Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Federal district judge declares California's death penalty unconstitutional under Eighth Amendment
An notable new opinion by a (Republican-appointed) federal district judge in California is sure to be the talk of the death penalty community for the forseeable future and is also sure to be the basis for a intriguing coming appeal to the Ninth Circuit (and perhaps the Supreme Court). The opinion in Jones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available for download below), is authored by a GWB-appointee Cormac Carney, and it is described by the judge as an "ORDER DECLARING CALIFORNIA’S DEATH PENALTY SYSTEM UNCONSTITUTIONAL AND VACATING PETITIONER’S DEATH SENTENCE." Here is how the 29-page opinion start and ends:
On April 7, 1995, Petitioner Ernest Dewayne Jones was condemned to death by the State of California. Nearly two decades later, Mr. Jones remains on California’s Death Row, awaiting his execution, but with complete uncertainty as to when, or even whether, it will ever come. Mr. Jones is not alone. Since 1978, when the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters, over 900 people have been sentenced to death for their crimes. Of them, only 13 have been executed. For the rest, the dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution. Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death. As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.
That is the reality of the death penalty in California today and the system that has been created to administer it to Mr. Jones and the hundreds of other individuals currently on Death Row. Allowing this system to continue to threaten Mr. Jones with the slight possibility of death, almost a generation after he was first sentenced, violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment....
When an individual is condemned to death in California, the sentence carries with it an implicit promise from the State that it will actually be carried out. That promise is made to the citizens of the State, who are investing significant resources in furtherance of a punishment that they believe is necessary to achieving justice. It is made to jurors who, in exercise of their civic responsibility, are asked to hear about and see evidence of undeniably horrific crimes, and then participate in the agonizing deliberations over whether the perpetrators of those horrific crimes should be put to death. It is made to victims and their loved ones, for whom just punishment might provide some semblance of moral and emotional closure from an otherwise unimaginable loss. And it is made to the hundreds of individuals on Death Row, as a statement their crimes are so heinous they have forfeited their right to life.
But for too long now, the promise has been an empty one. Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional. Accordingly, the Court hereby VACATES Mr. Jones’s death sentence.
Full opinion: Download Jones Cal DP opinion
"Volunteers for Execution: Directions for Further Research into Grief, Culpability, and Legal Structures"
The title of this post is the title of this notable paper I just came across via SSRN authored by Meredith Martin Rountree. Here is the abstract:
About 11% of those executed in the United States are death-sentenced prisoners who sought their own execution. These prisoners are commonly called “volunteers,” and they succeed in hastening execution by waiving their right to appeal their conviction and sentence. Certain interpretations dominate. Those who oppose a condemned prisoner’s request for execution often cite the prisoner’s history of mental instability and frame the prisoner’s decision as a product of suicidal depression. Related to this narrative is one that links death row conditions to the prisoner’s decision to hasten death. Conditions, in this account, contribute to the decision to abandon appeals by wearing the prisoner down to the point that he loses the will to live, or by contributing to “death row syndrome,” an evolving (and controversial) psychiatric diagnosis describing a mental condition that some prisoners develop as a result of living under a death sentence in highly socially isolating and stark conditions of confinement. Other narratives focus on ideas of rational choice and personal autonomy. This account emphasizes prisoners’ desire to control their own destiny and the civic virtue of respecting autonomy and choice, even for the least among us.
The empirical support for these explanations is sparse, and this article emerges from a larger effort to test the hypothesis that prisoners who seek execution resemble those who take their own lives in prison. The prison suicide literature has identified certain characteristics — such as race, sex, age, mental illness, and prison conditions — as increasing the risk of suicide behind bars. My research on Texas volunteers generally suggests many, but not all, of those traits characterize that volunteer population as well. This article focuses on findings that point to areas for future research not only on volunteers but also on larger questions of processes of hopelessness and culpability among criminal offenders, and how the criminal justice system may influence life-ending decisions.
Latest polling shows rich, white, midwestern guys aged 30-44 most likely to favor pot legalization
As this press release details, the "latest research from YouGov shows that most Americans (51%) support legalizing marijuana, while 37% oppose it." And, as the title of this post highlights, I find especially interesting the demographics of which groups of persons are most in favor of legalization as reflected in these detailed breakdowns:
Male: 54% to 36%
Age 30-44: 60% to 28%
Democrat: 62% to 27%
White: 52% to 37%
Income $100+: 57% to 32%
Midwest: 55% to 31%
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Intriguing sparring over victims' rights in Colorado massacre capital case
This local article from Colorado, headlined "James Holmes case: Death penalty foe Bob Autobee's letter to victims stirs controversy," reports on a notable fight which has broken out concerning victims and victims' rights in high-profile capital cases. Here are excerpts:
Does the father of a victim in one death-penalty case have the right to contact family members in another capital case? And, under Colorado law, do prosecutors have any obligation to facilitate that conversation — even if the discussion isn't going to help their cause? The questions are key to a new controversy in the case of accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes.
The current subject of raging debate in local criminal justice circles is DIVO — not the pioneering weird-rock band, but an acronym for Defense Initiated Victim Outreach, a program that's assuming a growing role in high-stakes cases. As Melanie Asmar recently reported, the defense team representing Holmes has accused prosecutors of impeding their attempts to contact victims of the 2012 Aurora theater shootings, while prosecutors have claimed that the defense is improperly using the DIVO process to try to sway victims to oppose the death penalty.
