few minor marijuana sales. In the meantime, I hope Weldon, his family and all those advocating on his behalf might get a glimmer of comfort from the possibility that Angelos' continued incarceration may actually foster continued congressional reform efforts which would benefit thousands of fellow federal prisoners.
"Child Pornography Sentencing in the Sixth Circuit"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new papaer by Carissa Byrne Hessick now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
This Symposium Essay explores and analyzes the Sixth Circuit’s approach to child pornography sentencing. It critiques the Sixth Circuit’s decision to apply heightened scrutiny to below-Guideline sentences for child pornography possession. In addition to presenting a critique of the Sixth Circuit’s cases, the Essay also provides guidance for defense attorneys seeking a below-Guidelines sentence. It notes that there are particular strategies those attorneys should follow in order to secure not only a more lenient sentence from a district court judge, but also a sentence that is more likely to be upheld by the Sixth Circuit on appeal.
During the course of this discussion, the Essay identifies and criticizes three significant features of the Sixth Circuit’s cases in this area. First, it notes that the Sixth Circuit is the only circuit to have adopted heightened appellate review of below-Guideline sentences for child pornography possession. Second, it explains that the Sixth Circuit appears to be developing a common law of sentencing in child pornography cases; such a common law is contrary to the language and the logic of the Supreme Court’s Sixth Amendment sentencing cases. Finally, it explains that the Sixth circuit has failed to give appropriate deference to district court decisions to sentence below the Guidelines based on facts and circumstances of particular cases.
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Making a space for the airing of sentencing grievances this Festivus
Among the many ways I reveal (to myself) my age and geeky nature is by still getting strangely jazzed when I realize it is Festivus. I suppose if I was a hard-core geek, I would make a serious effort to honor all the faux-holiday's grand traditions, But, lacking the energy for anything more than this silly post, I have decided to make my lasy post today a place and a space for anyone eager engage in the Festivus tradition of airing grievances particularly focused on sentencing. (As this news item highlights, Senator Rand Paul is using Twitter today to air Festivus grievances against his GOP Prez rivals.)
I readily could rattle off a wide range of sentencing grievances against the likes of Prez Obama and Congress for their tepid efforts on federal sentencing reform to date, or against the Supreme Court for failing to take up an array of Fifth, SIxth and Eighth Amendment sentencing issues that I think merit their attention, or against many of the Prez candidates (and their media inquisitors) for being unwilling (or perhaps unable) to engage seriously with an array of criminal justice reform topics, or even against some advocacy groups and media outlets for continuing to place so much emphasis on death penalty developments when there are so many more criminal justiuce issues that are so much more consequential for so many more people and yet receives so much less attention. More often than not, though, I find spending too much time on grievances make me grumpy and achieves little more. So I won't bother to vent at length here.
That said, I learn a lot (and perhaps get some misery-loves-company comfort) from hearing about others' sentencing grievances. Consequently, with this as my last post on a warm Festivus day in Ohio, I welcome and encourage any and all readers eager to air their sentencing grievances to go for it in the comment here.
"IQ, Intelligence Tests, 'Ethnic Adjustments' and Atkins"
The title of this post is the title of this article by Robert Sanger recently posted on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In Atkins v. Virginia the U.S. Supreme Court declared that executing the intellectually disabled violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In Atkins, the Court relied heavily on medical standards, which indicated that individuals with an IQ of approximately or below seventy and who met the other criteria for intellectual disability were ineligible for the death penalty. Twelve years later, in Hall v. Florida, the Court evaluated a Florida statute that created a bright line rule, making anyone whose IQ was above seventy eligible for execution, regardless of other factors suggesting the defendant was, despite his IQ score, intellectually disabled. Finding the statute violated the Constitution, the Court stated that the Florida statute’s bright line rule made the possibility too great that an intellectually disabled person would be executed.
Since Atkins, some prosecution experts have begun using so-called “ethnic adjustments” to artificially raise minority defendants’ IQ scores, making defendants who would have been protected by Atkins and its progeny eligible for the death penalty. This Article details this practice, looking at several cases in which prosecutors successfully adjusted a defendant’s IQ score upward, based on his or her race. The Article then turns to the arguments put forth by these prosecutors for increasing minority defendants’ IQ scores, namely that it would be improper not to adjust the scores.
Statistically, some minority cohorts tend to perform worse on tests than White cohorts; prosecutors argue that this discrepancy is not based on intellectual inferiority, but rather that there are testing biases and behavioral factors that cause minority test-takers to underperform. Thus, the argument goes, minority IQ scores should be increased to control for these biases and behavioral factors.
Evaluating the merits of these arguments, this Article concludes that ethnic adjustments are not logically or clinically appropriate when computing a person’s IQ score for Atkins purposes. This Article looks at epigenetics to explain the discrepancies in IQ scores, concluding that environmental factors — such as childhood abuse, poverty, stress, and trauma — can cause decreases in actual IQ scores and which can be passed down from generation to generation. Therefore, given that individuals who suffered these environmental factors disproportionately populate death row, ethnic adjustments make it more likely that individuals who are actually intellectually disabled will be put to death. Ultimately, after looking at the Supreme Court’s affirmative action jurisprudence, this Article concludes that the practice of ethnic adjustments for the purpose of determining eligibility for the death penalty violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and would not survive strict scrutiny.
Based on SCOTUS Johnson ruling, Seventh Circuit declares statutory sentence enhancement for illegal reentry offenses
A helpful reader made sure I did not miss a notable post-Johnson vagueness ruling by a Seventh Circuit panel in US v. Vivas-Ceja, No. 15-1770 (7th Cir. Dec. 22, 2015) (available here). Here is how the panel opinion gets started:
Raul Vivas-Ceja pleaded guilty to illegally reentering the United States after removal, the maximum sentence for which is raised to 20 years if the defendant has been convicted of an “aggravated felony” prior to removal. See 8 U.S.C. § 1326(b)(2). As relevant here, the definition of “aggravated felony” is supplied by the definition of “crime of violence” in 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), which includes “any … offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.”
The district court concluded that Vivas-Ceja’s Wisconsin conviction for fleeing an officer was a crime of violence under § 16(b), raising the maximum sentence to 20 years. The court imposed a sentence of 21 months. Vivas-Ceja appeals, arguing that § 16(b)’s definition of “crime of violence” is unconstitutionally vague in light of Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).
The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause prohibits the government from depriving a person of liberty under a statute “so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice … or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement.” Id. at 2556. In Johnson the Supreme Court held that sentencing a defendant under the so-called “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)(ii), violates this prohibition. Section 16(b) is materially indistinguishable from the ACCA’s residual clause. We hold that it too is unconstitutionally vague according to the reasoning of Johnson. We therefore vacate Vivas-Ceja’s sentence and remand for resentencing.
"Reforming the Nation’s Criminal Justice System: The Impact of 2015 and Prospects for 2016"
The title of this post is the title of this notable report recently produced by the U.S. Justice Action Network. Here are excerpts on how it starts and ends:
Over the past year, criminal justice reform has been propelled to the forefront of national conversation, and on the minds of millions of Americans. For years, advocates have worked tirelessly to chart a path forward to overhaul a justice system that has become bloated, unsustainable and inefficient. But they knew that, to advance meaningful solutions to reduce the prison population and expand opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, that national momentum and widespread support would be needed to spur action.
Fortunately for advocates of criminal justice reform, 2015 proved to be the year that would ultimately place reform within the nation’s reach. And because of the progress made this year, prospects for achievable, comprehensive reform in 2016 are appearing considerable....
The collective efforts witnessed throughout 2015, at the state and federal levels, certainly made it the most significant in the fight for reform. For the first time, the nation at large took an active, invested role in the conversation — no longer was justice reform a topic relegated to policy conferences, legislative hearing rooms and opinion pages — it was a debate being waged in living rooms, at dinner tables, in schools and churches, and by people of every political stripe, in every age range, in every community across the country. Below is a look ahead to some of next year’s key moments, issues and actions that could impact prospects for reform in 2016, and which will ultimately determine whether or not 2016 will be the year that reforms were achieved.
Narrowing window of opportunity means the first few months are key: With the 2016 election cycle kicking into high gear, it will be crucial for federal lawmakers and national advocates for reform to make progress on reforms as early as possible in the new year. Momentum and support for reform has reached historically high levels, helping to create a political and legislative environment ripe for reform.
Law enforcement: Prominent law enforcement leaders are standing up and joining the push for action, and this widespread law enforcement advocacy effort will be crucial in the coming year to continue advancing criminal justice reforms that protect public safety and create better outcomes for all.
Congressional leadership: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) have both signaled that reforming the justice system is an important priority. In November, both McConnell and Ryan made optimistic statements signaling the bills could be included on a short list of priorities for congressional action, but stopped short of committing to floor time.
2016 election cycle: The 2016 presidential election cycle has for the first time made criminal justice reform a hot-button issue being discussed on the campaign trail by presidential candidates. Candidates on both sides of the aisle have shared proposed policies to reform the system, and have shared differing perspectives on the state of justice reform. As the campaigns continue marching forward, it is anticipated that criminal justice reform will continue making appearances in stump speeches, rallies, and interviews by those running for the White House.
45th anniversary of War on Drugs: The War on Drugs is sourced with both increasing attention on the scourge of drugs and substance abuse issues, but also amplifying the use of mandatory minimums and other one-size-fits-all criminal justice policies for lower-level drug issues. In June, the U.S. will mark the 45th anniversary of the War on Drugs, and will surely see calls for federal lawmakers to continue to reconsider current U.S. drug policies and their impact on incarceration rates, and also more effective ways of addressing substance abuse issues that impact communities everywhere.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Could a profit motive help improve recidivism rates (and criminal justice programming more generally)?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing new article by Alana Semuels in The Atlantic headlined "A New Investment Opportunity: Helping Ex-Convicts; A New York program asks outsiders to fund a promising initiative to reduce recidivism. If it gets results, they get a payout." Here is how the article gets started:
Every year, the government spends billions of dollars on programs designed to help America’s neediest citizens. In many cases, whether these programs work is anyone’s guess.
Less than $1 out of every $100 of federal government spending is “backed by even the most basic evidence that the money is being spent wisely,” wrote Peter Orszag, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget, and John Bridgeland, the former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, in a 2013 piece in The Atlantic. In their article, Orszag and Bridgeland advocate for a “moneyball for government,” arguing that an era of fiscal scarcity should force Washington to become more results-oriented.
