Thursday, May 29, 2014

AG Holder urges fellow prosecutors to back his sentencing reform advocacy

This new NPR piece reports that "Attorney General Eric Holder took his case for overhauling the criminal justice system to an unlikely location on Wednesday — a closed-door conference of prosecutors, who were meeting at their national training center in Columbia, South Carolina." Here is more:

According to a person familiar with Holder's unpublicized remarks, Holder urged an audience of criminal division chiefs from U.S. Attorney's offices to support Smart on Crime initiatives that would reduce some drug sentences and to open up the clemency process to hundreds of inmates with clean records in prison.

Earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would cut some mandatory minimum penalties for non-violent drug offenders.  But in recent weeks at least three prominent groups have attacked the legislation, including nearly 30 former Justice Department officials who served under Republican administrations; longtime Sens. John Cornyn, R-TX, Charles Grassley, R-IA, and Jeff Sessions, R-AL; and even Holder's own DEA administrator.

The attorney general addressed those concerns by pointing out that the bill, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act, would leave in place tough mandatory minimum sentences for most drug traffickers, with add-ons for people who possess weapons, are repeat offenders, or those who are considered leaders of an ongoing criminal racket.

"These changes represent anything but a softening of our stance against crime and those who perpetrate it, or a relaxing of our unwavering commitment to combat the drug-fueled violence that plagues far too many communities," Holder said, according to a law enforcement source in the audience.  "On the contrary: in all our activities, we remain committed to the robust enforcement of federal anti-drug laws, and to focusing federal resources on the most significant threats to our communities," he said, according to the source.

May 29, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Judge orders temporary moratorium on Ohio executions"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable capital news emerging in my local legal arena.  Here are the basics:

A federal judge has ordered a temporary moratorium on executions in Ohio while legal issues related to new lethal injection protocol are worked out. The order issued yesterday by U.S. District Judge Gregory L. Frost stops the scheduled July 2 execution of Ronald Phillips of Summit County and the Aug. 6 execution of William Montgomery of Lucas County. Two other executions scheduled later in the year are not affected for the time being, but Frost left his order open-ended.

Frost said an execution can be scheduled no earlier than Aug. 15. The delays are repercussions from the troubled execution of Dennis McGuire on Jan. 16. Witnesses observed that McGuire, 53, gasped, choked, clenched his fists and appeared to struggle against his restraints for 10 minutes after the administration of two drugs, midazolam and hydromorphone, before being pronounced dead at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility near Lucasville.

As a result, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced April 28 that it would use the same drugs, but in higher doses in future executions.... Frost ordered the attorneys representing condemned inmates and the state to “work together to coordinate efforts so that the court can set necessary deadlines following expiration of the stay.”

May 28, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Paul Ryan joins chorus of GOP young guns supporting sentencing reform and Smarter Sentencing Act

Tucked within this interesting Daily Beast discussion of (former VP candidate) Representative Paul Ryan's war on poverty tour is the revelation that Ryan is now the latest prominent GOP official to support reform of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. As the article recounts:

I asked the representative from Janesville, Wisconsin, if he could reflect on a previously held ideological view that had changed over the course of his learning tour.

Without hesitation, Ryan delved into the need to reform federal sentencing guidelines. “I think our sentencing guidelines need to be revisited with an eye towards what actually works to make sure a person can hit their upward potential,” Ryan said. “Is it better to send someone to a successfully proven drug rehab program so they can knock the habit and get back on their feet again, or is it [better to] put them away for 16 years?”

Reflecting on past congressional efforts to limit discretion on the part of federal judges in imposing strict sentences—a reflection that will be sure to raise eyebrows in the House Republican Cloakroom—Ryan said: “I think we had a trend in America for a long time on mandatory minimums where we took away discretion from judges. I think there’s an appreciation that that approach has some collateral damage—that that approach is missing in many ways…I think there is a new appreciation that we need to give judges more discretion in these areas.”

Specifically, Ryan hailed the bipartisan work of Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) to dramatically overhaul the federal sentencing guideline structure now in place. Dubbed the “Smarter Sentencing Act,” the legislation, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this year, would cut mandatory minimum sentences in half for certain drug offenses. It also would reduce crack cocaine penalties retroactive to 2010 and expand the discretion of federal judges to sentence defendants in certain cases to less time in jail than mandatory minimum guidelines permit.

Some older and recent posts on the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

May 28, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"Candidates for Maryland governor seek votes by helping ex-convicts"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Baltimore Sun article which serves as more proof that the modern politics of crime and punishment have changed. Not long ago, candidates for governor would seek votes by talking up who could hurt lawbreakers more. Now the theme is helpping, and here is how this article starts:

When Democrat Douglas F. Gansler stopped by a Baltimore sports bar recently, the ex-convict behind the bar struck up a conversation. It's a tough road, the worker told Gansler, to get any job.

"I'm trying to turn my life around," he said. "I've got a newborn son." Gansler nodded emphatically, and dove into the wonky details of a seemingly unconventional plank in a former prosecutor's platform for governor. Gansler, like all the Democrats vying for the state's top political job, has a detailed plan to ensure ex-offenders do not go back to prison. The issue resonates in heavily Democratic Baltimore.

As public perception shifts about whether the "war on drugs" has succeeded, and as prison populations rise to unprecedented and costly levels, political experts say many candidates across the country have traded a tough-on-crime attitude for a more nurturing approach.

The three Democrats in Maryland's primary race for governor emphasize proposals for programs such as job training to help inmates successfully rejoin their communities. At forums, in policy papers, to community groups and on the campaign trail, each is pushing ideas to reduce recidivism.

"Compared to the candidates four years ago, it's a very different tone," said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director at Job Opportunities Task Force, which tries to help ex-offenders get work. "Candidates are sensing the mood has changed."

Nationwide, re-entry has become a bipartisan talking point, though Maryland's Republican candidates for governor have not made helping former inmates a top issue leading up to the June 24 primary.

May 28, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Will Hall have import or impact other then when states seek to execute the possibly disabled?

Hall is a very big deal for the administration of capital punishment (opinion here, basics here), especially for those states with lots of murderers on death row and/or for those states that have been applying Atkins in restrictive ways.   Nevertheless, while a big round of new Atkins/Hall litigation is sure to churn in a number of states in the months and years ahead, in the end the fate of probably only a few dozen capital defendants will be significantly impacted by the holding in Hall.

But, of course, the dicta and direction of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment work in Hall could be a big deal in lots of other setting if lower courts conclude that the import and impact of this ruling should extend beyond capital cases involving intellectionally challenged defendants.  Here is a sampling of some (mostly new) Eighth Amendment language from the majority opinion in Hall that I could envision having some bite in some other settings:

The Eighth Amendment’s protection of dignity reflects the Nation we have been, the Nation we are, and the Nation we aspire to be. This is to affirm that the Nation’s constant, unyielding purpose must be to transmit the Constitution so that its precepts and guarantees retain their meaning and force....

