Thursday, March 31, 2016

A telling, but still unsatisfying, SCOTUS discussion of retroactivity during oral argument in Welch

As previewed in this post, yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Welch v. United States, which is principally concerned with the retroactive application of last Term's significant ruling in Johnson (authored by Justice Scalia) that the "residual clause" of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.  I am deeply interested in this Welch case, not only because I helped with this law professor amicus brief in Welch, but also because I have authored this law review article to explain my view that traditional SCOTUS retroactivity doctrines — so called Teague doctrines — developed with unique concern for the importance of preserving the finality of convictions are not necessarily the best was to examine whether and when a new sentencing rule ought to apply retroactivity.

Helpfully, Rory Little has followed up his terrific Welch oral argument preview post at SCOTUSblog with this spot-on oral argument review post titled "Argument analysis: A likely decision in favor of retroactivity?."  Having read the full argument transcript in Welch (which is available here), I fell well positioned to assert that Rory's analysis is a much better and more enjoyable read, and it includes these essential insights at its start and end:

While it is not possible to describe the intricacies of retroactivity doctrine here — let alone wise if we want to keep our readers awake — it looks like last Term’s decision in Johnson v. United States will be declared to apply retroactively for all purposes, including on first and even successive (assuming they are timely filed) habeas corpus petitions. And as I explained in my preview, that result is likely, although not certain, to result in substantial sentencing reductions for a significant number of convicted federal defendants....

The law of retroactivity presents intellectual conundra that may never be fully settled.  The decision in this case is likely to be simply one more precedent in the wavering doctrinal line.  We will never know what Justice Harlan, or Justice Scalia, thinks of it.  But convicted federal felons whose sentences are reduced by five or more years will not care about the intricacies, while young law professors aspiring to tenure will have new grist for their mills.

Though I am no longer a young law professor, the intricacies of retroactivity doctrines as articulated in Teague and its progeny are a source of frustration and concern for me.  And the Welch oral argument leaves me concerned that the current Justices are going to be content to apply existing Teague doctrines in a quirky manner to a quirky case (as they have recently show they are wont to do in Montgomery v. Louisiana decided a few months ago).  As I suggest in this law review article, applying traditional Teague doctrines in retroactivity cases that involving only sentencing issues necessarily involves banging a square equitable peg into and round Teague doctrinal hole.  And yet, after reading the Welch transcript, it seems the Justices are for now content to just keep banging away.

March 31, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Extraordinany (and extraordinarily timely) issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science

The March 2016 issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science has an extraordinary collections of essays by an extraordinary array of legal scholars and sociologists and criminologists under the issue title "The Great Experiment: Realigning Criminal Justice in California and Beyond." Though many of the articles focus on California's unique and uniquely important recent criminal justice reforms experiences, all folks interested in and concerned about sentencing and corrections reform in the United States ought to find the time to read most or all of the articles in this collection.

The special editors of this issue, Charis Kubrin and Carroll Seron, authored this introduction to the collection under the title "The Prospects and Perils of Ending Mass Incarceration in the United States."  Here is an excerpt from that introduction:

This volume of The ANNALS represents the first effort by scholars to systematically and scientifically analyze what Joan Petersilia (2012) has described as “the biggest criminal justice experiment ever conducted in America.”  She went on to note that “most people don’t even realize it’s happening,” a point underscored by Franklin Zimring in the volume’s concluding remarks.  At a historic moment in which imprisonment patterns across the U.S. are shifting for the first time in nearly 40 years, the California case is ripe for in-depth examination.  The political landscape around decarceration is also shifting in ways that do not fit the debate of the last 40 years.  The initiative behind the prison buildup was largely an offshoot of more conservative, law and order political agendas, but as the nation debates a move toward prison downsizing and decarceration, there is support from both the Left and the Right for this fundamental shift in policy (Aviram, this volume; Beckett et al., this volume) — unusual bedfellows at a time of political polarization.  While this political convergence will no doubt be contested, as Joan Petersilia emphasizes in the volume’s preface, it nonetheless represents an important moment to have a systematic, rigorous, and scientific evaluation of California’s experiment and its implications on hand for policy-makers.

March 31, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fair Punishment Project releases first major report: "Juvenile Life Without Parole in Philadelphia: A Time for Hope?"

In this post yesterday I noted the new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  Today I received an email concerning the great new work of this great new initiative.  Here is part of this email reporting on this new report from FPP:

As Pennsylvania prepares for hundreds of resentencing hearings, a new report released today by the Fair Punishment Project and Phillips Black highlights Philadelphia’s frequent use of life without parole sentences for juveniles, calling the county an “extreme outlier” in its use of the punishment.  The report urges District Attorney Seth Williams to adopt a new approach to dealing with juveniles in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which determined that the court’s prior decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth must be applied retroactively.

The report, Juvenile Life Without Parole in Philadelphia: A Time for Hope?, notes that Philadelphia County is responsible for the highest number of juvenile life without parole sentences in the country.  By way of comparison, Philadelphia County is home to just .5% of all Americans, but at least 9% of all juveniles sentenced to life without parole — or nearly one in 10.

“The latest scientific research show us that juveniles have a tremendous capacity to change their behaviors as they age,” stated Johanna Wald, a spokesperson for the Fair Punishment Project. “It is an injustice, and waste of taxpayer resources, to keep individuals locked up until their death for crimes they committed when they were teenagers. They should have an opportunity to prove they are worthy of a second chance.”

Wald notes that the Supreme Court has set a high bar to justify a life without parole sentence for juveniles. “The court has said that juvenile life without parole sentences should be reserved for exceptional cases that reflect ‘irreparable corruption.’ Given that adolescent brains are not fully developed and the capacity children have to change, the court rightfully assumes that it will be rare for an individual to meet this standard.”...

“Philadelphia has sentenced more juveniles to life without parole than anywhere else in the United States,” said John Mills of Phillips Black. “It is an outlier jurisdiction that, thanks to the court’s ruling, now has the opportunity to right the harsh punishments of the past by providing a thoughtful and measured approach to resentencing.”

March 31, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"A Fatally Flawed Proxy: The Role of 'Intended Loss' in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for Fraud"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Daniel Guarnera now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Of all federal criminal defendants, those convicted of fraud are among the most likely to receive a sentence below the term recommended by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines.  The most important (and controversial) driver of fraud sentences under the Guidelines is the economic loss — actual or intended, whichever is greater — resulting from the crime.

This Article examines the role of the “intended loss” calculation.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission designed the intended loss enhancement to function as a rule-oriented proxy for defendant culpability.  By applying the framework of rules and standards, this Article argues that culpability, by its nature, is too multifarious a concept to be accurately represented by a single variable.  Furthermore, a recently-enacted amendment to the definition of intended loss — which restricts its scope to losses “that the defendant purposely sought to inflict” — will only exacerbate the problem by excluding a significant subset of plainly culpable conduct.

Rather than attempt to fine-tune the intended loss calculation any further, this Article contends that the purposes of sentencing in general (and the goals of the Guidelines in particular) would be better served by enabling judges to conduct a more standard-based inquiry into the wide array of facts that can bear on culpability.  It evaluates several proposals that would give judges greater discretion while, at the same time, minimizing the risk of unwarranted sentencing disparities.

March 31, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

GOP frontrunner Donald Trump says "some form of punishment" would be needed for women who have abortions if procedure is made illegal

This recent article at The Crime Report, headlined "Trump On Crime: Tough Talk, Few Specifics," highlighted how hard it is to figure out Donald Trump's policy position on various criminal justice issues (in which I was quoted):

Most experts we talked to say it’s hard to distinguish the rhetoric from the policies. “[The Trump campaign] has not issued a platform yet, so I’m not sure that I’d take anything that he’s been saying as an actual criminal justice policy,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.

“What’s really frustrating, is that (he’s) like a cardboard candidate; you know what his pitch is but you don’t know anything else beyond that,” said Prof. Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School. “And maybe he doesn’t either.”

Berman suggests half-jokingly that there’s a “simple answer” to the question of what Donald Trump believes about criminal justice. “Who the hell knows?” he said.

On many policy issues, Trump has sidestepped detailed responses by pointing to his experience in real estate and suggesting that good dealmakers keep their positions ambiguous at the start of any negotiation. That seems to apply to his approach to justice as well. Asked about specific criminal justice reforms, Trump often changes the subject back to supporting police or vague answers about needing to be “tough.”

But today GOP frontrunner Trump is making headlines for talking about criminal punishment in an especially controversial setting.  This FoxNews piece, headlined "Trump says abortion ban should mean punishment for women who have procedure," provides the details:

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said Wednesday said that if abortion were illegal in the United States, then women who have the procedure should be punished.  Trump made the comments during a taping of an MSNBC town hall that will be aired later Wednesday.

Host Chris Matthews pressed Trump to clarify, asking him whether abortion should be punished and who ultimately should be held accountable. “Look, people in certain parts of the Republican Party, conservative Republicans, would say, ‘Yes, it should,’” Trump said. The candidate later put out a statement saying: “This issue is unclear and should be put back into the states for determination.”...

When asked specifically at the town hall what he thought, the New York businessman answered, “I would say it’s a very serious problem and it’s a problem we have to decide on. Are you going to send them to jail?”

“I’m asking you,” Matthews prompted.

“I am pro-life,” Trump said.

Matthews pressed on, asking again who should be punished in an abortion case if it were illegal.

“There has to be some form of punishment,” Trump said.

“For the woman?” Matthews asked.

“Yeah,” Trump responded, adding later that the punishment would “have to be determined.”

His rivals seized on the remarks. Ohio Gov. John Kasich later told MSNBC “of course women shouldn’t be punished.” An aide to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted: “Don't overthink it: Trump doesn't understand the pro-life position because he's not pro-life.”

With all due respect to the statement made by an aide to Senator Ted Cruz, it seems to me that Donald Trump actually understands — and may be taking more seriously than many other politicians — the oft-stated pro-life position that life begins at conception and that abortion it at least somewhat akin to homicide.

The National Right to Life Committee, the nation's oldest and largest pro-life organization,  states expressly here that in the US "over 40 million unborn babies have been killed in the 40 years since abortion was legalized and more than 1.2 million are killed each year" and that "medical science has known conclusively that every individual's life begins at the moment of fertilization."   Pro-Life Action League states expressly here that "killing an unborn child is inherently wrong, and therefore can never be justified regardless of circumstances. It is no more just to kill an unborn child in order to avoid hardship than it would be to kill a toddler to avoid hardship. Because the unborn child is unseen, it is easier for society to condone killing him or her, though this is morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development."  The American Life League similarly states expressly here that "abortion is a direct attack on a preborn child which kills; it is murder."

If one genuinely believes that any abortion involves the intentional "killing" of a human life, that it is "morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development," and that "it is murder," and thus an act which should be criminally prohibited (like all other forms of intentional homicide), then I would hope that one ought also be genuinely committed to criminally punishing, at least to some extent, any and every person intentionally involved in this act of intentional killing which "morally indistinguishable from killing any child at any stage of development." 

In modern society, we threaten to punish all sorts of persons (at least with fines) for all sorts of petty crimes like overtime parking and illegal copying of a DVD and loitering.  I believe I am understanding and showing respect to the views and claims of persons who are pro-lifer when I surmise they consider any intentional abortion to be a societal wrong that is far more serious than, say, overtime parking or loitering.  If that is right, then I also think it would be fair to say that Donald Trump is actually understanding and showing respect for the views and claims of persons who are pro-life when he suggests that women intentionally involved in obtaining illegal abortions ought to be subject to at least "some form of punishment."

March 30, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Harvard Law School launches "Fair Punishment Project"

While I was on the road yesterday, I received an email with some exciting news from my law school alma mater.  Here is the text of the email announcement:

We'd like to introduce you to a brand new initiative brought to you by Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP).  The Fair Punishment Project will use legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable.  The Project will work to highlight the gross injustices resulting from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyers, and racial bias and exclusion. We are dedicated to illuminating the laws that result in excessive punishment, especially the death penalty and juvenile life without parole.

We'll be releasing our first report in the next day or two, so keep an eye out -- you don't want to miss it.  Future reports will highlight the troubling attributes that outlier death penalty counties have in common, examine America's top 10 deadliest prosecutors, and look deeply into counties that are plagued by prosecutorial misconduct. 

The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute was launched in 2005 by Harvard Law School professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. The Institute serves as a critical bridge between scholarship, law, policy, and practice to solve the challenges of a multi-racial society.  The Criminal Justice Institute trains Harvard Law School students who will be the next generation of ethical, effective, and passionate defense lawyers.  Led by Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., the Institute leads research of the criminal and juvenile justice systems in order to affect local and national reform.

The Fair Punishment Project will strive to be a valuable resource for anyone and everyone who is interested in bringing about a fair and equitable justice system.  We hope you will visit our website at to learn more about our work, and that you will join us as we address one of the most critical issues of our time.

And here are titles and links to some of the notable sentencing-related content already up at the FPP website:

March 30, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Fourth Circuit refuses to allow federal juvenile defendant to be tried as adult on charge carrying death or madatory LWOP

A number of helpful readers alerted me to this interesting Fourth Circuit panel ruling today in US v. Under Seal, No. 15-4265 (4th Cir. March 30, 2016) (available here), which gets started this way:

Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 5032, the Government filed a motion to transfer the Defendant -- who was a juvenile at the time of the alleged offense -- for prosecution as an adult for murder in aid of racketeering, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1959(a)(1).  This crime carries a mandatory statutory penalty of either death or life imprisonment.  The district court denied the Government’s motion after concluding that the prosecution would be unconstitutional given that recent Supreme Court decisions have held that the United States Constitution prohibits sentencing juvenile offenders to either of these punishments.  See Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012) (mandatory life imprisonment); Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005) (death penalty).

The Government appeals the district court’s decision, contending that its transfer motion should have been granted because the Defendant could have been sentenced to a term of years up to a discretionary life sentence.  For the reasons set forth below, we affirm the district court’s decision.

March 30, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mississippi Gov supporting state legislative effort to use firing squads as back-up execution method

A helpful reader alerted me to this local article from Mississippi headlined "Governor Bryant supports firing squad bill."  Here are the details:

The Mississippi House wants to allow the state prisons to execute prisoners using a firing squad if officials decide lethal injection is too expensive or unavailable.

Governor Phil Bryant voiced his support of the bill. “If the senate passes a firing squad bill, I’ll certainly sign it. My belief is we need to carry out a capital punishment that when the courts say that it’s necessary; and if it takes a firing squad we’ll do exactly that,” said Governor Bryant.

The house amended the bill Friday before passing it. It will now go back to the senate for more work. Attorney General Jim Hood has asked lawmakers to approve alternate execution methods such as electrocution, the use of nitrogen gas as well as the firing squad.

As long time readers surely know, I have been urging states to seriously explore alternatives to lethal injection for the better part of a decade: in this December 2006 post, for example, I flagged an discussion of various new and old execution procedures that might be explored suggested that "states interested in continuing to employ the death penalty should start exploring alternatives to lethal injection." I suppose I am pleased to hear leaders in Mississippi have come around, but there sure seems to have been a whole lot of capital justice delayed in that state and many others because of a failure of states to seriously explore alternative execution methods.

