Friday, July 8, 2016

The demise of irreducible life sentences in the Netherlands

I am pleased to be able to provide this guest posting from Dirk van Zyl Smit, who runs the Life Imprisonment Worldwide Project at the University of Nottingham, concerning a big recent ruling from the Netherlands:

The Netherlands has long been an exception to the general European rule that all persons sentenced to life imprisonment must have a realistic prospect of release before they are too old or ill to again lead a full life in free society. There are only a small number of life-sentenced prisoners in the Netherlands, 32 at the last count, but they all serve sentences akin to US-style life without parole, and are rarely, if ever, released. On 5 July 2016, that position changed dramatically. The Hoge Raad, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, ruled that the remote possibility of a pardon, which hitherto has been the sole mechanism by which Dutch life-sentenced prisoners theoretically could be released, was inadequate. The current pardon system did not provide them with a clear prospect of being considered for release and was therefore contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In coming to this conclusion the Hoge Raad quoted extensively from the standards developed by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in 2013 in Vinter and others v United Kingdom and in 2016 in Murray v The Netherlands but then set them out and developed them further in its own words. (The translations are my own.)

The Hoge Raad began cautiously (para 3.2), noting

that the life sentence is not inherently contrary to the provisions of art. 3 of the ECHR, even if it is fully executed. From the jurisprudence [of the European Court of Human Rights] however, it follows that life imprisonment cannot be imposed if it is not already clear at the time of imposition that in due course there will be a real opportunity to reassess the life sentence, which in the appropriate cases can lead to the shortening of the sentence or (conditional) release. This does not mean that providing an opportunity for review of the sentence will always lead to a reduction of the penalty. Reassessment can indeed also lead to a finding that there is no ground for reducing the sentence.

The Hoge Raad then explained the various conditions it regarded as essential prerequisites for a review of a life sentence (para 3.3):

In the review, the question that needs to be addressed is whether there have been such changes on the part of the convicted person and whether he or she has made such progress in their resocialisation that the continued implementation of life imprisonment is no longer justified. The criteria used in this context should not be so stringent that release is allowed only when a serious illness or other physical obstacle stands in the way of the further implementation of life imprisonment, or upon reaching an advanced age. The review must be based on information with respect to the convicted person as an individual as well as the opportunities offered for resocialisation. Moreover, at the time of the imposition of a life sentence, it must be clear to the convicted person to a sufficiently precise extent what objective criteria will be applied in the review, so that he knows what requirements must be met, if he wants - eventually – to be considered for a reduction of his sentence or for (conditional) release.

The point of departure in the future must be that the review must take place after no more than 25 years after the imposition of life imprisonment and that after that period the possibility of periodical re-assessment is required. The reassessment shall be surrounded with sufficient procedural safeguards. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights does not require that a provision to curtail a life sentence can only consist of a statutory periodic review of the sentence by a judge. That does not detract from the view of the Hoge Raad that assigning the reassessment to a judge in itself represents an important guarantee that the implementation of life imprisonment will take place in accordance with Art. 3 of the ECHR.

Finally, in order to provide a real opportunity for reassessment, it is important that the convicted person during the execution of the life sentence - even before the reassessment takes place - must be able to prepare for a possible return to society and that, related to this, possibilities for resocialisation should be offered within the framework of the implementation.

The very basis of this decision is a rejection of official Dutch policy on the treatment of life-sentenced prisoners, for until now they have not been offered opportunities for resocialisation, because it had been presumed that they would never be released. The prison regimes for these prisoners will have to change.

The remedy that the Hoge Raad put forward is equally drastic. It ordered the Dutch government to legislate in order to reform the law relating to life imprisonment so that it would meet the standards it had spelled out. Such reforms have to be introduced by 5 September 2017. The Hoge Raad will remain seized with the case until then, when it will again consider the matter and decide whether the legislative reform meets the standards it has now set.

The decision of the Hoge Raad of 5 July 2016 is recognition that Dutch jurisprudence on life imprisonment must move forward to take account of the development in European human rights law that has led to a clear rejection of irreducible life sentences. It stands in contrast to the much more conservative approach of the English Court of Appeal, in R v Mcloughlin, which has insisted that English provisions that would allow life-sentenced prisoners, subject to a whole life order, to leave prison only when ill or dying are sufficiently flexible to be regarded as a form of release to meet the standards of Art. 3 of the ECHR. This interpretation of European standards by the Court of Appeal has been challenged before the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR in Hutchinson v the United Kingdom. Judgment in this last case, which was argued in October 2015, is keenly awaited. What remains to be seen is how the British authorities, including the UK courts, will respond if the ECtHR follows the trend that the Dutch Supreme Court has endorsed and rejects the interpretation of the Court of Appeal. The recent British referendum in favour of leaving the European Union does not affect the legal status of the United Kingdom as a party to the ECHR. However, there has been much press speculation that a decision against the United Kingdom in this latest case about irreducible life sentences may prompt a reconsideration of Britain’s relationship with the ECtHR and lead eventually to a formal withdrawal from its jurisdiction. The measured decision of the Hoge Raad on 5 July 2016 is an example of a less confrontational approach to European jurisprudence by a national apex court. One can only hope that the courts and indeed the government of the United Kingdom will learn from it.

July 8, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

"Can Obama Pardon Millions of Immigrants?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable New York Times commentary authored by Peter Markowitz. Here are excerpts:

When the history of President Obama’s legacy on immigration is written, he will not go down as the president who boldly acted to protect millions of families from the brutality of our nation’s unforgiving immigration laws. The Supreme Court made sure of that last month, when it deadlocked on the legality of his program to defer the deportation of parents of American citizens and residents. Instead, he will be judged on what he actually did: deport more immigrants than any other president in American history, earning him the moniker “deporter in chief.”

However, President Obama can still act to bring humanity and justice to an immigration system notoriously lacking in both. He can do so by using the power the Constitution grants him — and only him — to pardon individuals for “offenses against the United States.”

The debate over the deportation deferral program has been framed as a question of the division of powers. Both sides agree that Congress is the only entity that gets to define offenses against the United States.... There is one area, however, where the president’s unilateral ability to forgo punishment is uncontested and supported by over a hundred years of Supreme Court precedent: the pardon power. It has been consistently interpreted to include the power to grant broad amnesties from prosecution to large groups when the president deems it in the public interest....

It’s a common assumption that pardons can be used only for criminal offenses, and it’s true that they have not been used before for civil immigration violations. However, the Constitution extends the power to all “offenses against the United States,” which can be interpreted more broadly than just criminal offenses.

A pardon could not achieve everything the deferred deportation program aspired to — notably, it could not deliver work permits. However, it has a certain operational elegance to it that would avoid many of the political battles surrounding the deferral program....

President Obama has plenty of time left to issue such a pardon. There is solid historical and legal precedent for him to do so. And although it would probably bring about legal challenges, opponents could not use the legal system to simply run out the clock, as they have with his deferred deportation program. A deferred deportation program could be undone by a President Trump. Unconditional pardons, in contrast, are irrevocable.

Finally, some would surely argue that a pardon protecting a large category of immigrants from deportation would, just like the deportation deferral program, effectively amount to a repeal of laws enacted by Congress. However, pardons do nothing to alter the law. They protect certain past offenders from punishment and prosecution, but leave the law unchanged as applied to any future violators.

President Obama has deported around 2.5 million people. That is about the same number as were deported in the entire 20th century. His apparent strategy was to demonstrate his bona fides on enforcement in order to persuade recalcitrant Republicans to work with him on immigration reform. It didn’t work. It turns out that you don’t convince people to be more humane on immigration by deporting immigrants hand over fist. We are left with a brutal legacy of millions of families torn apart, many simply for doing what they needed to do to protect and feed their children. President Obama will not be judged on his intentions or his attempts on immigration, but rather on his real impact. This is his last chance to establish a legacy of pragmatic compassion.

July 7, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sharp criticisms of bladerunner Oscar Pistorius being sentenced only to six years for murdering his girlfriend

A high-profile defendant, Oscar Pistorius, was resentenced this week after the South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal had concluded he should be convicted of murder and not just manslaughter for shooting girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Regular readers may recall the trial judge seemed to accept his self-defense claims when first giving him only a five-­year sentence. This time around, the sentence only was increase by a year, and more than a few commentators have expressed disappointment in this result:

My complete ignorance about South African sentencing laws, procedures and practices lead me to be unable to comment intelligently on either the Pistorius resentencing or these sharp reactions to it.  But this case provides still more evidence that sentencing outcomes, especially for high-profile figures, are often controversial no matter where in the world they take place.

Prior related posts:

July 7, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Does Massachusetts have a problem with under-punishment of convicted rapists?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Boston Globe article headlined "Dozens of convicted rapists in Mass. have avoided prison. " Here are excerpts:

More than three dozen people convicted of rape in Massachusetts in recent years have received no prison time for their crimes, state data show, including several who had lengthy criminal histories.  A Globe review of Massachusetts court system statistics on 305 rape convictions in the 12-year period that concluded at the end of June 2013 found that in 42 cases, or about 14 percent of the time, defendants received no prison time.

They included two defendants who had a record of either “repetitive” or “violent” convictions, and three had a “serious record.” Seven had a “moderate record” of convictions, while 30 had either never been convicted of a crime or had been convicted of what the court system considered minor offenses. The figures come from annual reports by the Executive Office of the Trial Court.

“If you look at any other violent, serious felony, this would never happen,” said Colby Bruno, an attorney at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston.  Rapists should not be given leniency when it comes to sentencing, Bruno said.

In Massachusetts, state sentencing guidelines call for anyone convicted of certain serious crimes, including rape, to be sentenced to some period of incarceration. For rape, the minimum recommended sentence is five years. But judges aren’t required to follow the guidelines.  The Massachusetts data reviewed by the Globe showed that convicted rapists who were incarcerated were typically sentenced to between five and 10 years in prison, and that defendants with more troubling criminal histories usually received lengthier sentences....

National statistics on criminal sentencing are limited. But a federal study on cases that began in 2009 in large urban US counties found 11 percent of convicted rapists were not sentenced to jail or prison time. For those who were incarcerated, the median prison sentence length was 10 years....

The Globe’s review of the data focused on convictions under Massachusetts’ definition of rape, which is described as nonconsensual sex with someone by using force or the threat of bodily injury. The review did not look at other classifications of the crime, such as aggravated, statutory, or child rape. The reports did not detail specific cases. The state trial court office, which is exempt from public record disclosure laws, declined to release further details. The most recent year for which data was available was fiscal year 2013.

Defense attorneys, as well as former judges and prosecutors, offered several potential reasons why someone convicted of rape might not get prison time. One of the most likely scenarios, experts said, would be a plea bargain.  A prosecutor with a weak case could offer, in exchange for a guilty plea, to recommend a lesser sentence such as probation to the judge.

Getting a conviction and at least some punishment for the defendant is sometimes viewed as a better option than risking losing the case at trial.  It also removes the possible need to bring a traumatized victim to testify. “The ultimate goal is to decrease crime and hold people responsible, and sometimes that can come in different forms and packages,” said law professor Mary G. Leary, a former prosecutor whose focus included sexual assault cases.

In another possible scenario, a victim might ask the judge not to incarcerate the assailant. “Sometimes, when you have parties who know each other, they want the person convicted, but they don’t want them to be incarcerated,” said Christine Cole, executive director of the Crime & Justice Institute, part of the Boston-based nonprofit Community Resources for Justice.

In addition, judges carefully weigh many factors when making sentencing decisions. Factors can include the specific facts of the crime, and whether the defendant cooperated with prosecutors, showed remorse, has a criminal past, and is likely to reoffend, specialists said. The details of each case are critical, said Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge in Boston and a former defense attorney. For example, Gertner said, she routinely encountered cases where defendants, particularly those with drug addiction problems, “wound up with these very long rap sheets, but of relatively minor offenses.”

Some observers, including Cole and Gertner, said they believe judges sentence appropriately in the vast majority of cases. Martin Rosenthal, a longtime criminal defense attorney and Massachusetts Sentencing Commission member, agreed, saying that while “it’s certainly unusual for someone to be convicted of rape and not get incarcerated . . . I don’t think that rape is being diminished in any way” by judges or the justice system.  “The idea that we’re being soft on rape as a society is just not true,” he said.

July 7, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

"Implementing Proportionality"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Perry Moriearty and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Over the last fourteen years, the Supreme Court has issued five decisions that impose substantive constraints on our harshest punishments -- forbidding the execution of those with “mental retardation” in Atkins v. Virginia, of juveniles in Roper v. Simmons, and of those convicted of child sexual assault in Kennedy v. Louisiana, and forbidding the sentence of life without parole for juveniles who had not killed in Graham v. Florida and for all juveniles when it is imposed mandatorily in Miller v. Alabama.  Because the offenders in question were categorically less culpable, the proscribed punishment was disproportionately severe, the Court held.  

In many respects, these decisions reinvigorated the Court’s substantive proportionality jurisprudence, which had been virtually dormant for two decades.  Yet, three of the five decisions simply have not yielded in practice what they promised in principle.  The implementation of Atkins, Graham and Miller has been so protracted, litigious and encumbered by procedural obstacles that, of the nearly 3,000 inmates nominally impacted by the decisions, only a fraction has been relieved of their sentences.  In the meantime, inmates with IQs of 61 have been executed, and others have died waiting to hear whether the Court’s decisions apply retroactively.

This Article argues that, despite its transformative potential, the Court’s contemporary proportionality jurisprudence has been diminished in scope and potency in the course of its implementation -- a dynamic that has been called “slippage.”  In many respects, the “slippage” of these mandates can be attributed to the decisions themselves, which are deregulatory and, in concert with the Court’s broader efforts to limit federal court jurisdiction over state criminal justice processes, tie the scope of relief to the political whims and majoritarian preferences of the States.  On some issues, the procedural docility of these decisions has proven so problematic that the Court has twice within the last two years had to intervene, striking portions of Florida’s capital sentencing scheme in 2014 and, just weeks ago, declaring in Montgomery v. Louisiana that Miller does in fact apply retroactively.  

While the Court’s reluctance to regulate the implementation of its proportionality mandates may be rationalized as necessary deference to the principles of federalism and finality, these justifications are far less compelling in the Eighth Amendment context.  The very establishment of federal habeas, executive clemency, and Supreme Court review suggests that the Framers themselves recognized that there are normative points when interests in federalism and finality simply must yield.  By contrast, the risk of offending constitutional norms through slippage may be at their most pronounced since one of the Eighth Amendment’s primary purposes is to protect the politically powerless from government overreach.  I conclude that, if the Court is serious about implementing in practice the substantive constraints on punishment it has imposed over the last fourteen years, it must accompany its substantive mandates with a minimum threshold of procedural prescription.