But what hasn't been publicly disclosed — thanks largely to Judge Carlos Samour's insistence on redacting the blank out of public pleadings in the Holmes case — is that one of the people seeking to reach out to victims is Bob Autobee, whose own views on the death penalty underwent a dramatic reversal as the effort to execute his son's killer dragged through the courts for almost twelve years.
In 2002, Autobee's son Eric, a 23-year-old correctional officer, was fatally attacked in the kitchen of the Limon prison by inmate Edward Montour Jr., who was already serving a life sentence for killing his eleven-week-old daughter. Montour pleaded guilty to murder, but the Colorado Supreme Court threw out his death sentence in 2007 because it hadn't been imposed by a jury. Bob Autobee, initially a strong supporter of the death penalty, gradually became disheartened by the numerous delays in the case and began to push for a life sentence instead.
After meeting with Montour in a restorative justice session, Autobee began picketing the Douglas County courthouse to protest Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler's insistence on pursuing Montour's execution; Brauchler's office even filed a motion in the case seeking to prevent Autobee from addressing the jury at trial. But the case never got that far. Last March, just as the trial was starting, startling new evidence suggested that Montour may have been wrongly convicted in the infant death that put him in prison in the first place. Shortly thereafter, prosecutors agreed to let Montour plead guilty to first-degree murder and receive a life sentence.
A few weeks ago, Montour attorney David Lane, an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, forwarded a letter from Autobee to one of the victims in the Holmes case, urging the victim to distribute it to others. In the letter, Autobee invites victims to meet with him so he can "offer my insights into this emotional roller coaster in hopes that it may help you to both understand the process you are going through with the prosecution and trial of James Holmes, and to share with you how I finally came to a place of peace and tranquility after fighting the pain and torment I was undergoing for ten years." See the letter below.
Lane says the first victim he contacted evidently decided not to distribute the letter. A second contact sent the letter to a victim's advocate in the DA's office, "who never distributed it to anyone," Lane says. And that, the attorney suggests, is part of a deliberate effort by prosecutors to squelch DIVO efforts in the Holmes case.
"There's a statute in Colorado that says victims must be informed of their right to participate in restorative justice processes," Lane notes. "The DAs never tell victims that they have that right or explain what the process is. They're doing everything in their power not to expose any of the [theater shooting] victims to DIVO — because they saw what happened in the Montour case. When Bob Autobee was exposed to DIVO, he did a complete turnaround on the death penalty."
Careful examination of California's "mixed" record with realignment
Every serious criminal law and criminology researcher knows and respects (or should know and respect) the work of Joan Petersilia. Consequently, what she has to say about California's prison realignment realities necessarily garners my attention, and it is set forth in this Sanford Report headlined "California's prison realignment plan needs adjustments, Stanford law professor says." Here are excerpts:
When California embarked on a sweeping prison realignment plan in 2011, The Economist described it as one of the "great experiments in American incarceration policy." The challenge was to shift inmates from overcrowded state prisons to jails in California's 58 counties.
At this point, the results are mixed and the "devil will be in the details" as tweaks to the original legislation are urged, according to new research by a Stanford law professor.
"Only time will tell whether California's realignment experiment will fundamentally serve as a springboard to change the nation's overreliance on prisons," wrote Stanford Law School Professor Joan Petersilia, a leading expert on prison realignment, in her article in the Harvard Law and Policy Review. "It is an experiment the whole nation is watching."...
"If it works, California … will have shown that it can downsize prisons safely by transferring lower-level offenders from state prisons to county systems. … If it does not work, counties will have simply been overwhelmed with inmates, unable to fund and/or operate the programs those felons needed, resulting in rising crime, continued criminality and jail overcrowding," wrote Petersilia, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
In an interview, she noted that the 2008 economic crisis prompted state and local governments to cut costs and find efficiencies in their prison and jail systems. Plus, people are now thinking differently about punishment. "The public no longer believes that prisons are the answer for lower-level offenses [drug crimes, minor thefts], and also is more aware of the hugely damaging effects [inability to get a job] of imposing prison terms on those who really aren't dangerous," said Petersilia, who also has forthcoming research on prison policy.
Petersilia's research for the Harvard Law and Policy Review article consisted of interviews with 125 people in law enforcement, courts, probation departments, victim service agencies and offenders themselves. These sessions were conducted in the second year of the realignment. Subjects were asked how realignment was working and what fixes were needed. "The findings illustrate that realignment gets mixed results so far," wrote Petersilia, who described counties as struggling heroically to carry out an initiative seemingly imposed on them overnight.
Probation officials were the most optimistic about realignment, the interviews revealed. They believed that mental health agencies and the courts could reduce recidivism, but that it will take time to coordinate and implement rehabilitation programs that do not compromise public safety.
Though most participants agreed that realignment is spurring greater collaboration and innovation on how to efficiently incarcerate criminals, problems exist, according to the research. For example, counties are now dealing with more sophisticated criminals, lack of space and concern that the state's problem of overcrowding could become local problems as well. Finally, some prosecutors were disappointed in the "deep jail discounts" — reduced time behind bars — given to arrestees due to the crowded jails, she said....