Just a few prior related posts on firing squads and other alternatives over the last decade:

March 30, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Prez Obama commutes the sentence of 61 more federal drug offenders

As reported in this Washington Post piece, "President Obama commuted the sentences of 61 inmates Wednesday, part of his ongoing effort to give relief to prisoners who were harshly sentenced in the nation’s war on drugs." Here is more on this notable clemency news:

More than one-third of the inmates were serving life sentences. Obama has granted clemency to 248 federal inmates, including Wednesday's commutations.  White House officials said that Obama will continue granting clemency to inmates who meet certain criteria set out by the Justice Department throughout his last year....  Since the Obama administration launched a high-profile clemency initiative, thousands more inmates have applied.  Another 9,115 clemency petitions from prisoners are still pending....

But sentencing reform advocates said that many more prisoners are disappointed they have not yet heard from the president about their petitions. “Sixty-one grants, with over 10,000 petitions pending, is not an accomplishment to brag about,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and an advocate for inmates petitioning for clemency.  “I know some of those still waiting, men who were grievously over-sentenced, who have reformed themselves, and never had a record of violence.  My heart breaks for them, as their hope for freedom — a hope created by the members of this administration — slips away.”

The White House has argued that broader criminal justice reform is needed beyond the clemency program. “Despite the progress we have made, it is important to remember that clemency is nearly always a tool of last resort that can help specific individuals, but does nothing to make our criminal justice system on the whole more fair and just,” said White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston. “Clemency of individual cases alone cannot fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.  So, while we continue to work to resolve as many clemency applications as possible — and make no mistake, we are working hard at this — only broader criminal justice reform can truly bring justice to the many thousands of people behind bars serving unduly harsh and outdated sentences.”

Among those granted clemency on Wednesday was Byron Lamont McDade, who had an unusual advocate in his corner.  The judge who sent McDade to prison for more than two decades for his role in a Washington-area cocaine conspiracy personally pleaded McDade’s case for early release. U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman said McDade’s 27-year punishment was “disproportionate” to his crime, but that he had no choice but to impose the harsh prison term in 2002 because of then-mandatory sentencing guidelines. Over the years, the judge had urged the Bureau of Prisons and the White House to reduce McDade’s sentence to 15 years.  He received no response until now....

On Thursday, the White House will hold an event called Life after Clemency that will include former inmates and their attorneys, along with some prison reform advocates. The president’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, is meeting with advocates, former inmates and family members of prisoners Wednesday at the White House for an event about women and the criminal justice system.

This White House Press release provides basic details on the full list of 61 offenders who today learned that they now have a "prison sentence commuted to expire on July 28, 2016." Many of those listed appear to have been involved in a crack offense, though other drug cases sentenced both before and after Booker can be found in the group.  Notably, this NACDL press release reports that "25 of [these 61 offenders] were applicants whose petitions were supported by Clemency Project 2014."  This White House blog post authored by White House counsel W. Neil Eggleston provides more details and context concerning these grants:

Today, the President announced 61 new grants of commutation to individuals serving years in prison under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws.  More than one-third of them were serving life sentences.  To date, the President has now commuted the sentences of 248 individuals more than the previous six Presidents combined. And, in total, he has commuted 92 life sentences.

Underscoring his commitment not just to clemency, but to helping those who earn their freedom make the most of their second chance, the President will meet today with commutation recipients from both his Administration and the previous administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  During the meeting, the commutation recipients will discuss their firsthand experiences with the reentry process and ways that the process can be strengthened to give every individual the resources he or she needs to transition from prison and lead a fulfilling, productive life. 
Building on this conversation, tomorrow the White House will host a briefing titled Life After Clemency with advocates, academics, and Administration officials to discuss and share ideas on the President’s clemency initiative and ways to improve paths to reentry. In addition to officials from the White House and the Department of Justice, experts, academics, and commutation recipients will share their expertise and insights on returning to society after years behind bars.  To watch the briefing live, tune in tomorrow, Thursday, March 31, at 2:00 PM EDT at

March 30, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Fascinating SCOTUS Sixth Amendment splintering in Luis v. United States

The Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion this morning that is fascinating based simply on the line-up of Justices: "BREYER, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ALITO, J., joined. KAGAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion." This line-up ruled for the criminal defendant in Luis v. United States, No. 14-419 (S. Ct. March 30, 2016) (available here), and here is how Justice Breyer's plurality opinion starts:

A federal statute provides that a court may freeze before trial certain assets belonging to a criminal defendant accused of violations of federal health care or banking laws. See 18 U. S. C. §1345. Those assets include: (1) property “obtained as a result of ” the crime, (2) property“traceable” to the crime, and (3) other “property of equivalent value.” §1345(a)(2). In this case, the Government has obtained a court order that freezes assets belonging to the third category of property, namely, property that is untainted by the crime, and that belongs fully to the defendant. That order, the defendant says, prevents her frompaying her lawyer.  She claims that insofar as it does so, it violates her Sixth Amendment “right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for [her] defence.” We agree.

March 30, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Sentencing Reductions versus Sentencing Equality"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and timely new paper by Susan Klein now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was enacted by an odd conglomeration of Democrat and Republican who agreed that federal sentences should be based upon relevant offender and offense characteristics, not including such things as race, gender, geography, ideological bent of the sentencing judge, or citizenship. That goal has become lost and less relevant in today’s world of draconian and mandatory minimum sentencing, especially in the drug trafficking, child pornography, and fraud arenas. Mass incarceration has run rampant. Sentences are so out-of-whack with most basic principles justice that the fact that female offenders may receive slightly lower prison terms than their male counterparts should no longer be the very top of our reform agenda.

This is not to suggest that scholars and the public shouldn’t be concerned with sentencing disparity, especially based on race. However, the disparity between federal and state sentences is so much wider (and occurs so much more frequently) than the disparity among similarly-situated federal offenders that the latter appears less of a significant issue in absolute terms. Whatever reform capital policy-makers and scholars retain should be poured into championing alternatives to criminalization (such as fines, drug treatment, and apologies) and alternatives to long prison terms (such as probation and parole). Reforms must focus on discovering what offenses we could safely decriminalize, and what programs are effective in keeping individuals out of prison in the first place (or in curbing recidivism once incarceration has occurred).

If giving judges more discretion at sentencing means lower average prison terms, this will probably rebound to the benefit of our minority populations as a whole, even if it might mean that in particular cases minority defendants receive slightly higher sentences for the same conduct as their white counterparts. Likewise, if sentencing, parole, and probation decisions based upon “risk assessment” leads to lower overall incarceration rates, we may have to tolerate this even if it generates higher risk numbers for certain minority offenders. Critics of every substantive criminal-law and sentencing reform proposal need to remember the big picture, and not lose sight of the forest of mass incarceration for the trees of unwarranted sentencing disparity.

March 30, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal court to hear challenge to "scarlet passport" provision of International Megan’s Law

ImagesAs reported in this Wall Street Journal article, a constitutional challenge to a contoversial aspect of a law passed by Congress last month is schedule for a federal court hearing today in California. The article is headined "Law Creating Passport Mark for Sex Offenders Faces First Challenge: Lawsuit targets ‘unique identifier’ for passports of those convicted of sex crimes involving minors," and here are excerpts:

A new federal law requiring the State Department to mark the passports of certain convicted sex offenders is expected to face its first test in federal court on Wednesday. A group of convicted sex offenders has asked a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., to block the measure pending the outcome of a February lawsuit they filed that challenges the law’s constitutionality.

The law, International Megan’s Law to Prevent Demand for Child Sex Trafficking, mandates the State Department to add a “unique identifier” to passports of Americans convicted of sex crimes involving minors and that U.S. officials to alert foreign governments when those Americans travel abroad.

The judge, Phyllis J. Hamilton, is scheduled to hear arguments on Wednesday on whether to suspend implementation of the passport mark and the notification requirement. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs say the law violates the U.S. Constitution by forcing people convicted of sex offenses to bear the equivalent of a “proverbial Scarlet Letter” on their passports. The First Amendment limits what the government can compel people to divulge. The complaint asks a federal judge to strike down the law as unconstitutional.

“For the first time in the history of this nation, the United States Government will publicly stigmatize a disfavored minority group using a document foundational to citizenship,” says the lawsuit, filed on Feb. 8 in federal district court in Oakland, Calif.

The new law codifies a nearly decade-old program called Operation Angel Watch, which U.S. officials said has helped to curb child-sex tourism by alerting countries of sex offenders traveling to them. Supporters say the law will help countries with a lack of resources deal with child predators and encourage foreign governments to reciprocate when sex offenders from their countries try to enter the U.S. “Knowledge is power in terms of protection,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), who sponsored the bill. Rep. Smith said the passport mark to be created by the State Department will help keep Americans covered by the law from concealing their destination by traveling to a foreign country by way of another to engage in sex tourism.

The law, signed by President Barack Obama on Feb. 7, could cover a wide swath of offenders, including people convicted of misdemeanor offenses such as “sexting” with a minor, according to the lawsuit, which identifies the seven plaintiffs by the pseudonym John Doe.... Rep. Smith said he got the idea for International Megan’s Law during a meeting with a delegation of Thai officials about human-trafficking. He asked them what they would do if the U.S. alerted them when a registered offender was traveling to their country and “They said, ‘Well, we wouldn’t give them a visa,’ ” Mr. Smith recalled....

Janice Bellucci, a lawyer who represents the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, said she found few precedents for the passport identifier in her research. Among them: The Nazis confiscated Jewish passports and marked them with a “J,” and the internal passports in the Soviet Union singled out Jews by listing their ethnicity as Jewish, while other citizens were identified by their place of birth, she said.

Mr. Smith rejected the lawsuit’s comparisons and said California Reform Sex Offender Laws, a group Ms. Bellucci is president of, and others have long sought to weaken sex-offender laws. “U.S. law denies passports to delinquent taxpayers, deadbeat parents and drug smugglers,” the congressman wrote in a recent op-ed published in the Washington Post. “The law’s passport provision, however, does not go this far.”

International Megan’s Law doesn’t allow for offenders who states have deemed rehabilitated, or who have had their records expunged to have the passport mark removed, according to Ms. Bellucci. Nor does it exempt those who were minors at the time of their offense.

Nicole Pittman, director of the Impact Justice Center on Youth Registration Reform, an Oakland, Calif., group pushing to eliminate the practice of placing children on sex-offender registries, said about 200,000 of the roughly 850,000 people registered as sex offenders in the U.S. were under the age of 18 when they were convicted or adjudicated in juvenile court. “This is supposed to protect kids and we’re actually hurting them,” Ms. Pittman said of International Megan’s Law. “We have kids going on the registry for sending nude pictures of themselves.”

March 30, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Oklahoma creates Death Penalty Review Commission full of prominent folks .... which will likely achieve ....?

Though I generally think of myself as an optimist, this notable news item out of Oklahoma, headlined "Oklahoma Bipartisan Death Penalty Review Commission formed, supported," triggers the cynical little voice in my head that comes out when I hear about the creation of a blue-ribbon commission in the sentencing arena.  (For those curious about aesthetic backstories, this Wikipedia entry highlights why we color expert panels blue instead of, say, having pink-ribbon commissions.)  Before I go cynical, here are the details of the latest governmental gathering of note:

A group of prominent Oklahomans joined together Monday (March 28) to form a blue-ribbon, bipartisan Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission.  The Commission will conduct what a press statement called “the first-ever independent, objective and thorough review of the state’s entire capital punishment system.”...

“Oklahoma has an opportunity to lead the nation by being the first state to conduct extensive research on its entire death penalty process, beginning with an arrest that could lead to an execution,” said former Gov. Brad Henry, of Henry-Adams Companies, LLC, one of the group’s co-chairs.“The Commission includes distinguished Oklahomans with differing views and perspectives on capital punishment who are donating their time to work together on a research-driven review,” he said.

Joining Gov. Henry as co-chairs are Reta Strubhar, a judge on the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals (1993-2004) and an Assistant District Attorney of Canadian County (1982-1984); and Andy Lester, of the Spencer Fane law firm and a former U.S. Magistrate Judge for Western District of Oklahoma who served on President Ronald Reagan’s Transition team for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1980-1981).

Members of the Commission have experience in a variety of aspects of the capital punishment system, including victim advocacy, policymaking, prosecution, defense, and judging. They also include leading lawyers, business leaders, and scholars.  In addition to the co-chairs, the members are Robert H. Alexander, Jr., of The Law Office of Robert H. Alexander, Jr.; Howard Barnett, President of OSU-Tulsa; Dean Andrew Coats, Dean Emeritus of OU College of Law; Dean Valerie Couch, Oklahoma City University School of Law; Maria Kolar, Assistant Professor of OU College of Law; Rob Nigh, Chief Public Defender, Tulsa County; Christy Sheppard, a victims’ advocate; Kris Steele, Director of The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM) and former Speaker of the House; and Gena Timberman, founder of The Luksi Group.

“Our goal is to provide a resource for Oklahomans to allow them to make informed judgments about our state’s capital punishment system that, we hope, will benefit both Oklahoma and the country as a whole,” said Henry.

Though I have long been a fan of any "research-driven review" of any sentencing system, I am not optimistic based on my own experiences in Ohio that this kind of death penalty review commission will be able to achieve all that much other than producing a lengthy report that will be embraced or rejected by political leaders based entirely on their already established views on the death penalty.  This cynical prediction is based on how an array of ABA reports on state death penalty systems and how a recent Ohio Death Penalty Task Force report was received.

Critically, I do not mean to be asserting that this Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission is unimportant or sure to inconsequential.  But I do mean to assert that basic political dynamics rather than refined policy analysis defines and often limits the possibilities for reforming the administration of the death penalty.

March 29, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"There hasn’t been a criminal defense lawyer on the Supreme Court in 25 years. That’s a problem."

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Vox commentary authored by Dara Lind. Here is how the piece starts: 

It's been a quarter-century since a former criminal defense lawyer sat on the Supreme Court.  Since then, crime has fallen by half.  Incarceration has risen, then fallen (slightly) again. Americans are becoming more and more critical of the "tough-on-crime" mindset that defined the end of the 20th century, and more skeptical that police and prosecutors will always use their powers for good — in other words, they're coming in line with how defense lawyers see the world.

But when Barack Obama made his third (and likely final) Supreme Court nomination last week, he nominated Merrick Garland.  Garland is a former prosecutor with a tough-on-crime record. The Court already has two ex-prosecutors.

Appellate defense lawyer Timothy O'Toole points out that the Court has veterans of both sides of civil cases (defendants' and plaintiffs' lawyers) and one side of criminal cases (prosecutors). "But the one group that seems kind of outside that box, particularly on the Supreme Court, are defense lawyers.  And that's a shame."

Defense lawyers and scholars worry this isn't an accident; it's the result of the structure that shapes who can get nominated to the Supreme Court to begin with. Federal judges tend to be people who "ticked all the political checkboxes on their career starting from when they were 15," says Tejas Bhatt, assistant public defender for New Haven, Connecticut. Often one of those boxes is working as a prosecutor.  Even beyond any particular career experience, the system rewards "people who don't take controversial positions, they don't do controversial things, who don't issue controversial opinions, who do seem to hew more toward law and order and enforcement."

There's good reason to be concerned about the jurisprudence of a court that only understands one side of a criminal case from experience — and since the high-water mark of the 1960s, defense lawyers have seen the Supreme Court put serious restrictions on the right against self-incrimination, the right against unreasonable search, and even the right to a lawyer.

But to many of them, this isn't just a problem with jurisprudence.  It's a problem with the Supreme Court in a democracy — and in an increasingly diverse America.  They believe the politics of Supreme Court confirmations has limited all but a very narrow, very privileged slice of America to have a shot at a seat on the highest court in the land.  And one of the groups who they fear are locked out is the people whose job it is to stand up for the rights of the marginalized — and those who are on the wrong side of well-intentioned laws.