July 6, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Jackson and Miller Eighth Amendment cases, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Split Eighth Circuit panel affirms three-month sentence for Iowa egg executives whose company caused salmonella outbreak

As reported in this AP piece, the Eighth Circuit today rejected an array of challenges to upheld short jail sentences for two egg industry executives who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor corporate crimes. Here is more about the case and the ruling:

In a 2-1 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld three-month jail sentences issued last year to 82-year-old Austin "Jack" DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster, 53.

The DeCosters were aware of unsanitary conditions at their sprawling Iowa egg farms but failed to improve them before the outbreak, which sickened up to 56,000 people and left some with permanent injuries, Judge Diana Murphy wrote. "We conclude that the record here shows that the DeCosters are liable for negligently failing to prevent the salmonella outbreak," Murphy wrote, joined by Judge Raymond Gruender.

The case, a rare prosecution against those responsible for an outbreak of foodborne illness, was closely watched by advocates for consumer safety and food and drug manufacturers. The Justice Department praised the ruling, saying the DeCosters disregarded basic food safety standards for years and deserved jail time....

At issue was whether corporate executives could face imprisonment for violating the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which allows "responsible corporate agents" to be held criminally liable even if they were not aware of the wrongdoing. The DeCosters, who owned and operated Quality Egg LLC, had pleaded guilty to violating the law by introducing adulterated eggs into interstate commerce. They said they did not know the eggs were contaminated but acknowledged they were in a position to stop the problems had they known.

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett ordered the jail time in April 2015, saying they knew or should have known about the risks posed by the presence of salmonella in and around millions of egg-laying hens. But he allowed the DeCosters to stay free while they appealed the sentences, which they argued were unconstitutional and unreasonably harsh.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, filed friend-of-the-court briefs backing the DeCosters' appeal. They argued that it would be unfair to send corporate executives to prison for violations that they were unaware of or that were committed by subordinates.

Murphy rejected those arguments, saying Congress did not require executives to have known about the violations to be subject to the food safety law's criminal penalties. She said the jail terms were relatively short, within federal guidelines and "not grossly disproportionate to the gravity of their misdemeanor offenses." Gruender added in a concurring opinion that the DeCosters were not being punished for the acts of others, saying their own failure to take steps to prevent the outbreak was to blame.

Dissenting Judge C. Arlen Beam said prosecutors failed to show that the DeCosters had criminal intent, and therefore "there is no precedent" for sending them to jail. He said they were not aware the products were tainted with salmonella and that they immediately recalled hundreds of millions of eggs once the outbreak was confirmed "at great expense."...

Quality Egg paid a $6.8 million fine after pleading guilty to felony charges of shipping eggs with false processing and expiration dates and bribing a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector to approve sales of poor-quality eggs.

The full ruling in US v. DeCoster, No. 15-1890 (8th Cir. July 6, 2016), is available at this link.

July 6, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Examining Justice Sonia Sotomayor's unique SCOTUS voice on criminal justice issues

This past week as brought these two notable examinations of the work of Justice Sonia Sotomayor on criminal justice issues:

July 6, 2016 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Might the Nebraska death penalty repeal referendum in 2016 be even more important symbolically than the dueling California capital initiatives?

As highlighted in prior posts here and here, death penalty opponents and supporters will surely be focused on California during the 2016 election season as voters there will be have a clear capital punishment reform choice between "end it" and "mend it" based on two competing ballot proposals. But this local article from Nebraska, headlined "Death penalty debate heats up," provides a useful reminder that citizens in a very different state will also be voting on the future of the death penalty in their jurisdiction. Here are the basics:

Nebraskans will go to the polls four month from now and vote for an array of issues-one being whether or not to reinstate the death penalty in Nebraska. The legislature voted 30-19 to repeal it in the Spring of 2015, but supporters of capital punishment were able to get enough signatures to get the issue on the November ballot.

“It's a very complicated system, the system is broken and it doesn't work,” said Retain a Just Nebraska campaign manager Darold Bauer [campaign website here]. “The repeal of the death penalty was very unpopular across the state,” said Rod Edwards, state director for Nebraskans for the Death Penalty [campaign website here].

Those for the death penalty say murder victim’s families want justice. “They want that just penalty for the people who killed their loved ones,” said Edwards.

However the group Retain a Just Nebraska said the system doesn’t work and actually harms murder victim’s families. “Eliminate years and years of appeals, and eliminate the possibility of executing an innocent person,” said Bauer.

Both sides of this issue are now ramping up their campaigns this summer coordinating their army of volunteers and getting their message out. “We are re-energizing those volunteers we are working with our Facebook followers to make sure they get the message out and working with those 166-thousands signature gathers to expand that to an electorate,” said Edwards.

Even churches are getting involved-handing out materials urging their people to vote for a specific item. This past weekend, some parishioners likely saw a bit of politicking in the pews. “We are getting help from a number of different churches and different denominations, we are not turning anyone away, if they believe what we do in eliminating the death penalty, we welcome their support,” said Bauer.

Both campaigns will start airing ads on TV and radio soon.

Because California has the nation's largest death row (as well as the largest population of any state in the nation), the outcome of the death penalty reform initiatives in that state will, practically and politically, be far more consequential in the short-term than whatever happens in Nebraska.  But, as the question in the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think the vote in Nebraska could have more symbolically importance and long-term significance for the future of the death penalty in the United States.

California is, of course, a "deep-blue" state and its quirky and complicated history with the death penalty will make it relatively easy for whichever side that loses in November to claim that the result is not really representative of the views of the national as a whole.  But Nebraska is a "deep-red" state, and its legislative repeal of the death penalty was driven by conservative elected officials.  If Cornhusker voters embrace capital repeal at the ballot this November, I think death penalty abolitionists can and will assert forcefully that this vote shows that even conservative citizens want to see an end of capital punishment int he US. But if Nebraska voters reject the repeal, and especially if they do so by a large margin, supporters of capital punishment can and still will be able to point to the outcome as proof that most voters in most states still support the punishment of death for some murderers.

July 6, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Deep dives into realities of sex offender registries two decades after they started to proliferate

Vox has these two lengthy new pieces looking at the realities of sex offender registries:

Here is an extended excerpt from the first of these pieces:

The registry was designed for "sexual predators" who repeatedly preyed on children (at least according to the fears of 1990s policymakers). The purpose was supposed to be not punishment but prevention. The theory: Sexual predators" were unable or unwilling to control their urges, and the government could not do enough to keep them away from children, so the job of avoiding "sexual predators" needed to fall to parents....

Twenty years later, the focus on sex crimes has shifted from sexual abuse of children to sexual assault and rape. The idea that criminals can’t control their behavior has been replaced by attention to the cultural and institutional failures that allow rapes to happen and go unpunished; the idea that it’s up to potential victims to change their behavior is usually criticized as victim blaming.

Yet the sex offender registry is still going strong.

It hasn’t worked as a preventive tool. Instead, it's caught up thousands of people in a tightly woven net of legal sanctions and social stigma. Registered sex offenders are constrained by where, with whom, and how they can live — then further constrained by harassment or shunning from neighbors and prejudice from employers.

Some of the people on the sex offender registry have had their lives ruined for relatively minor or harmless offenses; for example, a statutory rape case in which the victim is a high school grade younger than the offender.

Others are people like Brock Turner — people who have committed serious crimes that are nonetheless very different from the ones the registry was supposed to prevent, and which the registry might, in fact, make harder to fight.

This happens often in the criminal justice system: Something designed for one purpose ends up getting used for something else. As usual, it happened because people can't agree on what society wants to do with criminals to begin with.

July 6, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (18)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Detailing how challenges go up for federal probation officers as the federal prison population does down

The Wall Street Journal has this interesting new article discussing one of many echo effects of a large number of federal prisoners being released early in recent years due to various federal sentencing developments.  The article is headlined "Changes in Sentencing Policy Raise Pressure on Probation Officers: Wave of early inmate releases raises concerns over preventing relapses among high-risk population."  Here is how it gets started:

Karrie Springstead tries not to stand directly in front of the ex-inmate’s apartment door as she knocks. The veteran probation officer doesn’t expect trouble, but she never knows who might be on the other side. “It’s the third party that makes me a little more leery,” says Ms. Springstead, 31 years old. “It’s the people you don’t know, and they don’t know me.”

Ms. Springstead is one of 5,500 federal probation officers who oversee roughly 180,000 people across the country.  The current push for shorter prison sentences is putting more work on the force, federal officials say, and raising concerns that critical details might be missed that could prevent relapses among a high-risk population.

Overhauling the criminal-justice system, including shorter sentences, is a hot topic in Washington, with some Democrats and Republicans increasingly coalescing behind a view that incarceration times have gotten too long.  Even before any major bills have passed, however, federal officials have begun chipping away at sentences.  Since 2010, 14,100 people have been freed early because of changes in sentencing law and policies, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and the federal probation case load has increased 7% since 2010.  In the same period, the budget of the U.S. Office of Probation and Pretrial Services Office rose 0.5%, to $902 million.

The proportion of federal ex-inmates whose probation has been revoked dropped to 27% in 2015 from 29% in 2010.  That decline has been attributed in part to improved risk assessments that are more sophisticated than previous ones and include a wider array of factors, from an offender’s education levels to family makeup.

But probation officials say the drop is due chiefly to the fact there are fewer officers, relative to the number of ex-inmates, to spot violations, so more offenders are remaining free.  “There is a tie between revocation rates going down and a shortage of officers in the community checking on people,” said Steve Skinner, chief of the federal probation office in Oklahoma City, where Ms. Springstead works....

A change in 2014 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to the way drug sentences are calculated shows the potential impact.  The federal probation office asked for a year to prepare for the change, and hired 388 new probation officers, though attrition cut the net gain to 150, said Matthew Rowland, who heads the office.  As a result of the sentencing change, a service that usually gets about 1,130 new charges a week got about 5,000 in the space of a weekend around last Nov. 1.  Another 26,000 will be released early in coming years due to the change, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

July 5, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Anyone eager to discuss what likely will be the highest-profile "declination" in federal criminal justice history?

James-comey-fbi-director_29603_ver1.0_1280_720Lots of smart people recognize and discuss in lots of ways the unique and uniquely important role that prosecutors play in the operation of modern US criminal justice systems, and one theme of a lot of recent commentary and analysis is how little information we generally have about how prosecutors make decisions about who and how to prosecute (and who not to prosecute) for various alleged wrongdoing.  In particular, it is sometimes said that too often we fail to even know about a decision and the decision-making process of a prosecutor to decline to bring charges after a significant criminal justice investigation.

I provide this context for anyone eager to discuss and debate this high-profile news as reported in this New York Times article headlined "F.B.I. Recommends No Charges Against Hillary Clinton for Use of Personal Email."  As source materials for anyone eager to discuss this recommended declination, here is the full text of today's statement by FBI Director James B. Comey on the Investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s Use of a Personal E-Mail System."  It includes these key passages:

Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information....

While not the focus of our investigation, we also developed evidence that the security culture of the State Department in general, and with respect to use of unclassified e-mail systems in particular, was generally lacking in the kind of care for classified information found elsewhere in the government....

In our system, the prosecutors make the decisions about whether charges are appropriate based on evidence the FBI has helped collect. Although we don’t normally make public our recommendations to the prosecutors, we frequently make recommendations and engage in productive conversations with prosecutors about what resolution may be appropriate, given the evidence. In this case, given the importance of the matter, I think unusual transparency is in order.

Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.

In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts. All the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice. We do not see those things here.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now.

As a result, although the Department of Justice makes final decisions on matters like this, we are expressing to Justice our view that no charges are appropriate in this case.

UPDATE:  The folks at Crime & Copnsequences already have this quartet of posts up discussing Comey's findings and statement: 

July 5, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26)

Examining with decades of hindsight a (not-so-violent) violent crime spree resulting in LWOP sentences

The front-page of today's New York Times has this interesting piece examining one notable defendant serving multiple LWOP sentences for violent crimes that do not quite seem to justify the extreme sentence decades later.  The piece is headlined "One Robber’s 3 Life Sentences: ’90s Legacy Fills Prisons Today," and it gets started this way:

Lenny Singleton is the first to admit that he deserved an extended stay behind bars.  To fuel his crack habit back in 1995, he walked into 13 stores over eight days and either distracted a clerk or pretended to have a concealed gun before stealing from the cash register.  One time, he was armed with a knife with a six-inch blade that he had brought from his kitchen.

Mr. Singleton, 28 at the time, was charged with robbery and accepted a plea deal, fully expecting to receive a long jail sentence.  But a confluence of factors worked against him, including the particularly hard-nosed judge who sentenced him and the zero-tolerance ethos of the time against users of crack cocaine.  His sentence was very long: two life sentences. And another 100 years. And no possibility for parole.

There is a growing consensus that the criminal justice system has incarcerated too many Americans for too many years, with liberals and conservatives alike denouncing the economic and social costs of holding 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails.  And Congress is currently debating a criminal justice bill that, among other provisions, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders.

But a divide has opened within the reform movement over how to address prisoners who have been convicted of violent crimes, including people like Mr. Singleton, who threatened shop owners but did not harm anyone.  Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union favor a swift 50 percent reduction in prison populations, while conservative prison reform organizations like Right on Crime prioritize the release of nonviolent offenders and worry that releasing others could backfire and reduce public support.

Nonviolent drug offenders make up only about 17 percent of all state prison inmates around the nation, while violent offenders make up more than 50 percent, according to federal data.

As the prison population has increased sharply over the past 30 years, so too has the number of those sentenced to life.  Mr. Singleton is among nearly 160,000 prisoners serving life sentences — roughly the population of Eugene, Ore. The number of such inmates has more than quadrupled since 1984, and now about one in nine prison inmates is serving a life term, federal data shows.

“People are celebrating the stabilization of the prison population in recent years, but the scale of mass incarceration is so substantial that meaningful reduction is not going to happen by tinkering around the edges,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates changes in sentencing policy.

July 5, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

New Philippines Prez wasting no time executing deadly "tough on crime" plans

In this post a couple of months ago, I noted then Philippine President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte was talking about bringing back capital punishment for drug users(!) and about give police shoot-to-kill powers to go after mobsters and drug dealers.  As now reported in this Newsweek article, President Duterte has followed up his talk with action his first week on the job.  The article is headlined "30 'Drug Dealers' Executed in Duterte's First Four Days as President," and here are the remarkable details:

The Philippines’s new president, Rodrigo Duterte, appears to be living up to his nickname after less than a week in office. Police in the island country have said that some 30 suspected drug dealers have been killed since Duterte — dubbed The Punisher for his hardline stance on drugs — was sworn into office Thursday.