A new partnership among New York State, 40 private investors, and a nonprofit called the Center for Employment Opportunities seeks to apply this sort of thinking to an area of policy that has been particularly resistant to interventions: lowering the recidivism rate in an era of growing prison populations.
The investors, including private philanthropists and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, have put up a total of $13.5 million to fund an expansion of the work that an organization called the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) already does with people coming out of prison. CEO’s model is simple: It prepares people who have criminal records for the workplace, gives them up to 75 days of temporary employment, and then helps them find jobs of their own. With the $13.5 million, CEO will work with an additional 2,000 clients, targeting the highest-risk people.
But the expansion of the program isn’t charity: The project is a so-called “Pay for Success” initiative, modeled after social-impact bonds, which were first used in the United Kingdom five years ago. The basic idea is that investors fund a program that has a promising approach, putting in place extensive data-collection points so that they can track the program’s results. The investors are betting on the idea that the program can do a better — and less expensive — job of providing a given service than the status quo. If they’re right, and the program meets certain expectations — in this case the benchmarks for success are to reduce recidivism by eight percent and increase employment by five percent — the government will have saved money in less prison spending. The government then pays back the investors with its savings. If the program succeeds, investors can earn a return. If it exceeds those goals substantially, investors can get a bigger return, which in this case is capped at 10 percent. The state at no point spends more money than it would have spent incarcerating the 2,000 individuals anyway.
The Pay for Success strategy isn’t just a way to test CEO’s model. It’s a way to bring careful, data-based monitoring of a program’s effect into government spending.
There are dozens of programs that seek to help people re-enter the community once they’re released from prison. They provide job training and housing assistance and college-preparation classes and counseling. But a lot of people still end up back in prison. About 700,000 individuals are released from prison nationally each year; the national recidivism rate is about 40 percent.
CEO can make a dent in this, its backers say, because it gives its clients something more: a job. Clients come in, go through a week of job-readiness training, and then get a pair of steel-toed boots and a spot on one of CEO’s five-to-seven-person crews. The crews rotate through the city, cleaning courtrooms and performing maintenance on community-college buildings and public-housing properties.
Getting clients back into the workforce, even temporarily, is a key part of CEO’s program, Sam Schaeffer, the executive director of CEO, told me. People who have never worked, or who haven’t worked in decades find themselves furnished with a metro card, a place to be every morning, and a supervisor to report to. “You’re earning a daily paycheck, and all of a sudden you’re getting on the subway, with that metro card that you couldn’t afford two weeks ago and you're reading the paper, and you’re sort of like, ‘Yea, I can do this,’” he said.
"To forgive prisoners is divine — or as close as government gets"
The title of this post is the sub-headline of this notable new commentary published by the American Conservative and authored by Chase Madar under the main headline "The Case for Clemency." I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here are excerpts:
President Obama’s recent announcement that he would commute the sentences of 95 federal prisoners and fully pardon two others is welcome news. So is a holiday press release from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has hitherto been miserly with clemency, but will pardon nonviolent offenses committed by 16 and 17 year olds (who will continue to be automatically tried as adults, a harshness almost unique among the fifty states). But we should see these gestures for what they are: small trickles of clemency where what is demanded is a rushing, roaring pipeline scaled to the globally unprecedented size of our prison population and incarceration rate. We need industrial-scale clemency. Here is why and how....
At the federal level — which only accounts for about 12 percent of U.S. prisoners — mild sentencing reform has both bipartisan support and bipartisan resistance in the Senate. Looking to the states, a much hyped “moment” of criminal-justice reform is more than countervailed by the deeply ingrained punitive habits of governors and legislatures across the land, from Massachusetts, whose liberal governor signed a tough “three strikes” law in 2012, to Louisiana, where Bobby Jindal upped penalties for heroin-related offenses.
Whether we admit it or not, we are in quite a spot: our hyper-incarceration is unprecedented in U.S. history. Rectifying this will require changes in policing, a cutting back of what we criminalize, and serious revision of our sentences, which far outstrip their deterrent value. Another part of the solution will have to be clemency on a massive scale: pardons, which all but expunge a criminal record; commutations, which shorten a prison sentence; parole; geriatric and compassionate release; and retroactive sentencing reform.
As of this writing, Obama has issued more commutations than any other president since Lyndon Johnson. But the supply of imprisoned Americans is orders of magnitude greater than it was in Johnson’s day, and Obama has only granted pardons or commutations at the exceedingly stingy rate of one out of 136, in line with the steep plummet in clemency since World War II. The Department of Justice has promised to routinize clemency, issuing new guidelines for nonviolent offenders who have served 10 years already, but the results so far have been bonsai-scaled in comparison to the magnitude of the federal prison population....
So much for Washington, which despite much misty-eyed self-congratulation has not shown itself up to the task of scaling back our prison state. Washington’s timidity means less than it first appears however: despite lazy media focus on the federal justice system, the real action is at the state level, which handles most policing, sentencing, and imprisoning. Alas, here too the general trend has been towards greater stinginess with clemency.
Take the example of Minnesota, a state that has, by U.S. standards, a low incarceration rate and arguably the most humane penal system in the country, with perhaps more in common with Denmark and Germany than with Texas and Louisiana. Yet it says something that Mark Dayton, one of the most progressive governors in the country, has a more merciless default setting than virtually all of his executive predecessors from the mid-20th century. Minnesota used to grant pardons and commutations by the barrelful: from 1940-89, the state granted 741 commutations and nearly 90 percent of all pardon applications. Minnesota’s clemency process began to tighten in the 1970s, only to be choked off further in the 1980s. From 2000-10, the number of pardons plummeted. In the past quarter-century, Minnesota has not issued a single commutation.
The barriers to mercy are dug deeply into American politics and intellectual culture. At the same time there is a rich tradition of clemency in this country, which can and should be tapped into.... Devotion to the Rule of Law has an ugly side in resentment of executive acts of mercy, at the level of practice and high theory.... Overall, the thrust of American legalism militates against executive clemency, which seems to many a kind of short circuit, a deus ex machina, an insult to the rule of law, smelling of elitism and monarchical whims.... (And it has to be said, occasionally this image of executive mercy as sleazy end-run around the justice system is correct: think of Bill Clinton granting a full pardon to felonious oil trader Marc Rich, whose ex-wife had been a major Democratic fundraiser.)
But in the face of this hostility to the pardon power there is a great counter-tradition of American clemency. At the founding of the country, executive power was seen not as a violation of our self-image as a “nation of laws not men” but as a necessary and healthily legitimate part of any popular government. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist 74: “the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered.” Without pardon power, “justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”...
U.S. history turns out to be generously littered with acts of mass clemency. In the 1930s, Mississippi Governor Mike Conner went to Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary, and held impromptu “mercy courts” that freed dozens of African-American prisoners, in an act that entered national folklore — as did Texas Governor Pat Neff’s pardon in 1925 of Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who issued his clemency request in song. In the 20th century, Governors Lee Cruce of Oklahoma, Winthrop Rockefeller of Arkansas, and Toney Anaya of New Mexico all commuted their states’ death rows down to zero upon leaving office. Among presidents, according to political scientist P.S. Ruckman Jr’s excellent blog Pardon Power, Abraham Lincoln granted clemency every single month of his administration as an act of mercy and a canny political strategy. Woodrow Wilson, though a teetotaler himself, pardoned hundreds convicted of booze-related infractions to signal his disapproval of Prohibition....
Reversing course on hyper-incarceration and clemency will be a generational project, and an Augean one at that. Judges and prosecutors are not the most self-effacing career group, and many would sooner eat their Civil Procedure books than admit error.... But for most people, clemency in cases of judicial and prosecutorial error is a no brainer: the law’s finality should not come at the expense of justice. The type of clemency we need today, however, is to remedy a problem several orders of magnitude larger, admitting not legal or judicial error but political or legislative disaster. A rushing, roaring clemency pipeline would be an explicit recognition that the various state and federal tough-on-crime policies, virtually all of which passed with broad bipartisan support, were dead wrong....
Our incarcerated population is also aging rapidly, and though older prisoners have far lower recidivism rates, few states are availing themselves of geriatric release. For instance, Virginia in 2012 granted geriatric release to less than 1 percent of about 800 prisoners eligible, according to the state parole board. Meanwhile, as the Virginian Pilot reported, “during the same period, 84 inmates died in state prisons.” Running high-security nursing homes is neither compassionate nor fiscally sound—another reason to restore and expand clemency.
What is needed is a restoration of the kind of clemency that was once the everyday norm in this country, expanded to meet the needs of our enormous 21st-century prison population. There will surely be stentorian howling that industrial-scale clemency is the invasive hand of overweening government power. These fault-finders ought to be reminded that our incarceration regime is on a scale rarely seen in human history: our only competitors are third-century BC “legalist” China; the late, off-the-rails Roman Empire; and the Soviet Union from 1930-55. Routinized clemency on a grand scale will be necessary to tame this beast.
To say that mass incarceration is an issue best addressed by the legislature, not by the executive, is theoretically correct. But procedural rectitude should not be taken to the point of sadism, ignoring the tens of thousands of harshly sentenced prisoners who are already stuck halfway through the penal snake’s digestive tract. Besides, this would hardly be the first time that elected officials have used the pardon power as a tool to alter policy. To give one more glorious example, on Christmas Day in 1912, Governor George Donaghey of Arkansas pardoned 360 state prisoners as a condemnation of the state’s brutal and corrupt “convict leasing” system, making national headlines and dealing a death blow to the corrupt practice.
The time is as ripe as it will ever be for industrial-scale clemency . Even with an 11 percent average increase in homicides in big American cities for 2015 so far (bringing the nation back to 2012 murder levels), violent crime is as low as it’s been since the early 1960s.... How we proceed with clemency is not just about how we treat thousands of prisoners..., it is about how we treat ourselves. According to Shakespeare’s most famous courtroom speech, mercy “blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.” With an expansion of the pardon power, we have the opportunity to rule ourselves as monarchs, with all the magnanimity and grace that implies. Or we can remain a nation of vindictive jailers that lectures the rest of the world about freedom.