March 29, 2016 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Still more ugly details on the still ugly realities of the federal clemency process

Regular readers are probably tired of hearing me complain regularly about the failure of the Obama Administration to fix the many problems surrounding the modern federal clemency process.  But this new USA Today article, headlined "Former administration pardon attorney suggests broken system in resignation letter: Former Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff said she was unable to talk to the White House about pardons," provides still more grist for my clemency kvetching mill. Here is how the piece starts:

The Obama administration instructed Justice Department attorneys to neglect applications for presidential pardons to give priority to the Justice Department's initiative to release low-level offenders from prison, the former pardon attorney said in her resignation letter early this year. That inaction was one of several issues that former Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff cited in her letter, which was obtained by USA TODAY after making a Freedom of Information Act request. Leff resigned in January after less than two years as the official responsible for making clemency recommendations for the president.

Her resignation letter suggests a broken and bureaucratic process at odds with President Obama's own aim to exercise his pardon power "more aggressively" in the final months of his presidency. Leff wrote that the administration's focus on the clemency initiative at the expense of traditional pardons and commutations "means that the requests of thousands of petitioners seeking justice will lie unheard."

"This is inconsistent with the mission and values to which I have dedicated my life, and inconsistent with what I believe the department should represent," she wrote.

It's the job of the U.S. pardon attorney to investigate all of those cases and make a recommendation to the deputy attorney general, who then forwards it to the White House Counsel's Office and, ultimately, the president. Because the pardon attorney advises the president on sensitive cases, the process is cloaked in secrecy, and officials rarely discuss the process publicly. So Leff's letter offers a rare glimpse into how the pardon office works in the Obama administration. Unlike in previous administrations, where pardon office staffers and the White House had routine conversations, Leff said she was denied "all access to the White House Counsel's Office," which is the last step for a pardon application before being approved or denied by the president.

She said Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates had overruled her recommendations in an increasing number of cases — and that in those cases, the president was unaware of the difference of opinion. "I believe that prior to making the serious and complex decisions underlying clemency, it is important for the president to have a full set of views," she said.

And she said the Justice Department had not made good on its promise to put the required resources behind the clemency initiative. That initiative, part of a broader push for sentencing reform, was designed to use the president's constitutional pardon power to release federal inmates who would have received shorter sentences had they been sentenced under today's more lenient guidelines. It applies mostly to non-violent drug offenders serving sentences of 10 years or more, with good behavior while in prison.

March 29, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 28, 2016

NY Times laments "A Modern System of Debtor Prisons"

The New York Times today ran this editorial headlined "A Modern System of Debtor Prisons." Here are excerpts:

Court systems commonly raise revenue by punishing people who commit minor offenses with fines, fees and penalties that can pile up, driving them into poverty. Worse still, state and local governments often jail people illegally for nonpayment, putting them at risk of losing their jobs and homes.

The Justice Department responded forcefully to this problem in Ferguson, Mo. This month, the racially troubled town agreed to a federal plan to root out racist and unconstitutional practices in its Police Department and courts. The case put other state and local governments on notice that they, too, could be held accountable for operating court systems that violate the constitutional rights of people charged with nonpayment of fines.

The guidelines issued by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division explain in detail what courts can and cannot do when enforcing fine collections. The department says state and local courts have an obligation to inquire about a person’s ability to pay fines and fees before jailing them for nonpayment. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that imprisoning a person because he or she is too poor to pay a fee amounts to “punishing a person for his poverty” and violates equal protection under the 14th Amendment....

The danger of unjust practices is magnified when courts hire private companies to collect court fines. These companies often operate without oversight, which leaves them free to adopt abusive tactics and bleed people with fees and penalties. The Justice Department makes clear that courts can be held accountable for constitutional violations committed by the firms they hire. The Ferguson reform plan is a reminder of how far state and local courts have strayed from the law in this area, and it provides a clear route to restoring lost justice for the indigent.

March 28, 2016 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Call for Papers for Symposium on "Private Prisons: The Corporatization of Criminal Justice and the New Marketplace for Crime"

I am very pleased to be able to post a timely call for papers sent my way by a former student who is now in law teaching and working hard in the arena of criminal justice reform and sentencing.  Here are the event/paper details sent my way:

Indiana Tech Law School will dedicate its 2016 Annual Symposium to the pressing issue of the prison industrial complex, and specifically the role of private prisons in mass incarceration. The symposium, titled Private Prisons: The Corporatization of Criminal Justice and the New Marketplace for Crime, will seek to contextualize the criminal justice system against the backdrop of the for-profit prison system, particularly the system’s reliance upon high rates of incarceration to sustain its business model.  The symposium seeks to address a broad range of questions, including how the profit-motive of private prisons influences the length and severity of sentences and availability of parole, how private prisons and mass incarceration disproportionately impact communities of color, and how private prisons contribute to social inequality and oppression.

The United States imprisons more people, both per capita and in absolute terms, than any other nation in the world.  Since the 1980’s, the government has increasingly turned to private corporations to build, maintain, and operate prisons to house the burgeoning prison population.  This unprecedented level of incarceration by for-profit corporations has important implications for law and policy, not only in the context of criminal justice but also in immigration detainment and deportation matters. Currently, forprofit prisons detain 6% of state prisoners, 16% of federal prisoners, and nearly half of all immigrants detained for documentation status.

The private prison system raises issues that touch upon criminal sentencing, immigration policy, the legitimacy of delegating carceral policy to the private sector, and fundamental liberty guarantees under the Fourteenth Amendment.  We seek papers that will contribute to the important dialogue about the legal system’s responsibility for both producing and correcting these outcomes.  Papers accepted for the symposium will be published in a special symposium edition of the Indiana Tech Law Review.

Workshop Contacts: andré douglas pond cummings (ADCummings @, Adam Lamparello (AXLamparello @ and Yvonne Lindgren (YFLindgren @

Submission procedure: Email a proposal of up to 500 words as a Word or PDF document by May 1, 2016. Please include your name, institution, and contact information in the proposal and submit it via email to Lydia LaMont ( with the subject line “Symposium Call for Papers.” Decisions will be made by June 1st and working paper drafts are due by October 15th.

Symposium Details: The Symposium will be held at Indiana Tech Law School in Fort Wayne, Indiana on November 11th. The program will consist of panel discussions and a keynote address.

March 28, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

A week of extraordinary reporting and commentary via The Crime Report

Regularly readers are perhaps used to me regularly praising The Crime Report for its impressive original reporting and interesting commentaries on an erray of criminal justice issues. This post is another in this series, prompted by the fact that I have been meaning to do distinct posts about nearly a dozen pieces I saw over at TCR just over the last (too busy week). I remain hopeful I will get a chance to blog separately about some of the pieces below that I find more interesting or important, but for now I am going to have to be content to urger everyong to click through a read everyone of these linked piece:

March 28, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Time, Death, and Retribution"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Chad Flanders now available via SSRN. To call this article timely and just dead on is both accurate and punny. Here is the abstract:

The heart of a Lackey claim is that when a death row inmate is kept waiting too long for his execution, this delay can amount to cruel and unusual punishment — either because they delay is itself cruel and unusual, or because the execution on top of the delay is.  All Lackey claims brought by death row inmates have failed, but not for want of trying.  The usual complaint against Lackey claims is that those who, by their own appeals, delay their execution date cannot turn around and use that delay as an argument against their death sentences.  I agree with other scholars that this argument is incorrect.  However, even if it is true that prisoner choice cannot make an otherwise unconstitutional sentence constitutional, Lackey claims can — and should — fail if the courts adopt a certain theory of retribution, what I call “intrinsic desert retribution”.  Examining that type of retribution, distinguishing it from other retributive theories, and showing how intrinsic desert retribution can refute most Lackey claims, is one of this article’s major contributions. In doing so, it breaks with most of the scholarly literature, which tends to be sympathetic to Lackey claims.

But the fact that Lackey claims may survive given a certain theory of retribution does not make that theory something the state may permissibly pursue.  And this is the second major contribution of the article: to make the case that retribution may in fact not be a permissible state purpose.  In short, Lackey claims do not fail because they are too strong — they fail because they are not strong enough.  The Supreme Court has traditionally held that the state may permissibly put someone to death because of retribution.  But the Court has also said, in other contexts, that the state may not pursue certain aims.  The state cannot promote religion, for one; nor can it adopt policies based solely on “animus” against a certain class of persons.  My article suggests that when the state adopts retribution as a goal in capital punishment, and pursues that goal even after years of delay, then retribution starts to look more and more like something that, while it may be morally right, cannot be a goal the state can legitimately pursue.

March 28, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Effective previews via SCOTUSblog before an exciting upcoming SCOTUS week for sentencing fans

This coming week brings two interesting Supreme Court cases about sentencing issues via Betterman v. Montana, to be argued on Monday, March 28, and Welch v. United States, to be argued on Wednesday, March 30.  I will likely have plenty to say about both cases after the oral arguments; helpfully, two great pre-argument previews done by Rory Little over at SCOTUSblog provides an opportunity to gear up for this year's SCOTUS sentencing March madness.  Here are links to, and the start of, these SCOTUSblog previews:

Argument preview: A “clean” constitutional question – does the speedy trial right apply to sentencing?

The Sixth Amendment provides various rights for “all criminal prosecutions.”  Among those listed is “the right to a speedy and public trial.” Next Monday, March 28, in Betterman v. Montana, the Court will consider whether the “speedy” part of the right applies to a criminal defendant’s sentencing that happened about fourteen months after he was convicted by guilty plea.  The briefing in the case is very good, and Betterman is represented by an experienced appellate advocate (Fred Rowley, making his first Supreme Court argument), as well as the UCLA Supreme Court Clinic.  Montana’s solicitor general, Dale Schowengerdt, will argue for the state, and Assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General Ginger Anders will argue on behalf of the United States as an amicus in support of Montana.

Argument preview: Complex retroactivity questions arising from Justice Scalia’s void-for-vagueness decision last Term

It seems increasingly clear that the current Supreme Court Term will have to be headlined “Justice Scalia is sorely missed.” Next Wednesday, March 30, the Court will hear argument in yet another criminal case in which the unexpected passing of Antonin Scalia on February 13 will leave an unanswered “hole” in the Court’s deliberations. Last June, Justice Scalia wrote the opinion in Johnson v. United States, in which, after an eight-year campaign originating in Justice Scalia dissents, a majority declared the “residual clause” of a federal repeat-offender statute unconstitutionally vague. The question quickly arose whether that ruling should be applied to federal cases on collateral review, even though they were “final” before Johnson was decided. That is, should Johnson apply “retroactively”? To answer that question, the Court chose (from among others) the petition in Welch v. United States. (On a tangential note, some courts of appeals have differed on the question of retroactivity for “initial” versus “successive” collateral review requests; this case will apparently answer for both contexts.)

Interestingly, the federal government has told the Court that it agrees with Gregory Welch that Johnson should be fully retroactive, and that Welch’s case should be remanded for resentencing. Thus, the Court has appointed an experienced amicus, Helgi Walker (a former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas and partner at Gibson Dunn), to defend the judgment below, and the amicus brief, while likely controversial, is excellent.

March 27, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Cities begin to challenge a bedrock of justice: They’re paying criminals not to kill"

DollarsThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Washington Post article about an alternative sentencing program sure to stir questions and controversy.  Here are some of the details (with a key line emphasized):

The odds were good that Lonnie Holmes, 21, would be the next person to kill or be killed in this working-class suburb north of San Francisco.  Four of his cousins had died in shootings.  He was a passenger in a car involved in a drive-by shooting, police said. And he was arrested for carrying a loaded gun.

But when Holmes was released from prison last year, officials in this city offered something unusual to try to keep him alive: money.  They began paying Holmes as much as $1,000 a month not to commit another gun crime.

Cities across the country, beginning with the District of Columbia, are moving to copy Richmond’s controversial approach because early indications show it has helped reduce homicide rates.  But the program requires governments to reject some basic tenets of law enforcement even as it challenges notions of appropriate ways to spend tax dollars.

In Richmond, the city has hired ex-convicts to mentor dozens of its most violent offenders and allows them to take unconventional steps if it means preventing the next homicide.  For example, the mentors have coaxed inebriated teenagers threatening violence into city cars, not for a ride to jail but home to sleep it off — sometimes with loaded firearms still in their waistbands.  The mentors have funded trips to South Africa, London and Mexico City for rival gang members in the hope that shared experiences and time away from the city streets would ease tensions and forge new connections.  And when the elaborate efforts at engagement fail, the mentors still pay those who pledge to improve, even when, like Holmes, they are caught with a gun, or worse — suspected of murder.

The city-paid mentors operate at a distance from police.  To maintain the trust of the young men they’re guiding, mentors do not inform police of what they know about crimes committed.  At least twice, that may have allowed suspected killers in the stipend program to evade responsibility for homicides.

And yet, interest in the program is surging among urban politicians.  Officials in Miami, Toledo, Baltimore and more than a dozen cities in between are studying how to replicate Richmond’s program.  The District of Columbia is first in line.

Implementing the Richmond model has emerged as a central fight this year between D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and the D.C. Council. Bowser (D) is opposed to the strategy, arguing that the city should instead use its resources to fund jobs programs and that there is little independent analysis of the Richmond program.  The mayor did not include money for it in her proposed 2017 budget released Thursday, and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said she is skeptical of the need for the Richmond-style program and has not seen sufficient data to verify its results.

She and Kevin Donahue, Bow­ser’s deputy mayor for public safety, question the veracity of Richmond’s claims of having saved so many of the city’s most violent offenders, since mentors — and not police — pick the participants and there has not been a control group used to measure outcomes. “There’s never been a real evaluation of the program,” Lanier said. “They didn’t design the program to allow it to be evaluated,” Donahue added.

But this month, the D.C. Council unanimously approved the idea as the best response to a surge of violent deaths that rocked the city last year. D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) has promised to shift money from the mayor’s other law-enforcement priorities to launch the program. He said the successes in Richmond cannot be ignored by city leaders serious about reducing crime.  That’s because five years into Richmond’s multimillion-dollar experiment, 84 of 88 young men who have participated in the program remain alive, and 4 in 5 have not been suspected of another gun crime or suffered a bullet wound, according to DeVone Boggan, founder of the Richmond effort....

Richmond’s decision to pay people to stay out of trouble began a decade ago during a period of despair.  In 2007, Richmond’s homicide tally had surged to 47, making it the country’s sixth-deadliest city per capita.  In the 20 years prior to that, Richmond lost 740 people to gun violence, and more than 5,000 had been injured by a bullet.  Elected leaders of the heavily African American city of about 100,000 began treating homicides as a public health emergency....

Operation Peacemaker Fellowship is working with its fourth class of recruits, and [Boggan] no longer needs to wow participants with money upfront.  Dozens of former fellows on the streets of Richmond — alive and not in jail — are his best advertisement, he said.

Those in the program begin by drafting a “life map” and setting goals — such as applying for a job, going back to school or communicating better with family.  They meet with facilitators who, unbeknown to the young men, are psychologists or sociologists. Together, they talk through issues in what amounts to stealth therapy. If they remain engaged for six months, meeting with mentors several times a week, they start to receive monthly payments between $1 and $1,000, depending on their level of participation.  The maximum amount paid is $9,000 over the 18-month fellowship.  The program has handed out $70,000 a year, on average, since 2010, Boggan said.