No legitimate penological purpose is served by executing a person with intellectual disability. To do so contravenes the Eighth Amendment, for to impose the harshest of punishments on an intellectually disabled person violates his or her inherent dignity as a human being....

[A]ggregate numbers are not the only considera­tions bearing on a determination of consensus. Consistency of the direction of change is also relevant.... The rejection of the strict 70 cutoff in the vast majority of States and the “consistency in the trend,” Roper, supra, at 567, toward recognizing the SEM provide strong evi­dence of consensus that our society does not regard this strict cutoff as proper or humane....

The actions of the States and the precedents of this Court give us essential instruction, but the inquiry must go further. The Constitution contemplates that in the end our own judgment will be brought to bear on the question of the acceptability of the death penalty under the Eighth Amendment. That exercise of independent judgment is the Court’s judicial duty....

The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose. Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world.  The States are laboratories for experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitu­tion protects.

As these quotes highlight, the majority opinion per Justice Kennedy in Hall makes much of the "Eighth Amendment’s protection of dignity." (For those into counts, the term dignity is used nine times in Justice Kennedy's majority opinion, while the term is not used even once in Justice Alito's dissent.) Needless to say, I can identify a number of non-capital punishments that states and the federal government have been known to experiment with that seem to "deny the basic dignity the Constitu­tion protects" (such as LWOP for non-violent offenders). I am hopeful that not only the Supreme Court but also lower courts continue to be open to arguments that it is not only some capital punishment provisions that can and sometimes do "contravene our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world."

Today's posts on Hall:

May 27, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack (0)

Effective Sentencing Project and HRW responses to Senators' letter opposing the Smarter Sentencing Act

SSAI was very pleased to learn from helpful readers that Antonio Ginatta, the US Program Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, and Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy officer for The Sentencing Project, have now both authored effective and distinct responses to the May 12th letter sent by Senators Grassley, Sessions, and Cornyn to their Senate colleagues voicing opposition to the Smarter Sentencing Act (reported here).  Haile's response appears here at The Hill under the headline "Last stand for the drug warriors." Here are excerpts:

In a letter to colleagues, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) wrote that the legislation “would benefit some of the most serious and dangerous offenders in the federal system.” The xenators raised the specter of a violent crime wave if minimum penalties for nonviolent drug offenses are reduced.

Describing the Smarter Sentencing Act as a sort of “get out of jail free card” for dangerous criminals is highly misleading. The bill would not eliminate a single mandatory minimum, nor would it reduce any maximum penalties. Instead, it would allow judges greater discretion in low-level cases, while preserving long sentences for the most serious offenders....

Unfortunately, some longtime drug warriors seem intent on throwing cold water on the sentencing reform movement just as it is heating up. Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, recently testified that rather than unwinding the drug war, “we should be redoubling our efforts.” A number of former federal law enforcement officials have argued that current drug sentencing penalties should be preserved.

But we have tried incarcerating our way to a drug-free America, and that approach has failed. Three decades later, evidence is mounting that federal drug laws have led to skyrocketing prison populations without making communities safer. Meanwhile, illegal narcotics are as pure and as readily available as ever.

Rather than caving in to the “tough on crime” rhetoric of another era, Congress should seize a rare opportunity for reform. State after state has reduced drug sentencing penalties without jeopardizing public safety. Polls show that Americans, Republican and Democrat, favor treatment over prison for nonviolent offenders.

The old playbook on crime and punishment is worn out. It’s time to take a new approach to nonviolent drug sentencing.

Ginatta's response appears in an open letter available here to Senators Grassley, Sessions, and Cornyn detailing with hard data why so many of their claims are misguided.  I urge ervery to read the HRW reponse in full, and here is an excerpt:

Your letter states that drug-related mandatory minimums “are used almost exclusively for high-level drug traffickers.” Data from the United States Sentencing Commission tells a much different story. According to the Commission, 40 percent of federal drug defendants were couriers or street dealers.  In fact, nine out of ten federal drug defendants come from the lower or middle tiers of the drug business.  Because mandatory minimums are triggered by the quantity of drug involved, a street-level dealer can face the same minimum sentence as the head of a large drug trafficking organization. A typical federal drug offender is someone like Jamel Dossie, a 20-year-old, small-time street-level drug dealer’s assistant who received a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for working as a go-between in four hand-to-hand sales totaling 88.1 grams or 3.1 ounces of crack (the weight of an average bar of soap)....

You next cite in your letter that “those who would benefit from these reduced sentences are not ‘non-violent’ — they would include repeat drug traffickers and criminals with a history of violence.”  This is only part of the story.  Almost half (49.6 percent) of all federal drug offenders imprisoned in Fiscal Year 2013 fell under the lowest criminal history category (zero or one criminal history point under the federal sentencing guidelines).  And 83.8 percent of federal drug offenders during the same period were found to not have a weapon involved in their crime.  A small percentage of drug offenders may have used a weapon in their offense, but the mandatory minimums you defend are wilfully blind to the vast numbers of those who didn’t.  To brand all drug offenders as violent is too broad a sweep — no sane sentencing policy should make that assumption.

Some prior posts about the SSA and debates over federal sentencing reform:

May 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

"Intellectual disability is a condition, not a number. See DSM–5, at 37."

The title of this post is the sentence and cite that perhaps best summarized the work of the majority of the Supreme Court this morning in Hall v. Florida (opinion here, basics here).  In Hall, the Court rejects as violative of the Eighth Amendment Florida's use of a bright-line IQ test cut-off set at 70 for defining who is eligible for execution (while dodging whether a cut off set at 75 would be okay) based principally on the medical community's consensus view that IQ tests are just one factor in assessing intellectual disability and are necessarily imprecise.  Here are just a few excerpts from the majority opinion in Hall that highlight these themes:

That this Court, state courts, and state legislatures consult and are informed by the work of medical experts in determining intellectual disability is unsurprising.  Those professionals use their learning and skills to study and consider the consequences of the classification schemes they devise in the diagnosis of persons with mental or psychiatric disorders or disabilities.  Society relies upon medical and professional expertise to define and explain how to diagnose the mental condition at issue....

Florida’s rule disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways. It takes an IQ score as final and conclusive evidence of a defendant’s intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence.  It also relies on a purportedly scientific measurement of the defendant’s abilities, his IQ score, while refusing to recognize that the score is, on its own terms, imprecise....

It is the Court’s duty to interpret the Constitution, but it need not do so in isolation. The legal determination of intellectual disability is distinct from a medical diagnosis, but it is informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.  Atkins itself points to the diagnostic criteria employed by psychiatric professionals. And the professional community’s teachings are of particular help in this case, where no alternative definition of intellectual disability is presented and where this Court and the States have placed substantial reliance on the expertise of the medical profession....