Petersilia urges legislative revisions to California's realignment plan (some are now under discussion in the legislature). Suggestions include:
- Requiring that all felony sentences served in county jail be split between time behind bars and time under supervised release (probation), unless a judge deems otherwise
- Allowing an offender's entire criminal background to be reviewed when deciding whether the county or state should supervise them
- Capping county jail sentences at a maximum of three years
- Allowing for certain violations, such as those involving domestic restraining orders or sex offenses, to be punished with state prison sentences
- Creating a statewide tracking system for all offenders
- Collecting data at the county and local level on what is and is not working in realignment
"These recommendations should reduce the burden realignment has placed on counties," wrote Petersilia. She said several counties are taking advantage of split sentencing with promising results. Still, only 5 percent of felons in Los Angeles County have their sentences split. She called this type of flexibility "extraordinarily important" to realignment, as it would lessen space and cost burdens for counties. "Most county officials believe realignment can work – if the state will work with them to tweak the flaws in the original legislation," she wrote.
The full Harvard Law and Policy Review article, which is titled "California Prison Downsizing and Its Impact on Local Criminal Justice Systems," is available via this link.
Monday, July 14, 2014
The title of this post is the great title of this interesting-looking new article by Dawinder Sidhu now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Sentencing is a backward- and forward-looking enterprise. That is, sentencing is informed by an individual’s past conduct as well as by the criminal justice system’s prediction of the individual’s future criminal conduct. Increasingly, the criminal justice system is making these predictions on an actuarial basis, computing the individual’s risk of recidivism according to the rates of recidivism for people possessing the same group characteristics (e.g., race, sex, socio-economic status, education). The sentencing community is drawn to this statistical technique because it purportedly distinguishes with greater accuracy the high-risk from the low-risk, and thereby allows for a more efficient allocation of sentencing resources, reserving incarceration for the truly dangerous and saving the low-risk from needless penal attention.
Despite these asserted benefits, risk-assessment tools are exogenous to the theories of punishment, the very foundation for sentencing in Anglo-American jurisprudence. This Article reviews the legality and propriety of actuarial predictive instruments, using these theories and governing constitutional and statutory law as the touchstone for this analysis. This Article then applies these normative and legal principles to seventeen major characteristics that may comprise an offender’s composite risk profile. It argues that risk-assessment instruments are problematic for three reasons: they include characteristics that are prohibited by constitutional and statutory law; subject the individual to punishment for characteristics over which the individual has no meaningful control; and presume that the individual is a static entity predisposed, if not predetermined, to recidivate, thereby undermining individual agency and betting against the individual’s ability to beat the odds.
July 14, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
Fourth Circuit to reconsider en banc its Whiteside ruling concerning reconsideration of guideline errors in 2255
As noted in this prior post, titled "Fourth Circuit deepens (via dramatic split opinion) circuit split over fixing sentencing problems via 2255 motions," a split panel of the Fourth Circuit back in April allowed a federal inmate to use a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to challenge a sentence that was based on the career offender enhancement under the United States Sentencing Guidelines when subsequent case law revealed the enhancement was inapplicable to him. The ruling in Whiteside v. US, No. 13-7152 (4th Cir. Apr. 8, 2014) (available here), included both a spirited marority and dissenting opinion.
Now, thanks to a helpful reader and this unpublished order, I have learned that the full Fourth Circuit has decided to rehear this matter en banc. I am not to surprised by this news, though I am perhaps a bit disappointed that it does not seem as though the Fourth Circuit has invited amicus invovement at this stage. As regular readers know, I think sentencing finality concerns raise distinct issues and I have written at length on this subject recently. Perhaps I should be grateful that the Fourth Circuit has not solicited amicus briefs in Whiteside, as it is much easier and much more efficient for me to share some of my perspective at this stage just to linking to my series of recent prior posts about sentence finality here:
- Examining "sentence finality" at length in new article and series of posts
- Finality foundations: is it uncontroversial that "conviction finality" and "sentence finality" raise distinct issues?
- Is it fair to read the Constitution as evidence the Framers were not fans of finality?
- Form, function and finality of sentences through history: the Founding Era
- Form, function and finality of sentences through history: the Rehabilitative Era
- Form, function and finality of sentences through history: the Modern Era
- Conceptual considerations for differentiating sentence finality and conviction finality
Former Rep. (and former felon) Duke Cunningham now says "my Democrat colleagues were right and I was wrong on some issues as far as criminal justice"
The old criminal justice saw says that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged and a liberal is a conservative who has been indicted. The latest evidence of how personal experiences can change one's perspective on criminal justice issues comes from this recent Huffington Post piece headlined "It Took This Former Congressman Years Behind Bars To See The Need For Drug War Reform." Here are excerpts:
A former Republican member of Congress is ready to join the fight for sentencing reform and rolling back harsh mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Only this one has a bit more experience with the federal prison system than a typical politician does.
Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), 72, is now a free man after a federal judge ended his supervised release early following seven years in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons on corruption charges. He had served in Congress from 1991 to 2005. In a letter he sent to the media when he was still behind bars in 2011, Cunningham said he planned to dedicate his life to prison reform and Justice Department reform....
Cunningham told The Huffington Post in a phone interview from his home in Arkansas' Hot Springs Village -- which is believed to be the largest gated community in the U.S. -- that he's made time to push his criminal justice reform ideas on his former colleagues back in Washington, D.C. "I'm not going to give you their names, but I've already called some Republican and Democrat friends of mine and told them that I would make myself available to testify..." Cunningham told HuffPost....