Boggan believes that travel is another key to the program’s success.  He sets aside $10,000 per fellow for trips that are often the first time participants have left the state or the country.  But fellows must agree to partner with someone they have either tried to kill or who attempted to kill them. “Wild, right?” Boggan says.  “But they get out there and realize, ‘Hey, this cat’s just like me.’ ” Boggan’s measure of success: No fellows who have traveled together have been suspected in subsequent shootings against one another.

Boggan and his staff are used to questions — and criticism — about the money.  How do they know it doesn’t go to drugs? Or bullets?  They maintain that the money is an indispensable tool, a way to keep kids engaged long enough to make a difference in their lives.  “This is controversial, I get it,” Boggan said.  “But what’s really happening is that they are getting rewarded for doing really hard work, and it’s definite hard work when you talk about stopping picking up a gun to solve your problems.”...

Many details of how the District would replicate Richmond’s program have yet to be determined, but one aspect is clearly more complicated than in Richmond.  While the California strategy relies on private donors to fund the stipends and travel, the District would probably use roughly a half-million dollars annually in taxpayer money.  Asked whether he could justify the expense if it came from the city’s general fund, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt was uncertain. “I’d try really hard to find outside funding,” he said.

I fully understand the how controversial this program could be if framed as a "cash for killers" program that use taxpayer moneys to provide cash rewards to the most violent offenders simply for making efforts not to keep killing. But, as the first phrase highlighted above is meant to suggest, if this program is framed as a public health initiative that helps keep young people alive and healthly for minimal costs, then this program could look and should sound much more palatable to taxpayers. Of particular note, the latest DC budget proposal under the "Health and Human Services" line item, allocates $800,000 to something called the "Joyful Foods initiative." The early success of the Peacemaker Fellowships in Richmond, California suggests that devoting that money to reducing gun violence in DC may contribute much more to health and human services than making sure food in the District is viewed as joyful.

Not to be overlooked, especially when we focus on a town like DC where political money flows from private sources to all sort of political advocacy groups, it would seem very possible that enterprising individuals might be able to fundraise effectively for this cause. For example, a little research has revealed that both the NRA and the Brady Campaigns spend over $3,000,000 annually lobbying about firearm laws and policies. If both groups could simply be convinced to spend 10% of these lobbying budgets on a DC gun violence prevention program like Peacemaker Fellowships, this would itself provide $600,000 in resources for this kind of programming.

March 27, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Wouldn't (severe? creative?) alternatives to incarceration be the best response to animal cruelty convictions?

Peace_love_stop_animal_abuse_postcard-r136275981620429394a9c237e5c49925_vgbaq_8byvr_324The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story of a high-profile sentencing of a high-profile defendant convicted of multiple misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. The piece is headlined "Former Raven Terrence Cody sentenced to nine months in Baltimore County animal cruelty case," and here are the details:

Baltimore County judge sentenced former Ravens player Terrence Cody on Thursday to nine months in jail in an animal cruelty case that drew interest across the country. Cody, 27, was convicted in November of multiple misdemeanors in connection with the death of his dog, Taz, last year, as well as two misdemeanor drug charges.  Prosecutors said Taz starved to death.

Cody faced the possibility of more than two years of incarceration. More than 5,000 people signed an online petition urging Judge Judith C. Ensor to impose the maximum sentence. Ensor said that she did not discount the petition but that she had to make an independent decision based on the case.  "My responsibility is to listen and to make the best decision I can," she said at the sentencing hearing.

Defense attorney Joe Murtha acknowledged that Cody neglected Taz but said that Cody loved the animal and didn't intend for it to die. He said that Cody was emotionally incapable of caring for the dog and that he suffers from depression.  "His level of depression is so significant that he's become just isolated," said Murtha, who added that his communication with his client has been limited because of Cody's depression.

Prosecutor Adam Lippe discounted the idea that Cody was depressed. He argued for the maximum amount of jail time — 905 days.  "I'm sure every defendant awaiting sentencing is depressed," Lippe said.

Lippe said during the trial that the dog starved to death at Cody's former home in Reisterstown over a period of at least a month. Cody testified at the trial that he believed Taz was suffering from worms.

Cody spent $8,000 to buy and import Taz, a Canary mastiff, from Spain. He took the animal to a Reisterstown animal hospital a few hours before it died. The dog, which once weighed at least 100 pounds, was down to less than 50 pounds at that point. Cody — whose nickname at the University of Alabama was Mount Cody — was drafted by the Ravens as a defensive lineman in 2010. The team released him when he was indicted last year.

After the trial last year, Cody was acquitted of two felony counts of aggravated animal cruelty. Ensor, who presided over the bench trial, said Thursday she was convinced that Cody did not torture Taz intentionally. "I remain firm" in that belief, she said.

The judge also sentenced Cody to probation before judgment for illegally possessing an alligator and for possessing drug paraphernalia. Police found a gas-mask bong and a 6-foot-long green glass bong in the home. She imposed suspended sentences for several counts, including a marijuana charge. She also sentenced Cody to 18 months of supervised probation and said he must undergo mental health treatment. During the probation period, he is not allowed to own or possess an animal. Cody will serve the sentence at the Baltimore County Detention Center in Towson.

Cody's girlfriend, Kourtney J. Kelley, 28, was also convicted in the animal cruelty case. She was sentenced last month to 60 days and has since been paroled. She was found guilty of five counts in connection with neglecting Taz. Cody, wearing a black hoodie and jeans, briefly addressed the court, saying he accepted responsibility. He also said he believed Kelley should not have been punished in the case....

Lippe said he was satisfied with the sentence. He said Cody had other dogs that were "fat and happy," but for some reason he treated Taz differently. "I can't explain to you why he decided to kill this animal," Lippe said. "It makes no sense at all."

I am huge aminal lover within a family which has always cared greatly about pets both usual (e.g., my dog and cat are hanging with me as I type this) and unusual (e.g., I have a bunch of parrot, angel fish and hermit crab stories).  Consequently, I fully understand how emotional so many folks get about animal cruelty and why there is often strong support for imposing the harshest possible sentences on those persons who get convicted of animal cruelty crimes.  

Nevertheless, as the question in the title of this post suggests and to parrot the words of the local prosecutor in this case, it really makes so sense at all to me to view lengthy terms of incarceration as the most efficacious response to these sorts of crimes.  Specifically, to focus on this case, did prosecutor Adam Lippe really think the citizens of Baltimore would be better off if former NFL player Terrence Cody served nearly 3 years in a local jail (at significant taxpayer expense) rather than, say, spending the next few years trying to get back into the NFL to make large sums of money that could be donated to animal protection societies or working publicly on helping animals as a part of community service program? 

I fully understand the potential incapacitative benefits of incarceration for dangerous people with a history of seriously risky or harmful behaviors.  But unless there is strong reason to believe Terrence Cody is a real danger to others, I think the the citizens and animals of Baltimore could and would be much better served through severe and creative alternatives to incarceration in a case like this.  But, problematically in the US and as part of our transformation into "incarceration nation," it seems that nearly all prosecutors and most members of the general public embrace the notion that the only way to be tough is through extended (and costly) periods of incarceration.

March 26, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Japan conducts two old-school executions despite international criticisms

As reported in this Guardian article, headlined "Japan executes two prisoners amid protests," the land of the rising sun continues to raise its modern execution totals.  Here are the details:

Human rights campaigners have condemned Japan’s use of the death penalty after two inmates were hanged, bringing the number of executions to 16 since the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, took office in late 2012.  The executions were carried out on Friday, just weeks before Japan is to host the G7 leaders summit: Japan and the US are the only two G7 nations that retain the death penalty, while European countries are among the most vocal critics of Japan’s secretive executions.

Yasutoshi Kamata, 75, was hanged in Osaka for the murders of five people — including a nine-year-old girl — between 1985 and 1994, according to Japanese media. Junko Yoshida was convicted of killing two men in the late 1990s to obtain life insurance payments.  The 56-year-old, who was executed in Fukuoka, is the first woman to be hanged in Japan since 2012.

Campaigners accused Japan of resisting the global trend towards the abolition of the death penalty in the mistaken belief that the punishment acts as a deterrent.  “Despite the fact that about 140 countries in the world have already abandoned or have stopped executions for more than a decade, the Japanese government is turning its back on the trend,” said Hideki Wakabayashi, secretary general of Amnesty International Japan.

Opinion polls in Japan show high levels of public support for the death penalty, although campaigners say the surveys are worded in such a way as to play on the public’s fear of crime.  In a 2010 poll, 86% of respondents said the use of the death penalty was “unavoidable” — a sentiment that strengthened after a doomsday cult carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 13 people and injuring thousands more.

Friday’s executions mean the number of inmates facing the death sentence in Japan now stands at 124. The hangings also highlighted the long periods — on average more than five years between 2005 and 2014 — that inmates are forced to wait to be executed.  Kamata’s sentence was finalised 11 years ago, and Yoshida’s almost six years ago, according to Japanese media.

Death row inmates are typically given only a few hours’ notice of their execution, with relatives and lawyers informed only after it has been carried out.  In a damning 2009 report, Amnesty claimed Japan’s death row inmates were being driven insane and exposed to “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment.

March 26, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 25, 2016

"Poor white kids are less likely to go to prison than rich black kids"

The title of this post is the headline of this Wonkblog posting via the Washington Post discussing some recent empirical research on sentencing outcomes appearing in the latest issue of the journal Race & Social Problems.  Here is the post's discussion of the research:

It's a fact that people of color are worse off than white Americans in all kinds of ways, but there is little agreement on why. Some see those disparities as a consequence of racial discrimination in schools, the courts and the workplace, both in the past and present. Others argue that economic inequalities are really the cause, and that public policy should help the poor no matter their race or ethnicity. When it comes to affirmative action in college admissions, for example, many say that children from poor, white families should receive preferential treatment, as well.

In some ways, though, discrimination against people of color is more complicated and fundamental than economic inequality. A stark new finding epitomizes that reality: In recent decades, rich black kids have been more likely to go to prison than poor white kids. "Race trumps class, at least when it comes to incarceration," said Darrick Hamilton of the New School, one of the researchers who produced the study.

He and his colleagues, Khaing Zaw and William Darity of Duke University, examined data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a national study that began in 1979 and followed a group of young people into adulthood and middle age. The participants were asked about their assets and debts, and interviewers also noted their type of residence, including whether they were in a jail or prison.

The researchers grouped participants in the survey by their race and their household wealth as of 1985 and then looked back through the data to see how many people in each group ultimately went to prison. Participants who were briefly locked up between interviews might not be included in their calculations of the share who were eventually incarcerated.

About 2.7 percent of the poorest white young people — those whose household wealth was in the poorest 10th of the distribution in 1985, when they were between 20 and 28 years old — ultimately went to prison. In the next 10th, 3.1 percent ultimately went to prison.

The households of young people in both of these groups had more debts than assets. In other words, their wealth was negative. All the same, their chances of being imprisoned were far less than those of black youth from much more affluent circumstances. About 10 percent of affluent black youths in 1985 would eventually go to prison. Only the very wealthiest black youth — those whose household wealth in 1985 exceeded $69,000 in 2012 dollars — had a better chance of avoiding prison than the poorest white youth. Among black young people in this group, 2.4 percent were incarcerated.

Hispanic participants who were less affluent in 1985 were more likely to be eventually incarcerated than their white peers with similar wealth, but less likely than black participants....

It could be that the white participants in the study still had other advantages over their black peers, even if they had been incarcerated. Perhaps they went to better schools, or lived in areas where it was easier to find work. At the same time, another reason for the disparity between black and white wealth could be that employers make negative inferences about black workers' pasts, even those who have never been to prison....

In a way, untangling economic and racial inequalities is a chicken-and-egg problem. In criminal justice, though, you can't just explain away the disproportionate rates at which black and Hispanic youths end up in prison by pointing out that many people of color did not grow up with the same economic advantages as their white peers.

The full research article discussed here, which is titled "Race, Wealth and Incarceration: Results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth," can be accessed at this link.

March 25, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Florida has first capital case head to jury sentencing after Hurst-required reforms

Roughly 10 weeks after the Supreme Court declared unconstitutionally Florida's death sentencing procedures in Hurst v. Florida, No. 14–7505 (S. Ct. Jan. 12, 2015) (available here), a group of jurors have the chance to create a new capital test case as to whether the Florida's now-revised death sentencing procedures can survive another constitutional attack.  This local article, headlined "Hawkins test of new sentencing rules," explains:

For the first time since the Florida Legislature revised capital punishment sentencing guidelines — requiring a favorable vote by 10 of 12 jurors — a defendant could get the death penalty.

Antowan Hawkins was convicted Thursday of felony first-degree murder, robbery, arson, tampering with physical evidence and grand theft of a motor vehicle in the death of 24-year-old Aaron Goodwin. Today, jurors will return to determine Hawkins' sentence.

But prior to his week-long trial, his attorneys filed motions calling the new jury guidelines unconstitutional. “This scheme leaves Florida as one of only two states that authorize the imposition of the death penalty on less than a unanimous jury verdict,” Hawkins attorney David Collins wrote in a March 21 filing. “This scheme is contrary to evolving standards of decency regarding the humane imposition of capital punishment.”

Jurors Thursday found Hawkins guilty of felony murder instead of premeditated murder, a decision that could play into the sentencing guidelines introduced in court today. "That can be perceived that you’re not quite sure who is actually the one who killed Mr. Goodwin," said Chuck Collins, Hawkins' attorney, during his opening statement. "Are you prepared to sanction the execution of someone not knowing beyond a reasonable doubt that he is the actual person who killed him?"

Prosecutors said in court Friday Hawkins took measures to conceal the killing of Goodwin by setting his South Adams Street sneaker shop on fire and driving his car to Jefferson County to set it ablaze. Testimony in the trial also suggested Hawkins may have gone to the store prior to the crime. "We see a pattern of destroying evidence to avoid being caught," said Assistant State Attorney for the 2nd Judicial Circuit Eddie Evans. "There was evidence the victim had seen the defendant before."

UPDATE: If you click through to the local article linked above, it now reports that jurors sentenced this capital defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole after only an hour of deliberation. Consequently, some other case is going to become the test case for Florida's new capital sentencing procedures.

March 25, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Pew develops new "punishment rate" metric to provide more nuanced perspective on state incarceration levels

Via email today I learned of this intriguing new report from the folks at Pew Trusts titled "The Punishment Rate: New metric evaluates prison use relative to reported crime." Here is the short data-heavy report starts and ends:

Researchers, policymakers, and the public rely on a variety of statistics to measure how society punishes crime. Among the most common is the imprisonment rate — the number of people in prison per 100,000 residents. This metric allows for comparisons of prison use over time and across jurisdictions and is widely seen as a proxy for punishment. States with high imprisonment rates, for example, are considered more punitive than those with low rates.

A more nuanced assessment of punishment than the ratio of inmates to residents is that of inmates to crime— what The Pew Charitable Trusts calls the “punishment rate.” This new metric gauges the size of the prison population relative to the frequency and severity of crime reported in each jurisdiction, putting the imprisonment rate in a broader context.

Using the punishment rate to examine the U.S. criminal justice system, Pew found that all states became more punitive from 1983 to 2013, even though they varied widely in the amount of punishment they imposed. The analysis also shows that the nation as a whole has become more punitive than the imprisonment rate alone indicates....

The long-term rise in U.S. imprisonment is a familiar story. Although the imprisonment rate is an essential tool in understanding correctional trends, it paints an incomplete picture of the nation’s and individual states’ punitiveness because it does not take crime rates into account. The punishment rate provides a more nuanced assessment by placing each jurisdiction’s imprisonment rate in the context of the severity and frequency of its crime.