This Court agrees with the medical experts that when a defendant’s IQ test score falls within the test’s acknowl­edged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disa­bility, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits.

Not surprisingly, the dissent in Hall recognizes and criticizes the majority's heavy reliance on the medical community's approach to determining intellectual disability.  Here is a snippet of this criticism from the dissent:

Under our modern Eighth Amendment cases, what counts are our society’s standards — which is to say, the standards of the American people — not the standards of professional associations, which at best represent the views of a small professional elite....

The Court’s reliance on the views of professional associ­ations will also lead to serious practical problems.

May 27, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

US Sentencing Commission releases two significant research reports concerning drug sentencing reform and retroactivity

I just received a notice from the US Sentencing Commission which highlights that the USSC has some new research that can and should help inform the on-going discussion of whether and how the new reduced drug guidelines ought to be made retroactive. Here is the text of this notice I got via e-mail, which includes links to two important new research documents:

As previously noted, the Commission is seeking public comment on the issue of whether to apply its recent amendment to the drug quantity table retroactively.  The Commission will receive public comment on this issue through July 7, 2014.  Public comment can be emailed to  public_comment@ussc.gov.  To facilitate public comment on this issue, the Commission is making available the following materials:
 
In April, Commissioners directed staff to analyze the impact of retroactivity should the Commission vote to authorize retroactive application of the 2014 drug guidelines amendment.
 
The Commission also released an updated recidivism analysis of crack cocaine offenders who were released early after implementation of a 2007 guidelines amendment which retroactively reduced by two levels the base offense levels assigned by the Drug Quantity Table for crack cocaine.  In this five-year study, these offenders were compared with similarly situated offenders who served their original sentences.

May 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Fascinating research on federal mortgage fraud prosecutions and sentencing in Western PA

20140525mortgage-fraud-thumbI am pleased and excited to have learned over the long weekend that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Duquesne University School of Law collaborated on an innovative Fact Investigations class, led by associate professor and Criminal Justice Program director Wesley Oliver, to study the modern work of Western Pennsylvania's federal prosecutors in response to modern mortage fraus.  As explained in this first article of a series about this work, this group "identified 144 prosecutions alleging mortgage-related crimes in the Pittsburgh area ... [and then] analyzed 100 prosecutions in which sentence had been pronounced and for which the federal sentencing guidelines could be discerned." Before getting into the findings, I want to heap praise on everyone involved in this project because it shows what valuable work can be done when law schools and traditional media team up to examine intricate and dynamic issues concerning the federal criminal justice system.

Here, from the start of the first article in the series, are the basic findings of this terrific project:

In 2008, as the housing market dragged the world economy down, orders came from Washington, D.C., to federal prosecutors nationwide: Bust the people whose lies contributed to the mess.

Six years later, the effort by Pittsburgh's federal prosecutors to punish fraudulent mortgage brokers, appraisers, closing agents, property flippers and bank employees can claim 144 people charged, more than 100 sentenced and no acquittals.

That undefeated record, though, came at a price: Some of the worst offenders got extraordinary deals in return for their testimony against others.

A review by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Duquesne University School of Law students of 100 completed cases showed that the sentences of mortgage-related criminals in the Pittsburgh area were driven more by their degree of cooperation with prosecutors than by the number of people they scammed, the dollars they reaped or the damage they did to the financial system.  Some of the most prolific offenders used their central places in the fraud conspiracy to secure light sentences.

• Leniency for cooperation was doled out liberally.  At least 30 of the 100 defendants were the beneficiaries of prosecutorial motions to reward "substantial assistance" to the investigation.  That cooperation rate is nearly double that seen in fraud cases nationwide, suggesting that prosecutors here rewarded more defendants than normal.

• Most of the mortgage criminals who assisted prosecutors got no prison time, and the average amount of incarceration for those 30 defendants was a little more than three months.  By contrast, defendants who pleaded guilty but didn't provide substantial assistance to prosecutors, got average sentences of three years in prison.  Those few who went to trial faced an average of 6½ years behind bars.

•  Several of the figures most central to the region's mortgage fraud problem cooperated with prosecutors, and got non-prison sentences.  For instance, Kenneth C. Cowden, formerly of McKees Rocks and now of Florida, performed unlicensed appraisals that exaggerated real estate values in the region to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. He cooperated and got nine months in a halfway house.  Jay Berger of Fox Chapel, who recruited Cowden and lived lavishly from fraudulent mortgages, was sentenced in 2012 to 15 months in prison, but died this month at age 49 without serving time.

Here are links to all the article in the series:

Regular readers will not be at all surprised to hear me say that I view this terrific bit of investigative journalism as further proof that those who are really concerned about suspect disparities in federal sentencing ought to be much more focused on the application of (hidden and unreviewable) prosecutorial sentencing discretion than about the exercise of (open and reviewable) judicial sentencing discretion.

May 27, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Big criminal justice decision day for SCOTUS, including 8th Amendment reversal of Florida's Aktins approach

Clearly the Justices decided to celebrate the Memorial Day week by reminding everyone that the Bill of Rights has a lot of provisions concerning the administration of our criminal justice systems.  Returning from the long weekend, the Supreme Court handed down five opinions this morning (four in argued cases, one per curiam), and all but one of the rulings has a criminal justice element.  The big one for sentencing fans is the 5-4 Eighth Amendment ruling in Hall v. Florida, No. 12–10882 (S. Ct. May 27, 2014) (available here), which gets started this way: 

This Court has held that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution forbid the execution of persons with intellectual disability. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304, 321 (2002).  Florida law defines intellectual disability to require an IQ test score of 70 or less. If, from test scores, a prisoner is deemed to have an IQ above 70, all further exploration of intellectual disability is fore­ closed. This rigid rule, the Court now holds, creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional.

The other criminal justice rulings in argued cases today concern police use of force and immunity, and the per curiam concerns when jeopardy attaches for the application of the Double Jeopardy clause. How Appealing has its always terrific review of all the essentials (with links) assembled here, and SCOTUSblog is sure to have a lot on all this action in coming posts.

Once I have a chance to read the Hall decision in full, I am sure I will have one or more substantive posts about the decision later today.

May 27, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 26, 2014

California DA tries to make sure marijuana crime does not pay by making the criminals pay for reduced charges

La-me-g-mendocino-potwebThe Los Angeles Times has this fascinting new article on a fascinting drug war innovation being utilized by a local districy attorney in California.  The article is headlined "Mendocino County D.A. takes a new approach to marijuana cases," and here are excerpts: 

When David Eyster took over as Mendocino County district attorney, felony marijuana prosecutions were overwhelming his staff and straining the public coffers.