Formerly the mayor of the southern town of Davao, Duterte, 71, was elected in May following an explosive campaign in which he vowed to kill thousands of criminals and “fatten the fish” in Manila Bay in the capital Manila by dumping their bodies there. Following his oath, Duterte urged his supporters to do away with drug traffickers, reportedly saying: “Go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful.”

The police chief for the Manila region, Oscar Albayalde, said that five drug dealers were killed following a gun battle with police Sunday, Reuters reported. Three other people were killed in other parts of Manila Sunday, while 22 were killed outside the capital. Police also made a seizure of 180 kilograms of methamphetamine — known locally as shabu — worth around 900 million Philippine pesos ($19 million), according to national police chief Ronald dela Rosa.

In total, more than 100 people have died — most suspected drug dealers, rapists and car thieves — in police operations since the election on May 9.

Prior related post:

July 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, July 3, 2016

"Utah Senator Meets Inmate Who Inspired Sentencing Law Rewrite"

Lee_BC_236_062916The title of this post is the headline of this recent Roll Call article reporting on a notable meeting between a prominent advocate for federal sentencing reform and a prominent (former) "poster child" defendant representing the need for reform. The article includes a short video, and here are excerpts of a story that seems worth profiling on a weekend for celebrating US freedoms:

Sen. Mike Lee has told the story of Weldon Angelos’ prison term hundreds of times, describing the 55-year sentence over three marijuana sales in 72 hours as “crazy” and “nuts.”

An improbable set of events brought the two men together Wednesday in the Utah Republican's office on Capitol Hill. The recently freed Angelos hugged the lawmaker who made him a living symbol of the push to overhaul the nation’s sentencing laws.

“I’ve been telling his story a lot,” Lee said during the meeting. “A lot of the time I was telling this good story, I would sit there and wonder, actually, I wonder if he’s going to care if I’m using his name this frequently.”

“But your story was very helpful in explaining to people why we need this legislation and why we need to reform the law,” Lee told Angelos, who has two sons, ages 19 and 17, and a daughter, age 13.

Angelos, 36 and the founder of a hip-hop music label, said he met others in prison with unjust sentences. He plans to tell his story himself in Washington in support of the bipartisan bill. The legislation appears unlikely to pass in this election-shortened year, and amid disagreements among Republicans in both chambers.

“It kept me together, and my family,” Angelos said to Lee. “Your support was amazing and I just wanted to come here and thank you personally for supporting me and your commitment to criminal justice reform.” Lee has credited Angelos' case, which has attracted national attention, for sparking his work to change sentencing laws.

The legal action that freed Angelos on May 31 is somewhat mysterious and extraordinary. There is recent action in his court case — but no sign of a judge’s order releasing him. Lee said President Barack Obama set in motion a way to reopen the case and seek his release.  It wasn’t a commutation or pardon but “another type of action,” Lee said.  The senator, a former assistant U.S. attorney, is among dozens of people who have urged Obama to commute Angelos’ sentence, including former U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, who sentenced Angelos.

That shows what a lot of extra attention on a case can accomplish, said Molly Gill, government affairs counselor for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that flew Angelos to Washington this week and is working to end the types of sentencing laws that resulted in his sentence. “But it also shows there are a lot a people who don’t have and are never going to have that level of support,” Gill said.

Lee said Angelos’ release does not undercut the need for the legislation, since there are others out there who can’t get relief like Angelos. “We know there’s more to be done,” Lee said. A provision in the bill would prevent prosecutors from stacking mandatory minimum sentences related to certain gun possession crimes together in one case. It would reduce that mandatory minimum sentence from 25 years to 15 years.  It would also allow judges to reduce the sentence for prisoners who are in Angelos’ situation.

Angelos was a first-time offender who was arrested in 2002 after Salt Lake City police set up controlled drug deals between Angelos and a confidential informant.... A jury convicted him of 13 charges, including three counts of possession of a gun in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Angelos in 2004 received a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the first charge of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime; a consecutive 25-year sentence for the second, and another consecutive 25-year sentence for the third, FAMM said.

After nearly 12 years in federal prison, Angelos was surrounded Wednesday by the dark wood and art in Lee’s office. “It’s just overwhelming,” Angelos said. “I feel like I’m in a dream.”

Prior related post:

July 3, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (6)

Draft DNC party platform calls for abolition of death penalty ... which means?

In this post last week, I wondered whether it really mattered what the traditional political parties had to say about criminal justice issues in their party platforms.  But this latest platform news as reported by CNN from the Democratic National Committee will surely matter to those who are eager to see abolition of the death penalty in the United States:

Democrats are calling for an end to capital punishment.  The latest draft of the party's platform, released Friday, says the death penalty "has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment" that "has no place in the United States of America."

The inclusion of the provision represents a victory of sorts for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders -- a longtime opponent of the punishment who has said he is remaining in the presidential race in order to fight for progressive causes.  Sanders offered mild praise for the platform Friday evening, tweeting, "The Democratic Platform includes some accomplishments that will begin to move this country in the right direction."

Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has supported the death penalty in the past, albeit on a limited basis, suggesting that there could be cases for "very limited use" of the punishment in "horrific" terrorist crimes.  She was confronted over the issue during a CNN-TV One town hall event in May by an exonerated former death row inmate who spent 39 years in jail for a murder he did not commit.

For a host of reasons, I would be very surprised to hear Hillary Clinton now express opposition to the death penalty for the likes of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or even Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof. Thus, it would seem the DNC is charting a path toward adopting a party platform that will not be fully embraced by its Prez nominee. And that, in turn, means .... I have no idea.

July 3, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, July 2, 2016

"Couriers Not Kingpins: Toward a More Just Federal Sentencing Regime for Defendants Who Deliver Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Kevin Lerman and recently posted to SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

After decades of tweaking and modification, the federal sentencing guidelines have yet to meaningfully separate high-level drug traffickers from their unsophisticated underlings. The Mitigating Role Guideline — designed in part to alleviate the effects of quantity-based drug sentencing — fails to reach many of the people prosecuted for their work at the lowest rungs of drug-trafficking hierarchies.  This includes couriers and mules who transport drugs for small amounts of money.

Quantity-based sentencing guidelines qualify couriers and mules for extremely high sentences, which they must work down from by proving they deserve one or more sentencing reductions.  The Mitigating Role Guideline requires defendants to prove their role makes them “substantially less culpable” than similarly situated drug traffickers.  This mushy standard — along with a host of other obstacles — results in denial of sentencing reductions.  Mitigating Role is all-the-more treacherous because it triggers further sentencing reduction that frequently apply to couriers and mules.  These reductions are: (1) Role Cap, which counteracts quantity-based calculations that the Sentencing Commission has determined overstate low-level drug defendants’ culpability; and (2) the Methamphetamine Importation Enhancement, which extends sentences unless mitigating role is granted.

This Paper argues the Mitigating Role Guideline must be amended to more consistently account for low-level defendants.  An amended guideline should assess defendants’ functional roles rather than engage in an obscure comparison with so-called average participants.  It should expressly disavow “indispensability” analysis, which incorrectly equates basic but-for causation with culpability.  And the guideline should expressly distinguish between the analysis required for Mitigating Role and the analysis for Aberrant Behavior. Conflation of the two guidelines frequently leads to denials of sentencing reductions.  Finally, given past failures, guidelines depending on Mitigating Role should no longer depend on it. Rather, they should be "de-coupled," so they take effect for any defendant’s role that is not aggravating.  Because quantity-based guidelines are perilously high for all but a tiny fraction of violent drug trafficking defendants, these reductions for Role Cap and subtraction of the Methamphetamine Enhancement should be applied presumptively to limit the impact of overly harsh role determinations.

July 2, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Can and will big data help reduce mass incarceration?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriging Wired piece headlined "The White House Is on a Mission to Shrink US Prisons With Data." Here are excerpts:

The Obama administration believes better data within the criminal justice system could [help address mass incarceration. Last week,] the White House announced its new Data-Driven Justice Initiative, through which 67 cities and states will work with each other, as well as with leading tech companies like Amazon and Palantir, to find new ways to use data to shrink the size of their local prison populations.

“What we’ve seen as we’ve engaged with state and local leaders across the country is that there are people who simply do not need to be in our jails,” Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the President, said on a call with journalists today.  Taking a closer look at the data, she said, can help identify who those people are.  In some cities, that’s already starting to happen. The White House pointed to one example in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which began diving into its own data back in 2014 to find low-risk people in jail who could be released early.  That intervention led to a 40 percent reduction in the county jail population.  “That’s 40 percent, and they have had no increase in reported crime,” Jarrett said. “Pretty amazing.”

Of course, data mining is not the forte of most local law enforcement, which is why the White House is also asking for the tech industry’s help.  As part of the announcement, Amazon is convening a consortium on data interventions in criminal justice that will be attended by companies like Palantir and organizations like Code for America.  The goal of the summit, according to Lynn Overmann, senior policy advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer, is to convene the country’s top data scientists, technologists, and developers together with local governments to figure out “the solutions most likely to work as broadly as possible.”

Some tech companies are donating their existing tools to the member cities and states. For instance, RapidSOS, a company that allows people to submit their exact location data to emergency personnel, is offering its product to five cities for free for the next 10 years. Several research institutions like New York University and the University of Chicago are also partnering with cities and states to research their data strategies.

In a time when Republicans and Democrats can’t seem to agree on anything, prison reform has become an unlikely unifier.  Recently, House speaker Paul Ryan has become an outspoken advocate for sentencing reform. That type of across-the-aisle support could help these data efforts spread more quickly.  Already, among the seven states that signed on to the Data-Driven Justice Initiative, three have Republican governors.  As part of the commitment, they promise to merge criminal justice and health system data to identify people who are most at risk, create new protocols for first responders dealing with mental health issues, and inform pre-trial release decisions.

Of course, using technology to decide whether someone stays behind bars or not is sure to be fraught with controversy as these programs roll out all over the country.  After all, if people are concerned about algorithms deciding the news they see, what happens when algorithms decide a person’s freedom?

July 2, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Should a juvenile sex offender be locked up indefinitely?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this PBS Newshour segment, which is focused on Minnesota's experiences with indefinite commitment of sex offenders.  Here is a segment of the segment:

Elizabeth Letourneau is one of the nation’s leading experts on juvenile sex offenders. She directs the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at John Hopkins University.  She says civilly committing juvenile sex offenders makes little sense, first because it’s incredibly costly. Minnesota spends about $125,000 per offender per year, which is roughly triple the cost of regular prison.

But, most importantly, she says it doesn’t make sense because juvenile offenders are likely not lifetime offenders.  "Among youth who are adjudicated for a sexual offense, so they have been arrested, processed, 97 percent to 98 percent will not reoffend sexually.  So, truly, the vast majority ... if they are caught committing a sexual offense, will not do it again."

Emily Piper is the commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Human Services, which oversees the state’s sex offender program.  She says only 4 percent of Minnesota’s registered sex offenders are currently civilly committed, and she argues the state is rightly incarcerating the most troubling of those....

In 2011, a class-action lawsuit was brought against the state by a group of offenders in Minnesota’s program, including Craig Bolte, arguing they were not getting any meaningful treatment and were instead being held indefinitely.

And, last year, federal district judge in St. Paul sided with them, saying that Minnesota’s sex offender program was unconstitutional, ruling “It’s a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safeguards of the criminal justice system.”

The state has appealed the decision, and a ruling is expected this fall.  In the meantime, state officials say they have already started making changes.  Five offenders have been moved into less restrictive settings, and new reviews are being done of all offenders to determine who’s a potential candidate for release and who isn’t.

Even Dru Sjodin’s mother, Linda Walker, admits that maybe some juvenile cases should be reexamined, but she hopes that, in all its reforms, Minnesota will err on the side of caution before releasing anyone.

July 2, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, July 1, 2016

With SRCA now "officially" dead ... send your "thanks" to (failings of) Prez Obama and bipartisan bungling

This Real Clear Politics article, headlined "Hopes Fade for Criminal Justice Reform This Year," serves essentially as an obituary for the effort to get significant statutory federal sentencing reform done before the end of the Obama Administration. Unsuprisingly, Bill Otis is dancing on the grave of these efforts via this post at Crime & Consequences titled simple "Victory." And Scott Shackford at Reason.com has this helpful post mortem titled "Federal Criminal Justice Reform May Fail, and Everybody’s Blaming Everybody Else," highlighting all the finger-pointing now taking place:

The Sentencing and Reform Act modestly updates federal mandatory minimum sentences to make them less brutal in non-violent drug cases and allows federal judges to invoke "safety valve" exceptions to sentence less than the mandatory minimum in certain cases. Probably the most important component of the law is that it would make the Fair Sentencing Act, which lowered the mandatory minimums for crack cocaine-related crimes to those of powder cocaine, retroactive. According to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) this could help somewhere around 5,800 people currently serving sentences in federal prison. You can read FAMM's analysis of what's good and bad about the current incarnation of the Sentencing and Reform Act here.

 So thousands of prisoners could be stuck serving outdated sentences for cocaine crimes that no longer even apply if this law is not passed. In response to frustration that the bill isn't going anywhere there's a chain of blaming that weaves throughout RealClearPoltics' report:

  • Grassley merely says he's "disappointed" because he worked hard to get more Republicans on board supporting the law.

  • Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who wrote the bill, blames Republicans, particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for offering him "little to no hope" that the legislation would move forward. (He is undoubtedly also referring to conservatives like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.)

  • Sen. John Corbyn (R-Texas) blames the House of Representatives for not moving more quickly, which he said would have created "momentum" in the Senate for passing the law.

  • Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) says the refusal to add reform to mens rea is holding back the legislation. "Mens rea" is the legal concept that convicting a person of a crime should require proving that they had criminal intent to do so. Not all federal laws have this mens rea requirement, and some Republicans want to add it. This has angered some Democrats and the Department of Justice because they believe it would make it harder to convict people (or more accurately, to force settlements) in white-collar criminal cases or cases of corporate misconduct.

  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) blames the Koch brothers for helping push the mens rea reform, calling it a "fatal poison pill." Cornyn, however, pointed out that the current Senate bill does not even contain this reform. There are concerns that it will be attached later on.

As the title of this post is meant to suggest, I think the main individual who should be blamed here is President Barack Obama, although lots of other blame can and should be spread around to all the folks who failed to fully appreciate that a series of small "smart on crime" bills would have been far superior and far more likely to become law than the mega-reform bill that was too complicated with too many controversial parts to make passage ever likely.