Analysis of punishment rates over time and across jurisdictions makes clear that the nation has become more punitive. What’s more, many states punish crime significantly more—or less—than their imprisonment rates alone indicate. States with particularly high or low punishment rates and those that experienced significant increases in their punishment rates over time may benefit from identifying and examining the policy choices responsible for their rankings and trends.

Helpfully, the folks at The Marshall Project have this interesting piece discussing what the new Pew metric does and does not tell us. That piece is headlined "The Tricky Business of Measuring Crime and Punishment: Pew researchers release a new prison scorecard, but it ain’t perfect," and here are excerpts:

We’ve grown accustomed to a quantified world of ever more complicated data available at our fingertips, on everything from how we sleep and eat to how often left-handed pinch hitters hit ground rule doubles on rainy days.  “The incredible databases of what we have for sports just blow away anything there is in criminal justice.  It's kind of crazy,” said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, adding, “We can't answer some of the most basic questions about one of the most important functions of a society.”

Nearly five years ago, Gelb and Pew started by looking at recidivism — how often people released from prisons are arrested again for new offenses. But using recidivism alone to compare how states are doing at rehabilitating prisoners fell short.  One state could have a lower recidivism rate simply because it tended to have more low risk offenders in its prisons.  So then, Gelb said he began thinking about how to assess whether the “right” people are in prison, that is the serious, violent and repeat offenders most likely to commit new crimes.

Pew’s punishment rate focuses on the most serious felony offenses that lead to a year or more in state prison.  The calculation divides each state’s imprisonment rate in a given year by the rate of crimes reported there, using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system.  To account for some crimes being more serious and more likely to lead to longer prison sentences, Pew weights the annual crime rates by calculating the average time served for those crimes each year.  After all of these calculations, Pew found that as America's imprisonment rate has gone up in the past three decades and as crime has dropped, the “punishment rate” rose by 165 percent.

While the methodology makes sense and is probably the best available considering the shortcomings of federal crime data, the punishment rate is not yet the magic metric. Unpacking the components of Pew’s punishment rate illustrates how tricky measuring criminal justice progress can be.  The punishment rate depends on the number of crimes reported by the FBI.  But the Uniform Crime Report, created in the 1920s, tracks only seven key crimes: murder, assault, rape, robbery, arson, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft.  It excludes dozens of offenses — most notably drug crimes, which have been a major factor in the growth of prison populations.  Pew’s report readily acknowledges that the Uniform Crime Report omits crimes for which roughly one-fifth of state prisoners are serving time.

“What that means is not to say that drug trafficking is not a serious crime, just that it's not reported and tracked in a way that you can support adding it to this formula,” Gelb said.  “It does mean that — other things being equal — a state that has a lot of drug enforcement activity and stiff sentencing for drug offenses will have a higher punishment rate.”

The other trouble with the punishment rate is in the lag between crime and judgment.  Pew is comparing the crime rate each year to the current prison population at that moment. It doesn't account for the people being sentenced each year or the prison intakes.  It also doesn't look at what crimes those in prison were convicted of.  So there is an inherent lag between when crimes happen and when someone might go to prison for them. Despite plummeting crime since the 1990s, the growth in the punishment rate didn’t overtake the rise in imprisonment until 2011.  That may be partially explained by the gap in time between crime and incarceration, though Gelb contends that effect is ameliorated by calculating rolling averages for offense severity (but not the crimes themselves or the imprisonment rate). He said the adjustment is meant to be a barometer of the seriousness of crimes in a year rather than a “fine-tuned calculation.”  But that lack of precision could undercut Pew’s implicit argument that in some states we are “punishing for punishment’s sake.”

I find especially important and notable Gelb's astute comment that the "incredible databases of what we have for sports just blow away anything there is in criminal justice." Especially as I am starting to prepare for my upcoming fantasy baseball draft, it is more than a bit disconcerting that I can easily find dozens of statistical projections for the Cleveland Indians' battery but no on-line sources to help predict how many batteries might be committed in Cleveland.

March 24, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

"To change the world, start with prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable FoxNews commentary authored by Christian Colson. Here are excerpts:

One Easter weekend, I accompanied my father, Charles Colson, to a prison in South Carolina. We held a worship service on Death Row, and about 20 men came out of their cells to sing songs and listen to my dad give a message about the resurrection of Jesus.

My father, whose books on Christian life and thought have sold more than 5 million copies, could have spent Easter weekend in more influential pulpits.  He could have commanded an audience of thousands of Christians who were well-resourced and well-connected, rather than men in prison jumpsuits.  But instead, every Easter for decades following his release from prison in 1975 for a Watergate-related crime until his death in 2012, he chose to go back behind bars to celebrate with the incarcerated.  My father understood that if we want to change the world, we must start behind bars.

The criminal justice system may not seem like the place to initiate cultural renewal, but no place could be better. When our nation’s 2.2 million prisoners are held in conditions that do little to help address the roots of criminal behavior, they remain likely to continue in a criminal lifestyle after they are released.

Prisoners might seem like improbable standard bearers for cultural transformation, but my dad believed wholeheartedly that whenever prisoners are transformed, they will transform the culture of their prisons and society at large....

Prisons are full of untapped potential.  Under the right conditions, many people — like my father — can pay their debt to society, prepare for a new future and make the most of their second chance.  A variety of prison programs that address the roots of criminal behavior through education, mentoring, substance-abuse treatment and more have been shown to reduce recidivism.

Legislation based on restorative values can support this goal.  The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, now making its way through Congress, would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to implement and incentivize programming to reduce rates of re-offense.  This is good news not just for prisoners but for everyone affected by crime and incarceration.  When recidivism rates go down, more children grow up seeing their parents outside of a prison waiting room.  There are fewer victims.  Communities have a chance to flourish as they benefit from the contributions of members who are successfully reintegrating.

At the first Easter, mourners gathered at the tomb of a man who had been executed with criminals.  There seemed to be no future for his followers, a small group of poorly educated misfits with no worldly power or influence.  And yet, the nascent Christian movement transformed the culture of the Roman Empire and the entire modern history of the world.

When my dad spent “Resurrection Sunday” behind bars with prisoners, including those condemned to die, he often invoked that first Easter, where the hope of the Gospel emerged from a sealed tomb that was supposed to be as secure as any prison....  As Easter reminds us, the change the world most needs sometimes comes from unexpected places.

March 24, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1)

Fascinating issues emerging in run up to federal sentencing of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert

This new Politico article, headlined "New Hastert accuser emerges: Judge acknowledges that the case against the former House speaker involves alleged sex abuse," flags some of the notable issues emerging as the federal sentencing of a notable former member of Congress approaches. Here are the details:

A previously unidentified victim of alleged sexual abuse by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has come forward to federal prosecutors and may seek to testify next month when Hastert faces sentencing in federal court in Chicago. The new accuser, labeled as "Individual D" in court papers, is not the "Individual A" to whom Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million, setting off a series of events that led to the former speaker pleading guilty to illegally structuring $900,000 used in payments to the man.

Up until now, public court records and courtroom proceedings in the case have danced around the fact that the case stems from alleged sexual impropriety, reportedly from Hastert's years as a teacher and wrestling coach. But U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Durkin gave up that pretense Tuesday and made clear that the case is linked to the widely reported allegations of sexual misconduct.

"Let's not beat around the bush. If 'Individual D' wants to come in and talk about being a victim of sexual abuse, he's entitled to do so because that informs my decision about the history and characteristics of the defendant. It's that simple," Durkin said, according to a transcript POLITICO reviewed of a brief court hearing.

Hastert entered his guilty plea last October, acknowledging that he withdrew nearly $1 million in cash in increments of less than $10,000 to avoid reporting requirements, paying the money out to a longtime associate. The indictment against Hastert doesn't name the person he was paying, referring to him only as "Individual A."

Durkin agreed Tuesday to delay Hastert's sentencing by about three weeks at the government's request so that a witness who may wish to testify at the hearing can appear. "Individual D" is "not 100 percent certain he wants to [testify] but has been moving in that direction," prosecutor Steven Block told the judge.

The government apparently did not know of "Individual D" when the indictment was filed against Hastert last May. But sources said investigators were aware of at least two living victims at that time. Since the indictment, Hastert has been mum about the sexual abuse allegations that have swirled in the press. However, Hastert defense attorney John Gallo said Tuesday that the former speaker doesn't plan to contest "Individual D"'s claims.

Durkin also said he's willing to hear at sentencing from a Montana woman, Joanne Burdge, who claims her late brother had a sexual relationship with Hastert while her brother was an equipment manager on the wrestling team Hastert coached. "If the sister of a victim of sexual abuse wants to come in and talk about her interactions with her brother and talk about that, that is something that would inform my decisions about the history and characteristics of the defendant," the judge said.

Hastert's lawyers opposed delaying the hearing and said the proposed witnesses aren't victims under federal law because the crime Hastert pled guilty to was a bank reporting violation. "They're not classic victims, and so they have no statutory entitlement to appear," Hastert attorney Thomas Green said during Tuesday's hearing. He also said their submissions should be taken in writing, not through live testimony.

But Durkin rejected that position. "If they want to come in and they're willing to testify as live witnesses, they're absolutely entitled to do so, and the government's entitled to call them as live witnesses," the judge said.

In an interview, Burdge confirmed her desire and plan to speak at the sentencing. "I'm going to it. I feel like it's crossing the finish line and I need to do it," she told POLITICO Wednesday. "I've waited over 30 years for this."

In Hastert's plea deal, the defense and prosecutors agreed that sentencing guidelines call for the former speaker to receive between zero and six months in custody. However, after his guilty plea last year, the 74-year-old Hastert suffered a stroke and sepsis. Given the health issues, it's unclear whether Durkin will sentence Hastert to any jail time at all.

Some prior related posts:

March 24, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Am I crazy to really like the "White Collar Crime Offender Registry" now being developed in Utah?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new Wall Street Journal article headlined "Financial Crime: a New Twist on the Sex-Offender Registry: Utah is most aggressive jurisdiction in publicly shaming financial criminals." Long-time readers likley know that I tend to be a supporter of shaming sanctions as an alternative to imprisonment in some settings, and I see financial crimes as an especially useful arena to explore alternative punishments.  Here are details on how Utah is engaged in an alternative sanctions experiment:

States have taken the idea of the sex-offender registry and applied it to everything from kidnapping to animal abuse. Utah is expanding it into new territory: financial crime.  An early version of the White Collar Crime Offender Registry, which has been online since February, includes more than 100 people convicted of tax, credit-card or insurance fraud; thefts from employers or friends; and bilking investors.

They include 41-year-old Kenneth Ray Wagner. “Eye Color: Blue. Hair Color: Blonde … Targets: Insurance company.” The registry displays Mr. Wagner’s mugshot and explains that he was convicted in 2008 of fraud for dismantling his motorcycle, hiding the parts in a storage locker and claiming to his insurance company that it had been stolen.

The list makes Utah the most aggressive jurisdiction in the country when it comes to publicly shaming financial criminals. No other state operates such a list. The Securities and Exchange Commission often shields the identities of offenders. The agency last month refused a public-records request by The Wall Street Journal for information on sanctions paid by specific individuals, saying that providing such information would be “a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority does require disclosure of events like some criminal convictions, regulatory actions and customer complaints. But it only applies to securities professionals, and the disclosures are intermingled in a database that includes more routine facts like work history.

Utah lawmakers say their list, which is being administered by the state’s attorney general, will help protect investors by offering easy access to information about con artists. It could also create leverage to get felons to make their victims whole. Convicts who comply with court orders on time and pay restitution in full won’t appear on the list. “That’s the carrot,” Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said.

The new policy plunges the state into a broader debate about using name-and-shame tactics to punish convicts who have already served their time. Registries have proliferated rapidly in the U.S., experts say. While some lists restrict access to law-enforcement agencies or fire officials, others can be viewed online by anyone, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In addition to the 50 states that publicly track sex offenders, five states including California require registration for arson. Minnesota, Illinois and six others maintain lists of methamphetamine producers. In Indiana, a public website lets visitors use Google Maps to find the location of homes that have been used as meth laboratories. Tennessee requires registration for animal abuse— something nine other state legislatures are debating. Florida law requires registration by anyone convicted of a felony of any kind for up to five years after completing the sentence.

Utah itself maintains a sex-offender and kidnap-offender list, as well as its new financial-crimes registry. In all, the number of Americans on such lists will soon approach a million, if it isn’t already there, said J.J. Prescott, a law professor at the University of Michigan. He warned of possible unintended consequences from applying a public alert designed for sex offenses to other crimes, such as the risk of drug-offender registries being used by addicts to find suppliers....

Utah’s white-collar registry will include anyone convicted of second-degree frauds or other financial felonies since January 2006. A total of about 230 people are expected to be on the registry when it is formally launched in a few months, officials said. The state will generally keep people registered for 10 years after a first offense. A second offense adds another decade, and people with three convictions never get off.

Mr. Wagner’s lawyer, Tara Haynes, said he already has paid a considerable price for his crime. He appeared on the list after serving 90 days in county jail and being ordered to pay more than $16,000 in restitution. “He is not a white-collar criminal,” Ms. Haynes said. "He’s a blue-collar construction worker.”

Utah lawmakers voted last year to create the registry to stem what they called a growing tide of white-collar crime in the state, particularly by con artists preying on its close-knit religious communities. Convicts need to fill out a form to register, arrange to have a photo taken and update their address and phone number if they change. All but one entry in the early version of the registry includes a photo, typically a mugshot, while some also list aliases such as “ Missy Moniker” or “Connie.”

The site has some glitches. It included one man who died of cancer last year—he was removed after The Wall Street Journal sent officials a link to his obituary—and another where the wrong offense was initially shown. Mr. Reyes said the state is still vetting the registry, including by asking offenders to check the accuracy of their entries. “We want to be fair,” he said.

Some legal experts say Utah’s approach could be an improvement on federal efforts to encourage restitution.... The SEC has yet to collect $9.4 billion of $17.7 billion of sanctions it has imposed in the last five fiscal years, according to data on its website.

The question of whether Utah’s registry violates defendants’ rights could end up in court. Clair Rulon Hawkins, a former employee of a Utah real-estate firm, was convicted in 2013 of defrauding an investor who lost $852,000 deposited on two lots of land that Mr. Hawkins helped sell. Mr. Hawkins served four months in Salt Lake County jail and a halfway house. He remains subject to a restitution order for more than $1.4 million. The 50-year-old is appealing his conviction. He also plans a legal challenge to his inclusion on the Utah registry, arguing it violates his constitutional rights to due process, privacy and economic liberty, his lawyer said.

State lawmakers and other officials hope their idea will catch on nationally. Mr. Reyes, the attorney general, said his office has been contacted by legislators in several states as well as by federal prosecutors interested in replicating the experiment. “I know we’re the first in the nation for doing it,” said Michael McKell, a Republican who sponsored the bill in the Utah House to create the white-collar registry. “I certainly don’t think we will be the last.”

March 24, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Technocorrections, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (14)

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Notable new comments and commitments on criminal justice reform from GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan

160323-paulryan-1404_923bb8d76407e0b58fd5c662ccf6c762.nbcnews-fp-1200-800This notable new article about a notable new speech by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, headlined "Paul Ryan just gave a remarkably candid speech and admitted one of his biggest policy mistakes," has significantly increased my optimism about some form of federral sentencing reform moving forward in Congress this year.  Here are the details:

House Speaker Paul Ryan gave a candid speech about the "State of American Politics" on Wednesday, during which he admitted that he too hasn't always lived up to what he believes is a high-standard of political discourse.