December 22, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)
Monday, December 21, 2015
Pennsylvania Supreme Court upholds Gov Wolf's execution moratorium
As reported in this local press article, Pennsylvania's "Gov. Wolf acted within his constitutional authority to temporarily halt the execution of a convicted murderer from Philadelphia, the state Supreme Court ruled on Monday." Here is more from the article about this notable ruling from the top court in the Keystone State:
In a unanimous decision, the high court said Wolf had the power to delay the death sentence for Terrance Williams until a legislative task force issued its final report on the future of capital punishment in Pennsylvania. The ruling doesn't apply to Wolf's broader moratorium on the death penalty, but represented a victory for the governor in the broader and contentious battle over the future of executions in the commonwealth.
Wolf announced the reprieve for Williams in February, saying he would shelve all executions until after the report was issued. That decision that was challenged by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and prosecutors from other counties, who argued, among other things, that the governor's position unlawfully meddled with the jury's decision in the case.
But in a 33-page decision written by Justice Max Baer, the court said, "we disagree with the Commonwealth's suggestion that the reprieve unconstitutionally altered a final judgment of this Court; rather, the execution of the judgment is merely delayed."
The court was careful to say it was not considering whether Wolf's overall moratorium was legal; instead, it said, it was weighing specifically whether the governor could delay the execution of Williams, a former quarterback at Germantown High School who was convicted for the 1984 killing of Amos Norwood, a 56-year-old church volunteer. "Future challenges to reprieves granted by Governor Wolf will have to await independent examination based upon our holdings herein," the court wrote....
Wolf issued a brief statement saying he was pleased by the court's ruling. When he announced the decision earlier this year, he called the death penalty "ineffective, unjust, and expensive." A report from the task force studying if the death penalty can be legally and effectively administered in Pennsylvania was initially due two years ago. But its deadline has been extended.
Shawn Nolan, Terrance Williams' attorney, said Monday that he had not yet shared the news with his client but was pleased with the decision. "We have been saying all along that it was constitutional what the governor did," he said. "We're gratified that the Supreme Court made a unanimous decision."
Williams' case is also scheduled to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in February. In that appeal, Nolan is arguing that former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille should have recused himself from hearing appeal in the case because he was Philadelphia's district attorney when Williams was sentenced to death.
Cameron Kline, spokesman for the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, said that prosecutors respected the decision even though they had argued for another outcome.
Prior related posts:
- Pennsylvania Gov declares moratorium on state death penalty
- Philadelphia DA sues Pennsylvania Gov asserting execution moratorium is "lawless" and "flagrantly unconstitutional"
- Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review, slowly, Gov Wolf's execution moratorium
- Victims and law enforcement assail Gov Wolf's execution moratorium in Pennsylvania
- Pennsylvania House seizes political opportunity to complain about Gov doing something (sort of) about state's dysfunctional death penalty
- Pennsylvania Attorney General calls Governor's execution moratorium an "egregious violation" of the state constitution
NY Gov Cuomo moves ahead with significant clemency effort for youthful offenders and others
As reported in this official press release, titled "Governor Cuomo Offers Executive Pardons to New Yorkers Convicted of Crimes at Ages 16 and 17," the top elected official in New York today announced a major new clemency initiative. Here are just some of the details from the press release:
Governor Cuomo announced that he will use his pardon power to alleviate the barrier of a criminal conviction for people convicted of non-violent crimes committed when they were minors, and who have since lived crime-free for 10 or more years. This action, the first of its kind in the nation, advances the principles from his Raise the Age Campaign, which calls upon New York to join 48 other states in recognizing that 16 and 17 year old children do not belong in the adult court system.
The Governor’s action acknowledges that people can and do move beyond the mistakes of their youth, However, their adult criminal records can make it hard for them to find work, get admitted to college, find a place to live, and become licensed in certain occupations. The Governor chooses today to use his Constitutional pardon power to remove the bars created by state law that are associated with these convictions, and allow deserving individuals to move forward with their lives....
By pardoning New Yorkers who have reached this milestone crime-free, the Governor is helping people who present little danger to the public. Moreover, the pardon will be conditional, meaning that if a person defies the odds and is reconvicted, it will be withdrawn.
The Governor’s action will affect a significant number of lives. Of 16 and 17 year olds who committed misdemeanors and non-violent felonies since such records have been tracked by the state, approximately 10,000 have not been reconvicted after at least 10 years. Annually, approximately 350 people convicted as 16 and 17 year olds of misdemeanors and non-violent felonies remain conviction-free after 10 years. In addition to lifting the burden on these individuals themselves, their families will also feel the positive impact of this action. Now a son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother will be better equipped to help their loved ones as they find it easier to attain employment, go to school, find housing, and work in licensed professions....
Agency staff will make a recommendation to the Governor to grant a pardon if:
The person was 16 or 17 at the time they committed the crime for which they were convicted.
At least 10 years have passed since the person was either convicted of the crime, or released from a period of incarceration for that crime, if applicable.
The person has been conviction-free since that time.
The person was convicted of a misdemeanor or a non-violent felony.
The person was not originally convicted of a sex offense.
The person is currently a New York State resident.
The person has paid taxes on any income.
The person is a productive member of his or her community, meaning that the individual is working, looking for work, in school or legitimately unable to work.
In addition to this general invitation to apply, the Administration will do targeted outreach to candidates for the pardon, starting with the most recent cohort of potentially eligible individuals, those convicted in the year 2004. Administrative staff will review the cohort and will attempt to contact those convicted of qualifying crimes committed while they were 16 or 17 and who have stayed conviction-free. They will be informed of their initial eligibility for a pardon and invited to apply, using the website. Once the 2004 cohort has been contacted, the process will be repeated for individuals convicted in 2003, and further back until outreach has been made to all potential candidates.
The Governor’s action reinforces his commitment to alleviating barriers for people with criminal convictions, exemplified by his creation of the Council of Community Reintegration and Reintegration in 2014, and his acceptance and implementation of 12 recommendations for executive action from that Council in September of this year. These executive actions included adopting new anti-discrimination guidance for New York-financed housing, and adopting “fair chance hiring” for New York State agencies....
With assistance from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, representatives from the Governor’s Office have developed a comprehensive training program and will begin working with these associations to train volunteer attorneys via webinar in early 2016. Although individuals may apply for clemency without the assistance of an attorney, assistance from a pro bono attorney will enhance the quality of an inmate’s application and present his or her best case to the Governor. The New York County Lawyers Association, New York State Bar Association, New York City Bar Association, the Legal Aid Society, and the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers will prepare petitions for sentence commutations and the Bronx Defenders will provide post-petition legal services with respect to benefits, housing, and employment, for successful petitioners. The trainings, delivered via webinar with accompanying materials, will walk volunteer attorneys associated with the collaborating legal organizations through each step of being assigned a case, communicating with their client, and preparing a strong petition.
Today Governor Cuomo also granted clemency relief to two individuals who have demonstrated rehabilitation and made positive strides in their lives since their criminal convictions. These individuals were granted clemency relief in the interests of justice and rehabilitation. The clemencies granted today are in addition to the four the Governor granted several weeks ago.
December 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)
Astute review of factors killing the death penalty ... with a questionable final assessment
The Economist has this lengthy new piece (as well as this intriguing graphic) about the modern administration of capital punishment in the United States headlined "Who killed the death penalty?: Many suspects are implicated in capital punishment’s ongoing demise. But one stands out." I recommend the full piece; but, as explained below, I am put off a bit by its concluding statement. First, here are extended excerpts along with the closing paragraph:
Exhibit A is the corpses. Or rather, the curious paucity of them: like the dog that didn’t bark in Sherlock Holmes, the bodies are increasingly failing to materialise. Only 28 prisoners have been executed in America in 2015, the lowest number since 1991. Next, consider the dwindling rate of death sentences — most striking in Texas, which accounts for more than a third of all executions since (after a hiatus) the Supreme Court reinstated the practice in 1976. A ghoulish web page lists the inmates admitted to Texas’s death row. Only two arrived in 2015, down from 11 the previous year.
There is circumstantial evidence, too: the political kind. Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential candidate — who, as governor of Florida, oversaw 21 executions — has acknowledged feeling “conflicted” about capital punishment. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, said she “would breathe a sigh of relief” if it were scrapped. Contrast that stance with her husband’s return to Arkansas, during his own campaign in 1992, for the controversial execution of a mentally impaired murderer. Bernie Sanders, Mrs Clinton’s main rival, is a confirmed abolitionist.
The proof is overwhelming: capital punishment is dying. Statistically and politically, it is already mortally wounded, even as it staggers through an indeterminate — but probably brief — swansong. Fairly soon, someone will be the last person to be executed in America. The reasons for this decline themselves form a suspenseful tale of locked-room intrigue, unexpected twists and unusual suspects. So, whodunnit? Who killed the death penalty?
Where politicians follow, voters often lead. Capital punishment is no longer a litmus test of political machismo because public enthusiasm for it is waning. Most Americans still favour retaining it, but that majority is narrowing. And one critical constituency — the mystery’s first prime suspect — is especially sceptical: juries....
The widely available alternative of life without parole — which offers the certainty that a defendant can never be released — helps to explain that trend [of fewer jury-imposed death sentences]. So does the growing willingness of jurors, in their private deliberations, to weigh murderers’ backgrounds and mental illnesses; ditto the greater skill with which defence lawyers, generally better resourced and trained than in the past, muster that mitigating evidence. But the biggest reason, says Richard Dieter of the DPIC, is juries’ nervousness about imposing an irrevocable punishment. Behind that anxiety stands another, unwilling participant in the death-penalty story: the swelling, well-publicised cadre of death-row exonerees....
Those mistakes implicate another suspect in the death penalty’s demise: prosecutors. The renegades who have botched capital cases — by suppressing evidence, rigging juries or concentrating on black defendants — have dragged it into disrepute. But some responsible prosecutors have also contributed, by declining to seek death in the first place. They have been abetted by another unlikely group: victims’ relatives....
To avoid that protracted agony [of repeated capital appeals], says James Farren, district attorney of Randall County in Texas, “a healthy percentage” of families now ask prosecutors to eschew capital punishment. Mr Farren also fingers another key player in the death-penalty drama: the American taxpayer. Capital cases are “a huge drain on resources”, spiralling costs that — especially given juries’ growing reluctance to pass a death sentence anyway — have helped to change the calculus about when to pursue one, Mr Farren says....