I will now likely use the long weekend (which I am about to start by going off-line for a while) to reflect on the current federal sentencing reform "big picture" circa mid-2016. I also think this news provides an approrpriate opportunity to begin a series of commentary posts about criminal justice reform during the Obama era, which I will be calling "Missed Opportunities: The Failure of Prez Obama to bring real Hope and Change to Federal Sentencing." Stay tuned.

July 1, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2008 and sentencing issues, Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

California initiative to reform death penalty in state qualifies for ballot (and will compete with repeal initiative)

As helpfully explained by Kent Scheidegger via this post at Crime & Consequences, an "initiative to fix problems that have obstructed the enforcement of the death penalty in California has qualified for the ballot." The group supporting the effort is called Californians for Death Penalty Reform and Savings, and its website has all the details of its reform efforts. Kent's post provides this additional context and information:

Four years ago, the friends of murderers came within four percent of repealing the death penalty because they had the money to qualify an initiative while the forces of justice did not. Many people believed that the choice was therefore one between repeal and the status quo of a penalty that is never enforced.

Not this time. The status quo will be history come November, and the people have a clear choice between "end it" and "mend it."

If both initiatives pass, the one that gets the greater number of "yes" votes will prevail.

The greatest problem, once again, will be the great disparity in funding. Softness on crime is the cause of deep-pocketed elitists who do not suffer the consequences of crime, while the base for toughness on crime consists mainly of regular folks of modest means who do. The other side will be able to run deceptive ads, and we will have limited ability to counter them with truthful rebuttal through paid advertising.  Hopefully we will be able to get the truth out through other means.

Among the interesting aspects of this story to watch in the coming months is whether various prominent California (or national) officials will officially support/endorse the mend or the end proposal. I suspect most will try to avoid talking about the issue, but I am hopeful the press and advocates will press prominent politicans to express a position.

Prior related post:

July 1, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Split Iowa Supreme Court upholds state's broad felon disenfranchisement provisions

As reported in this local article, headlined "Iowa Supreme Court upholds ban on felons voting in Iowa," a divided state Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Iowa's felony disenfranchisement laws. Here is how the press report on the decision starts:

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled against an expansion of voting rights for convicted criminals on Thursday, finding that all felonies are "infamous crimes" resulting in disenfranchisement under the state constitution. The 4-3 decision upholds what critics say is one of the harshest felon disenfranchisement laws in the nation, and means the state will not see a significant shift in voter eligibility ahead of the 2016 election.

Iowa's top elections officer immediately cheered the ruling, while criminal justice reform advocates said they would begin exploring their options for constitutional and legislative reforms. "This ruling goes in line with 150 years of precedence and has been reaffirmed by the people of Iowa and their elected representatives on multiple occasions," Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate said in a statement. Pate's office oversees elections in the state, and he was named as the defendant in the case.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which argued the case before the court, had sought to limit disenfranchisement to a handful of felonies directly relating to elections and governance. If the court had upheld that view, thousands of Iowans with felony convictions could have had their voting rights restored ahead of this November's presidential election. "This is no way (to) run a democracy," ACLU attorney Rita Bettis said in a statement following the decision. The group now intends to draft a constitutional amendment allowing offenders to vote after completing their sentences.

The lengthy ruling from the Supreme Court of Iowa is available at this link, and the majority opinion authored by the court's Chief Justice gets started this way:

This appeal requires us to decide if the crime of delivery of a controlled substance is an “infamous crime” under the voter disqualification provision of the Iowa Constitution. The district court held the crime is an infamous crime, and a conviction thereof disqualifies persons from voting in Iowa. Following the analysis we have used in the past to interpret provisions of our constitution, we agree and affirm the judgment of the district court.

The term “infamous crime” was generally recognized to include felony crimes at the time our constitution was adopted. This meaning has not sufficiently changed or evolved to give rise to a different meaning today. In addition, unlike some past cases when we have interpreted provisions of our constitution, the facts and evidence of this case are insufficient to justify judicial recognition of a different meaning. Constrained, as we must be, by our role in government, we conclude our constitution permits persons convicted of a felony to be disqualified from voting in Iowa until pardoned or otherwise restored to the rights of citizenship. This conclusion is not to say the infamous-crime provision of our constitution would not accommodate a different meaning in the future. A different meaning, however, is not for us to determine in this case. A new definition will be up to the future evolution of our understanding of voter disqualification as a society, revealed through the voices of our democracy.

Among other interesting aspects of this ruling is the wide array of cites to recent legal scholarship appearing in both the majority opinion and the longest dissent. (I bring that fact up not only because it makes me pleased given how much time I give to reading and writing such scholarship, but also because it helps reinforce my belief that Judge Posner is way off base with some recent (and past) comments about the legal academy failing to work on projects of any interest and importance to the bench and the practicing bar.)

June 30, 2016 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

New report highlights huge role of a handful of local prosecutors on the size of death rows

20160628_FPP-ShareableThis notable new report from Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project highlights the consequential role of just a handful of local prosecutors on the modern US death penalty.  The report, titled "America’s Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive The Death Penalty," gets started this way (with footnotes removed):

Last year, a journalist asked Dale Cox, then the District Attorney of Caddo Parish, Louisiana, about the wisdom of the death penalty in light of the recent exoneration of Glenn Ford, a man who spent thirty years on death row for a crime that he did not commit.  Cox told the reporter: “I think we need to kill more people.” “Revenge,” he said, “brings to us a visceral satisfaction.”  Between 2010 and 2015, Cox alone secured one-third of Louisiana’s death sentences.

Cox’s disproportionate use of the death penalty illustrates a point that Justice Stephen Breyer recently made. “It is now unusual to find capital punishment in the United States,” Breyer wrote, because “capital prosecutions are being pursued in only a few isolated counties.”  There are more than 3,100 counties, 2,400 head prosecutors, and thousands of line prosecutors in America — yet only a tiny handful of prosecutors are responsible for a vastly disproportionate number of death sentences. The question that this disparity prompts is: Why?

This report analyzes the records of five of America’s deadliest head prosecutors.  Three of them personally obtained over 35 death sentences each: Joe Freeman Britt in North Carolina, Bob Macy in Oklahoma, and Donnie Myers in South Carolina.  These men shared an obsession with winning death sentences at almost any cost.  For example, Joe Freeman Britt, who committed misconduct in more than 36% of his death penalty prosecutions, said: “Within the breast of each of us burns a flame that constantly whispers in our ear ‘preserve life, preserve life, preserve life at any cost.’ It is the prosecutor’s job to extinguish that flame.” The remaining two prosecutors, Lynne Abraham (Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania) and Johnny Holmes (Harris County, Texas), did not personally prosecute as many death penalty cases as the three men above, but nonetheless oversaw the imposition of death sentences against a staggering 108 and 201 people, respectively, during their terms.

Of these five prosecutors, only one — Donnie Myers — remains in office, and he plans to retire at the end of the year. One of the most remarkable findings from our research is the fact that once these prosecutors and their protégés left their positions, death sentences dramatically declined in these jurisdictions — a pattern that has only become clear in the years since their departures.

We also highlight five additional prosecutors who came very close to becoming members of this notorious group.  These runners-up have egregious records in their own states, and like the prosecutors above, the striking drop in new death sentences that has occurred in their respective jurisdictions since their departures illustrates their outsized impact on the death penalty.

Unfortunately, the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing has continued beyond the tenure of these prosecutors.  Over the past fifteen years, prosecutors have pursued far fewer capital cases and juries have returned far fewer death sentences than in years past.  Indeed, in 2015, juries returned just 49 death sentences, the fewest in recent history.  This number represents an 84.4% drop from the 1996 high of 315 death verdicts.  However, in the increasingly small number of the counties that still actively sentence people to death, a handful of prosecutors dominate death-sentencing statistics.

In the final section of this report, we offer a snapshot of three active prosecutors who, if they continue on their current trajectories, may soon join the ranks of the deadliest prosecutors in America.  Taken together, the profiles featured in this report demonstrate that the death penalty has been, and continues to be, a personality-driven system with very few safeguards against misconduct and frequent abuse of power, a fact that seriously undermines its legitimacy.

June 30, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"The Power of Pell Grants for Prisoners"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New Yorker‎ commentary authored by Clint Smith. Here are excerpts:

Last Thursday, the Obama Administration selected sixty-seven colleges and universities across twenty-seven states to participate in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which aims to “create a fairer, more effective criminal justice system, reduce recidivism, and combat the impact of mass incarceration on communities.”  The new initiative could make Pell Grants available to as many as twelve thousand people behind bars. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., made sure to address the aforementioned concerns around funding head on, stating that the resources allotted to the pilot program make up less than 0.1 per cent of the thirty-billion-dollar Pell Grants program, and will in no way cut into funding for current or future Pell Grant recipients who are not incarcerated.

As advocates of prison education might note, twelve thousand is a small proportion of the 2.3 million people currently in prison. But the executive action by the Obama Administration is a progressive step forward on correctional education, especially given that legislation like the Restoring Education and Learning (real) Act — which would eliminate the provision in the crime bill barring prisoners in state or federal institutions from Pell Grant eligibility — remains stalled in Congress. Social scientists have known for some time that prison-education programs are a cost-effective and successful means of reducing recidivism.  A study by the rand Corporation in 2013 found that incarcerated individuals who participated in educational programs were forty-three per cent less likely to recidivate within three years than those who did not. It also found that correctional education increased the likelihood of obtaining employment once released, with those who participated in programming during their time behind bars thirteen per cent more likely to obtain a job than those who did not....

Being incarcerated does not mean being devoid of the capacity to learn, grow, and think, and it’s critical that prisons provide spaces where learning can be both cultivated and encouraged.

This is what makes the Obama Administration’s program so important.  Pell Grants provide resources that assist colleges in building their capacity in prisons, by covering the cost of books, tuition, and fees.  But, though certainly beneficial to those men and women who will receive the grants, there are limits to what the program offers.  For example, to qualify, a person must be eligible for release within five years of enrolling, which doesn’t address the educational needs of those serving long-term or life sentences.

The benefits of prison education go beyond lowering recidivism rates and increasing post-release employment. It can also rekindle a sense of purpose and confidence. For Jackson, participating in the Boston University prison-education program, and moving closer to obtaining a bachelor’s degree, has fundamentally changed his sense of self — and increased the likelihood that he’ll stay out of prison if the parole board approves his release.  The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program means that more people like Jackson will have an opportunity to take college-level classes, improving their chances of remaining out of prison and also of giving them back a sense of purpose that has otherwise been stripped away.  Or, as Jackson said about his work, it’s “like you’re doing something with your life.”

June 30, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Highlighting what brought Justice Thomas and Sotomayor together in Voisine

Noah Feldman has this effective Bloomberg commentary about the recent SCOTUS Voisine ruling headlined "When Opposites Converge Over Domestic Violence." Here are excerpts:

Some two-thirds of the states define assault in a way that includes reckless conduct.  The court was therefore under substantial practical pressure to hold that reckless misdemeanor domestic assaults count for purposes of the federal gun law.  If it had not, the federal law would have had to be changed or else it wouldn't have applied in those states....

Thomas’s vote [in dissent] can be explained partly on the basis that he doesn’t want to infringe gun ownership.  He added a final section to his dissent suggesting as much.  But Sotomayor, who didn’t join that section of Thomas’s dissent, can’t have been actuated by this motive.  So why did the court’s most liberal member join its most conservative?

What Thomas and Sotomayor share in common -- along with being the court’s two members of racial minorities -- is a long-term concern with the overreach of federal criminal law.  Thomas’s worry has to do with federalism and the encroachment of the federal government into state law matters.  Sotomayor’s concern is more with the status of the individual defendant, who may be subject to long federal sentences.

Yet it’s noteworthy that both right and left saw the court’s decision as potentially troubling.  Neither Thomas nor Sotomayor is an apologist for domestic violence.  But both saw the court as extending the reach of federal criminal law unnecessarily under the shadow of concern about the dangers of domestic violence.  In their own way, each tries to be a conscience on a court that often acts pragmatically.  This time, the two consciences converged.

Prior related post:

June 30, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sixth Circuit affirms way-below guideline five-year child porn sentence based in part on jury poll urging sentence even lower

A number of helpful readers made sure that, despite being on the road all day, I did not miss the remarkable Sixth Circuit panel decision today in US v. Collins, No. 15-3236 (6th Cir. June 29, 2016) (available here).  I first blogged about this case here after initial sentencing, recounting these basic details via a news account:

A jury convicted Ryan Collins in October of one count possessing, distributing and receiving child pornography and one count possession of child pornography. Police found more than 1,500 files on his computer, and he was charged with distributing because he used peer-to-peer file sharing programs.

Under federal law, a judge can sentence a defendant to up to 20 years in prison if he or she is found guilty of child porn distribution. On Tuesday, during Collins' sentencing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan asked U.S. District Judge James Gwin to give the maximum sentence for the charge.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Probation and Pretrial Services said a guideline sentence for Collins, who is 32 and has no criminal history, would be between about 21 and 27 years in federal prison. While higher than the maximum sentence, the office's calculation accounted for several factors in Collins' case -- including the age of the victims and not taking responsibility for his actions.

But Gwin handed down a five-year sentence to Collins, the minimum allowable sentence for a distribution charge. The judge said that after Collins' trial, he polled jurors on what they thought was an appropriate sentence. The average recommendation was 14 months, Gwin said.

Unhappy with this outcome, federal prosecutors appealed the sentence as unreasonable, but now has lost before a unanimous Sixth Circuit panel. The Court's relatively short opinion includes these passages:

The government also argues that the jury poll was an “impermissible factor[]” for the district judge to consider in crafting an appropriate sentence. Conatser, 514 F.3d at 520. We again disagree. Federal law provides nearly unfettered scope as to the sources from which a district judge may draw in determining a sentence....

District courts also have the authority to “reject the Guidelines sentencing ranges based on articulated policy disagreements in a range of contexts.” United States v. Kamper, 748 F.3d 728, 741 (6th Cir. 2014). Indeed, we have suggested the plausibility of rejecting guidelines ranges in child pornography cases based on policy disagreements. See United States v. Bistline (Bistline I), 665 F.3d 758, 762-64 (6th Cir. 2012) (finding that the district court “did not seriously attempt to refute” the judgments underlying the guidelines).