A member of the audience asked Ryan after the speech if he had been persuaded differently on any policy position he has held and was willing to admit he was wrong.

Ryan — who earlier repeated an apology he had made in 2014 for a past statement about America's supposed "makers and takers" when discussing poverty in the country — said he had been wrong about criminal justice. "One of the things that I learned is that there are a lot of people who've been in prison that committed crimes that were not violent crimes," he said. "Once they have that mark on their record, their future is really bleak."

He said that, when he came to Congress in the late 1990s, he was a staunch supporter of tough crime laws. He admitted that both his own party and Democrats overcompensated at the time. The policies, he said, "end up ruining their lives and hurting their communities where we could've have alternative means of incarceration, instead of basically destroying someone's life. I've become a late convert."

"Criminal-justice reform is something I never thought of when I was younger," he continued. "Be tough on crime, be tough on crime." Ryan said criminal-justice reform bills would be brought to the House floor soon. He pledged to "advance this."

"I didn't necessarily know this before, but redemption is a beautiful thing. It's a great thing," he said. "Redemption is what makes this place work. We need to honor redemption. We need to make redemption something that is valued in our culture and our society and in our laws."

Ryan's candid comments on poverty and criminal-justice reform came at the end of a powerful speech about the current discourse in American politics, which he lamented would end up making Americans "distrust institutions" and "lose faith in government."

March 23, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Lots of food for marijuana reform thought via Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

The biggest news this week in the marijuana reform space was the "dog-not-barking" decision by the Supreme Court to deny the "motion for leave to file a bill of complaint" brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado for its recreational reforms (basics here). But, as highlighted by students in my semester-long OSU Moritz College of Law seminar on marijuana laws and reform via readings assembled for in-class presentations, there are lots of other topics for marijuana reformers (and their opponents) to be concerned with these days.

Here is a round up of just some of the many interesting reform-related stories flagged recently over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform:

March 23, 2016 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Why Dylann Roof is a Terrorist Under Federal Law, and Why it Matters"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Jesse Norris now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

After white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans at a Charleston, South Carolina church, authorities declined to refer to the attack as terrorism.  Many objected to the government’s apparent double standards in its treatment of Muslim versus non-Muslim extremists and called on the government to treat the massacre as terrorism. Yet the government has neither charged him with a terrorist offense nor labelled the attack as terrorism.

This Article argues that although the government was unable to charge him with terrorist crimes because of the lack of applicable statutes, the Charleston Massacre still qualifies as terrorism under federal law.  Roof’s attack clearly falls under the government’s prevailing definition of domestic terrorism.  It also qualifies for a terrorism sentencing enhancement, or at least an upward departure from the sentencing guidelines, as well as for the terrorism aggravating factor considered by juries in deciding whether to impose the death penalty.

Labelling Roof’s attack as terrorism could have several important implications, not only in terms of sentencing, but also in terms of government accountability, the prudent allocation of counterterrorism resources, balanced media coverage, and public cooperation in preventing terrorism.  For these reasons, the Article contends that the government should treat the Charleston Massacre, and similar ideologically-motivated killings, as terrorism.

The Article also makes two policy suggestions meant to facilitate a more consistent use of the term terrorism. First, the Article proposes a new federal terrorism statute mirroring hate crime statutes, which would enable every terrorist to be charged with a terrorist offense.  Second, simplifying the definition of terrorism to encompass any murder or attempted murder meant to advance an ideology would avoid the obfuscation invited by current definitions. However, even without such changes, the government still has the authority and responsibility to treat attacks such as Roof’s as terrorism for nearly all purposes.

A few prior related posts:

March 23, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

State judge in Missouri decides state DOC purposely violated state law to avoid execution drug disclosure

As reported in this local article, headlined "Missouri Corrections Department Violated Sunshine Law In Execution Case, Judge Rules," a state judge reached some sharp conclusions about what the state DOC failed to show concerning execution drugs in the Show Me state. Here are the details:

The Missouri Department of Corrections purposely violated the state’s Sunshine Law when it refused to turn over records revealing the suppliers of lethal injection drugs for executions, a state court judge ruled late Monday. Cole County Circuit Judge Jon E. Beetem’s decision came in three parallel cases, including one brought by five news organizations: The Kansas City Star, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Springfield News-Leader, The Guardian and the Associated Press.

Beetem last July ordered the DOC to disclose the names of the pharmacies from which it buys lethal injection drugs. But the issue remained moot while he reviewed the records in question to see if they needed to be redacted in order to protect the identities of members of the execution team.

On Monday, Beetem ruled that while an exemption in the Sunshine Law protects the identities of the doctor and nurse who are present during the execution as well as non-medical personnel who assist with the execution and are also present, it does not protect the identity of the pharmacists who supply the execution drugs. He ordered the DOC to produce those records without redactions. He also ordered the DOC to pay the plaintiffs’ costs and attorneys’ fees. In the news organizations' case, that amounted to $73,335.

The state has already indicated it plans to appeal. The Department of Corrections did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Beetem's decision. "At this point, it has cost the state of Missouri more than $100,000 to assert a frivolous position," said Kansas City attorney Bernard Rhodes, who represented the news organizations. "At what point will the state realize that they're wrong and at what cost to the taxpayers will it take before the state realizes they are wrong?"

The other lawsuits challenging officials' refusal to provide information about the state's execution protocols were filed by former Missouri legislator Joan Bray, a death penalty opponent, and by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Civil Liberties Union and Christopher S. McDaniel, formerly of St. Louis Public Radio.

Missouri, like other states, has had difficulty finding lethal injection drugs after European and American drug makers began refusing to provide them. The state has resorted to using largely unregulated compounding pharmacies, often keeping the sources of the drugs secret. In their lawsuit, the five news organizations said that public disclosure of the source, quality and composition of the drugs “reduces the risk that improper, ineffective, or defectively prepared drugs are used; it allows public oversight of the types of drugs selected to cause death and qualifications of those manufacturing the chosen drugs; and it promotes the proper functioning of everyone involved in the execution process.”

March 23, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Looking Forward: A Comprehensive Plan for Criminal Justice Reform in Ohio"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report produced by the ACLU of Ohio and the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. Here is the report's introduction:

Ohio has a mass incarceration crisis.  There are currently 50,600 Ohioans in prisons designed to hold 38,600; that’s at least 12,000 too many of our neighbors and fellow citizens in cages.  And beyond these inhumane numbers, there is a fundamental misuse of criminal-justice tools to attack social and health problems.  We have responded to poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, or an overall lack of opportunities with punishment.

Instead of treating people with mental illness, we criminalize them and block access to the care they so desperately need. We allow low-income people to be victimized by steep fines and costs, with many languishing in local jails because they cannot afford to pay a court fine or make bond.  People who have a small amount of drugs are not given treatment for their addiction, but instead offered prison sentences and a felony conviction.  Those who try to re-enter society have the door slammed shut by mounting collateral sanctions that prevent them from getting a job, housing, education, reliable transportation, and more.

The result is a system that is costing our state in every sense of the word.  Ohio has the sixth largest prison population in the nation. In the last decade, the prison population has increased 12 percent despite the fact that the violent crime rate has reached a 30-year low.  In 2014, taxpayers spent over $1.7 billion to operate the state prison system alone. Every dollar spent on prisons is a dollar not spent on crime-survivor services, schools, addiction treatment, mental healthcare and other services that enrich our communities and that keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place.  Nowhere are the negative effects of mass incarceration felt more than in communities of color. African Americans account for nearly half the state’s prison population but only a little more than a tenth of the total state population.  Mass incarceration has decimated neighborhoods, leaving many communities of color with countless people unable to find employment and cycling in and out of the justice system.  

State leaders have begun to recognize that mass incarceration is simply not working and must be dismantled.  In 2011, a bi-partisan group of legislators, along with advocates and activists, passed House Bill 86 (HB 86).  This legislation was part of the federal Justice Reinvestment Initiative that sought to reform state criminal justice systems and provide resources for strategies that depopulate prisons and jails.  While HB 86 promised modest reforms, it was never fully implemented or funded, and despite a short plateau, Ohio’s prison population is growing.

The time for modest, incremental steps is over.  We must challenge ourselves to imagine a fundamentally different justice system that is truly just, and not merely focused on punishment.  We must usher in an era of being smart on crime, not just tough on crime, where accountability does not mean punishment for punishment’s sake.  We can create forms of accountability that restore the law-breaker to being a productive member of society while also offering more robust healing and restoration to crime victims.

Currently, the Ohio General Assembly has created a Criminal Justice Recodification Committee that is tasked with rewriting our criminal laws.  Once again, state leaders have invited members of that committee to use this opportunity to change our justice system.  However, the problem does not begin or end simply with the contents of Ohio’s criminal code, nor does the solution reside solely with the Committee.  Their work represents a meaningful opportunity to bring about substantive reform — that opportunity must not be squandered on narrow, technical edits to statutory language.  Now is the chance for the legislature to precisely identify and fundamentally change the policies that drive excessive incarceration.  It is with this approach that we can perhaps finally begin looking forward to a new justice system that makes our communities stronger and lifts up the people of Ohio, rather than keeping them down.

March 22, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal district judge interprets Nebraska law to preclude placing juve on its public sex offender list

As reported in this local article, a "federal judge has blocked Nebraska from putting a 13-year-old boy who moved here from Minnesota on its public list of sex offenders." Here is more about this notable ruling:

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard G. Kopf said if the boy had done in Nebraska exactly what he did in Minnesota he would not have been required to register as a sex offender "and he would not be stigmatized as such." "It therefore makes no sense to believe that the Nebraska statutes were intended to be more punitive to juveniles adjudicated out of state as compared to juveniles adjudicated in Nebraska," the judge wrote in a 20-page order.

In Nebraska, lawmakers opted to exclude juveniles from the Nebraska Sex Offender Registration Act unless they were prosecuted criminally in adult court, even though it meant losing thousands in federal funding. But the way the law is written made it appear that all sex offenders who move to Nebraska must register.

When the Minnesota boy in this case moved here to live with relatives, the Nebraska State Patrol determined he had to register because of a subsection of the law....

In this case, the boy was 11 when he was adjudicated for criminal sexual conduct in juvenile court in Minnesota. A judge there ordered him to complete probation, counseling and community service, and his name went on a part of that state's predatory offender list that is visible only to police. Even before that, the boy had moved to Nebraska to live with relatives.

In August 2014, the Nebraska probation office notified his family he was required to register under the Nebraska Sex Offender Registry Act or could be prosecuted. That same month, the boy's family filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the patrol from putting him on Nebraska's registry, which is public.

In Monday's order, Kopf concluded that the boy wasn't required to register in Minnesota because he was adjudicated in a juvenile court, not convicted in adult court, so Nebraska's act doesn't apply. He cited Nebraska Juvenile Code, which specifically says juvenile court adjudications are not to be deemed convictions or subject to civil penalties that normally apply. An adjudication is a juvenile court process through which a judge determines if a juvenile committed a given act.

Kopf's order said it was apparent that the purpose was to identify people guilty of sex offenses and to publish information about them for the protection of the public. "It is equally apparent that the Nebraska Legislature has made a policy determination that information regarding juvenile adjudications is not to be made public, even though this has resulted in the loss of federal funding for non-compliance with (the federal Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act)," he said.

Late Monday afternoon, Omaha attorney Joshua Weir said the boy's grandmother was so excited when he called with the news she had to pull over in a parking lot. "They were very, very relieved," he said. Weir said the boy is a healthy, happy kid now and flourishing in school. "It would've been a tragedy if he would have been branded a sex offender," he said. "That's something that sticks with you for the rest of your life."

The state could choose to appeal the decision within the next 30 days. 

March 22, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Unanimous Supreme Court suggests Second Amendment can preclude state felony prosecution for public weapon possession

I wanted a chance to review closely the Supreme Court's notable Second Amendment work yesterday in Caetano v. Massachusetts, No. 14-10078 (S. Ct. March 21, 2016) (available here), before blogging about what strikes me as a significant constitutional ruling.  But even after doing some more review, I am still scratching my head a bit regarding both the Court's brief per curiam opinion and the lengthy and forceful concurring opinion authored by Justice Alito and joined by Justice Thomas.

Caetano strikes me as significant primarily because the Supreme Court has not ruled on the merits in a Second Amendment case since the 2010 McDonald ruling, and also because both McDonald and its landmark precursor, the 2008 Heller ruling, left so much uncertain about the reach and limits of the Second Amendment.  In addition, the merits of the Caetano case seem significant because it involved (1) possession of a weapon other than a traditional firearm (a stun-gun), and (2) a state criminal conviction affirmed by a state Supreme Court based on possession of this weapon outside the home.  Finally, as the title of this post suggests, it seems significant that not a single Justice dissented from the the Caetano per curiam ruling to vacate the judgment of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts based on the Second Amendment.

But Justice Alito's concurrence, which seems like it might have been initially drafted to serve as an opinion for the full Court, reasonably complained that the Court’s per curiam opinion was "grudging" because it seems open to the possibility that the defendant might still have her felony conviction for possession of a stun-gun outside her home affirmed on some other grounds.  Thus, as the title of this post is meant to indicate, I think the Caetano ruling only suggests a broadened application of the Second Amendment to limit a state felony prosecution.

This Lyle Denniston post at SCOTUSblog captures these themes in its title: "The Second Amendment expands, but maybe not by much."  And here is a telling excerpt from that post:

The Court set aside the state court ruling, and told that tribunal to take another look.  The decision left in doubt whether the conviction in the case would stand, and whether the state could come up with other reasons to support its ban.  It is possible that the state’s highest court will call for new legal briefs or a hearing on what to do about the Boston woman in the case, Jaime Caetano.

Her defense lawyer, Boston public defender Benjamin H. Keehn, said after the ruling Monday that he would seek to have her conviction vacated.  Although she was found guilty of a serious crime (a felony) under the Massachusetts procedure used in her case, she was not given a jail sentence or a fine.  Keehn said he was “not positive” what the Supreme Court ruling meant, and said he was studying whether there had been comparable situations in other cases returned to lower courts without specific instructions.

March 22, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

DOJ bragging about Smart on Crime initiative focusing on "more significant drug cases"

Yesterday the Department of Justice issued this official press release titled "New Smart on Crime Data Reveals Federal Prosecutors Are Focused on More Significant Drug Cases and Fewer Mandatory Minimums for Drug Defendants."  Here is how the release gets started:

The Justice Department today revealed new data from its innovative Smart on Crime Initiative that show charging decisions by federal prosecutors in fiscal year 2015 resulted in prosecutors' focusing on more serious drug cases and fewer indictments carrying a mandatory minimum.  Meanwhile, prosecutions of high-level drug defendants have risen and cooperation and plea rates remained effectively the same.

“The promise of Smart on Crime is showing impressive results,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates.  “Federal prosecutors are consistently using their discretion to focus our federal resources on the most serious cases and to ensure that we reserve harsh mandatory minimum sentence for the most dangerous offenders.  By ensuring fair and proportional sentencing, these policies engender greater trust in our criminal justice system, save federal resources and make our communities more safe. "

As part of the department’s Smart on Crime Initiative — announced in August 2013 — federal prosecutors were instructed to ensure the department’s finite resources are devoted to the most important law enforcement priorities implicating substantial federal interests and to promote fair enforcement of our laws, especially for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

Since that announcement, prosecutions of serious drug defendants — such as those involving a weapon or leaders of a conspiracy — have increased, and there has been virtually no change in the rates at which defendants cooperate with the government or plead guilty.  During the same time, the department has seen steady reductions in charges that trigger mandatory minimums and fewer federal drug charges for low-level, non-violent offenders.

