Thursday, December 11, 2014

Notable new reporting on "tough-on-sex-offenders" rhetoric in recent judicial campaigns

The Marshall Project has this interesting new review of the most recent election cycle headlined "Trial By Cash: Judicial elections have gotten ugly. That’s bad news for defendants." Here is how it gets started:

In this year’s battle for the governorship of Arkansas, criminal justice reform was front and center. The Republican victor, Asa Hutchinson, a former federal prosecutor and DEA administrator, promised to combat prison overcrowding and called out “over-aggressive prosecutors who do not use common sense.”  His Democratic challenger, Mike Ross, advocated lighter sentences for nonviolent offenders and more emphasis on rehabilitation. Neither candidate deployed the fear-mongering attack advertisements that have been a campaign-season staple for decades.

The race for an open seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court seat was another matter.  One outside group's campaign ad praised Judge Robin Wynne of the state court of appeals for “refusing to allow technicalities to overturn convictions.”  Another attacked his primary opponent, defense attorney Tim Cullen, by claiming he had called child pornography “a victimless crime.”  Over eerie black-and-white footage of an empty playground, a woman’s voice responded to the statement (a distortion of Cullen's defense brief for a single case), intoning: “Tell that to the thousands of victims robbed of their childhood.” Wynne won.

If there is a growing bipartisan consensus that America locks up too many people for too long, there is little indication that anyone spending money on judicial elections shares the concern.  The real scourge of American justice, these campaigns seem to suggest, is the rampant coddling of child molesters by judges up for re-election.  “WHY SO LENIENT?” one ad demanded, attacking an incumbent state justice in Illinois.  A similar commercial in North Carolina cut from an image of children pedaling tricycles to one of inmates pacing in their cells, and declared that a justice up for re-election “took the side of convicted molesters.”

Judicial races once were largely polite, low-budget affairs.  But in the 1990s, business and political groups began to focus on these elections as an important (and often cost-effective) path to influencing policy and regulation.  Since then, judicial campaigns have come to look more like any other political circus: rallies, political consultants, attack ads, and a flood of campaign cash.  As of Nov. 5, election watchers at the Brennan Center, a liberal think tank that tracks legal issues, estimated that at least $13.8 million had been spent on TV advertising for state supreme court elections nationwide in 2014 — up from $12.2 million in the last midterm election in 2010.  

The funders of these campaigns aren’t generally motivated by a desire to lock up criminals.  In fact, some of this year’s big donors to organizations running tough-on-crime campaigns — including the conservative philanthropists Charles and David Koch — have simultaneously backed so-called “smart-on-crime” reform efforts aimed at shortening mandatory sentences and reducing prison populations.  But fear works, election strategists believe.  Why run on what really matters to your funders — like tort reform or deregulation — when you can run against paroling pedophiles?

December 11, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

"As Though They Were Not Children: DNA Collection from Juveniles"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Kevin Lapp now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Law enforcement craves data.  Among the many forms of data currently collected by law enforcement, perhaps none is more potentially powerful than DNA profiles.  DNA databasing helps law enforcement accurately and efficiently identify individuals and link them to unsolved crimes, and it can even exonerate the wrongfully convicted.  So alluring is DNA collection that the practice has rapidly expanded to juveniles.  The federal government and every state but Hawaii mandate DNA collection from juveniles as a result of some contact with the criminal justice system.  A conviction in criminal court, a delinquency adjudication in juvenile court, and even a mere arrest can trigger compulsory DNA collection.  Law enforcement also seeks DNA samples from juveniles based on their consent.

This Article provides a comprehensive accounting of current juvenile DNA collection legislation and case law.  It then situates DNA collection from juveniles within the law’s longstanding and renewed emphasis on special treatment of children both generally and with particular attention to criminal law and juvenile justice.  Bringing to bear Supreme Court jurisprudence, neuroscientific and psychosocial research, juvenile court history, and the critical lens of childhood studies, it argues that DNA collection from juveniles based on contact with the criminal justice system is not reasonable and cannot withstand scrutiny. The government interests served by DNA profiling are reduced with respect to juveniles, and the privacy interests are enhanced.  Many of its benefits, including deterrence, are lost with regard to juveniles.  The Article calls for the prohibition on DNA collection following an adjudication of delinquency or an arrest, and a ban on consent collection from juveniles.  This will protect children, and their childhood, while preserving law enforcement’s ability to exploit genetic databasing and aggregate data collection where its rationale justifies its application.

December 11, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Second Circuit panel finds evidence insufficient to support two major insider trading convictions

There is big news in the white-collar crime (and sentencing?) world this morning coming out of New York thanks to the Second Circuit's significant new opinion in US v. Newman, No. 13‐1837 (2d Cir. Dec. 10, 2014) (available here).  This New York Times article about the ruling helps spotlight why this is Newman ruling is a very a big deal:

A federal appeals court on Wednesday overturned two of the government’s signature insider trading convictions, a stunning blow to prosecutors and their campaign to root out illegal activity on Wall Street.

In a 28-­page decision that could rewrite the course of insider trading law, sharply curtailing its boundaries, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in Manhattan tossed out the case against two former hedge fund traders, Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson. Citing the trial judge’s “erroneous” instruction to jurors, the court not only overturned the convictions but threw out the cases altogether....

The unanimous decision – the first higher court rebuke of an insider trading case filed by Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan – could portend a broader revisiting of Mr. Bharara’s insider trading crackdown. It will also offer a blueprint for traders to defend future insider trading cases, a development that is likely to unnerve prosecutors while delighting the defense bar.