With hundreds of cases active at any one time, taking an average 15 months to resolve, there were few victories to show for all the effort. "The system hadn't broken yet," Eyster said, "but it was dangerously close."

That was a little over three years ago. These days marijuana cases clear in about three months and the Sheriff's Department is flush with cash, thanks to what some are calling "the Mendocino model." To others, it's the Mendocino shakedown.

The transformation began when Eyster dusted off a section of the California health and safety code, intended to reimburse police for the cost of cleaning up meth labs and pot grows, and retooled it for a modern Mendocino County. In exchange for paying restitution, which Eyster sets at $50 per plant and $500 per pound of processed pot seized, eligible suspects can plead to a misdemeanor and get probation. (The law says restitution is reimbursement for actual enforcement costs, but defendants waive an itemized accounting and state the amount owed is "reasonable.")

The relinquishing of allegedly ill-gotten gains seized in separate civil forfeiture actions — cash, trucks and the occasional tractor — also might be part of the deal offered under Eyster's "global resolutions."

The restitution program is available only to those without troublesome criminal backgrounds who have not wildly overstepped California's somewhat gray laws on medical marijuana. Those who trespass, grow on public lands or degrade the environment need not apply.

Eyster said it's a complex calculation that he jots out himself, by hand, on the back of each case file. The size of a grow is not necessarily the deciding factor: In one current case, the defendants have records indicating they are supplying 1,500 medical users, Eyster said. Another case involved just four pounds of processed marijuana, but evidence indicated the defendant was selling for profit. Participants must agree to random searches while on probation, comply with medical marijuana laws and grow only for personal use.

Restitution funds, which have topped $3.7 million since early 2011, go directly to the investigating agencies. Asset forfeitures — the $4.4 million in cash and goods seized in 2013 was nearly double the previous year — are shared by the state, the district attorney's office and local law enforcement.

Among those who have criticized the program is Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Clay Brennan, who during a restitution hearing last year for a man with an 800-plant grow blasted it as "extortion of defendants."

A federal grand jury investigating county programs that derive revenue from marijuana enforcement has subpoenaed accounting records on the restitution program, Eyster confirmed. The reason is unclear, as the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the probe.

Legal analysts also have raised concerns about the potential for unequal treatment of defendants and the incentive for officers to focus on lucrative targets at the expense of those more menacing to public safety....

Eyster teamed with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) in 2011 to try to make pot cultivation a "wobbler," prosecuted as either a felony or misdemeanor. The effort failed, but he had devised another way to thin the caseload.

He drew on past experience with welfare fraud, where considering restitution before making a filing decision was routine. Convinced that not all defendants were created equal — the mastermind behind a for-profit grow is more culpable than hired trimmers — he decided to evaluate each case, consider potentially exculpatory evidence and cut deals as he saw fit.

He offers defendants guidance on how to stay within the law, and said paying restitution "shows a step toward rehabilitation." "A month doesn't go by when someone doesn't say: 'Thank you for handling it this way,'" Eyster said.

Since he took office, 357 defendants have decided to pay restitution. About 20 of those violated their probation, resulting in 180-day jail stints and new charges. (On a second round, a straight misdemeanor charge is off the table.)

Eyster never accepts seized cash as payment of restitution, but his approach does throw such assets into the bargaining mix. It is unclear how many probationers paid restitution and forfeited seized cash or goods, but Eyster conceded the practice is common. "One hundred percent of the time, the defense wants to do a global resolution," he said. "It's saving a lot of time and costs."...

Defense attorney Keith Faulder, who practices in Mendocino County, is circumspect when discussing Eyster's program.  The district attorney, Faulder said, is "an innovator" who he believes is "operating in good faith when it comes to settling marijuana cases." However, Faulder said, Eyster "has a real policy of settling cases for civil forfeiture ... I think it gets a lot of dolphin with the tuna." That program has exploded in recent years, with law enforcement officials attributing the increased seizures to a pot trade that permeates the county....

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said his deputies do not have the time or inclination to police for profit: "If I wanted to use this as a business plan, I'd have 12 people on my eradication team," he said.  He has two.  But he credits restitution and forfeitures for a sheriff's budget that is $600,000 in the black, and said he has also been able to expand a resident deputy program and purchase a new fleet of cars.

Despite the criticism, Eyster said he was confident in the legality and effectiveness of his approach. He said that he had offered Melinda Haag, U.S. attorney for the Northern District, "first dibs on the prosecution of all marijuana cases in Mendocino County" but that she declined.  So "they should please leave us alone and let local enforcement tackle our own marijuana problems."

Regular readers should not be at all surprised that I am inclined to praise Mendocino County DA for engineering a seemingly more efficient and perhaps more effective way to wage the modern drug war. Indeed, given the muddled mess that is both California's medical marijuana laws and the opaque federal enforcement of prohibition in that state, this "Mendocino model" for modern marijuana enforcement for lower-level marijuana cases strikes me as a very wise way to use prosecutorial discretion and triage prosecutorial resources.

I would like to believe that the federal grand jury investigating the "Mendocino model" is focused on seeing if a local success story can be turned into a national program. But I fear that the feds are looking into what DA Eyster is doing because they fear even the prospect of somebody inventing any better drug war mousetraps.

Finally, though I suppose I should be concerned about the potential for prosecutors extorting criminal defendants in this setting, this form of extortion troubles me much less that when prosecutors demand that defendants give up various rights to avoid a crazy-long mandatory prison sentences in traditional plea bargaining. When DA Eyster seeks money from marijuana defendants as part of the plea process, it seems he is only seeking to have them relinquish what were likely ill-gotten gains (much of which might end up going to defense attorneys' pockets without such a deal available); when other prosecutors seek pleas and cooperation from other defendants facing extreme prison terms, these prosecutors are demanding that defendants relinquish constitutional and statutory rights created specifically to limit and check the power of government officials.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

May 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

"Is public shaming fair punishment?"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Los Angeles Times commentary by Patt Morrison on an alternative punishment topic I always find interesting. Here are excerpts:

You play the judge: How would you sentence a man who spent 15 years picking on his neighbor and her handicapped children? A Cleveland judge sentenced just such a man, Edmond Aviv, to jail, community service, anger management and mental health counseling — and to spend five hours alongside a busy street on a Sunday in April with a great big sign branding him an intolerant bully.

The 8th Amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment. Is this either one? Or can justice be fairly meted out in something other than years and months behind bars?

In 2012, a different Cleveland judge gave a woman a choice of going to jail or spending two days standing on a street corner with a sign reading: "Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus." The woman chose to hold the sign.

Puritan punishments like locking someone's head and hands in the stocks seem like retribution, not justice. In "The Scarlet Letter," Hester Prynne, was an adulterer, not a thief. Puritans believed in shame as a behavior corrector. But Prynne flaunted and even co-opted the "A" she was condemned to wear.