"Unfortunately, some of my Democrat colleagues were right and I was wrong on some issues as far as criminal justice," Cunningham said, specifically regretting votes for mandatory minimums for drug crimes that take discretion away from federal judges and give federal prosecutors a tremendous amount of leverage over defendants. "We have taken out of the judge's hands the ability to be merciful in some reasons or to do the right thing," Cunningham said. "I've heard case after case where the judges have said, 'I wish I could help you, but my hands are tied.' I want to untie the hands of our judges."
"I saw kids in there who are 19 to 30. They go into prison, they maybe got caught with cocaine or rock or something like that, and they give them 10 years minimum. What do they do when they get out?" Cunningham said. "There's a lot of very nice guys that got caught up."
Cunningham's new outlook on criminal justice after a prison term puts him in the same camp as former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who has also advocated for reform after his own stint in federal prison. Even outside of those serving for drug crimes, Cunningham said, he met plenty of people behind bars who didn't deserve to be there....
Cunningham said he's still catching up on the details of some of the sentencing reform proposals floating around on the hill, and also thinks the medical care for federal prisoners needs an overhaul. "Prison medical is worse than Obamacare, and I'm not a fan of Obamacare," Cunningham said. He said three people he knew died behind bars, including a man named Felix who was only given aspirin for a pain in his side. He was later found to have pancreatic cancer, was taken out and died two weeks later.
Cunningham said he's done a "180 turn" on criminal justice, and wishes he could take back many of the votes he made back when he was a member of Congress. "My Democrat colleagues would support the lawyers. We'd support the prosecutors," he said. "I think I'd vote more with my Democrat colleagues today."
July 14, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)
Third Circuit approves forcible medication to enable federal sentencing
While I was on the road last week, the Third Circuit issued an interesting opinion in US v. Cruz, No. 13-4378 (3d Cir. July 10, 2014) (available here), which affirmed a district court's decision to forcible medicate a defendant in order to facilitate his federal sentencing. This opening paragraph and another section from the heart of the opinion provides highlights of the unanimous panel ruling:
We here confront an issue of first impression: whether the Government, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Sell, 539 U.S. 166 (2003), can have a sufficiently important interest in forcibly medicating a defendant to restore his mental competency and render him fit to proceed with sentencing. Under the facts presented in this case, we answer that question in the affirmative and we will affirm....
[I]n Booker the Supreme Court highlighted governmental interests that are inherent in sentencing proceedings. It repeatedly emphasized that the sentencing scheme put in place by the Sentencing Act and Sentencing Guidelines “diminishes sentencing disparity” and “move[s] the sentencing system in the direction of increased uniformity.” Booker, 543 U.S. at 250, 253. It also repeatedly emphasized that sentencing uniformity depends in critical part on the relationship between punishment and “the real conduct that underlies the crime of conviction.” Id. at 250; see id. at 251 (“Judges have long looked to real conduct when sentencing,” and often rely on “a presentence report, prepared by a probation officer, for information (often unavailable until after the trial) relevant to the manner in which the convicted offender committed the crime of conviction.”); id. at 253-54 (“[I]ncreased uniformity . . . does not consist simply of similar sentences for those convicted of violations of the same statute . . . . It consists, more importantly, of similar relationships between sentences and real conduct, relationships that Congress’ [sic] sentencing statues helped to advance[.]”).
The Government cannot achieve the sort of uniformity contemplated in Booker without formal sentencing proceedings. A criminal defendant enjoys the right to allocute at sentencing, and he also enjoys the right to object to the PSR, to argue for favorable sentencing variances and downward departures from the Sentencing Guidelines, and to oppose any arguments favoring upward variances or departures from the Guidelines. Those rights, which to a great degree reflect the defendant’s “real conduct,” id. at 250, necessarily require the defendant to both actively participate in sentencing proceedings and inform his attorney’s actions. Because an incompetent defendant is presumed unable to take those actions, the Government maintains an important interest in restoring his mental competency and enabling him to do so.
Are federal drug sentences for mules now too short?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable and fascinating new article in the New York Times headlined "Second Thoughts on Lighter Sentences for Drug Smugglers." Here are excerpts:
For years, a steady parade of drug smugglers have tried all sorts of ways to ferry contraband into the United States through Kennedy International Airport in Queens, posing a challenge not only to Customs and Border Protection officers, but also to federal prosecutors.
To avoid clogging up the court, the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn has embraced a strategic approach that allows couriers to plead guilty and offer information in return for lighter sentences. The policy reflected a view among many prosecutors that the mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses — which require prison terms of five years and higher in these smuggling cases — were too harsh on defendants who were typically nonviolent and disadvantaged.
But in recent months, changes in drug sentencing have served to further lower punishments for these couriers. A year ago, drug couriers regularly faced three years in prison; now they might face guidelines starting at only a few months, or no prison time at all.
The changes are raising questions of whether the pendulum has swung too far. Some prosecutors say that couriers have little to no incentive to cooperate anymore. Border patrol officials grumble that they are working to catch smugglers, only to have them face little punishment. And judges who once denounced the harsh sentencing guidelines are now having second thoughts....