Even when the appeals are exhausted, enacting a death sentence has become almost insuperably difficult — because of an outlandish cameo by the pharmaceutical industry. Obtaining small quantities of drugs for lethal injection, long the standard method, might seem an easy task in the world’s richest country; but export bans in Europe, American import rules and the decision by domestic firms to discontinue what were less-than-lucrative sales lines has strangled the supply....
Lethal injection was intended to be reassuringly bloodless, almost medicinal (as, once, was electrocution). Should it become impractical, it is unclear whether Americans will stomach a reversion to gorier methods such as gassing and shooting: they are much less popular, according to polls. The death penalty’s coup de grace may come in the form of an empty vial.
Or it may be judicial rather than pharmaceutical: performed in the Supreme Court, the most obvious suspect of all. In an opinion issued in June, one of the left-leaning justices, Stephen Breyer, voiced his hunch that the death penalty’s time was up. He cited many longstanding failings: arbitrariness (its use varying widely by geography and defendants’ profiles); the delays; the questionable deterrent and retributive value; all those exonerations (Mr Breyer speculated that wrongful convictions were especially likely in capital cases, because of the pressure to solve them). He concluded that the system could be fair or purposeful, but not both. Meanwhile Antonin Scalia, a conservative justice, recently said he would not be surprised to see the court strike capital punishment down.
Cue much lawyerly soothsaying about that prospect. Yet the legal denouement is already in train: a joint enterprise between state courts, legislatures and governors. Of the 19 states to have repealed the death penalty, seven have done so in the past nine years. Others have imposed moratoriums, formal or de facto, including, in 2015, Arkansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, Montana and Pennsylvania. The number that execute people — six in 2015 — is small, and shrinking. (After their legislature repealed the death penalty in May, Nebraskans will vote in 2016 on reinstating it; but their state hasn’t executed anyone since 1997.) These machinations may help to provoke a mortal blow from the Supreme Court. After all, the fewer states that apply the punishment, the more “unusual”, and therefore unconstitutional, it becomes.
Juries; exonerees; prosecutors, both incompetent and pragmatic; improving defence lawyers; stingy taxpayers; exhausted victims; media-savvy drugmakers: in the strange case of the death penalty, there is a superabundance of suspects. And, rather as in “Murder on the Orient Express”, in a way, they all did it. But in a deeper sense, all these are merely accomplices. In truth capital punishment is expiring because of its own contradictions. As decades of litigation attest — and as the rest of the Western world has resolved — killing prisoners is fundamentally inconsistent with the precepts of a law-governed, civilised society. In the final verdict, America’s death penalty has killed itself.
This article does an effective job summarizing how and why the death penalty in the US continues to be subject to attacks that could lead to its eventual demise. But, even using just 2015 evidence, one could still build an argument that capital punishment has steady heartbeat in the United States. Prez Obama's Justice Department sought and secured a federal death sentence against the Boston bomber in deep blue Massachusetts, while Gov Brown's Attorney General appealed and got reversed a judicial ruling threatening the largest state capital punishment system in deep blue California. Meanwhile, officials in swing state Pennsylvania and activists in heartland Nebraska still (reasonably) think advocating for the death penalty makes for good politics.
Ultimately, I see 2016 as a make-or-break year for the future of the death penalty in the US. If voters in Nebraska (and perhaps also California) vote for the death penalty's repeal, or if US voters elect a new Prez likely to appoint abolitionsit-minded judges and Justices, I will jump on the "death penalty is dying" bandwagon. But, because actual voters rather than just elites still shape the direction of significant legal reforms in our democracy, I do not expect the death penalty to be truly dying until a significant majority of Americans share the legal elite's belief that "killing prisoners is fundamentally inconsistent with the precepts of a law-governed, civilised society."
It is these words at the end of this article that put me off because I continue to struggle with the notion that giving tens of thousands of lesser offenders life-without-parole prison sentences is somehow more "civilized" than giving a few of the very worst murderers a death sentence. Though I respect and understand why abolitionists feel strongly that the death penalty is inconsistent with many American values they cherish, I find it problematic and troubling that so many abolitionists seem to have little respect and understanding for those who believe the death penalty vindicates legitimate values. And, I think that the reduced use of the death penalty well-chronicled in this Economist article suggest reasons why, over time, it could become easier for supporters of the death penalty to show to voters that capital punishment will in the future only be used in the very worst cases involving no doubt about the guilt and the horrors of the murders committed.
Federal judge enjoins Tennessee county's privatized probation system operating like debtors' prison
As reported in this local article, "Judge's order frees 13 held for not paying probation fees," a group of probationers got a holiday gift in the form of a significant federal judicial order preventing a locality for jailing low-level offenders for failing to pay fines or court costs. Here are the basics:
Heather Keller is looking forward to spending Christmas with her children after a federal judge's order set her free from the Rutherford County Detention Center Friday afternoon. A day earlier, a federal judge in Nashville granted an injunction that prevented officials and probation supervisors in Rutherford County from holding people in jail for certain violations or only because they could not pay fees. It also said that anyone being held for those reasons should be let go.
Keller, 35, was one of 13 inmates released from the jail in Murfreesboro who were held there because they could not pay fees to the private company contracted to oversee the Rutherford County misdemeanor probation system. The injunction that won Keller’s release was part of a lawsuit filed against Providence Community Corrections, which has changed its name to Pathways Community Corrections.
The suit was filed in October and accuses Rutherford County and PCC of working together to extort people on probation there by charging excessive fees. Many of the seven people named in the lawsuit rely on government assistance and have said in court testimony or documents that PCC's excessive fees leave them struggling to pay bills and facing extended probation terms because they cannot pay court costs.
It is a practice Alec Karakatsanis, attorney for the plaintiffs, likens to the operation of a debtors' prison. Karakatsanis said Sharp's order is only the beginning of possible probation reform in Rutherford County.
“We will fight to end permanently what we believe to be the rise of a modern debtors' prison system in which the poor and destitute are jailed and threatened with jail solely because of their inability to make monetary payments to a private company and their local government,” Karakatsanis said. “This is a very important ruling for impoverished people in Tennessee.”
The injunction was granted by Chief District Judge Kevin Sharp in Nashville. In addition to freeing these prisoners, Sharp also ordered PCC immediately stop the practice of violating probationers solely for non-payment of fees.
Keller was originally arrested for driving on a suspended license and since has been jailed twice for non-payment of probation fees, she said. “I’ve spent more time in jail for non-payment than the original charge,” Keller said.
And Sharp ordered Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold to free any inmates held on violation of probation charges stemming solely from non-payment of fees and fines.
The federal district judge's 20-page injunction order in Rodriguez v. Providence Community Corrections is available for download here: Download Opinion Granting Injunction
December 21, 2015 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
Sunday, December 20, 2015
Michigan Supreme Court takes up punishing questions about lifetime sex offender registration
As reported in this local article, the "Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to look at the case of a man who’s on the sex offender list for life, although his conviction was erased nearly 20 years ago." Here is more about the case and context:
The man was 19 when he was charged with kissing and groping a 12-year-old girl in Wayne County. He pleaded guilty, but his conviction was erased in 1997 after he completed three years of probation. A law gives breaks to young offenders who commit crimes but subsequently stay out of trouble. Nonetheless, he’s on the sex offender list.
In an order released Saturday, the Supreme Court said it will take up the appeal. The court wants lawyers to address several issues, including whether the registry in some cases violates the constitution as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The man in the Wayne County case said his status on the registry has hurt his ability to work, affected his family life and caused depression. In 2012, a judge ordered his removal, but the state appeals court last year reversed that decision. “The central purpose of (the registry) is not intended to chastise, deter, or discipline. Rather, it is a remedial measure meant to protect the health, safety and welfare of the general public,” the appeals court said.
The Michigan Supreme Court's order in Michigan v. Telemoski is available at this link, and here are excerpts from it:
The parties shall include among the issues to be briefed: (1) whether the requirements of the Sex Offenders Registration Act (SORA), MCL 28.721 et seq., amount to “punishment,” see People v Earl, 495 Mich 33 (2014); (2) whether the answer to that question is different when applied to the class of individuals who have successfully completed probation under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act (HYTA), MCL 762.11 et seq.; (3) whether MCL 28.722(b) (defining HYTA status to be a “conviction” for purposes of SORA) provides the defendant constitutionally sufficient due process where the defendant is required to register pursuant to SORA as if he had been convicted of an offense, notwithstanding that upon successful completion of HYTA the court is required to “discharge the individual and dismiss the proceedings” without entering an order of conviction for the crime.... (6) whether it is cruel and/or unusual punishment to require the defendant to register under SORA, US Const, Am VIII; Const 1963, art 1, § 16.
The Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan are invited to file briefs amicus curiae. Other persons or groups interested in the determination of the issues presented in this case may move the Court for permission to file briefs amicus curiae.
December 20, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (25)
"'Necessary AND Proper' and 'Cruel AND Unusual': Hendiadys in the Constitution"
The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing paper I just came across on SSRN authored by Samuel Bray. In addition to getting me thinking about the cool word hendiadys, this paper provides some interesting ideas for fans of Eighth Amendment. Here is the abstract:
Constitutional doctrine is often shaped by the details of the text. Under the Necessary and Proper Clause, the Supreme Court first considers whether a law is “necessary” and then whether it is “proper.” Some justices have urged the same approach for the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause: first ask if the punishment is “cruel,” then if it is “unusual.” That each clause has two requirements seems obvious, and it is has been the assumption underlying vast amounts of scholarship. That assumption is incorrect.
This Article argues that “necessary and proper” and “cruel and unusual” are best read as instances of hendiadys. Hendiadys is a figure of speech in which two terms, separated by a conjunction, have a single complex meaning. It is found in many languages, including English: e.g., “rise and shine,” “nice and fat,” “cakes and ale.” When “cruel and unusual” is read as a hendiadys, the clause does not prohibit punishments that merely happen to be both cruel and unusual. Rather, it prohibits punishments that are unusually cruel, i.e., innovative in their cruelty. If “necessary and proper” is read as a hendiadys, then the terms are not separate requirements for congressional action. The word “necessary” requires a close relationship between a statute and the constitutional power it is carrying into execution, and “proper” instructs us not to interpret “necessary” in its strictest sense.
To read each of these constitutional phrases as a hendiadys, though seemingly novel, actually aligns closely with the early interpretations, including the interpretation of the Necessary and Proper Clause in McCulloch v. Maryland. The readings offered here solve a number of puzzles, and they better capture the subtlety of these clauses.