Should shame be a component of punishment? Does taking someone down a peg set a miscreant straight, any more than locking him up? And should it be at a judge's discretion?...

Judges have sentenced a La Habra slumlord to live in his own run-down building under house arrest for two months, and made an Ohio woman who abandoned 33 kittens spend a night alone in the woods. In a case that made the legal textbooks and withstood appeal in 2005, a San Francisco mail thief was ordered to stand on the post office steps with a sign that read: "I stole mail and this is my punishment."

It's hard to track the deterrent effect of such creative punishments because they happen so rarely. And judges have so much power and discretion that creative sentencing could mean wildly and unfairly different punishments for the same crime between one courtroom and the next — one reason that sentencing guidelines and laws exist in the first place.

Daniel Markel, the D'Alemberte professor of law at Florida State University and an expert on sentencing, points out that if these punishments didn't have some efficacy, "there probably wouldn't be much resistance" from miscreants, but "in fact defendants typically don't want to be publicly shamed because they realize there is something publicly humiliating about being exposed in the streets."...

The element of choice that comes up in some kinds of creative sentencing might also give us pause. In California and elsewhere, convicted sex offenders have requested castration — chemical and actual — to get out of prison. Civil libertarians object on "cruel and unusual" constitutional grounds, because it amounts to no choice, and because it gets dangerously close to the medieval notion of cutting off a thief's hands. Markel adds another objection to asking the guilty to pick their poison: "We punish to communicate censure and condemnation. It's for a democracy to make those decisions. We ought not empower defendants to be deciding their punishments."

Edmond Aviv apparently wasn't given a choice. Will public humiliation change his behavior? He had been convicted of harassment before, so it's hard to fault the judge for trying something different. And even though we don't live in Hester Prynne's world anymore, I'll cautiously side with the slice of democracy that told a Cleveland.com reporter they approved the sentence. After all, it "communicated censure and condemnation." In this case, it seems, a bad guy got his just deserts. 

A few recent and lots of older posts on shaming sentences:

May 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

"Disarming the Dangerous: Preventing Extraordinary and Ordinary Violence"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Mary Fan now available via SSRN. Though posted on line a few weeks ago, this piece strikes me as distinctly and depressingly timely in the wake of the mass shooting in California a few days ago. Here is the abstract:

Recent mass shootings at Navy Yard, Newtown, Aurora and elsewhere have jolted Congress and the states into considering gun violence prevention.  More than 1,500 gun-related bills have been introduced since 2013, after the slaughter in Newtown of twenty elementary school children and six adults.  Current legislation and debates are shaped by the specter of a heavily armed, mentally ill individual hunting in public places such as schools, businesses, and workplaces.  In the states, the most successful type of legislation involves firearms restrictions for the mentally ill.  In Congress, the legislation that garnered the most debate was a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.  While the national attention to firearms violence prevention is salutary, for law and policy to tackle the core of the problem it is important to address two empirical questions: Who are the dangerous individuals committing most firearms homicides and why do the law’s current screens miss them?

This article draws on data from the National Violent Death Reporting System to answer the crucial foundational questions of who poses a danger and why the dangerous slip through existing legal screens.  Presenting data on the most prevalent place of shooting, victim-shooter relationship, and the shooter’s prior history, the article shows that prevention of extraordinarily devastating firearms violence calls for attention to how the nation addresses “ordinary” violence.  By ordinary violence, this article means violence that is often viewed as mundane, such as altercations between family members, friends and intimates in the home.  Many perpetrators of firearms homicide have a history of such prior events -- yet a substantially smaller proportion of these violent episodes have been adjudicated, thereby slipping through existing screens for firearms restrictions.  Based on these findings, the article discusses how discretion in dealing with “ordinary violence” can improve detection of the dangerous regardless of whether proposed firearms restrictions survive the gauntlet for new gun laws.

May 26, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Detailing the Keystone State's enduring Alleyne problems

This local AP story from Pennsylvania, headlined "Supreme Court ruling snarls sentencing minimums," provides another review of the headaches that state courts are facing with its sentencing scheme in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment ruling in Alleyne last year. Here are some excerpts:

A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year has prompted dozens of appeals in criminal cases across Pennsylvania and left judges scratching their heads on how to apply state laws on mandatory minimum sentences. The confusion has prompted meetings among judges, forced some judges to try out new jury instructions and even led some jurists to conclude that whole sections of state law are unconstitutional.

Legal experts say what happens next will be driven largely by cases already on appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. “No appellate court in Pennsylvania has gotten around to definitively deciding the question, and everybody, it seems, is waiting for someone else to decide it,” said St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and defense attorney.

The stumbling block is Alleyne v. United States, a high court decision stemming from a Virginia federal court case that found that juries, not judges, should decide whether a defendant committed crimes that trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. But Pennsylvania law says a jury decides a person’s guilt or innocence of the underlying crime, such as drug possession or robbery. A judge then uses a lower standard of proof to decide whether the mandatory sentencing “triggers” were proved — such as being in a school zone when drug dealing or brandishing a gun during the robbery.

Judges in at least one jurisdiction, Blair County in central Pennsylvania, recently decided to stop imposing mandatory minimum sentences altogether until the General Assembly rewrites the statutes. The judges made the decision after hearing arguments from prosecutors and a defense attorney for two men facing five-year mandatory minimums — one accused of dealing drugs in a school zone; the other charged with having a weapon while in possession of marijuana....

Since the Alleyne ruling, some Pennsylvania judges have begun asking juries to determine whether certain mandatory minimum triggers have been proved, even though state law doesn’t allow that. Other judges have ruled that Alleyne makes Pennsylvania criminal statutes containing mandatory minimum sentencing provisions unconstitutional in their entirety.

In eastern Pennsylvania, Lycoming County District Attorney Eric Linhardt said judges there first allowed juries to decide mandatory minimum sentences before reversing course and ruling the statutes illegal. “Ten cases are presently on appeal, and many others will soon follow,” Linhardt said, adding the impasse could affect 100 pending drug cases in his office.

Recent related post:

May 25, 2014 in Blakely in the States, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Detailing the high costs of an aging prison population

AgingThis lengthy story in the Omaha World-Herald, headlined "Prisons: pricey nursing homes for Nebraska's aging inmates," highlights the expensive realities of an aging prison population. Here are excerpts:

At age 84, Larry Ortiz is like many senior citizens, dealing with the aches and pains of old age. He uses a cane to steady his slow, shuffling gait. He battles arthritis in his bony fingers, bronchitis and dry eyes. He takes four medications and has trouble remembering names. He has had prostate surgery, been fitted for dentures and had cataracts removed. He has two artificial knees.

But Ortiz is different. He’s spending his twilight years behind bars, serving a life sentence for beating a 29-year-old woman to death in 1970, then cutting off her hands to mask her identity before dumping her body. And the cost of his old-age maladies is being picked up by taxpayers.