Notably, this Politico article reports that not everyone may think these developments represent good news:

Some lawmakers have sounded skeptical that lowering the number of federal drug prosecutions is something the Obama administration should be celebrating.  "I've heard that argument that 'we're always focusing on higher people that's why the numbers are down' for over 25 years. I do not believe that," Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month. "

Sessions acknowledged that the federal prisons are saving money as a result of fewer convicts coming their way, but he questioned the wisdom of that approach as heroin use has picked up dramatically across the country.  "The prison population is declining at a rapid rate.  It was 5,000 down last year.  The budget for the prisons is being reduced as a result of a substantial decline in population.  And at the same time, the drug use is surging and death are occurring. And on my opinion, it's going to get worse," Sessions said.

However, Yates said Monday she remains hopeful that Congress will pass criminal justice reform legislation that will give federal prosecutors and judges even more discretion in drug cases.  "At the risk of sounding maybe naïve and overly optimistic, I really believe we have a very good chance of getting sentencing reform because it’s one of the few things out there for which there really is bipartisan support," the deputy attorney general said.  "We have people on both ends of the spectrum that actually agree that this needs to happen, so you got to hope that when you have that, that we can actually bring this over the finish line.”

March 22, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Some interesting recent discussions of religion and the death penalty

Long-time readers know I have long been intrigued by (and uncertain about) the intersection of strong religious beliefs and strong opinions on the death penalty. For that reason, these recent pieces caught my eye:

From the New Yorker here, "The Catholic Movement Against Capital Punishment"

From Patheos here, "Why Authentic Christians Must Oppose the Death Penalty"

From RawStoy here, "Bible: 6 Ways Jewish Bernie Sanders Is More Like Christ, Christian Donald Trump More Like Anti-Christ"

The last of these pieces talks about a lot more than the death penalty, but I figured it might help generate some extra fun comments.

March 21, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS rejects original lawsuit brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado over marijuana reform

Legal gurus closely following state-level marijuana reforms have been also closely following the lawsuit brought directly to the Supreme Court way back in December 2014 by Nebraska and Oklahoma complaining about how Colorado reformed its state marijuana laws.  Today, via this order list, the Supreme Court finally officially denied the "motion for leave to file a bill of complaint" by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado.  This is huge news for state marijuana reform efforts, but not really all that surprising.  (It would have been bigger news and surprising if the motion was granted.)

Notably, Justice Thomas authored an extended dissent to this denial, which was joined by Justice Alito.  Here is how this dissent stats and ends:

Federal law does not, on its face, give this Court discretion to decline to decide cases within its original jurisdiction. Yet the Court has long exercised such discretion, and does so again today in denying, without explanation, Nebraska and Oklahoma’s motion for leave to file a complaint against Colorado.  I would not dispose of the complaint so hastily. Because our discretionary approach to exercising our original jurisdiction is questionable, and because the plaintiff States have made a reasonable case that this dispute falls within our original and exclusive jurisdiction, I would grant the plaintiff States leave to file their complaint....

Federal law generally prohibits the manufacture, distribution, dispensing, and possession of marijuana.  See Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 84 Stat. 1242, as amended, 21 U. S. C. §§812(c), Schedule I(c)(10), 841–846 (2012 ed. and Supp. II).  Emphasizing the breadth of the CSA, this Court has stated that the statute establishes “a comprehensive regime to combat the international and interstate traffic in illicit drugs.”  Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 12 (2005).  Despite the CSA’s broad prohibitions, in 2012 the State of Colorado adopted Amendment 64, which amends the State Constitution to legalize, regulate, and facilitate the recreational use of marijuana.  See Colo. Const., Art. XVIII, §16.  Amendment 64 exempts from Colorado’s criminal prohibitions certain uses of marijuana. §§16(3)(a), (c), (d); see Colo. Rev. Stat. §18–18–433 (2015).  Amendment 64 directs the Colorado Department of Revenue to promulgate licensing procedures for marijuana establishments. Art. XVIII, §16(5)(a).  And the amendment requires the Colorado General Assembly to enact an excise tax for sales of marijuana from cultivation facilities to manufacturing facilities and retail stores. §16(5)(d).

In December 2014, Nebraska and Oklahoma filed in this Court a motion seeking leave to file a complaint against Colorado.  The plaintiff States — which share borders with Colorado — allege that Amendment 64 affirmatively facilitates the violation and frustration of federal drug laws.  See Complaint ¶¶54–65.  They claim that Amendment 64 has “increased trafficking and transportation of Coloradosourced marijuana” into their territories, requiring them to expend significant “law enforcement, judicial system, and penal system resources” to combat the increased trafficking and transportation of marijuana.  Id., ¶58; Brief [for Nebraska and Oklahoma] in Support of Motion for Leave to File Complaint 11–16.  The plaintiff States seek a declaratory judgment that the CSA pre-empts certain of Amendment 64’s licensing, regulation, and taxation provisions and an injunction barring their implementation. Complaint 28–29.

The complaint, on its face, presents a “controvers[y] between two or more States” that this Court alone has authority to adjudicate. 28 U. S. C. §1251(a).  The plaintiff States have alleged significant harms to their sovereign interests caused by another State.  Whatever the merit of the plaintiff States’ claims, we should let this complaint proceed further rather than denying leave without so much as a word of explanation.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.

March 21, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Rounding up commentary highlighting why I am just not that into SCOTUS nomination of Chief Judge Merrick Garland

32249482_400x400In this initial post about Prez Obama's selection of Chief DC Circuit Judge Merrick Garland as his latest and likely last SCOTUS nominee, I expressed some reasons I was initially disappointed by the selection.  Since that time, I have read a little bit of the copious commentary about Chief Judge Garland and much of it suggests Judge Garland is a first-rate jurist who would make a perfectly fine Justice.

But I remain troubled that Prez Obama, after he has talked and talked and talked about the importance of criminal justice reform and of "life experience earned outside the classroom and the courtroom," decided to nominate to the Supreme Court yet another former federal prosecutor and long-time DC Circuit judge who seems to have garnered nearly all of his professional experiences inside the classroom and the courtroom.  Of particular concern for me, I suppose, is that Chief Judge Garland's professional experiences have come from inside all the same classrooms and courtrooms in which all the other Justices learned.

Because I am generally assuming GOP Senate leaders will be keeping their oft-stated promise not to even hold a hearing to consider Chief Judge Garland,  I do not plan to blog much about his nomination in the weeks ahead.  But, having seen already a bunch of old and new commentary that captures some of my thoughts about the nomination, I thought it useful here to do a mini-round up:

From Bloomberg View here, "Obama Picked a Stellar Judge. He Could Have Done Better."

From Salon here, "Inside Merrick Garland’s troubling record: Why he could take the Supreme Court right in one very important regard; No one is saying that Merrick Garland is a conservative, but his stance on criminal justice is cause for concern"

From Vox here, "Is Merrick Garland more conservative than Antonin Scalia on criminal justice issues?" 

From Grits for Breakfast here, "In praise of do-nothing Republicans on SCOTUS nominee"

The first of these linked pieces, authored by Noah Feldman, astutely comments on the symbolism of the nomination of Chief Judge Garland that has me most put off:

[E]ven if Garland is blocked, there’s a symbolic message in his nomination.  That message is that diversity isn’t very important on the Supreme Court, and that what matters is a career of legal excellence from which one emerges unscathed by the taint of controversy, risk, or (God forbid) strong opinion strongly expressed.

That hasn’t always been the case. The Supreme Court was one of the first institutions in American life where it was widely agreed that diversity counted — and that included diversity of background, experience, and viewpoint. Nearly a century ago, people were already speaking of the court as having a Western seat, a Catholic seat, a Jewish seat, and a scholar’s seat — evidence for the time of a fairly broad spectrum of desirable representation.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s justices came from the Senate, the Securities and Exchange Commission, governorships, private practice, and the academy.  They had staked out controversial, risky positions on the most important issues of the day.  William O. Douglas had crusaded against the New York Stock Exchange.  Hugo Black was considered the most radical Senator.  Think Elizabeth Warren, not Merrick Garland.

To his credit, Obama has aimed at diversity in picking two women, one of them Latina.  Their professional experiences weren’t all that varied from the other justices, but that was fine, considering their other virtues.

But was it really necessary for the president to go so far as to nominate possibly the safest candidate in the entire U.S. judiciary?  I like and respect Garland, and I’m sure he’d make an excellent justice.  He embodies many of the legal virtues that I try to teach.  Yet the basis for his selection depends on his plain-vanilla career.  It manifests the extreme care that he’s exercised in a long and distinguished professional path....

The contrast with Antonin Scalia, whom Garland would replace, is striking.  Scalia, who died in February, was also a white, male, Harvard Law graduate who’d worked in the Department of Justice.  But as a law professor, he’d staked out strong opinions and earned a reputation as a conservative intellectual leader.

It’s old news that Robert Bork’s confirmation process changed the rules of the game, driving presidents of both parties to stealth nominees.  But it’s still worth noting that Garland’s nomination is the new high water-mark of non-controversial court appointments.

This time, a fight was inevitable.  Obama could’ve used the chance for a nomination that would make the fight interesting.  He didn’t.  That may be a testament to his shrewd political mind, but it's still cause for reflection and regret.

March 21, 2016 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

High-profile NYC cop-killer getting off death row spotlights continued challenges SCOTUS jurisprudence

This new AP article, headline "NY Killer Off Death Row as Definition of Disabled Gets Tweak," reports on a notable capital ruling in a high-profile federal capital case and details how the case taps into broader issues surrounding the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment limits on the application of the death penalty. Here are the details:

Prosecutors say Ronell Wilson is a calculating murderer. Since his imprisonment for killing two New York City police detectives, he has been able to dash off emails, memorize passages from books and seduce a female guard.  But Wilson's lawyers were able to convince a judge that he is a person of such a low intelligence that he can't function in society, and therefore can't legally be put to death.

Wilson, 32, and others like him are at the center of a debate over how to enforce a nearly two-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that adds more specificity to the concept that it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute killers who are intellectually disabled.  It says courts should go beyond mere IQ scores to consider the person's mental or developmental disabilities.  A federal judge in New York who revisited Wilson's case based on the ruling tossed out his death sentence, just three years after finding that Wilson's IQ score was high enough to make him eligible to be executed.

A similar review led a judge in California last November to reduce a death sentence given three decades ago to Donald Griffin, a man who raped and murdered his 12-year-old stepdaughter.  A third appeal based on the ruling, that of a Virginia serial killer with a borderline IQ score, failed. Alfredo Prieto was executed in October.

Legal scholars say similar death row decisions are likely to follow, depending on how the high court's ruling is applied around the country.  "We should see courts more carefully considering whether defendants have an intellectual disability ... that doesn't mean we will," said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

Wilson is a case study in the difficulty of determining who fits the court's definition of someone too intellectually limited to qualify for capital punishment....  U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis said in his ruling Tuesday that he had no sympathy for Wilson and also doubted most clinicians would consider him disabled.  But he said he had "significant deficits in adaptive functioning" - enough to make him ineligible for the death penalty.  Garaufis imposed a new punishment of life in prison.

March 20, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Black Kids Less Likely To Use Hard Drugs Than Whites, Still Go To Jail More"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent posting at Medical Daily providing a summary this new research paper titled "Health Disparities in Drug-and Alcohol-Use Disorders: A 12-Year Longitudinal Study of Youths After Detention" published in the American Journal of Public Health.  Here are excerpts from the summary:

The United States is plagued with many forms of substance abuse, and youth leaving juvenile detention are especially vulnerable. Many think African Americans in this group are especially prone to drug use, but a new study says this stereotype is unfounded. According to researchers at Northwestern, abuse of and dependence on cocaine, hallucinogens, amphetamines, and opioids is less common among African Americans than among non-Hispanic whites.

The thorough study is the first of its kind. Researchers followed the youths into their late 20s, for up to 12 years after release. At that point, non-Hispanic whites had 30 times the odds of becoming addicted to cocaine as African Americans did. “Those findings are striking, considering the widely accepted stereotype of African Americans as the most prevalent abusers of ‘hard drugs,’” said Linda A. Teplin, senior author of the study and professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a press release.

Though whites were more likely to abuse or depend on hard drugs, their incarceration numbers didn’t follow the same pattern. According to an estimate by the U.S. Department of Justice, among males born in 2001, one in three African Americans and one in six Hispanics will be incarcerated at some point in their lives, compared with just one in 17 Caucasians. “We must address — as a health disparity — the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans,” Teplin said.

In terms of differences between the sexes, the study found that 91.3 percent of previously delinquent male youths and 78.5 percent of females had had a substance abuse disorder by their late 20s. However, males were more likely to abuse alcohol and marijuana, and females were more likely to exhibit opiate, cocaine, amphetamine, and sedative addiction.

March 20, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (5)

South Dakota bans all juve LWOP sentences

As reported in this local article, as of last week "South Dakota has banned the practice of sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole."  Here is more about this notable legislative development:

Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed SB 140 sponsored by Sen. Craig Tieszen, into law on Wednesday. In making this change, South Dakota joins states such as Wyoming, Nevada and West Virginia in implementing less punitive accountability measures for children.

“Every year I try to bring at least one bill that I truly believe in while knowing it will be a struggle,” said Sen. Tieszen. “I believe that children, even children who commit terrible crimes, can and do change. And, I believe they deserve a chance to demonstrate that change and become productive citizens. In the end, I gathered a very diverse set of legislators from across the political spectrum and passed the bill with solid margins.”

SB 140 eliminates all life sentences for people who were younger than 18 at the time of their crimes.  Fifteen states now ban life-without-parole sentences for children.

“South Dakota is helping to lead important change in the ways that we hold our children accountable,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Teenagers who commit serious crimes will now have an opportunity after several years to demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated and are ready to re-enter society. Jurisprudence and adolescent development research document that appropriate sentences consider children’s age at the time of a crime, the trauma they have experienced and their capacity for change.”

March 20, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Making an empirical case for the relative efficacy of post-Plata realignment in California

A trio of criminologists make a data-driven case for some positive aspects of California's experiences with realignment in this Washington Post opinion piece headlined "Releasing low-level offenders did not unleash a crime wave in California."  Here are excerpts (with a link to the report that provides the empirical basis for its claims):

Some fear that reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes and letting low-level offenders back on the streets — key components of prison reform — could produce a new and devastating crime wave.  Such dire predictions were common in 2011 when California embarked on a massive experiment in prison downsizing.  But five years later, California’s experience offers powerful evidence that no such crime wave is likely to occur.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that California’s wildly overcrowded prisons were tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by some 33,000 people in two years.  In response, the state enacted the controversial California Public Safety Realignment law, known in legislative shorthand as AB 109.

With a budget of more than $1 billion annually, “realignment” gave each of the state’s 58 counties responsibility for supervising a sizable class of offenders — the “triple nons,” or non-serious, nonviolent, non-sex offenders — formerly housed in state prisons. Each county received unprecedented flexibility and authority to manage this population as it saw fit.

Recently, we brought together a group of distinguished social scientists to do a systematic, comprehensive assessment of California’s prison downsizing experiment.  The results, published this month in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, show that California’s decision to cede authority over low-level offenders to its counties has been, for the most part, remarkably effective public policy and an extraordinarily rich case study in governance....