Saturday, December 19, 2015
An early set of takes on Prez Obama's clemency work to date
As first reported in this post (with has already generated an interesting set of comments), yesterday Prez Obama granted commutations of prison sentences to 95 federal inmates. And, as stressed in this posting from the White House blog, this development means that Prez Obama has now granted has now granted 184 commutations total -- more than the last five presidents combined." I think it is justifiable that the Obama Administration is now inclined to crow about its clemency record with respect to commutations, although it remains notable that Prez Obama has still granted precious few pardons and is still well behind even the commutation pace set by Republican predecessors like Calvin Coolige and Herbert Hoover.
Helpfully, P.S. Ruckman over at Pardon Power is already hard at work providing lots of historical context (and other types of contexts) for assessing what Prez Obama has done in this space only 24 hours since this latest grant. Here are his recent postings, all of which merit checking out:
"On sentencing reform, we have to talk more about reentry"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Ashley McSwain recently published by The Hill. Here are excerpts:
Congress displayed a refreshing and all too rare example of bipartisanship this fall when the Judiciary Committee voted 15 to 5 to move the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 to a floor vote. If it passes, the bill would mark a significant step in fixing our broken criminal justice system. Thirty years of tough-on-crime policies — such as mandatory minimum sentencings and three-strike policies for drug-related crimes — has led to over a 750 percent increase in our prison population. People go in, but they don’t come out.
Congress can change that. But in order to ensure success, our communities need to rethink how we help citizens return to the community once their time is served -- what we call “reentry.” As we talk about sentencing reform, we have to talk more about reentry and rehabilitation. It’s not enough to simply reduce sentences; we need to increase access to education, housing, job training, mentorship, and counseling to prepare people to reenter....
As the executive director of Community Family Life Services — a non-profit organization located in the shadow of the Capitol building – We work with women and men everyday who are returning home following a period of incarceration. When they are released from prison or jail, many are homeless, have limited clothing or any possessions other than what they brought to prison. Many don’t have adequate job training or updated skills to reenter the work force. Finally, they don’t have strong family or community supports which are central to a successful reentry strategy.... Faced with these challenges, returning citizens are at high-risk of drug addiction, recidivism, and even death. Without robust reentry programs, sentencing reform will be all for naught.
Currently, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 calls for increasing rehabilitation programs for “eligible” prisoners over the next six years and monitoring reentry. That’s a good start, but it’s not nearly enough. But it’s also not up to Congress alone. It takes a village. As we rethink sentencing laws and work towards a more just and equitable criminal justice system, we need to come together — government agencies, foundations, non-profits, individuals — and help create livable communities here in Washington, D.C. and across the country.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons should be encouraged to forge more relationships with reentry programs and encourage those in prison to work towards rehabilitation from day one, regardless of the length or terms of their sentences. We need more citizens to volunteer as mentors and work with men and women both in prison and out of prison to ensure each returning citizen has the support, strength, and resolve necessary to make the transition to open society and live up to their full potential....
As Congress considers a vote on the Sentencing Bill, I invite members to visit us at 3rd and E St NW. Talk to the women returning home to DC so they can better understand the challenges they face and what it will take for them to succeed. Every person who steps into our resource center is capable of a successful reentry, but they need our support — everyone’s support — to achieve it.
Friday, December 18, 2015
Updating the bubbling lower-court vagueness mess six months after Johnson
Over at Casetext, Leah Litman has this effective and extensive new commentary (with lots of links) titled "Circuit Splits & Original Writs: What the Supreme Court must address — and now — in the wake of Johnson v. United States." Here is how it gets started:
Johnson v. United States held that the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague. In a previous Casetext post, I described an emerging circuit split regarding whether the Supreme Court had “made” Johnson retroactive. The Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) — in particular title 28 section 2255(h)(2) — permits prisoners to file a second or successive petition for post-conviction review if the petition contains “a new rule of constitutional law, made retroactive to cases on collateral review by the Supreme Court.” By early August, less than two months after Johnson, the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits had issued conflicting opinions about whether the Supreme Court has “made” Johnson retroactive.
In the last four months, that circuit split has deepened. And, as my prior post explained, the statutory restrictions on post-conviction review mean that the Supreme Court cannot review by way of a petition for certiorari the court of appeals’ determination to allow a second or successive petition for post-conviction relief to proceed. Under title 28 section 2244(b)(3)(E), “the grant or denial of an authorization by a court of appeals to file a second or successive application shall not … be the subject of a petition … for a writ of certiorari.” So while the circuits disagree about whether the Supreme Court has “made” Johnson retroactive, the Supreme Court cannot resolve whether it has “made” Johnson retroactive in the traditional way, by granting certiorari to review one of the court of appeals’ decisions.
More troubling, it is has become prohibitively difficult for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the split by granting review in a case involving a first petition for post-conviction review because the United States is conceding that Johnson is retroactive. The courts of appeals and district courts have uniformly (and rightly, in my view) agreed with the United States, granting prisoners’ “first” — that is, initial — petitions for post-conviction review in cases where prisoners were sentenced under ACCA’s residual clause. And because no one is appealing these decisions — the government agrees Johnson is retroactive, and the decisions are favorable to prisoners — the Supreme Court will not be able to clarify whether Johnson is retroactive, or “make” Johnson retroactive, by granting certiorari in a case involving a “first” petition for post-conviction review.
In this post, I’ll highlight several circuit splits that have emerged in light of Johnson — about whether the decision is applicable to various provisions of the federal Sentencing Guidelines, and about whether the rule that Johnson announced has been made retroactive. I’ll also argue that the Supreme Court should exercise its discretion to weigh in on whether it has made Johnson retroactive by way of one of the extraordinary writs it has the power to issue. The Court has on its docket at least two petitions seeking such non-traditional habeas relief, and it will consider the petitions some time in January.
In the six months since Johnson was decided, at least two circuit splits have emerged. One concerns whether other provisions, including the career offender Guideline of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, are also unconstitutionally vague. There is also some uncertainty about whether various procedural hurdles — specifically retroactivity and procedural default — bar defendants from being resentenced. The second circuit split concerns whether the Supreme Court has “made” the rule invalidating ACCA’s residual clause retroactive.
Prez Obama commutes 95 federal prison sentences and grants 2 pardons
As reported in this official White House press release, this afternoon "President Barack Obama granted commutations of sentence to 95 individuals and pardons to two individuals." The release has a list of all the recipients of these clemency actions and their crimes and sentences, and I am hopeful I will have time (and help) in the days ahead to assess whether there is any unique elements to these latest clemency actions. For now, I can just say huzzah and reprint part of this notable press release titled "Clemency Project 2014 Welcomes Commutation of 95 Federal Prison Sentences":
In his first clemency grants since July, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 95 prisoners today, 27 of whom were applicants whose petitions were supported by Clemency Project 2014.
"While it is my hope that President Obama will increase the use of his clemency power going forward, one can only be happy for each and every of today's grantees and their loved ones." said Cynthia W. Roseberry, project manager for Clemency Project 2014. "Clemency Project 2014's unprecedented army of volunteer lawyers has been steadfast in its efforts to meet the Project's commitment to ensure that every applicant who appears to meet the criteria has a volunteer lawyer to prepare and submit a timely clemency petition. We are determined to do our part to make clemency a cornerstone of the Obama legacy."
"We take President Obama at his word that there is no ceiling on the number of commutations he will grant before leaving office. And so while we are grateful for every single commutation, there are many hundreds more who deserve relief. We urge the President to confound the skeptics by making 2016 an historic year for clemency grants," said Norman L. Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a partner organization in Clemency Project 2014.
"Dignifying Madness: Rethinking Commitment Law in an Age of Mass Incarceration"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Jonathan Simon and Stephen Rosenbaum. Here is the abstract:
Modern nation-states have been trapped in recurring cycles of incarcerating and emancipating residents with psychiatric disabilities. New cycles of enthusiasm for incarceration generally commence with well-defined claims about the evils of allowing “the mad” to remain at liberty and the benefits incarceration would bring to the afflicted. A generation or two later, at most, reports of terrible conditions in institutions circulate and new laws follow, setting high burdens for those seeking to imprison and demanding exacting legal procedures with an emphasis on individual civil liberties. Today, we seem to be arriving at another turn in the familiar cycle. A growing movement led by professionals and family members of people with mental health disabilities is calling for new laws enabling earlier and more assertive treatment.
Effective accounting of how hard it is to account accurately for intricacies of modern mass incarceration
The strangely named Xenocrypt on the website Medium has a terrific new posting titled "Why You Don’t Understand Mass Incarceration." I recommend a full read of this lengthy post, and here are excerpts highlighting why:
“Mass incarceration” usually refers to the historically high U.S. incarceration rate, which is the share of the population in state and federal prison at any given time. Starting in 1980 or so, incarceration rates had huge growth after decades of relative consistency....
But there’s a big problem. The incarceration rate — who’s in prison right now — follows from two basic questions, which those famous graphs (and phrases like “the prison population”) mash together:
1. Who did we send to prison in the first place, and for what? How much has “mass incarceration” meant expanded incarceration? Which people are going to prison who’d never have gone under other policies? There’s a moral version of the question, too: What should we send people to prison for?
2. How long were they in prison for? How much has “mass incarceration” meant deepened incarceration? Which people would have gone to prison anyway but are spending more time incarcerated, either serving longer sentences or cycling through the system over and over again? Again, there’s a moral version of the question: How long should people be in prison for?
Both of those questions are important, but they’re distinct topics, at right angles to each other analytically and morally: “should drug offenders go to prison at all?” is pretty different from “how long should convicted murderers serve in prison?”. The next time you read an article about incarceration in the popular press or on social media, though, try to see if it’s even aware of the distinction. (For example, “reducing the prison population” is a pretty meaningless phrase — does it mean having fewer people go to prison or having people go to prison for less time? One reason you don’t understand mass incarceration: the phrase “the prison population”.)
It’d be hard enough to understand how those two questions interact if we knew how to answer both of them, but no one knows how to answer either one. There’s been a lot of impressive, interesting work trying to answer who goes to prison for how long (John Pfaff has been a big influence on this piece) and even the best of it is hampered by limited or unreliable data and difficult inferences, while obviously there isn’t much consensus on who should....
Quick: How many people really were sent to state or federal prison in the United States since 1978? Don’t be surprised if you don’t know, since as far as I can tell no one else does either.