Ortiz is part of an ever-rising number of aging inmates who occupy prison cells in Nebraska and other states — nationwide, they are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population. In Nebraska, the graying of prisons has contributed to chronic overcrowding and has been a major factor in rapidly rising health-care costs.

Dealing with older inmates is not cheap. Nationally, they are twice as expensive to house on average as younger prisoners because of their increased medical needs — such as Ortiz’s titanium knees, which together cost upward of $90,000.

Prisons have become de facto nursing homes for more and more inmates. Unit 1 at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, where Ortiz lives, houses many senior citizen inmates. It’s designed to accommodate wheelchairs and has wider doors and handrails. The state corrections system also has 31 skilled nursing beds, like those found in a nursing home. The state is looking at building a 240-bed prison to consolidate housing for inmates who are older, as well as those with mental illnesses.

Prison administrators say that by law they must provide the “community standard of medical care” or risk federal intervention. In California, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court cited substandard medical care and overcrowding in ordering the release of thousands of inmates. “It may frustrate taxpayers,” Nebraska prison Director Mike Kenney said of the medical care, “but constitutionally, ethically and morally, we cannot cut corners with inmates.”

The ACLU and other groups recommend increased use of “medical” or “geriatric” parole for medically incapacitated inmates and “conditional releases” for inmates over age 50, if they have served a certain number of years and no longer are threats to society. “Geriatric” or “medical” parole can save states money, said Marc Levin, a corrections authority with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has studied Nebraska’s prison system. At least 36 states, including South Dakota, have such laws, Levin said. California granted medical parole to 47 inmates from 2010 to October 2012 and reduced its health care expenses more than $20 million.....

The increase in older inmates was a key driver in a request to the Nebraska Legislature

last fall for $9 million to cover additional medical expenses this year and next....Generally, criminal offenders show signs of aging earlier than the typical person, in part because of their riskier lifestyles, which can lead to higher rates of hypertension, arthritis, sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis and diabetes. About 1 in 3 inmates in Nebraska’s state prisons — about 1,600 — receives “chronic care,” which involves regular medication and follow-up checks for conditions such as hypertension and asthma.

A report by the ACLU projects that by 2030, 1 in 3 prisoners in the nation will be 55 or older. As of October of last year, nearly 18 percent of the inmates in Nebraska prisons were 50 or older. In Iowa, about 12 percent of the state’s 8,215 prison inmates are over 50. Nationally, get-tough-on-crime policies and the general aging of the U.S. population have been blamed for the explosion of silver hairs behind bars.

In Nebraska, there is an additional factor: Fewer inmates serving life sentences are being given a chance at release. Three decades ago the State Board of Pardons was more likely to commute a life sentence for murder to a specific number of years once an inmate had served 20 or 30 years. That provided a chance to gain a release on parole. But such commutations have occurred only four times in the past 23 years, so more lifers are spending the rest of their days in prison, racking up medical and prescription expenses.

The National Institute of Corrections estimates that it costs $60,000 to $70,000 a year to house an elderly inmate, compared with $27,000 to $34,000 for the average prisoner....

During the 2012-13 fiscal year, 16 inmates died in state prisons; 12 were over age 50. Releasing elderly, infirm inmates would present some problems. Win Barber, a penitentiary spokesman, said many would have to go to nursing homes — which may not want to house someone like a convicted murderer.

Gov. Dave Heineman, who sits on the State Pardons Board, said he would be cautious about releasing elderly inmates, though it’s probably something worth studying as part of the overall study of the state prison system’s spending and policies. “They’re in prison for a reason,” he said.

May 25, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Is nitrogen gas the best modern execution alternative to lethal injection?

Liquid-nitrogen-250x250-250x250The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Slate commentary by Tom McNichol headlined "Death by Nitrogen; If lethal injection falls out of favor, death penalty states could turn to a new method: nitrogen gas." Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that Kentucky's three-drug protocol for carrying out lethal injections was constitutional, but there’s no question that the method looks grimly suspect in the wake of Clayton Lockett’s apparently painful, botched execution in Oklahoma last month. Not so long ago, though, this was the method that represented progress. Hanging. Firing squad. The guillotine. The electric chair. The gas chamber. Lethal injection. Every age seems to feature a new and improved method of capital punishment, billed as more efficient and humane. The spectacle of Lockett’s death, and the Supreme Court’s hesitation, shines a spotlight on the latest idea — death by nitrogen.

This new proposed method, known as nitrogen asphyxiation, seals the condemned in an airtight chamber pumped full of nitrogen gas, causing death by a lack of oxygen. Nitrogen gas has yet to be put to the test as a method of capital punishment — no country currently uses it for state-sanctioned executions. But people do die accidentally of nitrogen asphyxiation, and usually never know what hit them. (It’s even possible that death by nitrogen gas is mildly euphoric. Deep-sea divers exposed to an excess of nitrogen develop a narcosis, colorfully known as “raptures of the deep,” similar to drunkenness or nitrous oxide inhalation.)

In late April, Louisiana Department of Corrections Secretary James LeBlanc suggested to a state legislative committee that Louisiana should look into using nitrogen gas as a new method of execution, since lethal injection has become so contentious. “It’s become almost impossible to execute someone,” LeBlanc complained to the Louisiana House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee.

“Nitrogen is the big thing,” LeBlanc told the committee. “It’s a painless way to go. But more time needs to be spent [studying] that.” The committee instructed LeBlanc to do some research on the subject and report back. In the meantime, Louisiana has delayed a pending execution. “I’m not taking anything off the table,” says state Rep. Joseph P. Lopinto III, chairman of the state’s Administration of Criminal Justice Committee. “If someone says nitrogen gas is the way to go, then we can debate that and do it if need be.”

As long as 32 states have capital punishment on the books, there should be a less reliably cruel method of execution than lethal injection.  “If we’re going to take a life, then we should do it in the most humane, civilized manner as is possible,” says Lawrence Gist II, an attorney and professor of business and law at Mount St. Mary's College. “Right now, nitrogen is the best of the available options.”  Gist, a death penalty opponent, runs a website dedicated to promoting nitrogen asphyxiation for state-sanctioned executions....

Nitrogen gas, unlike the lethal drugs that states have relied on, is widely available.  The gas is used extensively in industrial settings, from aerospace to oil and gas production “Lethal injection is just fine if you can get the pentobarbital,” says Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a group that favors capital punishment. “But if that’s not available, an alternative like nitrogen gas would work.”

In contrast to lethal injection, no medical expertise would be needed to introduce nitrogen gas into a sealed chamber.  The gas chamber itself is technology that has been around since the 1920s. In fact, three states — Arizona, Missouri, and Wyoming — still authorize lethal gas as a method of execution (depending on the choice of the inmate, the date of the execution or sentence or the possibility that lethal injection is held unconstitutional).