The debate over what constitutes a fair sentence for drug crimes has persisted for decades. Critics — many of them judges in this court — have said that sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum punishments had become hugely problematic. Nonviolent drug offenders, like couriers or people selling marijuana on the street, could face longer guideline sentences than an underground gun dealer. And until recently, possession of five grams of crack warranted a minimum five-year sentence. To get the same sentence for powdered cocaine possession, 500 grams would be required.
Various reforms have been instituted to address the inequities in sentencing. In 1994, a “safety valve” provision allowed nonviolent first offenders on drugs — which describes most couriers — to avoid mandatory minimums if they admitted to all prior criminal conduct. And in 2010, Congress passed legislation toward balancing the crack versus cocaine disparity....
In August, the United States attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., ordered prosecutors nationwide to charge couriers and other low-level drug offenders who met certain criteria in a way that did not result in mandatory-minimum sentences. (Guideline sentences must still be considered, but they are not mandatory.)
Then, in April, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to reduce sentencing guidelines for drug crimes by two points, or several months. The reduced guidelines go into effect in November, pending congressional approval, but prosecutors in many districts have agreed to apply them now.
The changes made things more difficult in Brooklyn, where prosecutors still wanted to give low-level couriers an incentive to avoid trials and to assist in prosecutions against larger drug distributors. Believing they had to further sweeten the deal, prosecutors agreed to give an additional four points off those reduced sentences for couriers who agreed to cooperate.
As a result, drug-courier defendants can now face sentencing guidelines that suggest no prison time.
My first reaction to this piece is to suggest that it's a nice change of pace for federal judges to now view at least some federal sentencing guidelines to be too lenient and that any problems this creates can and should be addressed through judicial discretion to sentence above the guidelines, case-by-case, as needed and appropriate. But I imagine this viewpoint is not very satisfying for federal prosecutors and investigators who depend on the threat of severe sentences to get mules to cooperate to their satisfaction.
For additional intriguing and diverse reactions to these intriguing new drug sentencing realities, check out these posts from other informed bloggers:
From Simple Justice here, "The Pendulum and the Mule"
From Hercules and the Umpire here, "Should Interstate 80 be treated like JFK airport in New York?"
Sunday, July 13, 2014
USSC Chair reiterates Commission's sentencing reform message to House Judiciary Committee
This past Friday, US Sentencing Commission Chair, Chief Judge Patti Saris, testified at this hearing of Over-Criminalization Task Force of the Committee on the Judiciary of the US House of Representatives. Her lengthy written testimony is available at this link, and here is a summary paragraph from the Chair's discussion of recommended mandatory minimum reforms:
Based on [our] analysis, the Commission continues to recommend unanimously that Congress consider a number of statutory changes. The Commission recommends that Congress reduce the current statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking. We further recommend that the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which Congress passed to reduce the disparity in treatment of crack and powder cocaine, be made retroactive. Finally, we recommend that Congress consider expanding the so-called “safety valve,” allowing sentences below mandatory minimum penalties for non-violent low-level drug offenders, to offenders with slightly greater criminal histories than currently permitted.
Republican and Democratic members of this Task Force and others in Congress have proposed legislation to reform certain mandatory minimum penalty provisions. The Commission strongly supports these efforts to reform this important area of the law.
Notably, as this official press release highlights, Judge Irene Keeley, chair of the Judicial Conference Criminal Law Committee, echoed similar messages in he testimony to the House Task Force:
A representative of the Judicial Conference today told a House Judiciary Task Force that policy initiatives curbing over-federalization of criminal law, reforming mandatory minimum sentences and amending the Sentencing Guidelines have the support of the Judicial Conference, but that the Judiciary currently lacks the resources to shoulder resulting increased workload.
“Policy-makers must not create a new public safety crisis in our communities by simply transferring the risks and costs from the prisons to the caseloads of already strained probation officers and the full dockets of the courts,” said Judge Irene Keeley, chair of the Judicial Conference Criminal Law Committee. “Lasting and meaningful solutions can be attained only if the branches work together to ensure that the correct cases are brought into the federal system, just sentences are imposed, and offenders are appropriately placed in prison or under supervision in the community.”
Saturday, July 12, 2014
"An NTSB for Capital Punishment"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay by Adam Gershowitz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
When a fatal traffic accident happens, we expect the local police and prosecutors to handle the investigation and criminal charges. When a fatal airplane crash occurs however, we turn instead to the National Transportation Safety Board. The reason is that air crashes are complicated and the NTSB has vast expertise. Without that expertise, investigations falter. We need look no further than the mess made by Malaysian authorities in the search for Flight 370 to see the importance of expertise in handling complicated investigations and processes.
It is easy to point to a similar series of mistakes by local prosecutors and defense attorneys in many death-penalty cases around the country. If we are to continue utilizing capital punishment in the United States, the death-penalty system should follow air crash model, not the car crash model. Capital cases should be handled by an elite nationwide unit of prosecutors and investigators who travel to capital murder sites the way the NTSB travels to airplane and other catastrophic crashes. As the number of death sentences dwindles each year, states have incentive to enter into an NTSB model that allows them to continue using capital punishment without having to handle the complicated cases themselves. This symposium essay argues that capital punishment as currently conducted at the local level is failure, but that the death penalty can be justified if carried out by an elite, national team of lawyers and investigators.