When establishing the Sentencing Commission, Congress directed it to take “the community view of the gravity of the offense” into account when crafting appropriate criminal sanctions. 28 U.S.C. § 994(c)(4). As reflected in his writing on the subject, and briefly in the sentencing hearing below, the district judge reasons that the Commission fell short of this directive. See Judge James S. Gwin, Juror Sentiment on Just Punishment: Do the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Reflect Community Values?, 4 HARV. L. & POL'Y REV. 173, 185 (Winter 2010)....

Though we reiterate that juries lack “the tools necessary for the sentencing decision,” Martin, 390 F. App’x at 538, they can provide insight into the community’s view of the gravity of an offense. See Gwin, supra at 193-94; see also Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 615-16 (2002) (BREYER, J., concurring) (jurors “reflect more accurately the composition and experiences of the community as a whole” and are “better able to determine in the particular case the need for retribution”) (internal quotations and citations omitted). The jury did not determine or impose defendant’s sentence. Rather, the district judge – who does possess the necessary tools for the sentencing decision – was at all times interposed between the jurors’ views of an appropriate sentence and the sentencing guidelines’ § 3553(a) factors. Considering the jury’s sentencing recommendation as part of the sentencing calculus did not conflict with the district judge’s duty or ability to properly weigh the § 3553(a) factors and independently craft an appropriate sentence.

June 29, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Should more lenient treatment of alleged repeat Indiana University rapist garner even more national attention than Stanford swimmer sentencing?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this remarkable new local story out of Indiana, headlined "Monroe County prosecutor frustrated in ex-IU student's plea deal in rape cases." Here are the basic troubling details:

The Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office admitted it was frustrated after a former IU student charged in two rape cases ended up spending one day in jail. John Enochs will serve one year of probation after pleading guilty to battery with moderate bodily injury as part of a plea agreement. Two rape charges against him were dismissed.

The most recent incident happened in April 2015.  According to court documents, a woman told police she’d been raped at the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house but didn’t know her alleged attacker.  She said she repeatedly told him to stop, but he held her down. Eventually she was able to leave the room and get away. Security video showed Enochs entering the room with the victim.  She left 24 minutes later; health officials said she suffered a laceration to her genitals.

While that case was under investigation, police found a similar alleged rape from 2013.  The woman involved in that case agreed to help investigators.  DNA evidence and witness statements led them to Enochs.

In a statement Monday, the Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office said the case presented a “very unusual” set of circumstances; law prevented a jury in either case from learning about the other allegation if the cases went to trial.

Prosecutors also said there were “evidentiary” problems with both cases. In the oldest allegation, the one from 2013, witnesses couldn’t recall some important details because so much time had passed and they’d been drinking. Photographs also existed that contradicted “the assertion that the complaining witness was incapable of engaging in consensual activity shortly before the alleged assault.” In the more recent case, prosecutors said DNA evidence was problematic; prosecutors also said video before and after the alleged assault did “not support the assertion of a forcible rape.” They said that made it impossible for them to prove that Enochs caused the woman’s injury.

“This turn of events was frustrating for us as prosecutors, due to the fact that there were two complaints against the defendant.  That fact is the reason we continued to pursue accountability on his part which led to this plea agreement,” Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Robert Miller wrote in a statement.  Miller said Enochs originally pleaded guilty to a felony; the battery charge was reduced to a misdemeanor at the court’s discretion....

Katharine Liell, who represented Encochs in the case, said Encochs was charged with crimes he didn’t commit. Liell pointed out that prosecutors dismissed both rape charges and blamed the lead investigators for presenting “false and misleading evidence” in the probable cause affidavit charging Encochs with rape. Liell called the charges “sensationalized and false,” adding that Enochs did indeed admit to a misdemeanor.  Liell said he was “profoundly sorry for his lack of judgment.”

Because I can only infer various details about this case from this press report, I am deeply disinclined to "attack" the attorneys or the judge for their handling of this case. Still, it seems in this case we have allegations of repeat rapist essentially getting away with his crimes because he only ended up with a misdemeanor conviction and thus not only will not serve any prison time, but will not have to be on a sex offender registry or suffer any other lifetime collateral consequences that go with a serious felony conviction.

I fully understand why a "perfect storm" of factors turned the Brock Turner case into the national sentencing scandal of 2016. But, relatively speaking, the ultimate (in)justice that seems to have taken place in this case out of Indiana seems to be even more scandalous and likely ought to be of even bigger concern for those deeply troubled by the problems of sexual assaults on college campuses.

June 29, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (28)

US Sentencing Commission publishes "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases – Fiscal Year 2015"

On Monday, the US Sentencing Commission released this new data report, excitingly titled "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases – Fiscal Year 2015."   This USSC webpage provides this summary of the report's contents and findings:

The United States Sentencing Commission received information on 71,184 federal criminal cases in which the offender was sentenced in fiscal year 2015. Among these cases, 71,003 involved an individual offender and 181 involved a corporation or other “organizational” offender. The Commission also received information on 24,743 cases in which the court resentenced the offender or modified the sentence that had been previously imposed. This publication provides an overview of those cases [and includes these key findings]:

  • The 71,003 individual original cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2015 represent a decrease of 4,833 (6.4%) cases from fiscal year 2014.

  • Drug cases continued to be the most common type of federal case.  The 22,631 drug cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2015 accounted for 31.8 percent of all cases report to the Commission.

  • Immigration cases were the next most common, accounting for 29.3 percent of the total federal caseload.  In fiscal year 2011, immigration cases were the most common federal crime; however, since that year the number of these cases has steadily declined.

  • In fiscal year 2015, an imprisonment sentence was imposed on 87.3 percent of all offenders. Another 7.2 percent of offenders received a sentence of probation (i.e., where no type of confinement was imposed), a rate that has decreased over time from a high of 15.3 percent in 1990.

  • Almost three-quarters of offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2015 received a sentence of less than five years.

  • Methamphetamine offenses were the most common drug trafficking offenses and were the most severely punished drug crime in fiscal year 2015.

  • The proportion of drug offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was the lowest it has been since 1993.

June 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Final SCOTUS order list has nine Mathis GVRs ... and I suspect hundreds more cases will be impacted

The Supreme Court this morning finished up its work before heading out on summer vacation by issuing this order list. Though the Justices granted review in eight new cases, none appear to involve criminal justice issues. But the order list still had a bit of sentencing intrigue by including nine GVRs based on its Mathis ACCA ruling from last week (basics here).

Though it is never surprising to see a spate of GVRs in the wake of any significant ruling about a federal sentencing statute, I suspect that the fall-out from Mathis will extended to many more cases because, as reported via Justice Alito's dissent, it seems the ruling means that "in many States, no burglary conviction will count" as a possible ACCA predicate offense. That reality not only can impact many past, present and future ACCA cases, but also could also echo through the application of burglary (and even other crimes) in past career offender guideline cases.

Ultimately, I would be very surprised in the impact and import of Mathis end up nearly as grand or as complicated as last Term's Johnson ruling. But the consequential sentencing math of Mathis still may be major.

June 28, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Overview of state-level sentencing and criminal justice reform developments

The Pew Charitable Trusts has this new Stateline report headlined "Prisons, Policing at Forefront of State Criminal Justice Action." Here are excertps:

Faced with overcrowded prisons and evidence that lengthy sentences don’t deter crime, more states opted this year to revamp sentencing laws and send some people convicted of lesser, nonviolent crimes to local jails, if they’re locked up at all.

In an about-face after a half-century of criminal justice policies that favored long-term incarceration, Alaska, Kansas and Maryland this year joined at least 25 other states in reducing sentences or keeping some offenders out of prison.

The move to end lengthy prison stays for low-level offenders is one of several steps states took this year in reevaluating criminal justice policies during legislative sessions that have wrapped up in all but a few places. Other measures would help offenders transition back into their communities after release and hold police more accountable.

For years, many lawmakers were wary of appearing soft on crime. But states have recently retooled their criminal justice policies in response to tight post-recession budgets, shifting public opinion and court rulings demanding they ease prison overcrowding....

Alaska, Maryland and Kansas passed bills this year that divert all shoplifting and first-time DUI offenders away from prison, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, expand parole eligibility, and establish diversion programs for youth offenders, respectively.... And in Tennessee, lawmakers changed standards for property theft charges to help reduce the prison population, and established alternatives to re-incarceration for offenders who violate conditions of their parole or probation.

Many of the proposals enacted this year strike a complicated balance between boosting support for ex-offenders and ensuring that those convicted of crimes are held accountable. Relaxing sentencing and increasing the amount of good-time credits prisoners can earn toward an early release means hardened criminals might get out of prison sooner than they should, said Maryland Del. John Cluster, a retired police officer.

But he said his state could have gone farther to help offenders with job training and other re-entry assistance once they serve their time. “You clean an addict up and you let him out,” Cluster, a Republican, said. “[If] he doesn’t have a job, in less than a year he’s going to be back on the drugs.”

Many lawmakers are eager to reduce the expenses that come with running prisons. For example, prison systems cost taxpayers 14 percent more than state budgets indicate because they do not factor in expenses like benefits for correctional employees and hospital care for inmates. Prisons also strain local social services, child welfare and education programs.

But still, some elected officials want to build more. In Alabama, Republican Gov. Robert Bentley proposed spending $80 million to consolidate some of the state’s existing prisons and build four new ones. The state has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the country, operating at 180 percent of capacity.

June 28, 2016 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Criminal Justice Black Box"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Samuel Wiseman and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

“Big data” — the collection and statistical analysis of numerous digital data points — has transformed the commercial and policy realms, changing firms’ understanding of consumer behavior and improving problems ranging from traffic congestion to drug interactions.  In the criminal justice field, police now use data from widely-dispersed monitoring equipment, crime databases, and statistical analysis to predict where and when crimes will occur, and police body cameras have the potential to both provide key evidence and reduce misconduct.

But in many jurisdictions, digital access to basic criminal court records remains surprisingly limited, and, in contrast to the civil context, no lucrative market for the data (apart from that for background checks) exists to induce the private sector to step in to fill the gap.  As a result, bulk criminal justice data is largely limited to survey data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Unlocking the “black box” by uniformly collecting and reporting basic, anonymized data from criminal cases — including, e.g., the charges, pretrial release decision, appointment of counsel, and case disposition — would have significant benefits. It would allow researchers, reformers, and government actors to both more effectively study the system as a whole and to more easily identify jurisdictions violating the Constitution by, for example, routinely denying counsel or pretrial release and imprisoning defendants for inability (rather than unwillingness) to pay a fine or fee.

This Article documents this problem, explores its causes, and proposes a solution, arguing that the federal government should form a framework for the uniform collection of anonymized local, state, and federal criminal justice data. While participation in this uniform system is likely to be incremental, even partial data would improve our understanding of the system as a whole and aid efforts to enforce well established, but frequently violated, constitutional rights.

June 28, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Eager to hear various perspectives on the SCOTUS sentencing Term that was

R-2958783-1407368094-7528.jpegIn this post last September, I previewed the SCOTUS Term that just wrapped up this morning by asking "Are we about to start the #Best Ever SCOTUS Term for Eighth Amendment?".  (I thereafter followed up with a grand total of one post promoting the silly hashtag, #BESTEA = Best Ever SCOTUS Term for Eighth Amendment for this Supreme Court Term.)  

Looking back now, I do not think this past SCOTUS Term proved to be truly monumental for the Eighth Amendment, although I do think the Montgomery ruling is a (so-far under-examined) big deal.  Ironically, the surprising and sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia may have been the biggest Eighth Amendment development: Justice Scalia had long been among the most vocal and frequent critics of the Court's modern "evolving standards" Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, and his eventual replacement, no matter who that ends up being, seems unlikely to be as hostile to this jurisprudence.  Indeed, the next new Justice will be joining a Court that seems to already have at least five, and maybe even six, Justices open to continuing to interpret the Eighth Amendment as a serious limit on serious punishment other than just the death penalty.  (I am counting the Chief Justice as the sixth, based in part on his surprising vote with the Kennedy majority opinion in the Montgomery case.) 

Of course, there were a number of notable constitutional cases/developments outside of the Eighth Amendment context this past Term involving important sentencing issues.  For death penalty followers, the Sixth Amendment ruling in Hurst was and will remain a very big deal for the forseeable future (especially in Alabama, Delaware and Florida).  And the shock-waves of the Johnson Fifth Amendment ruling from the end of last SCOTUS Term has and will continue to rumble through the Welch retroactivity ruling and today's grant in the Beckle case to address the application of Johnson to the career offender provision of the federal sentencing guidelines.

In the coming days and weeks, I will likely to some writing about the SCOTUS sentencing Term that was along with some predictions about what the future might hold for SCOTUS sentencing jurisprudence.  In the meantime, though, I would be eager to hear from readers (in the comments or via email) concerning what sentencing case(s)/opinion(s) they think were most important or significant or telling or consequential.  And anyone who can provide perspectives on the SCOTUS sentencing Term that was wth a Tom Lehrer flair will be sure to get extra praise and promotion in this space.

June 27, 2016 in Recap posts, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

Some recent highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Especially because there is likely to be a lot more marijuana reform news to cover (both in Congress and in the states) in the coming months than statutory sentencing reform news, I am likely this summer to make a habit of weekly reviews of recent postings from my Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog. These recent posts highlight these realities:

June 27, 2016 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Per the Chief, SCOTUS unanimously vacates former Gov's conviction while adopting "more bounded interpretation" of corruption statute

Wrapping up yet another remarkable Term with a notable bit of unanimity, the Supreme Court's final opinion for this SCOTUS season was a win for a high-profile federal defendant McDonnell v. United States, No. 15-474 (S. Ct. June 27, 2016) (available here). Chief Justice Roberts authored the opinion for the unanimous Court, and here are some key excerpts from the start and center of the ruling:

In 2014, the Federal Government indicted former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, on bribery charges.  The charges related to the acceptance by the McDonnells of $175,000 in loans, gifts, and other benefits from Virginia businessman Jonnie Williams, while Governor McDonnell was in office.  Williams was the chief executive officer of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based company that had developed a nutritional supplement made from anatabine, a compound found in tobacco.  Star Scientific hoped that Virginia’s public universities would perform research studies on anatabine, and Williams wanted Governor McDonnell’s assistance in obtaining those studies.

To convict the McDonnells of bribery, the Government was required to show that Governor McDonnell committed (or agreed to commit) an “official act” in exchange for the loans and gifts.  The parties did not agree, however, on what counts as an “official act.”  The Government alleged in the indictment, and maintains on appeal, that Governor McDonnell committed at least five “official acts.”  Those acts included “arranging meetings” for Williams with other Virginia officials to discuss Star Scientific’s product, “hosting” events for Star Scientific at the Governor’s Mansion, and “contacting other government officials” concerning studies of anatabine.  Supp. App. 47–48.  The Government also argued more broadly that these activities constituted “official action” because they related to Virginia business development, a priority of Governor McDonnell’s administration.   Governor McDonnell contends that merely setting up a meeting, hosting an event, or contacting an official — without more — does not count as an “official act.”