The last gas chamber execution in the U.S. was in 1999 — the method fell out of favor because hydrogen cyanide is a poison causing suffering that lasts 10 minutes or longer. Lethal injection, of course, was supposed to be painless and better.  What if it’s not? That’s the question the Supreme Court now finally seems to be returning to.  The history of capital punishment suggests that as long as there’s a will to kill criminals, someone will come up with an improved way.  The new tool in the executioner’s bag may turn out to be nitrogen, a better way to carry out a gruesome task.

If nitrogen gas is really an easy, effective and painless means for killing a condemned inmate, I hope Louisiana and other states might move to this method of execution in the near future. In recent years, the only folks truly well served by lethal injection are those who enjoy last-minute appellate litigation and the prospect of a painful execution. Moreover, as I have often said before, if Congress would have the good sense to care about helping both the feds and states find a better way to carry forth capital justice, perhaps they could consider having a hearing to explore what reasonable modern alternatives to lethal injection might be worth seriously considering.

A few recent related and older posts:

May 24, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)

"Sentencing Debate Reveals Divide Among Republicans"

The title of this post is the headline of a recent article by John Gramlich via CQ News (which, I fear, is trapped behind a pay-wall). Here are excerpts:

A Senate proposal to cut mandatory minimum drug sentences in half has exposed a rift between senior, establishment Republicans who stress their law-and-order credentials and junior, more libertarian-minded members of the party who want to shrink the federal role in incarceration.

Sponsored by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, the bill (S 1410) is seen as a candidate for floor action following the Memorial Day recess after being approved by the Judiciary Committee, 13-5, in January. But the measure’s prospects are uncertain, with differences among Republicans becoming increasingly apparent. The bill’s six GOP cosponsors include five first-term senators: Lee, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

Several of those lawmakers have strong tea party support and view the proposal through a libertarian lens. They cast it as a way to cut taxpayer spending on prisons while preserving individual liberties by doing away with tough penalties for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

By contrast, the bill’s chief Republican opponents are a trio of establishment Republicans who have long pointed to their “tough on crime” bona fides. They are Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, a former state attorney general and judge; Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a former federal prosecutor, and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member and arguably the Senate’s staunchest defender of mandatory minimum penalties....

Beyond the philosophical disagreement, there also appears to be a generational split among Republicans when it comes to sentencing, said William G. Otis, a law professor at Georgetown University and former special counsel to President George H.W. Bush. The average age of the Republicans who voted for the bill in committee earlier this year was 45, as Slate magazine noted in February. The average age of the Republicans who opposed it was 69.

Otis, who opposes the bill, said older Republican senators may be basing their views of the legislation on their personal recollections of the national crime wave that led to tougher criminal sentencing laws.  “For those of us that age, we remember what it was like, because we grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the experience of the crime wave of those two decades is vivid,” Otis said.  “My generation remembers that.  Rand Paul’s generation, Jeff Flake’s generation and Mike Lee’s generation does not.”...

Paul, who is perhaps the Senate’s most prominent Republican supporter of shortening criminal sentences, so far has been unable to persuade Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to back the plan....

Laurie A. Rhodebeck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, said the two senators likely have different constituencies in mind. She noted that Paul may have higher political ambitions and has sought to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party by reaching out to minorities, who often face long criminal sentences for drug crimes. “The way I see the big picture is that Rand Paul seems to be speaking to a national audience right now, rather than a Kentucky audience,” Rhodebeck said. “I assume that’s in keeping with his possible interest in running for the GOP nomination in 2016.”...

To be sure, Democrats may not be united within their own ranks on the bill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., both have expressed reservations about it, even though they agreed to advance the measure to the full Senate. GOP support for the proposal, meanwhile, is not limited only to first-term senators who are identified with the tea party. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is the sixth GOP cosponsor of the bill and has served in the Senate since 2005.

But the Republican split could be a consequential factor in whether the proposal reaches the floor in an election year in which control of the Senate is at stake. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has indicated he would like to bring up the proposal, but Durbin has suggested that there may be complications in rounding up the votes for passage. A divide among outside conservative advocates may be among the complications.

At a forum this week of conservatives in favor of overhauling the nation’s criminal justice policies, prominent figures including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and former National Rifle Association President David Keene made the case for a less punitive approach....

But a group of prominent former federal prosecutors, including two former Republican attorneys general, wrote to Reid and McConnell earlier this month to urge them not to bring the sentencing bill to the floor. Like Grassley and the other Senate Republicans, they warned it would threaten public safety.

I would put a slightly different spin than Bill Otis on the notable fact that the "average age of the Republicans who voted for the [SSA] in committee earlier this year was 45 [while the] average age of the Republicans who opposed it was 69." I would say that supporters of the bill understand that new political and legal realities may call for changing laws passed decades ago, whereas opponents of the bill see little need to update these sentencing laws for modern times.

Some older and recent posts on the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

May 24, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Conceptual considerations for differentiating sentence finality and conviction finality

As explained here, I have been "celebrating" the official publication of my article titled "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences" (which is available in full via this SSRN link) through a series of posts exploring sentence finality doctrines and practice.  And, as set forth in this prior post, a central theme of my piece is that different conceptual, policy, and practical considerations are implicated when a defendant seeks only review and reconsideration of his final sentence and does not challenge his underlying conviction.  In prior posts (all linked below), I reviewed the first part of my article where I detail (perhaps too briefly) how the forms and functions of different punishment systems throughout US history have provided different frameworks for the legal and practical relationship between conviction finality and sentence finality.  

With this post, I will start spotlighting the conceptual, policy, and practical considerations discussed in the second part of my article.  Here I seek to detail my view that fundamental differences between trials and sentencings entail that final convictions and final sentences are necessarily and inherently "different legal creatures" which, in turn, should raise questions about any claims that convictions and sentences necessarily must or generally should be given the same kind of treatment for finality purposes.  Here is some of my discussion about key conceptual differences between convictions and sentences: 

Criminal trials are inherently backward-looking, offense-oriented events, and convictions reflect and represent binary factual determinations about legal guilt.  Typically, trial disputes center on particular issues of historical fact; trials are designed and intended to achieve an accurate and specific legal determination that resolves these factual disputes in order to establish formally, for all pertinent legal purposes, whether the defendant in fact committed a criminal offense that calls for society’s condemnation and state punishment.  At issue at trial may be whether the defendant was the person who committed a wrongful act, what the defendant’s mental state was, or whether the defendant used a weapon or inflicted a particular injury.  Whatever the specific factual issue in dispute, in every criminal trial the advocates and the adjudicators can and should be given all the resources needed — and should be committed to and able to invest all necessary time, energies, and efforts — to marshal and review whatever evidence and information exists concerning the past historical events that are at the heart of the government’s accusations concerning a defendant’s alleged misconduct and wrongdoing. Every effort necessarily should be made to ensure — and every traditional constitutional and evidentiary rule is styled in order to ensure — that a criminal defendant is given a full and fair opportunity to raise a reasonable doubt about the government’s allegations, and trial decision-makers are required to choose from a fixed and limited set of possible trial verdicts as they resolve factual questions concerning guilt or innocence....  [When] the prosecution prevails at trial through a guilty verdict, this outcome of conviction justifiably merits a strong presumption of regularity and accuracy in light of all the time, energies, and efforts marshaled by the participants to get the fundamental guilt determination right initially.