If you care about incarceration, then that should trouble you. This is, after all, the set of human beings that we’re talking about when we talk about mass incarceration. If we really understood mass incarceration then we would know a great deal about them. We would know how many were African-American or white, how many served one, two, or ten terms in total, how many had different kinds of criminal histories prior to incarceration, how many only went to prison on drug offenses, how many went to prison on drug offenses then went back on violent offenses, and so on (and how all of those things changed over time and between different states and places).
But we don’t know any of that. We don’t even know how to count them. And if we don’t know how to count how many people have been to prison, then we don’t really know how mass incarceration affected real human beings....
We have some idea of how many prison terms there have been. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) lists about 12.7 million “new court commitments” to state and federal prison since 1978 in their National Prisoner Statistics (NPS) data, which is my main source here. Of course, that doesn’t mean that 12.7 million different people were sent to prison between 1978 and 2014, since some people had multiple prison terms....
Let’s say I’m right that around 7.5 million people were sent to state and federal prison since 1978. Here’s another question that should be simple: How many of them wouldn’t have gone to prison without “mass incarceration” policies — and what does that mean, anyway? It’s clear that new prison terms did increase after 1978, so presumably a lot fewer people would have gone to prison without whatever it was that changed, but how many fewer people? More like two million or more like six million?
Nobody knows, but we can make up some numbers, and maybe that’s a start. For example we can consider a somewhat arbitrary hypothetical: What if new prison terms (new court commitments) had stayed constant per capita since 1978, when the rate was 57 in 100,000? Under that hypothetical, there would have been about 5.6 million new prison terms since 1978, not 12.7 million. I’ve illustrated this in the [reprinted] chart, which has the incarceration rate since 1978 in black, the rate of new prison terms in red, and the hypothetical of constant new terms per capita in blue.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
"Leaders With Criminal Histories Should Be Included in Reform Debate"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Huffington Post commentary authored by Rev. Vivian Nixon Become, who is Executive Director of the College and Community Fellowship and Co-Founder of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition. Here are excerpts:
When tech companies hold panels on diversity consisting entirely of white men, there is an outcry — and rightly so. And when Congressional hearings on women's reproductive rights are devoid of actual women, the public is similarly aghast. The reason for this outrage is easy to understand. The people whose lives, careers, and bodies are impacted by these systems should be allowed to speak from direct experience, and are best positioned to guide meaningful decision-making.
So, why is there no uproar when policy decisions on criminal justice don't consider the recommendations of formerly incarcerated people? It's high time that those who have direct experience with mass incarceration get a seat at the table in policy conversations on reform.
As a country, we've finally come to terms with the impact of a 500 per cent increase in our prison population over the last 30 years. There is a bipartisan dialogue about the best ways to tackle the failures of America's criminal justice system. But when the nation's leading politicians and thinkers gather to address these issues, they rarely include the people who will be most impacted by policy shifts, and who bring a valuable perspective — those who have actually experienced the lifetime consequences of criminal conviction.
Many men and women with criminal history records are leaders actively working to create meaningful change, both behind the bars and once they re-enter society. I know this firsthand — while I was incarcerated in a New York state correctional facility, I spent time tutoring women in basic adult education and high school equivalency courses. Upon my release, I was eager to find a way to pursue higher education. Through the College and Community Fellowship and the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, I've worked with countless individuals who've similarly turned their lives around and helped their peers to do the same.
Why aren't these men and women seen as experts in their own cause? Sadly, society continues to ostracize the formerly incarcerated and devalue their experiences. The "tough on crime" 1990s didn't just increase our prison populations; it also allowed us to dehumanize people in prison, or those who have a criminal record. We assigned them terms like "felon," "con," and "inmate" and reduced them to their crimes — regardless of the length of their sentence and whether or not they were expected to re-enter society.
Demonizing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals permitted us to leave them out of daily American life. Even worse — we excluded them from conversations about their own fates and continued to punish them with collateral consequences, long after they had served their time. In America, every sentence is a life sentence....
[F]ormerly incarcerated leaders are mobilizing. This December, 200 formerly incarcerated men and women from across the Northeast gathered in New York to discuss methods to end mass incarceration, after similar regional conferences held in the South and on the West Coast. They spoke directly and honestly with representatives from the federal government about their personal experiences and stories.
These candid conversations with people who have lived through prison and become leaders in the reform movement are invaluable for shaping criminal justice reform. The more the voices of people with criminal record histories are heard, the harder it will be to silence them — and the more likely we are to be outraged when they are excluded from conversations that impact their lives. With more than 70 million members of our society living with criminal records, we can't afford to ignore their experiences. Let's open up a seat at the table for these leaders.
Justice Department urges SCOTUS to refuse to take up original suit about marijuana brought by neighbor states against Colorado
As discussed here by Rob Mikos over at my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog, late yesterday the US Solicitor General filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court concerning the suit brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado seeking various kinds of legal relief in the wake of Colorado's legalization of recreational marijuana. Rob provides this basic background and summary of the filing:
Per its practice, SCOTUS had requested the SG’s input. The brief can be found via this link. (To provide some background, the SG handles all litigation involving the United States before SCOTUS, and it also commonly files amicus briefs in SCOTUS cases in which the U.S. is not a party. The SG’s positions can be quite influential on the Court.) For earlier postings on this case, see here, here and here.
In a nutshell, the SG argued that SCOTUS should refuse to exercise original jurisdiction over the action. Why? Perhaps most importantly, the SG suggested that the NE / OK suit didn’t fit the mold of cases over which SCOTUS had traditionally exercised original jurisdiction – namely, cases in which one state had directly harmed another. Importantly, the SG argued that CO hadn’t directly injured its neighboring states, e.g., by exporting marijuana or authorizing private citizens to do so. Rather, any injury NE / OK have suffered is more directly traceable to the actions of private parties who buy marijuana in CO and then take it outside the state.
Because it focused on SCOTUS practice, the SG did not need to weigh in on the merits of the underlying action. But I think the argument the SG makes favors CO, if SCOTUS (or another court) ever had to decide the matter. After all, if CO is not directly responsible for the injury to NE / OK’s regulatory interests, it’s hard to see why CO could be held responsible for any injury to federal regulatory interests. In other words, if CO isn’t responsible for people using marijuana in NE / OK, then it arguably isn’t responsible for people using marijuana in CO either.
As the SG itself notes, even if SCOTUS declines original jurisdiction over the suit, NE / OK could still file it in a federal district court. Of course, it would have to overcome some daunting procedural hurdles there as well (e.g. ,standing), as noted in the SG brief.
I am hopeful I will have time in the coming days to closely analyze this SG amicus brief and to post some additional commentary at the Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog or here. In the meantime, here is how the Discussion section of the SG's brief gets started:
The motion for leave to file a bill of complaint should be denied because this is not an appropriate case for the exercise of this Court’s original jurisdiction. Entertaining the type of dispute at issue here — essentially that one State’s laws make it more likely that third parties will violate federal and state law in another State — would represent a substantial and unwarranted expansion of this Court’s original jurisdiction.
"Is the Solicitor General Playing a Shell Game With the Supreme Court Over Johnson Retroactivity?"
The title of this post is the title of this notable, lengthy commentary by Steve Vladeck over at PrawfsBlawg, which gets started this way:
I've already written a pair of posts about the very significant current conflict among the circuits over the retroactive effect of the Supreme Court's June 2015 in Johnson v. United States, and the extent to which the Court may need to use an application for extraordinary relief (perhaps including an "original" writ of habeas corpus) to resolve that split — given (1) the unavailability of certiorari to review denials of second-or-successive habeas petitions; (2) government's agreement that Johnson may be retroactively enforced; and (3) the one-year statute of limitations, which likely requires all Johnson-based claims to be filed by June 26, 2016. And in my most recent post, I noted that the Solicitor General had already recommended denial of review in one case by reference to three pending "original" applications — perhaps hinting that it would support the Court's using one or all of those cases as a vehicle for settling the circuit split (and clarifying that Johnson is indeed retroactive).
In the past week, the government has effectively mooted one of the three original cases (by completely reversing a position it had taken earlier in different litigation involving the same prisoner), and has filed briefs opposing extraordinary relief in the other two. As I explain in the post that follows, these actions (and the arguments in the briefs) give rise at least to the appearance that, even though the Solicitor General agrees that Johnson is retroactive on the merits and should therefore be enforceable by federal prisoners through both original and second-or-successive applications for post-conviction relief, the government is perfectly content to run out the clock — and to not support efforts to have the Supreme Court so hold before next June's deadline.
A few prior related posts:
- SCOTUS finds, per Justice Scalia, that ACCA residual clause is unconstitutionally vague
- A (way-too-quick) Top 5 list of thoughts/reactions to the votes and opinions Johnson
- How many hundreds (or thousands?) of ACCA prisoners could be impacted by a big ruling in Johnson?
- How many federal prisoners have "strong Johnson claims" (and how many lawyers will help figure this out)?
- Should SCOTUS deal with Johnson retroactivity through an original habeas petition?
Curious Cato commentary attacks Obama Administration for failing to change prosecutorial charging policies that have been changed
As regular readers know, I have often bashed the Obama Administration for too much talk and too little action in the arena of criminal justice reform. But because I always try to ground my criticisms in facts and to give credit to the Administration for its actions, I must call out as misinformed and misguided this new Cato commentary by Nat Hentoff headlined "Obama Ignores Judge’s Plea for Justice Reform."
The Hentoff commentary properly notes that the "charging policies that federal prosecutors are forced to follow are the one area of criminal justice reform that the president of the United States has the authority to impose unilaterally." But the commentary suggests, wrongly in my view, that through the 2010 Holder memorandum (first discussed here) the Obama Administration failed to change federal charging policy for the better.
In addition, and even more troublesome, the Hentoff commentary completely fails to mention the important 2013 Holder memorandum (first discussed here) and a 2014 Holder follow-up memo (discussed here) concerning charging of mandatory minimums and recidivist enhancements in federal drug cases. Also, and not to be overlooked in the context of federal charging policies, the Obama Administration has been quite bold when issuing a series of major charging directives that encourage federal prosecutors largely to keep their noses out of state-level marijuana reform efforts. Collectively, these major charging directives from the Obama Administration's Department of Justice to line prosecutors have marked a significant shift in charging policies, and various federal sentencing statistics suggest these changed DOJ charging policies have been having a significant impact on federal criminal justice outcomes.