At trial, the District Court instructed the jury according to the Government’s broad understanding of what constitutes an “official act,” and the jury convicted both Governor and Mrs. McDonnell on the bribery charges.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed Governor McDonnell’s conviction, and we granted review to clarify the meaning of “official act.”...

Taking into account the text of the statute, the precedent of this Court, and the constitutional concerns raised by Governor McDonnell, we reject the Government’s reading of §201(a)(3) and adopt a more bounded interpretation of “official act.”  Under that interpretation, setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an “official act.”...

It is apparent from Sun-Diamond that hosting an event, meeting with other officials, or speaking with interested parties is not, standing alone, a “decision or action” within the meaning of §201(a)(3), even if the event, meeting, or speech is related to a pending question or matter.  Instead, something more is required: §201(a)(3) specifies that the public official must make a decision or take an action on that question or matter, or agree to do so....

In sum, an “official act” is a decision or action on a “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.” The “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” must involve a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee. It must also be something specific and focused that is “pending” or “may by law be brought” before a public official. To qualify as an “official act,” the public official must make a decision or take an action on that “question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy,” or agree to do so. That decision or action may include using his official position to exert pressure on another official to perform an “official act,” or to advise another official, knowing or intending that such advice will form the basis for an “official act” by another official. Setting up a meeting, talking to another official, or organizing an event (or agreeing to do so) — without more — does not fit that definition of “official act.”

June 27, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

By vote of 6-2, SCOTUS upholds broad application of federal prohibition on firearm possession by certain misdemeanants

Confirming that the Second Amendment has far more bark than bite when push comes to shove (puns intended), the Supreme Court this morning rejected a narrow interpretation of the federal criminal statute that forever prohibits any firearm possession by any persons who are convicted of certain misdemeanors. The opinion for the Court authored by Justice Kagan in Voisine v. US, 14-10154 (S. Ct. June 27, 2016) (available here), gets started this way:

Federal law prohibits any person convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” from possessing a firearm. 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9).  That phrase is defined to include any misdemeanor committed against a domestic relation that necessarily involves the “use . . . of physical force.”  §921(a)(33)(A).  The question presented here is whether misdemeanor assault convictions for reckless (as contrasted to knowing or intentional) conduct trigger the statutory firearms ban. We hold that they do.

Justice Thomas authored a dissent in Voisine, which was partially joined by Justice Sotomayor.  His dissent is nearly twice as long as the opinion for the Court, and it starts and ends this way:

Federal law makes it a crime for anyone previously convicted of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” to possess a firearm “in or affecting commerce.” 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(9).  A “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” includes “an offense that . . . has, as an element, the use or attempted use of physical force . . . committed by [certain close family members] of the victim.” §921(a)(33)(A)(ii).  In this case, petitioners were convicted under §922(g)(9) because they possessed firearms and had prior convictions for assault under Maine’s statute prohibiting “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly caus[ing] bodily injury or offensive physical contact to another person.” Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., Tit. 17–A, §207(1)(A) (2006).  The question presented is whether a prior conviction under §207 has, as an element, the “use of physical force,” such that the conviction can strip someone of his right to possess a firearm.  In my view, §207 does not qualify as such an offense, and the majority errs in holding otherwise.  I respectfully dissent....

At oral argument the Government could not identify any other fundamental constitutional right that a person could lose forever by a single conviction for an infraction punishable only by a fine.  Tr. of Oral Arg. 36–40.  Compare the First Amendment.  Plenty of States still criminalize libel....  I have little doubt that the majority would strike down an absolute ban on publishing by a person previously convicted of misdemeanor libel.  In construing the statute before us expansively so that causing a single minor reckless injury or offensive touching can lead someone to lose his right to bear arms forever, the Court continues to “relegat[e] the Second Amendment to a second-class right.”  Friedman v. Highland Park, 577 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (THOMAS, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari) (slip op., at 6).

In enacting §922(g)(9), Congress was not worried about a husband dropping a plate on his wife’s foot or a parent injuring her child by texting while driving.  Congress was worried that family members were abusing other family members through acts of violence and keeping their guns by pleading down to misdemeanors.  Prohibiting those convicted of intentional and knowing batteries from possessing guns — but not those convicted of reckless batteries — amply carries out Congress’ objective.

Instead, under the majority’s approach, a parent who has a car accident because he sent a text message while driving can lose his right to bear arms forever if his wife or child suffers the slightest injury from the crash.  This is obviously not the correct reading of §922(g)(9).  The “use of physical force” does not include crimes involving purely reckless conduct. Because Maine’s statute punishes such conduct, it sweeps more broadly than the “use of physical force.”  I respectfully dissent.

June 27, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

SCOTUS grants cert on Johnson application to career offender guidelines

As noted in this prior post, SCOTUS has been relisting throughout June two notable petitions on Johnson's applicability to the career offender guidelines.  Excitingly for sentencing fans, today's final Supreme Court order list includes a grant or certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which SCOTUSblog has described this way:

Issue: (1) Whether Johnson v. United States applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging federal sentences enhanced under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.2(a)(2) (defining “crime of violence”); (2) whetherJohnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), thereby rendering challenges to sentences enhanced under it cognizable on collateral review; and (3) whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun, an offense listed as a “crime of violence” only in commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, remains a “crime of violence” after Johnson.

IN other words, Beckle buckle-up your seat-belts, sentencing fans, as the post-Johnson criminal history bumpy ride is now sure to continue in the Supreme Court for at least the next Term and likely beyond.

Notably and significantly, the SCOTUS order list reports that "Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of ... this petition." In other words, it seems that Justice Kagan's prior history as Solicitor General has caused her to be conflicted out of this case. Ergo, it will likely be only be a seven (or perhaps and eight-member) Court that will be resolving the application of vagueness doctrines in this case.  

A few (of many) prior related posts:

June 27, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Updates on considerable success of "guerilla war" over executions and access to lethal injection drugs

In the Glossip litigation, Justice Alito famously complained that capital lawyers contesting execution protocols were part of a broader "guerilla war against the death penalty which consists of efforts to make it impossible for the states to obtain drugs that could be used to carry out capital punishment." Against that backdrop, two recent articles about execution drugs provide an interesting snapshot of the remarkable success that opponents of the death penalty have achieved in this so-called "guerilla war":

June 27, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Mother Jones devotes issue to reporter's four months working as a private prison guard

Mojocover_JA16_660x866Going from being just a must-read to perhaps a must-buy, Mother Jones has devoted much of its July/August 2016 issue to the writings of reporter Shane Bauer providing his first-hand account of his four months working as a guard at a private prison in Louisiana.

This Editor's Note sets the tone and provides the context for this work under the full headline "Why We Sent a Reporter to Work as a Private Prison Guard: Legal intimidation has made investigations like this rare. It’s time for journalists to reclaim our roots." Here are excerpts from this Editor's Note:

In 1887, a 23-year-old journalist got herself checked into the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island in New York City. When she emerged, she wrote about patients tied together with ropes, abusive staff and ubiquitous vermin, "lunatics" treated with nothing more restorative than ice baths, and, perhaps most disturbingly, patients who seemed to be perfectly sane, dumped there by a society that had few safety nets for women who were single, poor, and often immigrants....
 
Bly's work holds up not only for its daring, but for its impact: It prompted a grand jury investigation that led to changes she'd proposed, including a $26 million (in today's dollars) increase to the budget of the city's Department of Public Charities and Correction and regulations to ensure that only the seriously mentally ill were committed....
 
Bly — who'd go on to get herself arrested so she could investigate conditions at a women's prison, and to best Jules Verne's fictional protagonist by circumnavigating the world in 72 days—was not the first journalist to go inside an institution to expose its inner workings. Or the last....  But while such investigations were commonplace in the muckraker era, they've grown increasingly rare. Why? First, there's a real concern over ethics. When is it okay for reporters to not announce themselves as such? There's no governing body of journalism, but a checklist written by Poynter ethicist Bob Steele provides guidelines for assessing when this kind of reporting is acceptable. I'll paraphrase: 
  • When the information obtained is of vital public interest.
  • When other efforts to gain that information have been exhausted.
  • When the journalist is willing to disclose the reason and nature of any deception.
  • When the news organization applies the skill, time, and funding needed to fully pursue the story.
  • When the harm prevented outweighs any harm caused.
  • After meaningful deliberation of the ethical and legal issues.

To see what private prisons are really like, Shane Bauer applied for a job with the Corrections Corporation of America. He used his own name and Social Security number, and he noted his employment with the Foundation for National Progress, the publisher of Mother Jones. He did not lie. He spent four months as a guard at a CCA-run Louisiana prison, and then we spent 14 more months reporting and fact-checking.

We took these extraordinary steps because press access to prisons and jails has been vastly curtailed in recent decades, even as inmates have seen their ability to sue prisons — often the only way potential abuses would pop up on the radar of news organizations or advocates — dramatically reduced.  There is no other way to know what truly happens inside but to go there.
 
But here's the other reason investigations like this one have grown so rare: litigation.... Nondisclosure agreements — once mainly the provenance of people who work on Apple product launches and Beyoncé videos — are now seeping into jobs of all stripes, where they commingle with various other "non-disparagement" clauses and "employer protection statutes." Somewhere along the way, employers' legitimate interest in protecting hard-won trade secrets has turned into an all-purpose tool for shutting down public scrutiny—even when the organizations involved are more powerful than agencies of government.
 
Or when, for that matter, they replace the government. When CCA (which runs 61 prisons, jails, and detention centers on behalf of US taxpayers) learned about our investigation, it sent us a four-page letter warning that Shane had "knowingly and deliberately breached his duty to CCA by violating its policies," and that there could be all manner of legal consequences....

Shane's story will draw a fair bit of curiosity around the newsgathering methods employed. But don't let anyone distract you from the story itself. Because the story itself is revealing as hell.

Here are the chapter headings and links to this remarkable piece of reporting about private prisons:

CHAPTER 1: "Inmates Run This Bitch"  

CHAPTER 2: Prison Experiments 

CHAPTER 3: The CCA Way 

CHAPTER 4: "You Got to Survive" 

CHAPTER 5: Lockdown 

June 26, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Will party platforms include commitment to reduce mass incarceration (and does it really matter)?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Politico article , headlined "Civil rights groups push Dems, GOP to include sentencing reform in their platforms."  Here are excerpts:

An influential coalition of civil rights groups pushing for criminal justice reform is pressuring both the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee to include the issue in their respective party platforms this summer.

In a new letter, the organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the Urban League and the Brennan Center for Justice — argue that after decades of pushing tougher crime laws, both Democrats and the GOP need a “bold break” toward policies aiming at easing incarceration rates.

“As you convene to set your respective policy agenda, we urge you to include reducing mass incarceration, while increasing public safety, as part of your party platforms,” the groups wrote in the letter, addressed to the respective party chairs and platform committee leaders and provided to POLITICO in advance of its release.

Among the policies called for by the pro-criminal justice reform groups: Revising sentencing laws so the “punishment is proportional to the crime and no longer than necessary to achieve rehabilitation and deterrence,” helping to reduce recidivism rates by promoting job training and educational programs for former inmates, and using federal funds to reward states for policies that reduce both the prison population and crime rates.  “While more is needed to fully achieve reform, including these measures in the platforms will signal a significant shift in national policy,” the organizations wrote.

Criminal justice reform has been a lingering issue in Washington, with both President Barack Obama and key Republican leaders in Congress saying they want to pass legislation overhauling sentencing laws and other prison reforms this year.  But the issue has also been a divisive one, particularly within the Senate Republican Conference, and its prospects are growing dimmer -- particularly in a contentious election year.

June 25, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Trauma Informed Juvenile Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Samantha Buckingham now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The juvenile justice system fails to account for the astounding rates of childhood trauma exposure amongst system-involved youth. Trauma, an experience threatening to life, safety, or well-being, overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope.  The experience of trauma is so pervasive amongst juvenile justice youth that a recent study found that 93% of children in an urban detention facility had experienced at least one traumatic event in the past year, and for more than half of those youth the trauma they reported was witnessing violence.  When left untreated, or treated without targeted trauma-specific therapies, trauma sufferers are vulnerable to commit offenses as children and as adults.  The stakes are high: untreated trauma can turn people into ticking time bombs bound to respond to triggers and misinterpret events, sometimes responding violently, even to mundane events in their daily lives.  The good news is that when trauma is identified and treated with appropriate trauma-specific methods, child trauma sufferers in particular can heal, overcome their trauma, and grow in positive ways.

The juvenile justice system has yet to catch up with contemporary understanding of trauma’s impact on offending and the latest best practices for treatment of trauma. Specifically, the juvenile justice system fails to accurately identify trauma and often employs counter-productive responses to juvenile offending, such as removal from the home, programming and treatment that is general rather than trauma-specific, and the over-use of detention.  Poor youth of color, the most marginalized among us, are the children who suffer the greatest from the current failure to incorporate a trauma-focused response in the juvenile justice system and are subjected to incarceration at unreasonably high rates. Incarceration itself is traumatic, it exacerbates pre-existing trauma, and it is counterproductive to long-term community safety.

This Article proposes four trauma-informed reforms: (1) create a presumption of trauma, (2) mandate trauma identification of youth in the juvenile justice system, (3) implement trauma-informed procedures, and (4) utilize trauma-informed dispositions, which will dramatically reduce our over-reliance upon incarceration in favor of safe-settings in the community.  Endowed with trauma-focused reforms, the juvenile justice system is poised to identify and appropriately respond to the many traumatized children who come to its attention early enough to make a difference, capitalizing on the incredible potential for growth and resilience children possess, realizing the paramount goal of rehabilitation, promoting long-term community safety, and working to eliminate the incarceration of children.

June 25, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 24, 2016

Unexpectedly(?), new post-Hurst hydra head takes big bite out of Ohio capital case

Download (1)As regularly readers know, in this post not long after the Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe what I expected to become multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases.  That hydra has been taking various bites out of capital cases most prominently in Alabama and Delaware as well as Florida, but this article from my own local Ohio paper highlights how new heads can pop up in unexpected places.  The article is headlined "Prosecutor: Marion County judge's ruling puts death penalty in jeopardy," and here are the interesting details:

A Marion County judge this week dropped the death penalty elements from a convicted murderer-rapist's sentence on the grounds that there were similarities to a Florida death sentence ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Because Florida and Ohio have similar sentencing and procedural guidelines, defense attorneys argued that Maurice A. Mason, sentenced in 1994 for raping and beating to death Robin Dennis, then 19 and pregnant, should not be executed.