"4 Reasons Conservatives Are Embracing Prison Reform"
The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary piece by Christian Piatt appearing in Time which includes a religious perspective as well as a political one. Much of the discussion will be familiar to regular readers, but here are a few excerpts of not:
Criminal sentencing certainly has been one of those divisive social issues among Christians, with many progressives calling for more leniency on nonviolent crimes, and conservatives embracing a “zero tolerance” ethos....
Only recently have the number of incarcerated people within our borders begun to decline, and it’s in part due to a shift in the way those who have championed a hard-nosed approach to sentencing are reframing their thinking. In some respects, the reasons are logistical and economic; for others, the change of heart is informed particularly by their understanding of scripture and the mandates of the Gospel....
[H]ere are four ideas around which Christians – and non-Christians – from both the left and right are coming together.
Reform makes good financial sense. ...
Reform reduces government’s role in our lives. ...
Second Chances are Biblical. ...
Thinking on “paying our debt to society” is shifting....
Warehousing nonviolent offenders is still big business in the United States, which means that people with significant influence are intent on keeping things more or less as they already are. And certainly not all on the political and religious right agree with the points above. But enough conservatives are breaking rank to begin to form coalitions with the center and left, so that real reform becomes an increasing possibility.
Friday, July 11, 2014
Some more informed legal buzz about marijuana reform via MLP&R
The mainstream media is buzzing plenty about marijuana law and policy again now that Washington state has now officially started legal recreational sales under its state legalization initiative. But, as demonstrated by this round-up of recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, there is a lot much for lawyers and law reform observers to be thinking about these days:
Second Circuit finds unreasonable probation sentence based on "cost of incarceration"
A helpful reader made sure I did not miss while on the road an interesting Second Circuit opinion in US v. Park, No. 13‐4142 (2d Cir. July 9, 2014) (available here), concerning reasonableness review and a sentenced reduced based on the cost of imprisonment. Here is the heart of one part of the per curiam panel decision:
After a review of the record, we conclude that the District Court committed procedural error in imposing a term of probation in lieu of imprisonment for two reasons. First, the only sentencing factor the District Court deemed relevant was the cost of incarceration to the government and the economic problems allegedly caused by the government shut‐down. As the Court clearly announced, “I am not going to put him in jail only because of the economic plight that we are facing today.” After emphasizing that its sentencing decision was based solely upon this consideration, the Court then rebuffed defense counsel’s suggestion to “supplement the record,” asserting, “[i]f we have to resentence him, we will later.” The Court also stated that if the Court of Appeals were to reverse, it would “consider all of these factors” at resentencing, clearly indicating that it did not consider the relevant factors in the first instance. The Court therefore committed procedural error by refusing to consider the § 3553(a) factors in deciding what is an appropriate sentence.
Second, and equally problematic, is that the cost of incarceration to the government—the Court’s sole justification for imposing a term of probation rather than incarceration — is not a relevant sentencing factor under the applicable statutes. We agree with the Eighth Circuit that, based on the plain language of § 3553(a), no sentencing factor can reasonably be read to encompass the cost of incarceration. Nor does the statute permit the sentencing court to balance the cost of incarceration against the sentencing goals enumerated in § 3553(a).
Park is a must-read for post-Booker sentencing fans because it includes lots of important phrases about both procedural and substantive reasonableness review. The Park opinion also talks up the importance of deterrence in one white-collar sentencing, noting "general deterrence occupies an especially important role in criminal tax offenses, as criminal tax prosecutions are relatively rare."
Thursday, July 10, 2014
Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles grants execution eve clemency to witness killer
As reported in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, "hours before he was to be executed for a murder 23 years ago, Tommy Lee Waldrip was granted clemency." Here are the details:
The state Board of Pardons and Paroles made the rare decision to commute a condemned man’s sentence to life without parole Wednesday even as state and federal courts had turned down his appeals. Waldrip’s execution was set for 7 p.m. Thursday for the murder of Keith Evans, a college student who was about to testify against Waldrip’s son in a re-trial of an armed robbery case.
The board’s decision came several hours after members heard pleas for mercy from relatives, friends and Waldrip’s lawyers, and then from prosecutors and members of the Evans family who wanted the execution carried out.
The board does not give a reason for its decision. Members vote individually and only the chairman, who collects the ballots, knows how each one decided. The decision required a simple majority, three out of five members.
But one issue raised before the board was that the sentences for Waldrip, his son and Waldrip’s brother, all convicted of murdering Evans on April 13,1991, were not proportional. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty against Howard Livingston, Waldrip’s brother, but they did in the cases against Tommy Lee Waldrip and his son John Mark Waldrip. The three men were tried separately. Only Tommy Lee Waldrip was sentenced to die. John Mark Waldrip and Livingston are serving life sentences....
This was the fifth time since 2002 that the board has commuted the sentence of a death row inmate. The most recent one was on April 12, 2012, when the board commuted the death sentence of Daniel Greene.
Notably, one of the recent cases in which the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to grant clemency was the high-profile Troy Davis case. Notably, for those focused on racial dynamics in this context, it is perhaps notable that Tommy Lee Waldrip is white and that Daniel Greene is black. Ergo, since Troy Davis was denied clemency, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted clemency to one black and one white convicted murderer.