Sentencings, in sharp contrast, involve assessing the future treatment and legal fate of only those offenders convicted after a trial or plea has resolved basic backward-looking factual disputes about guilt and degrees of criminality.  No matter which modern punishment philosophies a jurisdiction principally embraces, sentencing determinations will necessarily always incorporate some offender-oriented considerations, many of which involve assessments of a defendant’s personal history and characteristics to make a forward-looking prediction of the offender’s likelihood of committing future crimes. Though sentencing proceedings may often incorporate some backward-looking considerations concerning how and why a particular crime was committed, the focus of the advocates and the adjudicators is always broader, always more multifaceted and multi-dimensional, and always more granular and nuanced than the basic binary issues of historical fact that are resolved at trial and reflected in a criminal conviction.  The legal issue at sentencing is no longer simply what happened and who was involved in alleged criminal conduct, but what to do with the convicted criminal in light of his, the victims’, and society’s needs.  Sentencing decisionmakers, even within modern determinate sentencing schemes, are presented with a wide array of information about both the offense and the offender, and these decisionmakers are also typically given at least some (and often lots of) discretion to consider an array of possible punishments and sentencing dispositions.

Prior posts in this series:

May 23, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

"Treating Prisoners With Dignity Can Reduce Crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new National Journal commentary authored by Nicholas Turner and John Wetzel. The piece's subheadline is "In Europe, prisoners work for real wages and even cook for themselves. And when they leave prison, they don't come back." And here are excerpts:

It sounds like the first line of a joke: "Three state corrections teams and some experts who are old hands at visiting prisons go to meet their warden counterparts in Germany and the Netherlands in mid-January to see what they could learn."

But it's a true story — and what high-level delegations from Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania learned through the Vera Institute of Justice's European-American Prison Project is no laughing matter. What we learned, in fact, has serious and timely boots-on-the-ground implications....

For those of us who visited Germany and The Netherlands, the approach to sentencing and the prison philosophy we saw astonished and inspired us.  Not only are far fewer people imprisoned, but even those who have committed serious violent crimes serve far shorter sentences.

In these European countries, prisons are organized around the belief that, since virtually all prisoners will return to their communities, it is better to approach their incarceration with conditions as close to "normal" as possible — with the addition of treatment, behavioral interventions, skills training, and needed education — and to remove them from communities for the shortest possible time so that institutional life does not become their norm.

Inmates live in rooms and sleep in beds, not on concrete or steel slabs with thin padding. Inmates have privacy — correctional officers knock before entering — they wear their own clothes, and can decorate their space as they wish.  They cook their own meals, are paid for work that they do, and have opportunities to visit family, learn skills, and gain education.  Inmates are required to save money to ensure that they are not penniless upon release.  There are different expectations for their corrections officers — who are drawn primarily from the ranks of lawyers, social workers, and mental health professionals — to be part of a "therapeutic culture" between staff and offenders, and consequently receive more training and higher pay.  There is little to no violence — including in communal kitchens where there are knives and other "dangerous" implements.  And their maximum time in any kind of punitive solitary is eight hours.

Prison policies grounded in the belief that prisoners should be treated with dignity were startlingly effective — and have eminently pragmatic implications here at home.  The adverse social and economic outcomes for former prisoners in the U.S. are severe — and they are concentrated in communities that are already struggling mightily.  With 95 percent of our nation's incarcerated individuals eventually returning home from prison — and 40 percent going right back to prison within three years — we would do well to heed the strategies used in these nations to teach prisoners how to be good and productive citizens that can rebuild their communities....

Are there challenges to wholesale reform?  Of course.  Money.  Infrastructure. Strains of racial division borne of our history and heterogeneity.  And, cultural differences especially as relates to violence may mean that some European practices may not translate smoothly to the U.S.  Yet we are at a moment of potential for significant shifts.  It will require legislation and policy change, including rethinking sentencing for lower offenses and reducing the time for those who must be in prison.  But the notion that we should strive to create an environment within our prisons conducive to our goal — to return good citizens to our communities — is a challenge we can and must meet.

May 23, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Tennessee adopts electric chair as back-up execution method

Tenn executionAs reported in this AP article, "Tennessee has decided to bring back the electric chair." Here are the details:

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday signed a bill into law allowing the state to electrocute death row inmates in the event the state is unable to obtain drugs used for lethal injections.  Tennessee lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the electric chair legislation in April, with the Senate voting 23-3 and the House 68-13 in favor of the bill.

Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said Tennessee is the first state to enact a law to reintroduce the electric chair without giving prisoners an option.  "There are states that allow inmates to choose, but it is a very different matter for a state to impose a method like electrocution," he said. "No other state has gone so far."

Dieter said he expects legal challenges to arise if the state decides to go through with an electrocution, both in terms of whether the state could prove that lethal injection drugs were not obtainable and on the grounds of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment....

Republican state Sen. Ken Yager, a main sponsor of the electric chair measure, said in a recent interview that he introduced the bill because of "a real concern that we could find ourselves in a position that if the chemicals were unavailable to us that we would not be able to carry out the sentence."

A Vanderbilt University poll released this week found that 56 percent of registered voters in Tennessee support the use of the electric chair, while 37 percent are against it. Previous Tennessee law gave inmates who committed crimes before 1999 the choice of whether they wanted to die by electric chair or lethal injection.  The last inmate to be electrocuted was Daryl Holton, a Gulf War veteran who killed his three sons and a stepdaughter with a high-powered rifle in Shelbyville garage in 1997.  He requested the electric chair in 2007.

A provision to apply the change to prisoners already sentenced to death has also raised a debate among legal experts.  Nashville criminal defense attorney David Raybin, who helped draft Tennessee's death penalty law nearly 40 years ago, has said lawmakers may change the method of execution but they cannot make that change retroactive.  To do so would be unconstitutional, he said.

Supporters of the bill requested a legal opinion from state Attorney General Bob Cooper, who said the law would pass constitutional muster, but there was no guarantee it would not be challenged in court....  The Supreme Court has never declared a method of execution unconstitutional on the grounds that it is cruel and unusual.  It upheld the firing squad in 1879, the electric chair in 1890 and lethal injection in 2008.

May 23, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)