This all said, though I am troubled by the particulars in this Cato commentary, I see much merit in Hentoff's final critical sentence: "Obama continues to pay lip service to criminal justice reform by enacting half-hearted half-measures." Though I believe the Obama Administration has actually been quite effective and astute in the modification of federal prosecutorial charging policies, I also believe that it has been far less effective and astute in moving forward with an array of other badly needed federal criminal justice reform efforts.
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Mixed outcomes for marijuana reform efforts in latest omnibus spending bill from Congress
Though there are a number of federal marijuana reform bills kicking around Congress, it seems very unlikely any of these bills will be moving forward anytime soon. In the meantime, though, marijuana reform issues and proposals keep coming up in debates over government spending bills. And, in the wee hours last night, Congress passed a big new spending bill that included (and failed to include) some notable marijuana reform provisions.
Representative Earl Blumenauer, a supporter of federal marijuana reforms, issued today this press release summarizing what appears and does not appear in the omnibus bill. Here is part of the text of this release:
Representative Blumenauer is pleased to see the inclusion of the following provisions in the omnibus package:
- The policy championed by Representatives Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Sam Farr (D-CA) that prevents the Department of Justice from interfering in the ability of states to implement legal medical marijuana laws (Division B, Title V, Section 542)
- Language that supports industrial hemp research allowed under Section 7606 of the 2014 Farm Bill (Division B, Title V, Section 543 and Division A, Title VII, Section 763)
Representative Blumenauer is disappointed, however, that the bill falls short by not including provisions that:
- Make it easier for banks to do business with state-legal marijuana businesses
- Allow Veterans Health Administration providers to recommend medical marijuana to their patients in accordance with state law, a provision he championed in the House
Representative Blumenauer is also disappointed to see the continuation of a rider that interferes with Washington, DC's ability to pass laws dealing with the sale of marijuana for adult use.
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.
Two notable new papers looking at life sentences from two notable perspectives
Via SSRN, I have recently noticed two new papers providing different perspectives on life sentences. Here are titles, links and the abstracts for both interesting pieces:
Abstract: A comparison between United Kingdom (UK) and Australian law concerning irreducible life sentences indicates that human rights charters and/or other strong human rights guarantees in a jurisdiction can produce improved protections for offenders against penal populism. In a series of challenges to draconian state laws that remove any possibility of parole from ten notorious murderers, the Australian courts steadfastly refused to intervene. Without clear authority to consider such legislation’s effect on human rights, the judges were careful to avoid creating any perception that they were undemocratically overriding Parliament’s will. But while the UK approach to irreducible life sentences is more desirable than that prevailing in Australia – especially concerning child offenders – Vinter v United Kingdom and succeeding events demonstrate that even courts that have explicitly been empowered to resolve human rights controversies possess far from a complete freedom, or ability, to effect change in this emotive area.
"Some Facts About Life: The Law, Theory, and Practice of Life Sentences" by Melissa Hamilton
Abstract: A diverse band of politicians, justice officials, and academic commentators are lending their voices to the hot topic of correcting the United States’ status as the world’s leader in mass incarceration. There is limited focus, though, upon the special role that life sentences play in explaining the explosion in prison populations and the dramatic rise in costs that result from providing for the increased needs of aging lifers. This Article highlights various ways in which life sentences occupy unique legal and political statuses. For instance, life sentences are akin to capital punishment in likely ending in death within prison environs, yet enjoy few of the added procedural rights and intensity of review that capital defendants command. In contrast to term prisoners, lifers cannot expect to reenter civil society and thus represent an exclusionist ideological agenda. The paper reviews whether life penalties remain justified by fundamental theories of punishment in light of new evidence on retributive values, deterrence effects, and recidivism risk. It also situates life sentences within an international moral imperative that reserves life penalties, if permitted at all, for the most heinous offenders and, in any event, demands period review of all long-term prison sentences.
This article provides a novel perspective, too, by presenting an empirical study in order to further investigate the law and practice of life sentences. Utilizing federal datasets, descriptive statistics and a multiple regression analysis offer important insights. The study makes an original contribution to the literature by exploring the salience of certain facts and circumstances (including demographic, offense-related, and case processing variables) in accounting for life sentence outcomes in the federal system. While some of the attributes of life sentenced defendants are consistent with current expectations, others might be surprising. For example, as expected, sentencing guideline recommendations, the presence of mandatory minimums, and greater criminal history predicted life sentences. Results also supported the existence of a trial penalty. On the other hand, lifers in the federal system were not representative of the most violent offenders or worst recidivists. Life sentences were issued across a variety of violent and nonviolent crimes, and in recent years a substantial percentage presented with minimal criminal histories. Regional disparities in the use of life sentences were also indicated. In concluding, this Article reviews potential remedies to the overreliance upon life penalties in the American justice system.
DPIC releases year-end report highlighting death penalty use "declines sharply" in 2015
This press release from the Death Penalty Information Center, titled "Death Penalty Use in 2015 Declines Sharply: Fewest Executions, Fewest Death Sentences, and Fewest States Employing the Death Penalty in Decades," provides a summary of the DPIC's 2015 year-end report on the administration of the death penalty in the United States. Here are excerpts from the press report:
The use of the death penalty in the U.S. declined by virtually every measure in 2015. The 28 executions this year marked the lowest number since 1991, according to a report released today by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). As of December 15, fourteen states and the federal government have imposed 49 new death sentences this year, a 33% decline over last year’s total and the lowest number since the early 1970s when the death penalty was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Only six states conducted executions this year, the fewest number of states in 27 years. Eighty-six percent of executions this year were concentrated in just three states: Texas (13), Missouri (6), and Georgia (5). Executions in 2015 declined 20 percent from 2014, when there were 35. This year was the first time in 24 years that the number of executions was below 30.
Death sentences have been steadily declining in the U.S. over the past 15 years. The country has now imposed fewer death sentences in the past ten years than in the decade just before the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. “The use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare and increasingly isolated in the United States. These are not just annual blips in statistics, but reflect a broad change in attitudes about capital punishment across the country,” said Robert Dunham, DPIC’s Executive Director and the author of the report....
Relatively few jurisdictions handed down death sentences in 2015. A single county — Riverside, California — imposed 16% of all death sentences in the U.S., and accounted for more death verdicts than any state, except for Florida. More than a quarter of the death sentences were imposed by Florida and Alabama after non-unanimous jury recommendations of death — a practice barred in all but three states. Texas, by contrast, imposed only two new death sentences in 2015. Nearly two-thirds of all new death sentences this year came from the same two percent of U.S. counties that are responsible for more than half of all death-sentenced inmates nationwide.
Even as the use of the death penalty declined, its most dangerous flaw remained apparent. Six death row prisoners were exonerated of all charges this year, one each in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. Since 1973, a total of 156 inmates have been exonerated and freed from death row. The number of people on death row dropped below 3,000 for the first time since 1995, according to the latest survey by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
At least 70 death row prisoners with execution dates in 2015 received stays, reprieves, or commutations, 2.5 times the number who were executed.
I have reprinted above the DPIC graphic emphasizing the continued decline in the number of death sentences imposed each year because I view that metric as the most significant and consequential in any serious discussion of the present status and future prospects of capital punishment throughout the US.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
How many fundamental rights in the Bill of Rights can be uniquely regulated for adults under 21?
The answer to the question in the title of this post would seem to be "at least one" in light of an interesting ruling today by the Seventh Circuit in Horsley v. Trame, No. No. 14-2846 (7th Cir. Dec. 15, 2015) (available here). Here is the starting, ending and some in-between key passages from the panel decision:
Tempest Horsley’s application to possess an Illinois Firearm Owner’s Identification Card, commonly known as a “FOID card,” was returned to her as incomplete because she was over 18 but not yet 21 and her application did not contain a parent or guardian signature. Although she could have under Illinois law, she did not seek further review from the Director of the Illinois State Police. We disagree with Horsley that the Illinois statutory scheme violates her rights under the Second Amendment. Illinois does not impose a categorical ban on firearm possession for 18-to- 20-year-olds whose parents do not consent. Rather, when an applicant cannot obtain a parent or guardian signature, he or she may appeal to the Director for a FOID card, and the Director will make a determination. We conclude that this process for 18-to-20-year-olds is not unconstitutional, so we affirm the decision of the district court....
Horsley ... maintains that firearm possession by 18-to-20-year-olds falls within the scope of the Second Amendment. She emphasizes that persons over 18 can vote and serve in the military, get married without parental consent, and own land. Even though the age of majority was for many years 21, it is now 18, and so she argues that presentday 18-year-olds cannot be restricted from possessing firearms based on age alone. She points to historical evidence that she contends favors her position as well. The First Militia Act enacted by the United States Congress in 1792, for example, included 18-year-old men in the scope of those eligible for the militia. Because a minor could be a member of the militia and be armed, she reasons that the Second Amendment gives these persons a right to bear arms. We need not decide today whether 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds are within the scope of the Second Amendment. Cf. Nat’l Rifle Ass’n, 700 F.3d 185 at 204-05 (also declining to resolve issue). Even if they are, our next step would be to turn to means-ends scrutiny of the regulation. Ezell, 651 F.3d at 703.... Significantly, although Horsley’s arguments treat the challenged statute as a categorical ban on firearm possession, the FOID Card Act does not in fact ban persons under 21 from having firearms without parent or guardian consent. Having a parent or guardian signature may speed up the process, but it is not a prerequisite to obtaining a FOID card in Illinois. Rather, a person for whom a parent’s signature is not available can appeal to the Director of the Illinois State Police [and any] denial is subject to judicial review....
The absence of a blanket ban makes the Illinois FOID Card Act much different from the blanket ban on firearm possession present in Heller. That there is not a categorical ban here also distinguishes this case from Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976), to which Horsley points. There the Supreme Court struck down a “blanket provision” requiring the consent of a parent or person in loco parentis before an unmarried minor could have an abortion during her first 12 weeks of pregnancy unless necessary to preserve the mother’s life. Id. at 74....
The Illinois statute is substantially related to the achievement of the state’s interests. The goal of protecting public safety is supported by studies and data regarding persons under 21 and violent and gun crimes.... Trame also points to scholarly research on development through early adulthood that supports a conclusion that the Illinois FOID card application procedure for persons under 21 fits the state’s compelling interest in public safety....