The case could have implications in other capital cases in Ohio, said Marion County Prosecutor Brent Yager, who disagreed with Monday's decision by Marion Common Pleas Court Judge William Finnegan. "I was surprised," said Yager. "I believe that there is a distinction between the death penalty in Florida and in Ohio."...

Finnegan, in his ruling, wrote that the Hurst decision makes clear that the Sixth Amendment requires juries make specific findings to authorize the death penalty.  Ohio, he wrote, "has no provision for the jury to make specific findings related to the weighing of aggravating and mitigating factors," and thus is unconstitutional.

Yager said Ohio differs from Florida because juries here directly decide the aggravating circumstances in a capital case used in the penalty phase and sentencing, although judge's have the ability to commute the death sentence in lieu of life in prison....  Yager said the ruling is frustrating, in part because victim families and lawmakers expect swift and certain justice.

"Ohio and the state legislature have decided we still should have a death penalty in Ohio," said Yager. "But based on the judge's ruling here, if this stands, our death penalty would be unconstitutional. This decision does become a statewide issue." Yager said he plans to file an appeal with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Lima.

Mason's attorney, Kort Gatterdam, said the decision should "withstand scrutiny from higher courts and will become the law of this state ... and could become the basis to eliminate the death penalty in Ohio."...

Mason, now 52, has been moved from death row to a regular cell at the Mansfield Correctional Institution. With no sentence on record for the murder conviction, he technically is eligible for a parole hearing. But the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the parole board have said that won't happen his ultimate sentence for murder is resolved.

Not long after SCOTUS ruled in Hurst, a very smart and savvy local lawyer told me that he thought a strong argument could be made that Ohio's capital sentencing scheme has Hurst problems. Apparently, at least one state trial judge agrees, and it will be very interesting to watch the certain appeal of this ruling in the state courts as well as whether this ruling echoes through lots and lots of other Ohio capital cases past and present.

The full 50-page ruling in Ohio v. Mason, No. 93CR1053 (Ohio Common Pleas Ct. June 20, 2016), is available at this link. I have not yet had a chance to read the opinion, but I think it surely is a must-read for capital litigators of all stripes in Ohio and elsewhere.

June 24, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Do all or most prosecutors really end up "hostile to constitutional rights"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy new Reason commentary authored by Ken White and appearing under the titled "Confessions of an Ex-Prosecutor: Culture and law conspire to make prosecutors hostile to constitutional rights."  The full article is a must-read for lots of reasons, and how it gets started should highlight why:

Twenty-one years ago, the day O.J. Simpson was acquitted, I began my career as a federal prosecutor. I was 26 — a young 26 at that — on the cusp of extraordinary power over the lives of my fellow citizens. After years of internships with federal and state prosecutors, I knew to expect camaraderie and sense of mission. I didn't expect it to influence how I thought about constitutional rights. But it did.

Three types of culture — the culture of the prosecutor's office, American popular culture, and the culture created by the modern legal norms of criminal justice — shaped how I saw the rights of the people I prosecuted. If you had asked me, I would have said that it was my job to protect constitutional rights and strike only what the Supreme Court once called "hard blows, not foul ones." But in my heart, and in my approach to law, I saw rights as a challenge, as something to be overcome to win a conviction. Nobody taught me that explicitly — nobody had to.

When I left the U.S. Attorney's office after more than five years, my disenchantment with the criminal justice system had begun to set in. Now, decades later, my criminal defense career has lasted three times as long as my term as a prosecutor. I'm a defense-side true believer — the very sort of true believer that used to annoy me as a young prosecutor.

Once again, nobody taught me to think that way, and nobody had to. I learned it by watching how the system ground up clients indifferently and mercilessly.  I learned it by watching prosecutors make the sorts of arguments and decisions I had made, and seeing how they actually impacted human lives. I learned it by watching prosecutorial suspicion — and even paranoia — from the wrong end.  I learned it by watching how the system crushed indigent clients, and by how it could destroy the lives of even wealthy clients with minimal effort or cause.

I even learned it by watching prosecutors commit misconduct—the deliberate or reckless infringement of defendants' constitutional rights.  I saw prosecutors make ridiculous and bad-faith arguments defending law enforcement, and prevail on them. I saw them make preposterous assertions about the constitution because they could, and because judges would indulge them.  I saw them reject my claims that my clients' rights were violated because they were the government and my client was the defendant and that was their job.

My criminal defense colleagues who were never prosecutors themselves often assume that prosecutorial misconduct is rife because prosecution attracts authoritarian personality types.  Although it is surely true that some are natural bad actors, my experience showed me that prosecutors are strongly influenced to disregard and minimize rights by the culture that surrounds them.  Disciplining or firing miscreants may be necessary, but it's not enough: It doesn't address the root causes of fearful culture and bad incentives.

June 24, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Helpful review of Johnson's impact a year latter, just before ACCA prisoners need to file Johnson collateral appeals

A year ago, as first reported in this post and immediate follow-ups here and here, the Supreme Court  in Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120 (S. Ct. June 26, 2015) (available here), ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws."  This morning's Washington Post has this effective (and well-timed) extended article, headlined "Local Small words, big consequences for possibly thousands of federal prisoners,"looking at the impact of that ruling now a year later.  I recomment the piece in full, and here are excerpts: 

Hundreds if not thousands of federal prisoners are likely to have their sentences shortened — and in some cases get immediate release — due to one of the final opinions written by Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia’s little-noticed opinion focused on one phrase in federal law but has created uncertainty and upheaval for judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys facing a pile of prisoner requests to have their cases reviewed.

Federal inmates have until Sunday to try to challenge their prison terms after the Supreme Court labeled 12 words in the criminal code “unconstitutionally vague” in an opinion announced by Scalia last June, eight months before his death.  The ruling eliminated a section of law that prosecutors relied on to seek stiffer penaltiesfor defendants they said were especially dangerous.  Defense attorneys had decried the wording because it was used to brand too many defendants as violent....

For defense attorneys, the court’s decision provides a new avenue to challenge lengthy sentences for prisoners who received severe penalties for nonviolent offenses, such as resisting arrest.  “It was a dumping ground,” said Amy Baron-Evans of the Sentencing Resource Counsel Project of federal public defenders.  “It ended up sweeping in crimes that no one would think of as being violent.”

Filings from inmates are piling up in judicial chambers throughout the country.  In Atlanta, one judge took the unusual step this spring of flagging the names of 110 prisoners from her district eligible to refile for shorter sentences to alert them to the deadline this month — one year from the date the Supreme Court decision was handed down.  In Richmond last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which covers Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, received more than 500 filings for sentence reviews, according to the clerk’s office. In the same period last year, there were 18.  More than 350 petitions have been filed in the 8th Circuit in St. Louis since May, contributing to a record number of filings in a single month....

The language overturned by the Supreme Court in the criminal code echoes in other parts of the justice system.  Nearly identical words about career offenders appear in federal sentencing guidelines, which use a formula to give judges a recommended range of possible prison time for the defendants who come before them.

Federal public defenders and the U.S. Justice Department agree that the Supreme Court ruling negates those words in the guidelines for defendants sentenced since Scalia’s 2015 opinion.  The Supreme Court separately is being asked to settle a dispute about whether inmates punished before the 2015 opinion should have another chance at sentencing.

The Justice Department says they should not, according to the government’s court filings.  The judges who handed down those prison terms were not bound to a particular mandatory sentence and imposed what they thought were appropriate punishments that should stand, the government says.  To the public defenders, that position is at odds with the Obama administration’s advocacy for clemency. If the court rules that the decision does apply retroactively to the guidelines, another 6,000 federal inmates sentenced between 1992 and 2015 could ask to have their prison time cut, according to an estimate from the public defenders’ sentencing project.

Prosecutors say “the sky is going to fall and all of these violent people are going to be let out,” said federal public defender Paresh Patel, who is handling appeals for the Maryland office.  “People are not getting a windfall. They were wrongly sentenced as career offenders.”

Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush said the administration’s position is “fully consistent” with its clemency efforts.  The guidelines apply “only to individuals convicted of specific crimes of violence and are wholly distinct from grants of clemency to drug offenders who have been vetted for public safety concerns.”

Prosecutors worry about the ripple effects of Scalia’s opinion. Inmates and their lawyers argue that the court’s decision to eliminate words in one law should stick to other areas of law with parallel language. These filings raise new questions about what types of crimes meet the technical definition of a “crime of violence” and how judges assess a person’s criminal past.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, attorneys for Dustin John Higgs in May asked the 4th Circuit for permission to challenge his death sentence.  Higgs was sentenced in 2001 for ordering the murders of three young women in Beltsville. The women were shot to death on a desolate stretch of federal land near the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Higgs was convicted of using a firearm during a “crime of violence” — in this case kidnapping and murder....

Even if Higgs does not personally benefit, prosecutors say, a new interpretation in his case could upend plea agreements with others facing similar firearms counts.  The uncertainty is already changing the way prosecutors draw up and negotiate charges.

The article states that "federal inmates have until Sunday to try to challenge their prison terms," based on the one-year statute of limitations in AEDPA for bringing 2255 collateral appeals following certain critical legal development. As the title of my post indicates, it seems clear that inmates serving ACCA sentences need to get Johnson claims filed now due to this statutory deadline. Less clear, though, is whether inmates eager to extend the reach of Johnson to the career offender guidelines or other statutes are subject to the smae deadline (and, as noted in this prior post, SCOTUS has been relisting throughout June two notable petitions on Johnson's applicability to the career offender guidelines). Also, I suppose, based on the right facts, equitable tolling arguments could be made (though probably would face an uphill battle) for any inmates who missed the AEDPA deadline for bringing Johnson claims in various settings.

Long story short, as I forecasted in some of the posts below right after the Johnson ruling last year, it seems all but certain that many thousands of inmates (and thousands of lawyers) are going to be having Johnson dreams or nightmares for many years to come.

A few (of many) prior related posts:

June 24, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (1)

Split Arkansas Supreme Court upholds state's new secrecy law to allow execution plans to move forward

Download (21)As reported in this AP piece, "Arkansas can execute eight death row inmates, a split state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in upholding a state law that keeps information about its lethal injection drugs confidential."  Here is more about the ruling and its context:

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she would request new execution dates once the stays are lifted on the eight inmate executions.  Generally, a ruling goes into effect 18 days after it is issued. A paralytic drug, vecuronium bromide, expires on June 30, and the supplier has said it will not sell the state more. So, for the stays to be lifted before the drugs expire, Rutledge must ask the court to expedite the certification process, which she had not done as of Thursday.

"I will notify the governor once the stays of executions have been lifted so that he may set execution dates. I know that victims' families want to see justice carried out, and that is exactly what I will continue to work toward as Attorney General," she wrote in an emailed statement.  Arkansas Department of Correction spokesman Solomon Graves would not say whether the agency would try to move forward with the executions. When asked whether the department had tried to negotiate purchasing additional drugs or contacted the suppliers to see whether Thursday's ruling would entice them to sell, Graves said he could not engage in hypotheticals....

The court noted in its ruling an affidavit from a prison official, who said he had contacted at least five other drug wholesalers and manufacturers that said they would not sell the drugs to the state or would not sell them without the makers' permission. It was unclear whether Thursday's actions would change those companies' decisions.  The attorney general's office would not advise the Department of Correction to use the drugs after they expire, spokesman Judd Deere said.

A group of death row inmates had argued that Arkansas' execution secrecy law, which requires the state to conceal the maker, seller and other information about the drugs, could lead to cruel and unusual punishment and that the state reneged on a pledge to share information.  But the high court said in its 4-3 majority opinion that a lower court "erred in ruling that public access to the identity of the supplier of the three drugs (the Arkansas Department of Correction) has obtained would positively enhance the functioning of executions in Arkansas. As has been well documented, disclosing the information is actually detrimental to the process."

Jeff Rosenzweig, an attorney representing the inmates, said he is "studying the decision and anticipate filing a petition for rehearing."  Three justices wrote full or partial dissents, including Associate Justice Robin Wynne, who wrote that he believed the inmates proved their claim that the law violated the state constitution's prohibition on cruel or unusual punishment. Justice Josephine Linker Hart wrote that the dismissal of the complaint was premature and that she would have ordered disclosure of the drug information....

For more than 10 years, Arkansas' executions have been stalled because of multiple court challenges over different drug protocols and problems obtaining those drugs. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson set execution dates last September that were later stayed by the high court until the inmates' challenge could be heard.  Hutchinson "believes Judge Griffen overstepped his authority and is pleased the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed his ruling upholding the law protecting the confidentiality of the supplier," spokesman J.R. Davis said, adding that Hutchinson is reviewing the decision and talking with Rutledge regarding "the appropriate next steps to take."

The inmates had argued that without disclosure of the source and other information they had no way to determine whether the midazolam, vecuronium bromide or potassium chloride would lead to cruel and unusual punishment.  The inmates also argued that the secrecy law violates a settlement in an earlier lawsuit that guaranteed inmates would be given the information. The state has said that agreement is not a binding contract, and the court agreed Thursday.

Several other issues remain before the state can complete the eight pending executions in the seven days before the paralytic drug expires. A handful of the inmates have not been given a chance to have clemency hearings, and for those who already had them, it was unclear whether they would need another opportunity to apply for clemency because a new date of execution would have to be set.

The full ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court can be accessed at this link, and this passage from the majority opinion helps explain the import of the Supreme Court's Glossip ruling on this state case:

In this case, the Prisoners urge us to disavow the requirement established in Baze, as amplified by the Court in Glossip, that a prisoner bears the burden of proving a known and available alternative to a state’s current execution protocol.  They assert that we should construe our provision differently because the Eighth Amendment uses the words “cruel and unusual punishment,” whereas the Arkansas Constitution contains the disjunctive phrase “cruel or unusual punishment.”  As the Court made clear in Glossip, the burden of showing a known and available alternative is a substantive component of an Eighth Amendment method-of-execution claim.  We are not convinced that the slight variation in phraseology between the two constitutions denotes a substantive or conceptual difference in the two provisions that would compel us to disregard any part of the test governing a challenge to a method of execution.  Accordingly, we decline the Prisoners’ invitation to depart from our practice of interpreting our constitutional provision along the same lines as federal precedent, and we hereby adopt the standards enunciated in both Baze and Glossip. Accordingly, in challenging a method of execution under the Arkansas Constitution, the burden falls squarely on a prisoner to show that (1) the current method of execution presents a risk that is sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering and that gives rise to sufficiently imminent dangers; and (2) there are known, feasible, readily implemented, and available alternatives that significantly reduce a substantial risk of severe pain.