Split Michigan Supreme Court rejects retroactivity of Miller for hundreds of juve lifers
Though I am on the road and behind on a number of blogging fronts, a number of helpful readers made sure I did not miss an important state Miller application from Michigan. This local article, headlined "Michigan Supreme Court denies parole hearings to juvenile lifers," provides these basics:
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled 4-3 Tuesday that juveniles given automatic life-without-parole sentences aren’t eligible for parole — even though the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012 that such sentences were unconstitutional. The ruling involved three of what some estimates say are at least 350 Michigan “juvenile lifers” — the highest number in any state — who are seeking parole hearings....
A four-justice majority, in a decision written by Justice Stephen Markman, said the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling does not apply retroactively to these Michigan inmates, under either federal or state court precedents.
Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has argued that parole for any of the juvenile lifers would be disrespectful to murder victims and heart-wrenching to their families, hailed the decision. “Today the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the rights of crime victims and their families,” he said....
Kary Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, called the decision “heartbreaking.”
“Here we have a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court has said violates the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment ... yet the Michigan Supreme Court is unwilling ever to give the 350 juvenile lifers currently in Michigan’s prisons a parole hearing in their lifetime,” Moss said. She said the ACLU is reviewing its options for a further federal legal challenge. “We are not letting this issue drop,” Moss said....
Neither the Eighth Amendment nor the state Constitution “categorically bars the imposition of a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender,” the court’s majority said.
Justices Mary Beth Kelly, Bridget Mary McCormack and Michael Cavanagh dissented and said the court should have ruled in favor of parole hearings. They noted that state lawmakers this year passed a juvenile sentencing law that “significantly altered Michigan’s sentencing scheme for juvenile offenders convicted of crimes that had previously carried a sentence of life without parole.”
Under the new law, judges can impose 40- to 60-year sentences in cases where prosecutors don’t ask for life-without-parole for murder and other heinous crimes....
The Michigan Catholic Conference said the decision is disappointing. “We call upon the Legislature to pass a measure that will allow for juveniles sentenced to a life term before the (2012 U.S. Supreme Court) decision to have the opportunity for a parole hearing at some point during their sentence,” said a statement issued by spokesman David Maluchnik....
State Rep. Joe Haveman called the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling disappointing and said individuals incarcerated as juveniles “deserve a hearing to re-evaluate their case.”
“It is baffling how this can be considered equal treatment under the law,”said the Holland Republican. “I said before, and I still believe, that the Supreme Court of the United States needs to revisit this issue and clarify whether the intent was for their original ruling to apply retroactively. .... If a juvenile sentence without the opportunity for parole is cruel and unusual punishment going forward, it is also cruel and unusual punishment for those who entered prison as children, who don’t have even the faintest glimmer of hope that even if they completely change who they are, they will ever walk free. It is further cruel and unusual punishment for the judge who didn’t want to hand down a mandatory life sentence, and wanted to consider mitigating factors, but wasn’t allowed to, and now must live with the guilt of sending a child to prison for their entire adult life.”
The fully lengthy Michigan Supreme Court ruling in this matter runs 120+ pages and covers more ground than just Miller retroactivity. The full ruling is available at this link, and I hope to have a chance to blog about the substance of both the lengthy majority and dissenting opinions in the days and weeks ahead.
For now, I will simply assert that the Supreme Court no long has any good reason or justification for continuing to refuse to take up the issue of Miller retroactivity that has split state courts nationwide. Now that just about every state with a large number of mandatory juve LWOPers has ruled on this issue, this matter has plainly "percolated" more than sufficiently and the resulting jurisprudential split has profound consequences for many hundreds of juve lifers in many states.
A few (of many) prior posts on Miller retroactivity:
- Effective press review of some state responses to SCOTUS Miller ruling
- Terrific Stateline review of states' varied applications of and reactions to Miller
- A year after Miller confirmed kids are different, how may kids have different sentences?
- Another effective review of the messy Miller aftermath:
- In lengthy split opinion, Minnesota Supreme Court concludes Miller should not apply retroactively
- Split Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules that Miller does not apply retroactively
- Illinois Supreme Court deems Miller ruling substantive and thus retroactive
- Top Texas criminal court, in split ruling, decides Miller is to be applied retroactively
- When and how will SCOTUS take up Miller retroactivity issues?
- Noting SCOTUS continues to dodge (inevitable?) ruling on Miller retroactivity
"The Consequences of Error in Criminal Justice"
The title of this post is the title of this new article by Daniel Epps now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
"Better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer," William Blackstone’s famous adage, stands for a powerful idea in the criminal law: that it’s essential to minimize wrongly convicting the innocent even at the expense of overall accuracy. This "Blackstone principle" accords with most people’s deeply felt intuitions about criminal justice.
This Article challenges that fundamental precept. It begins by situating the Blackstone principle in the history of Anglo-American criminal law. That history shows how the principle gained prominence — most notably, because in Blackstone’s time and earlier death was the exclusive penalty for many crimes — but provides no compelling justification today.
The leading modern argument for the Blackstone principle is that false convictions are simply more costly than false acquittals. But that argument is incomplete, because it focuses myopically on the costs of errors in individual cases. A complete analysis of the Blackstone principle requires taking stock of its dynamic effects on the criminal justice system as a whole. The Article conducts that analysis, which reveals two significant but previously unrecognized draw-backs of the Blackstone principle: First, its benefits to innocent defendants are smaller than usually assumed; it could even make those defendants worse off. Second, the principle reinforces a widely recognized political process failure in criminal justice, hurting not just defendants but society as a whole. The magnitude of these effects is uncertain, but they could more than cancel out the principle’s putative benefits.