To answer questions about the relationship between prison reform and crime rates, we not only compared statewide crime rates before and after the downsizing but also examined what happened in counties that favored innovative approaches vs. those that emphasized old-fashioned enforcement.

Clearly, our most important finding is that realignment has had only a very small effect on crime in California. Violent crime rates in the state have barely budged.  We’ve seen no appreciable uptick in assaults, rapes and murders that can be connected to the prisoners who were released under realignment.  This makes a lot of sense when you think about it; by and large, these offenders were eligible for release because of the nonviolent nature of their crimes.

On the other hand, a small uptick in property crime can be attributed to downsizing, with the largest increase occurring for auto theft.  So is this an argument against realignment and against prison reform more broadly?  We think not. The cost to society of a slight increase in property crime must be weighed against the cost of incarceration.

Take the example of auto theft. Our data suggest that one year served in prison instead of at large as a result of realignment prevents 1.2 auto thefts per year and saves $11,783 in crime-related costs plus harm to the victims and their families. On the other hand, keeping someone behind bars for a year costs California $51,889. In purely monetary terms — without considering, say, the substantial economic and social hardship that imprisonment can create for prisoners’ children and other relatives — incarcerating someone for a year in the hope of preventing an auto theft is like spending $450 to repair a $100 vacuum cleaner.

Turning to the question of which counties’ strategies were most successful, we have another important early finding: Counties that invested in offender reentry in the aftermath of realignment had better performance in terms of recidivism than counties that focused resources on enforcement.  As other states and the federal government contemplate their own proposals for prison downsizing, they should take a close look at what these California counties are doing right.

I have long been saying that California is a critical state to watch in the sentencing reform discussion, and I am pleased to see that a "group of distinguished social scientists" have so far concluded that the state's realignment experiences in the wake of the Supreme Court's Plata "has been, for the most part, remarkably effective public policy." But, critically, thanks to voter initiatives, California's recent sentencing reform efforts have not been confined to realignment: in 2012, California voters passed reforms to the state's three strikes laws via Prop 36, and in 2014 California voters passed reforms to what crimes are treated as felonies via Prop 47. And, notably, though some in law enforcement were quick to complain after AB 109 that realignment was responsible for a uptick in property crimes in the state, of late the focus of crime concerns and criticism has been Prop 47.

As I have repeatedly said in this space and others, I think it is especially problematic that California does not have the help of a independent sentencing commission that could and should seek to track and assess all these moving sentencing reform parts in the state.  In the absence of such a body, we all will have to rely on empirical and advocacy work done by outside researchers and policy groups concerning the effects of sentencing reform on the west coast.

March 20, 2016 in National and State Crime Data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

"Voices on Innocence"

The title of this post is the title given to a collection of short essays by a number of notable authors now available at this link via SSRN. Here is the abstract for the collection:

In the summer of 2015, experts gathered from around the country to sit together and discuss one of the most pressing and important issues facing the American criminal justice system — innocence.  Innocence is an issue that pervades various areas of research and influences numerous topics of discussion.

What does innocence mean, particularly in a system that differentiates between innocence and acquittal at sentencing?  What is the impact of innocence during plea bargaining? How should we respond to growing numbers of exonerations?  What forces lead to the incarceration of innocents? Has an innocent person been put to death and, if so, what does this mean for capital punishment? As these and other examples demonstrate, the importance and influence of the innocence issue is boundless.  As the group, representing various perspectives, disciplines, and areas of research, discussed these and other questions, it also considered the role of innocence in the criminal justice system more broadly and examined where the innocence issue might take us in the future.

This article is a collection of short essays from some of those in attendance — essays upon which we might reflect as we continue to consider the varying sides and differing answers to the issue of innocence.  Through these diverse and innovative essays, the reader is able to glimpse the larger innocence discussion that occurred in the summer of 2015. As was the case at the roundtable event, the ideas expressed in these pages begins a journey into an issue with many faces and many paths forward for discussion, research, and reform.

March 19, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Judge Richard Posner takes notable shots at "the legal profession in all three of its major branches"

In the Winter 2016 issue of The Green Bag, US Circuit Judge Richard Posner has this notable new article titled "What Is Obviously Wrong With the Federal Judiciary, Yet Eminently Curable, Part I." Like so much of Judge Posner's work, the piece is a fascinating read, and these introductory passages should whet everyone's appetite for what is here and to follow:

In the present article, however, and its sequel (Part II, to be published in the next issue of this journal), I try to retreat some distance from controversy by confining my discussion to those features of the federal judicial process that are at once demonstrably unsound and readily corrigible without need for federal legislation or radical changes in legal doctrines or practices.  That is not to say that anything I criticize will be changed, however convincing my critique.  For law is wedded to the past as no other profession is.  You don’t hear doctors bragging about thirteenth-century medicine, but you hear lawyers bragging about the thirteenth-century Magna Carta (without even understanding it — they think it guaranteed the ancient liberties of the English, whereas in fact it guaranteed just the rights of barons, and in any event was soon annulled, later restored, and eventually demoted to the purely symbolic).

Another way to characterize the legal profession in all three of its major branches — the academy, the judiciary, and the bar — is that it is complacent, self-satisfied. Chief Justice Roberts in his annual reports likes to describe the American legal system as the envy of the world.  Nonsense.  The system has proved itself ineffectual in dealing with a host of problems, ranging from providing useful (as distinct from abstract theoretical) legal training at bearable cost to curbing crime and meting out rational punishment, providing representation for and protection of the vast number of Americans who are impecunious or commercially unsophisticated (so prey to sharpies), incorporating the insights of the social and natural sciences (with the notable exception of economics, however), curbing incompetent regulatory agencies such as the immigration and social security disability agencies, and limiting the role of partisan politics in the appointment of judges.  The system is also immensely costly (more than $400 billion a year), with its million lawyers, many overpaid, many deficient in training and experience, some of questionable ethics.

I focus on the three principal phases of the federal judicial process: trials, intermediate appeals, and decisions by the Supreme Court.  But much that I’ll be saying is applicable to state judiciaries as well, all of which (so far as I know) have a tripartite structure (trial court, intermediate appellate court, supreme court) similar to that of their federal counterpart.

I may have some comments in a later post about what Judge Posner has to say in this article about the judicary's failings at "curbing crime and meting out rational punishment."

March 19, 2016 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, March 18, 2016

Making the (Trumpian?) case for winning the drug war via full legalization

HarpersWeb-Cover-201604-302x410_black This cover story of the April 2016 issue of Harper's magazine is authored by Dan Baum and is headlined "Legalize It All: How to win the war on drugs."  And, as I mean to suggest via  the headline of this post, this article may be channeling what GOP Prez candidate front-runner Donald Trump really thinks about how to improve modern drug policy in the US.  (Recall that I had this post on my marijuana reform blog, way back when Trump first announced his serious run for the Oval Office last summer, which highlights that Trump not all that long ago had once suggested full legalization would be the only way to "win" the drug war.)  Here are is an except from the first part of the lengthy Harper's piece:

Nixon’s invention of the war on drugs as a political tool was cynical, but every president since — Democrat and Republican alike — has found it equally useful for one reason or another. Meanwhile, the growing cost of the drug war is now impossible to ignore: billions of dollars wasted, bloodshed in Latin America and on the streets of our own cities, and millions of lives destroyed by draconian punishment that doesn’t end at the prison gate; one of every eight black men has been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.

As long ago as 1949, H. L. Mencken identified in Americans “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” an astute articulation of our weirdly Puritan need to criminalize people’s inclination to adjust how they feel.  The desire for altered states of consciousness creates a market, and in suppressing that market we have created a class of genuine bad guys — pushers, gangbangers, smugglers, killers.  Addiction is a hideous condition, but it’s rare. Most of what we hate and fear about drugs — the violence, the overdoses, the criminality — derives from prohibition, not drugs. And there will be no victory in this war either; even the Drug Enforcement Administration concedes that the drugs it fights are becoming cheaper and more easily available.

Now, for the first time, we have an opportunity to change course. Experiments in alternatives to harsh prohibition are already under way both in this country and abroad. Twenty-three states, as well as the District of Columbia, allow medical marijuana, and four — Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska — along with D.C., have legalized pot altogether.  Several more states, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, will likely vote in November whether to follow suit.

Portugal has decriminalized not only marijuana but cocaine and heroin, as well as all other drugs.  In Vermont, heroin addicts can avoid jail by committing to state-funded treatment. Canada began a pilot program in Vancouver in 2014 to allow doctors to prescribe pharmaceutical-quality heroin to addicts, Switzerland has a similar program, and the Home Affairs Committee of Britain’s House of Commons has recommended that the United Kingdom do likewise.  Last July, Chile began a legislative process to legalize both medicinal and recreational marijuana use and allow households to grow as many as six plants.  After telling the BBC in December that “if you fight a war for forty years and don’t win, you have to sit down and think about other things to do that might be more effective,” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos legalized medical marijuana by decree. In November, the Mexican Supreme Court elevated the debate to a new plane by ruling that the prohibition of marijuana consumption violated the Mexican Constitution by interfering with “the personal sphere,” the “right to dignity,” and the right to “personal autonomy.”  The Supreme Court of Brazil is considering a similar argument.

Depending on how the issue is framed, legalization of all drugs can appeal to conservatives, who are instinctively suspicious of bloated budgets, excess government authority, and intrusions on individual liberty, as well as to liberals, who are horrified at police overreach, the brutalization of Latin America, and the criminalization of entire generations of black men.  It will take some courage to move the conversation beyond marijuana to ending all drug prohibitions, but it will take less, I suspect, than most politicians believe.  It’s already politically permissible to criticize mandatory minimums, mass marijuana-possession arrests, police militarization, and other excesses of the drug war; even former attorney general Eric Holder and Michael Botticelli, the new drug czar — a recovering alcoholic — do so. Few in public life appear eager to defend the status quo.

A few prior related posts:

March 18, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"How many times should a state be able to try to execute someone without running afoul of the Constitution?"

The question in the title of this post is the first line of this notable new commentary authored by Austin Sarat concerning the work of the Ohio Supreme Court  in Ohio v. Broom (previously discussed here).  Here is more of the commentary:

[T]he Ohio Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that neither the federal nor the state constitution forbids Ohio from trying to execute someone more than once.  While this ruling may set up another opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of capital punishment, it nonetheless allows the nightmarish possibility that the state can proceed in a negligent manner in carrying out an execution and, if it fails in the first attempt, to try, try again.  This should shock and trouble those who support capital punishment as well as those who oppose it....

On Sept. 15, 2009, Broom, who had been convicted of kidnapping, rape, and murder, was brought to Ohio's death chamber where he was to be executed by lethal injection.  His executioners repeatedly attempted to insert an intravenous line into Broom's arms and legs.  As they did so, Broom winced and grimaced with pain.  At one point, he covered his face with both hands and appeared to be sobbing, his stomach heaving.

After an hour had passed, Broom tried to help his executioners, turning onto his side, sliding the rubber tubing that served as a tourniquet up his left arm, and alternatively squeezing his fingers together and apart. Even when executioners found what they believed to be a suitable vein, it quickly collapsed as they tried to inject the saline fluid. Broom was once again brought to tears. After more than two hours of executioners sticking Broom's arms and legs with the needle, the prison director decided that the execution team should rest.  The governor of Ohio issued a reprieve stopping the execution....

It is almost certain that the Bromell case now will make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court and that it will offer that court the chance to revisit the unfortunate precedent it set more than 60 years ago [allowing Louisiana to try again after a failed electrocution in the Francis case].

One can only hope that the Court will now insist that if the government is going to carry out executions that there be no room for error. Neither simple human decency nor the 8th Amendment can tolerate a government carrying out a death penalty sentence in a shoddy manner.  If we are going to have a death penalty, we cannot allow death, as the dissenting justice in the Francis case put it, to be carried out on the installment plan.

Prior related post:

March 18, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Hello, it's sentencing, I was wondering if after singing I'd get fewer years....

66389510My students as well as regular readers know that I like to say that any and all matters in our crazy dyanmic world has a sentencing story lurking somehwere.  Thanks to a recent local court case, I now have a great reference if anyone ever questions how singing goddess Adele is linked to sentencing. This press piece is headlined "Convicted Felon Sings Adele-Inspired Apology at Sentencing Hearing," and here are the details:

A 21-year-old convicted felon sang an Adele-inspired apology to the judge overseeing his case at his sentencing hearing. On March 10, Brian Earl Taylor appeared at Washtenaw County Trial Court in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be sentenced for unlawful imprisonment and carrying a concealed weapon, court records indicate. When he addressed the court, he sang his soulful apology to the tune of Adele's smash hit "Hello," complete with lyrics he'd written himself.

"I'm gonna start with a song," Taylor, a Belleville, Michigan, resident, said when he addressed the court. Taylor then began his one-minute song with a greeting to the judge. "Hello, your honor," Taylor sang.

As the song went on, he apologized to the victim, his mother and Judge Darlene O'Brien. "I want to say I’m sorry for the things I’ve done, and I try to be stronger in this life I’ve chosen," Taylor sang. "But I want you to know, that door I closed, your honor.

"I’m sorry, sorry, sorry," Taylor continued.

Prior to the hearing, one of Taylor's lawyers asked O'Brien to give Taylor permission to sing the song, the judge told ABC News. O'Brien looked at the lyrics and found them to be remorseful, she said. So, she allowed Taylor to proceed.

O'Brien said she found the song's melody to be familiar. "I love Adele's music," she said. One of the lawyers representing Taylor said he expressed the night before the hearing that he'd like to sing, but only if the judge was okay with it.

"That was all his idea," said Washtenaw County Assistant Public Defender Stephen Adams. "It was the way he could most comfortably tell her how he felt." The judge told Taylor that he obviously has talent and that she hopes he finds an appropriate way to use it, Adams told ABC News.

Police arrested Taylor after he was found struggling with a man in an apartment building in Ypsilanti, Michigan, while holding a gun to the man's abdomen on Nov. 9, according to a press release. Police said they believe that Taylor planned to rob the man. Taylor was sentenced to two years in a state prison for illegally carrying a concealed weapon and 18 months to 15 years for the unlawful imprisonment charge, court records show. Five other charges against him in the case were dismissed. Taylor pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal, Adams told ABC News.

"I’ve been here 23 years, and I’ve never seen a defendant sing at their sentencing hearing," said Ypsilanti Police Department Lt. Deric Gress, who oversees the detective department that handled Taylor's case.

March 17, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Easing Mandatory Minimums Will Not Be Enough"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable article in Judicature authored by one of my old bosses, Second Circuit Judge Jon O. Newman.  I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts:

Congress is finally considering easing mandatory minimum penalties.  However, this effort, even if successful, will need to be complemented by actions taken by the United States Sentencing Commission and federal district judges.

If some mandatory minimum requirements are repealed or at least modified, there will be two immediate consequences.  First, prosecutors will be deprived of the awesome power to coerce a guilty plea by threatening to charge an offense that will subject a defendant to a mandatory minimum sentence.  Second, sentencing judges will be spared the often distasteful obligation to impose a required sentence that is more severe than the one they would have selected had they been free to use their sentencing discretion.

But these immediate consequences, desirable as they are, will be only the first of three steps needed to reduce the severity of sentences currently subject to mandatory minimum requirements.  The Sentencing Commission must take the second step of revising the Sentencing Guidelines, and then district judges must take the third step of using their authority to impose non-Guidelines sentences.

March 17, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)