June 24, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

"For aficionados of pointless formalism, today’s decision is a wonder, the veritable ne plus ultra of the genre."

The title of this post is one of a number of Justice Alito's spectacular comments in his dissent in the latest Supreme Court ruling on ACCA, Mathis v. United States, No. 15–6092 (S. Ct. June 23, 2016) (opinion here, basics here).   In addition to a number of great rhetorical flourishes, Justice Alito's dissent in Mathis explains how messy ACCA jurisprudence has become and reinforces my sincere wish that folks in Congress would find time to engineer a (long-needed, now essential) statutory ACCA fix.  Here are passages from Justice Alito's Mathis dissent that frames effectively the mess that ACCA has become and builds up to the sentence I am using as the title of this post: 

Congress enacted ACCA to ensure that violent repeat criminal offenders could be subject to enhanced penalties — that is, longer prison sentences — in a fair and uniform way across States with myriad criminal laws....

Programmed [via prior ACCA rulings], the Court set out on a course that has increasingly led to results that Congress could not have intended. And finally, the Court arrives at today’s decision, the upshot of which is that all burglary convictions in a great many States may be disqualified from counting as predicate offenses under ACCA. This conclusion should set off a warning bell. Congress indisputably wanted burglary to count under ACCA; our course has led us to the conclusion that, in many States, no burglary conviction will count; maybe we made a wrong turn at some point (or perhaps the Court is guided by a malfunctioning navigator). But the Court is unperturbed by its anomalous result. Serenely chanting its mantra, “Elements,” see ante, at 8, the Court keeps its foot down and drives on....

A real-world approach would avoid the mess that today’s decision will produce. Allow a sentencing court to take a look at the record in the earlier case to see if the place that was burglarized was a building or something else. If the record is lost or inconclusive, the court could refuse to count the conviction. But where it is perfectly clear that abuilding was burglarized, count the conviction.

The majority disdains such practicality, and as a resultit refuses to allow a burglary conviction to be counted even when the record makes it clear beyond any possible doubt that the defendant committed generic burglary.... As the Court sees things, none of this would be enough. Real-world facts are irrelevant.

June 23, 2016 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

California legislators introduce bill seeking to mandate that any future Brock Turners face three-year minimum prison terms

As reported in this Reuters piece, headlined "California lawmakers move to change sentencing law following Stanford case," the common legislative reaction by policy-makers to concerns about an unduly lenient sentence is in progress in the wake of the high-profile sexual assault sentencing of Brock Turner. Here are the basics:

Seizing on a nationwide furor over the six-month jail term handed to a former Stanford University swimmer following his conviction for sexual assault on an unconscious woman, California lawmakers on Monday introduced legislation to close a loophole that allowed the sentence. The bill, known as AB 2888, marks the latest response to the sentence given to 20-year-old Brock Turner by Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky in June, which was widely condemned as too lenient. Prosecutors had asked that Turner be given six years in state prison.

"Like many people across the nation, I was deeply disturbed by the sentence in the Brock Turner case," Assemblyman Bill Dodd, one of two California state legislators who introduced the bill, said in a written statement. "Our bill will help ensure that such lax sentencing doesn't happen again."

Turner was convicted of assault with intent to commit rape, penetration of an intoxicated person and penetration of an unconscious person in the January 2015 attack. Under California law, those charges are not considered rape because they did not involve penile penetration. According to the lawmakers, current California law calls for a mandatory prison term in cases of rape or sexual assault where force is used, but not when the victim is unconscious or severely intoxicated and thus unable to resist.

The new legislation, which was introduced in the state assembly on Monday, would eliminate this discretion of a judge to sentence defendants convicted of such crimes to probation, said Ben Golombek, a spokesman for Assemblyman Evan Low, a co-author of the bill. Golombek said that the effect of the proposed new law, which must still be approved by both houses of the legislature and signed by Governor Jerry Brown, is that Turner would have faced a minimum of three years behind bars.

Prior related posts:

June 23, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Stressing harms of drunk driving, SCOTUS upholds warrantless breath tests (but not warrantless blood tests) incident to arrest

The Supreme Court handed down its last big Fourth Amendment decision of this Term, and Birchfield v. North Dakota, No. 14–1468 (S. Ct. June 23, 2016) (available here), is a nuanced ruling that I am glad to see makes much of the scourage of drunk driving. Here is the start of the Birchfield opinion for the Court authored by Justice Alito, as well as two key summary paragraphs from deep into the opinion:

Drunk drivers take a grisly toll on the Nation’s roads, claiming thousands of lives, injuring many more victims, and inflicting billions of dollars in property damage every year.  To fight this problem, all States have laws that prohibit motorists from driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that exceeds a specified level.  But determining whether a driver’s BAC is over the legal limit requires a test, and many drivers stopped on suspicion of drunk driving would not submit to testing if given the option. So every State also has long had what are termed “implied consent laws.” These laws impose penalties on motorists who refuse to undergo testing when there is sufficient reason to believe they are violating the State’s drunk-driving laws.

In the past, the typical penalty for noncompliance was suspension or revocation of the motorist’s license.  The cases now before us involve laws that go beyond that and make it a crime for a motorist to refuse to be tested after being lawfully arrested for driving while impaired.  The question presented is whether such laws violate the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches....

Having assessed the effect of BAC tests on privacy interests and the need for such tests, we conclude that the Fourth Amendment permits warrantless breath tests incident to arrests for drunk driving.  The impact of breath tests on privacy is slight, and the need for BAC testing is great.

We reach a different conclusion with respect to blood tests.  Blood tests are significantly more intrusive, and their reasonableness must be judged in light of the availability of the less invasive alternative of a breath test.  Respondents have offered no satisfactory justification for demanding the more intrusive alternative without a warrant.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer and Kagan joined Justice Alito's opinion for the Court.  Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Thomas also filed his own opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.

June 23, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Another ACCA win for federal defendants in Mathis

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its last sentencing case this Term, and Mathis v. United States, No. 15–6092 (S. Ct. June 23, 2016) (available here), is another win for federal criminal defendants.  Here is the start of the Mathis opinion for the Court authored by Justice Kagan:

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA or Act), 18 U. S. C. §924(e), imposes a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence on certain federal defendants who have three prior convictions for a “violent felony,” including “burglary, arson, or extortion.”  To determine whether a past conviction is for one of those offenses, courts compare the elements of the crime of conviction with the elements of the “generic” version of the listed offense — i.e., the offense as commonly understood.  For more than 25 years, our decisions have held that the prior crime qualifies as an ACCA predicate if, but only if, its elements are the same as, or narrower than, those of the generic offense. The question in this case is whether ACCA makes an exception to that rule when a defendant is convicted under a statute that lists multiple, alternative means of satisfying one (or more) of its elements. We decline to find such an exception.

Justice Kennedy issued a concurring opinion, and so did Justice Thomas. Justice Breyer, joined by Justice Ginsburg, issued a dissenting opinion. And Justice Alito issued his own dissenting opinion.

June 23, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Religious Objections to the Death Penalty after Hobby Lobby"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing piece authored by Danieli Evans now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In this short essay, I consider how the logic of the complicity-based claims in Hobby Lobby and subsequent nonprofit cases could be applied to challenge the common policy of “death qualifying” jurors in capital punishment cases — removing any juror who reports conscientious opposition to the death penalty.  I argue that just like religious nonprofits that object to reporting a religious objection to contraceptives on the grounds that it enables someone else to provide contraceptives, a juror might object to reporting a religious objection to the death penalty on the grounds that it will enable someone else to replace them who is more likely to impose the death penalty.

June 23, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Anyone interested in making bold predictions on the last four criminal cases still to be decided by SCOTUS this Term?

Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog has this helpful new post reviewing the final eight cases still to be resolved by the eight Justices before they take their summer vacations.  Some of these opinions will be handed down tomorrow and the others are likely to be released early next week.  Notably, four of the remaining eight are criminal cases (and I am leaving out of this accounting the big immigration case).  Here are Amy's review of the four criminal cases left:

Voisine v. United States (argued February 29, 2016). Stephen Voisine and William Armstrong, the other petitioner in this case, both pleaded guilty in state court to misdemeanor assaults on their respective domestic partners. Several years later, each man was charged with violating a federal law that prohibits the possession of firearms and ammunition by individuals who have previously been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.  Voisine and Armstrong contend their state convictions (which the First Circuit affirmed) do not automatically qualify as misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence because the state-law provisions can be violated by conduct that is merely reckless, rather than intentional.

Birchfield v. North Dakota (argued April 20, 2016).  Twelve states and the National Park Service impose criminal penalties on suspected drunk drivers who refuse to submit to testing to measure their blood-alcohol levels. The question before the Court is whether those penalties violate the Fourth Amendment, which only allows police to “search” someone if they have a warrant or one of a handful of exceptions to the warrant requirement applies. Three drivers from North Dakota and Minnesota argue that neither of those conditions is met, and so the laws must fall.   The North Dakota and Minnesota Supreme Courts ruled in favor of the states, and now the Justices will weigh in.

Mathis v. United States (argued April 26, 2016).  After having been convicted of several burglaries in Iowa, Richard Mathis was later prosecuted by the federal government for being a felon in possession of a firearm and received a mandatory minimum sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act based on his burglary convictions.  The Eighth Circuit affirmed his conviction.  The question before the Court is how to determine whether state convictions like Mathis’s qualify for federal mandatory minimum sentences and for removal under immigration law.

McDonnell v. United States (argued April 27, 2016).  Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell is challenging his convictions for violating federal laws that make it a felony to agree to take “official action” in exchange for money, campaign contributions, or anything else of value. The Fourth Circuit affirmed, and so the Justices agreed to weigh in.  He argues that merely referring someone to an independent decision maker – in his case, in an effort to help promote a Virginia businessman’s nutritional supplement – doesn’t constitute the kind of “official action” that the statute bars.

I think it is possible that any of these cases could turn into a blockbuster, and Birchfield and McDonnell arguably require the Justices to do some "big" jurisprudential work to resolve the issues before them. Narrow/technical rulings seem more likely in Voisine and Mathis, though the former may get some extra attention in light of the on-going political discussions and sparring over gun control following the Orlando shootings and the latter seems sure to add yet another chapter to the lengthy and complicated ACCA jurisprudence.

As we await these final rulings (and especially because all are sure to be eclipsed in the mainstream media by the abortion, affirmative action and immigration cases also on tap), I would be eager to hear from readers about what they are expecting or even hoping for as the SCOTUS Term winds down.

June 22, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Making Hard Time Harder: Programmatic Accommodations for Inmates with Disabilities Under the Americans with Disabilities Act"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new report from the AVID Prison Project.  (AVID stand for Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities, and its website provides more on the report and on the AVID Prison Project.) Here are excerpts from the report's executive summary:

The disproportionate incarceration of people with disabilities in the United States is a serious and growing problem. As the prison population ages, more inmates are reporting physical disabilities. The U.S. has also seen a rise in the number of people with mental illness and developmental and cognitive disabilities in prison. National surveys now indicate that as many as 31 percent of inmates in state prisons report having at least one disability.

While prison is hard for everyone, incarceration is even more challenging for inmates with disabilities.  Research shows that inmates with disabilities are sentenced to an average of fifteen more months in prison as compared to other inmates with similar criminal convictions.  The time they serve is also harder, with more sanctions imposed and less access to positive programming than other inmates. Prisoners with disabilities are also four times more likely to report recent psychological distress as compared to inmates without disabilities.  In a system intended to control and sanction behavior believed to violate the many regulations that govern prison life, inmates with disabilities who need accommodations are often overlooked, ignored, or even punished.

Very few outsiders are allowed into the prisons, and the public rarely gets to witness the conditions in which many inmates are confined. In recent years, protection and advocacy agencies (P&As), organizations granted with special federal authority to enter facilities that serve people with disabilities, have been going behind prison walls to identify issues facing inmates with disabilities.

P&As have received reports of inmates forced to drag themselves across their cell or sleep on the floor because their cane or walker was removed. Inmates with cognitive disorders, intellectual disabilities, or mental illness have sought assistance because they are unable to complete the programming required to move out of restrictive housing, forcing them to remain in segregation for years, if not decades.  These same inmates may be punished for failing to follow the written rules of the prison, rules they either cannot read or cannot understand due to a disability, resulting in sanctions, loss of good time, or even additional criminal charges. Inmates in need of therapeutic diets or those who require assistance in activities of daily living often find themselves caught in an endless cycle of institutional grievances and appeals as they seek approval for accommodations in correctional policy and practice.

In recognition of the growing population of inmates with disabilities, in 2012 Disability Rights Washington, the P&A for Washington State, began focusing more attention on the state’s prisons, investigating the conditions of these correctional settings and working on creative solutions to some of the most serious problems faced by inmates with mental illness, brain injuries, and physical and intellectual disabilities.  In early 2014, with increased funding through a private grant, Disability Rights Washington created Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID), a project with the sole purpose of protecting and advancing the rights of inmates with disabilities and assisting those who are reentering society.  In September 2014, AVID brought together staff from the P&As in New York, South Carolina, Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, and Texas, as well as from the National Disability Rights Network, to strategize about ways to increase national attention on the issues faced by inmates with disabilities.

This report, which has grown out of that collaborative national effort, aims to highlight the difficulties that inmates with disabilities face as they seek to access programs and services in state prison systems. P&As from across the country provided examples of either past or ongoing advocacy to enforce the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on behalf of inmates with disabilities. By no means exhaustive, this report provides an overview of the protections afforded to inmates with disabilities under the ADA as well as examples in which P&As have advocated effectively on behalf of inmates with disabilities.  This advocacy is multi-modal, ranging from routine monitoring, to informal and individual advocacy, to systemic litigation.

This report begins with a brief overview of the P&A system, describes the different types of advocacy P&As use, and outlines the ADA’s application to prisons. Next, this report details the work P&As across the country have done to advance inmates’ rights under the ADA, focusing on three main areas of prison life: (1) hygiene, health, and safety, (2) accommodations in communication, and (3) access to programming and services.  A review of this work reveals that while the ADA has been in place for more than 25 years, much remains to be done to bring programs and buildings in the nation’s prisons into compliance with the requirements of the ADA. This report concludes with a series of recommendations for future action....

Ultimately, this report is intended to spur interest and action within the P&A network and other prison advocacy groups and increase focus on what has become a crisis within the nation’s prison system.

June 22, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)