We conclude that Illinois has shown a sufficient meansend relationship between the challenged statute and an important government interest. Illinois’s decision to use parents as a first check on firearm possession by persons under 21 is reasonable. The parent or guardian signature provision provides for an individualized assessment of the applicant’s fitness for possession of a firearm by a person likely to be in the best position to make such an evaluation. That signature also subjects the parent to liability for harm caused by firearm ownership. The legislature could reasonably conclude that many persons under 21 would not have the financial ability to compensate a person injured in a firearms incident, and the signature provision in the Illinois statute provides a means for an additional source of income in that event. If no parent or guardian is willing or able to sign the application, the Illinois statute provides that another person can make the individualized assessment — the Director of State Police. The challenged provisions in the FOID Card Act are substantially related to the state’s important interests, and we do not find the law unconstitutional.
NY Times debates " What Age Should Young Criminals Be Tried as Adults?"
The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of notable commentaries discussing the appropriate age for when an offender should (or should not be) brought into adult court for trial and sentencing. Here is the section's set up:
The governor of Connecticut has proposed raising the age juveniles can be tried as adults to 21 in attempts to keep more young people out of cycles of incarceration. Michigan, one of few states that still charge 17-year-olds as adults, is also considering raising the age for eligibility of juvenile status to 18. Is this a good idea? What age is appropriate for young law-breakers to be tried as adults?
Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:
"Raise the Minimum Age to 21" by Vincent Schiraldi
"There Is No One-Size-Fits-All Age Limit" by Charles Stimson
"No Younger Than 18" by Carmen Daugherty
"Raising the Age Doesn’t Lower Juvenile Crime" by Charles Loeffler
Examining the crimmigration connections between sentencing and deportation
An important and timely new and growing speciality in the legal academy is "crimmigration," a label used to describe and analyze the intersections of criminal law and immigration law. In that vein, I just came across this notable new paper by Jason Cade available via SSRN titled "Return of the JRAD," which looks closely at the particular intersection of sentencing decision-making and deportation consequences. Here is the abstract:
Ignacio Diaz Aguilar’s felony conviction for document forgery made him a priority for deportation and disqualified him from the possibility of discretionary relief from removal, despite apparently significant equities and mitigating factors. And yet, when Federal District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein sentenced Mr. Aguilar on August 14, 2015, he recommended that the government not deport Mr. Aguilar, even though no legal rules provided him with a route to that result. This essay places Judge Weinstein’s recommendation in a broader context, explaining its importance within the modern deportation regime. Statutory reforms and new agency practices have made criminal history the primary marker of noncitizen undesirability. Even longtime lawful permanent residents with only minor convictions often cannot escape removal or make a case for discretionary relief. As a result, the immigration system, as it works today, is in deep tension with the principle that under a humane system of justice the penalty should fit the crime.
Judge Weinstein’s sentencing order in Aguilar points the way to an important reform that would decrease the likelihood of disproportionate removals in cases that involve noncitizens with a criminal history. A sentencing judge’s decision to recommend against deportation in criminal cases offers immigration authorities an efficient, reliable, and cost-effective means of assessing a noncitizen’s positive and negative equities and determining whether removal is an appropriate part of the total penalty for the noncitizen’s transgression. In short, a sentencing judge’s recommendation against deportation could serve as a disproportionality rule of thumb, tempering and refining the role that criminal history plays in deportation decisions. This essay makes the case that immigration authorities could rely on such recommendations -- as well as other forms of relief from all-out criminal punishment (e.g., pardons, expungements, and deferred adjudications) -- as signals that a noncitizen’s encounter with the criminal system presumptively should not lead to deportation. To be sure, in some cases, that presumption should be overcome, particularly when the government can establish the noncitizen’s dangerousness or otherwise demonstrate social undesirability. But deportation should be the exception, not the rule, in cases where the end result of the criminal process involves elimination or mitigation of the underlying criminal conviction.
Monday, December 14, 2015
SCOTUS yet again summarily reverses circuit reversal of state death sentence
The Supreme Court this morning issued what has become a notably common type of summary reversal: in White v. Wheeler, No. 14-1372 (S. Ct. Dec. 14, 2015) (available here), the Justices via a per curiam opinion determined the Sixth Circuit was wrong to overturn a death sentence based on the exclusion of a juror. Here is part of how the opinion starts and ends:
A death sentence imposed by a Kentucky trial court and affirmed by the Kentucky Supreme Court has been overturned, on habeas corpus review, by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. During the jury selection process, the state trial court excused a juror after concluding he could not give sufficient assurance of neutrality or impartiality in considering whether the death penalty should be imposed. The Court of Appeals, despite the substantial deference it must accord to state-court rulings in federal habeas proceedings, determined that excusing the juror in the circumstances of this case violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. That ruling contravenes controlling precedents from this Court, and it is now necessary to reverse the Court of Appeals by this summary disposition....
The two federal judges in the majority below might have reached a different conclusion had they been presiding over this voir dire. But simple disagreement does not overcome the two layers of deference owed by a federal habeas court in this context.
The Kentucky Supreme Court was not unreasonable in its application of clearly established federal law when it concluded that the exclusion of Juror 638 did not violate the Sixth Amendment. Given this conclusion, there is no need to consider petitioner’s further contention that, if there were an error by the trial court in excluding the juror, it should be subject to harmless-error analysis....
As a final matter, this Court again advises the Court of Appeals that the provisions of AEDPA apply with full force even when reviewing a conviction and sentence imposing the death penalty. See, e.g., Parker v. Matthews, 567 U.S. ___ (2012) (per curiam); Bobby v. Dixon, 565 U.S. ___ (2011) (per curiam); Bobby v. Mitts, 563 U.S. 395 (2011) (per curiam); Bobby v. Van Hook, 558 U.S. 4 (2009) (per curiam).
Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences has this interesting closing thought in this post about this latest SCOTUS summary reversal:
The fact that it is necessary for the high court to so admonish the federal appellate courts is a sad commentary on the state of our judiciary. Judges who cannot or will not decide capital cases fairly should not sit on them. They should be excludable just like the jurors. If they will not recuse themselves, perhaps it is time to establish a challenge for cause. How about a rule that a federal court of appeals judge who is three times reversed by the Supreme Court for failure to obey AEDPA in a capital case will sit on no more capital cases?
Reviewing and reflecting on persistent problems with the federal clemency process
The recent Washington Post article about criminal justice reform efforts during the second term of the Obama Administration (discussed here) hinted that we could expect to see Prez Obama grant a significant number of additional prison commutations in the coming weeks. But this effective new Marshall Project piece by Bill Keller, headlined "The Bureaucracy of Mercy: Why hasn’t President Obama freed more prisoners? Maybe that’s the wrong question," reviews why federal clemency procedures and practices have been persistently disappointing for those who believe there is a need for much more than sporadic grants of executive mercy. I recommend the lengthy article in full, and here is how it starts and ends:
As the two presidents, one incoming and the other outgoing, shared a limo to the inauguration in January 2009, President Bush had some advice for President-elect Obama: “Announce a pardon policy early on, and stick to it.” Bush had been stunned by a final-days flood of appeals for clemency on behalf of friends and former colleagues convicted of federal crimes.
“I came to see a massive injustice in the system,” Bush recalled in his memoir, “Decision Points.” “If you had connections to the president, you could insert your case into the last-minute frenzy. Otherwise, you had to wait for the Justice Department to conduct a review and make a recommendation.”
As he approaches his own last-minute frenzy, President Obama has embraced criminal justice reform —especially the problem of over-incarceration — as a major cause of his administration.
“Over the course of this year, I’ve been talking to people all across the country about reforming our criminal justice system to be fairer, to be smarter, to be more effective,” he said in a speech in November.
And yet Obama’s clemency record so far — counting commutations and pardons — lags behind every recent president except George H.W. Bush, who had only a single term. On pardons, which give ex-inmates a better chance to get jobs, find housing, vote and generally live normal lives, Obama is the stingiest president since John Adams — 64 granted so far, fewer than three percent of the petitions filed....
But to many advocates of reform, the numbers miss the larger point: after navigating the multi-stage process of CP14, applicants still had to pass through the Department of Justice, where the main job is to lock people up, not let people out. Between prosecutors and defenders, says David Patton, head of the Federal Defenders of New York, there is “a difference in role and perspective.” Prosecutors, he said, are “less able to see things through the eyes of our clients, or through the eyes of anyone other than the prosecutor.”
“In some sense, by recommending that a sentence be reduced you are taking a position that is, in all likelihood, contrary to what DOJ took at the sentencing proceeding,” he said.
Top officials at the Justice Department publicly discount the idea that the department’s culture is hostile to clemency. “We’re not the Department of Prosecutions,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told The Washington Post in May.
Various clemency advocates have different suggestions for change: an independent commission; restoring a federal parole board, which was abolished in the 1980’s, and having it handle commutations; or plucking the pardon attorney’s office from the Department of Justice and locating it in the White House. What they all have in common is reducing the role of the Justice Department. “I would want prosecutors to weigh in on every case,” said Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor and member of the U.S. Sentencing commission. ”But I wouldn’t want them to be a veto point, where they could just make a case go away. And that’s what it is right now.”
Margaret Colgate Love, a clemency lawyer who spent 20 years in the Justice Department and was the department’s pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997, agreed: “It’s hopeless, you can’t reform it in the department.”
But Love argues that the focus on presidential clemency is misplaced. Intended as a remedy for individual cases of injustice, she says, executive clemency should not be a tool to reduce prison populations.
Other vehicles exist for more systemic reform, she notes. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency of the judicial branch, has found 46,000 inmates eligible for earlier release by making new sentencing guidelines for certain drug crimes retroactive. A bill inching through Congress would do the same for some 6,500 people locked up during the national panic over crack cocaine.
Love says that when she hears speculation about moving thousands of people through the clemency process she wonders, “How could anybody who had half a brain imagine that clemency could be used to deal with even a thousand cases? It’s never been done.”
Her prescription is to empower the Bureau of Prisons to identify prisoners ready for commutation and take those cases directly to a judge. “Wardens know who ought to be out, and who not,” she said. “Why should we be putting the president in the position of vouching for a whole bunch of people who did pretty serious crimes, many of them, and have been in prison for many years?”
No one expects any of these reforms to be enacted in the year Obama has left. Which will give him something to pass on to his successor at the next inauguration.