The Article then analyzes alternative justifications for the Blackstone principle. None is satisfactory; each rests on dubious empirical premises, logical errors, or controversial premises. There is thus no fully persuasive justification for the principle. Rejecting the Blackstone principle would require us to re-think — although not necessarily redesign — various aspects of our criminal-procedure system.
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Former NOLA mayor Ray Nagin gets 10-year federal prison sentence for corruption
As reported in this New York Times article, "Ray Nagin, the former mayor of New Orleans, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Wednesday on federal corruption charges, ending a case that began with the rebuilding of the city after Hurricane Katrina." Here are a few more more details of this high-profile federal sentencing:
The sentence was less than the recommended 15 years, but Judge Ginger Berrigan of United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana told the court that the evidence failed to show that Mr. Nagin had organized or had been a leader of a corruption scheme....
Prosecutors objected to the sentence, a move that could set up an appeal. MOReaction was swift, and mixed. “I think that he got off lightly considering the violations of the public trust,” said Edward E. Chervenak, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans and a critic of Mr. Nagin during his eight years as mayor.
“I think he should have gotten more time,” says Michelle Alford, 37, a native of New Orleans and a hotel employee. “He did nothing to benefit the city. I think he should have gotten 20 years at least. I think it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.”
Following the money behind sustaining pot prohibition
The Nation has this fascinating new investigative report with a headline and subheadline that highlights its themes: "The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal: Opponents of marijuana-law reform insist that legalization is dangerous — but the biggest threat is to their own bottom line." Here are excerpts from the start of a lengthy article:
Taking the stage to rousing applause last February, [Patrick] Kennedy joined more than 2,000 opponents of marijuana legalization a few miles south of Washington, DC, at the annual convention of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA), one of the largest such organizations in the country....
Given that CADCA is dedicated to protecting society from dangerous drugs, the event that day had a curious sponsor: Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxy-Contin, the highly addictive painkiller that nearly ruined Kennedy’s congressional career and has been linked to thousands of overdose deaths nationwide.
Prescription opioids, a line of pain-relieving medications derived from the opium poppy or produced synthetically, are the most dangerous drugs abused in America, with more than 16,000 deaths annually linked to opioid addiction and overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more Americans now die from painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined. The recent uptick in heroin use around the country has been closely linked to the availability of prescription opioids, which give their users a similar high and can trigger a heroin craving in recovering addicts....
People in the United States, a country in which painkillers are routinely overprescribed, now consume more than 84 percent of the entire worldwide supply of oxycodone and almost 100 percent of hydrocodone opioids. In Kentucky, to take just one example, about one in fourteen people is misusing prescription painkillers, and nearly 1,000 Kentucky residents are dying every year.
So it’s more than a little odd that CADCA and the other groups leading the fight against relaxing marijuana laws, including the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America), derive a significant portion of their budget from opioid manufacturers and other pharmaceutical companies. According to critics, this funding has shaped the organization’s policy goals: CADCA takes a softer approach toward prescription-drug abuse, limiting its advocacy to a call for more educational programs, and has failed to join the efforts to change prescription guidelines in order to curb abuse. In contrast, CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids have adopted a hard-line approach to marijuana, opposing even limited legalization and supporting increased police powers.
A close look at the broader political coalition lobbying against marijuana-law reform reveals many such conflicts of interest. In fact, the CADCA event was attended by representatives of a familiar confederation of anti-pot interests, many of whom have a financial stake in the status quo, including law enforcement agencies, pharmaceutical firms, and nonprofits funded by federal drug-prevention grants....
The opponents of marijuana-law reform argue that such measures pose significant dangers, from increased crime and juvenile delinquency to addiction and death. But legalization’s biggest threat is to the bottom line of these same special interests, which reap significant monetary advantages from pot prohibition that are rarely acknowledged in the public debate....
[B]oth CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids are heavily reliant on a combination of federal drug-prevention education grants and funding from pharmaceutical companies. Founded in 1992, CADCA has lobbied aggressively for a range of federal grants for groups dedicated to the “war on drugs.” The Drug-Free Communities Act of 1997, a program directed by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, was created through CADCA’s advocacy. That law now allocates over $90 million a year to community organizations dedicated to reducing drug abuse. Records show that CADCA has received more than $2.5 million in annual federal funding in recent years. The former Partnership for a Drug-Free America, founded in 1985 and best known for its dramatic “This is your brain on drugs” public service announcements, has received similarly hefty taxpayer support while advocating for increased anti-drug grant programs.
The Nation obtained a confidential financial disclosure from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids showing that the group’s largest donors include Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, and Abbott Laboratories, maker of the opioid Vicodin. CADCA also counts Purdue Pharma as a major supporter, as well as Alkermes, the maker of a powerful and extremely controversial new painkiller called Zohydrol. The drug, which was released to the public in March, has sparked a nationwide protest, since Zohydrol is reportedly ten times stronger than OxyContin. Janssen Pharmaceutical, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that produces the painkiller Nucynta, and Pfizer, which manufactures several opioid products, are also CADCA sponsors. For corporate donors, CADCA offers a raft of partnership opportunities, including authorized use of the “CADCA logo for your company’s marketing, website, and advertising materials, etc.”