Here are a few paragraphs from the start of the Newman opinion:

Defendants‐appellants Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson appeal from judgments of conviction entered on May 9, 2013, and May 14, 2013, respectively in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Richard J. Sullivan, J.) following a six‐week jury trial on charges of securities fraud....

The Government alleged that a cohort of analysts at various hedge funds and investment firms obtained material, nonpublic information from employees of publicly traded technology companies, shared it amongst each other, and subsequently passed this information to the portfolio managers at their respective companies.    The Government charged Newman, a portfolio manager at Diamondback Capital Management, LLC (“Diamondback”), and Chiasson, a portfolio manager at Level Global Investors, L.P. (“Level Global”), with willfully participating in this insider trading scheme by trading in securities based on the inside information illicitly obtained by this group of analysts.   On appeal, Newman and Chiasson challenge the sufficiency of the evidence as to several elements of the offense, and further argue that the district court erred in failing to instruct the jury that it must find that a tippee knew that the insider disclosed confidential information in exchange for a personal benefit.  

We agree that the jury instruction was erroneous because we conclude that, in order to sustain a conviction for insider trading, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the tippee knew that an insider disclosed confidential information and that he did so in exchange for a personal benefit.  Moreover, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict against Newman and Chiasson for two reasons.    First, the Government’s evidence of any personal benefit received by the alleged insiders was insufficient to establish the tipper liability from which defendants’ purported tippee liability would derive.    Second, even assuming that the scant evidence offered on the issue of personal benefit was sufficient, which we conclude it was not, the Government presented no evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew that they were trading on information obtained from insiders in violation of those insiders’ fiduciary duties. 

 Accordingly, we reverse the convictions of Newman and Chiasson on all counts and remand with instructions to dismiss the indictment as it pertains to them with prejudice.

Though this Newman opinion does not discuss formally sentencing issue, I cannot help but think that modern white-collar sentencing realities might be playing a role (perhaps a significant role) in the review and ultimate rejection of insider-trading convictions here. Both defendants appealing in this case were sentenced to a significant number of years in prison, and appellate judges are surely aware of how high the stakes now are for white-collar defendants subject to novel and aggressive prosecutorial practices.

December 10, 2014 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Various appeals do not interfere with Georgia and Missouri completing final executions of 2014

As detailed in this lengthy AP/CBS article, headlined "Missouri, Georgia execute murderers, one a cop killer," two executions were carried out over the last 24 hours.  Here are some of the details:

A Missouri inmate was put to death early Wednesday for fatally beating a 63-year-old woman with a hammer in 1998, the state's record 10th lethal injection of 2014, matching Texas for the most executions in the country this year.  In Georgia, a man convicted of killing a sheriff's deputy moments after robbing a convenience store in central Georgia was executed Tuesday night.

The Missouri case involved Paul Goodwin, 48, who sexually assaulted Joan Crotts in St. Louis County, pushed her down a flight of stairs and beat her in the head with a hammer. Goodwin was a former neighbor who felt Crotts played a role in getting him kicked out of a boarding house.

Goodwin's execution began at 1:17 a.m., more than an hour after it was scheduled, and he was pronounced dead at 1:25 a.m.  Efforts to spare Goodwin's life centered on his low IQ and claims that executing him would violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the death penalty for the mentally disabled.  Attorney Jennifer Herndon said Goodwin had an IQ of 73, and some tests suggested it was even lower....

Missouri's 10th execution of 2014 matches the state's previous high of nine in 1999. Neither Missouri nor Texas has another execution scheduled this year.  Texas, Missouri and Florida have combined for 28 of the 34 executions in the U.S. this year.  Missouri has scheduled one execution each month since November 2013.  Two were halted by court action, but 12 were carried out over the past 14 months.

In Georgia, Robert Wayne Holsey, 49, was declared dead at 10:51 p.m. at the state prison in Jackson, authorities said.  Holsey was sentenced to die for the Dec. 17, 1995, killing of Baldwin County sheriff's deputy Will Robinson.  A jury convicted Holsey in February 1997.

Holsey robbed a convenience store in the town of Milledgeville early on Dec. 17, and the store clerk immediately called police, describing the suspect and his car, prosecutors said. According to court documents, Robinson stopped a car at a nearby hotel minutes later and radioed in the license plate number.  As Robinson approached the vehicle, Holsey fired at him, prosecutors said.  The deputy suffered a fatal head wound....

Holsey's lawyers filed a number of last-minute appeals to stop the execution but they were all rejected.  Holsey was executed nearly an hour after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request for a stay....

Holsey's lawyers had argued in a clemency petition that their client should be spared lethal injection because his 1997 trial was mishandled by an alcoholic lawyer who was distracted by his own problems.  The trial lawyer died in 2011.  The original lawyer told the court that intellectual disability would not be a factor in the case, despite records showing Holsey was intellectually disabled, Holsey's lawyers argued.  And the jury also didn't hear details about Holsey's childhood, which was characterized by horrifying abuse at the hands of his mother, according to the petition.

In their efforts to halt the execution, Holsey's lawyers argued that he was intellectually disabled. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 barred execution of the intellectually disabled, but left the states to determine who is intellectually disabled.  Georgia requires death-row inmates to prove intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt in order to be spared execution on those grounds.  Courts have consistently upheld Georgia's toughest-in-the-nation standard of proof on this issue....

The state of Georgia argued in court filings that Holsey is not intellectually disabled.  An expert found that Holsey had a learning disability but was not disabled, and his siblings relied on him as a leader, the state's lawyers argued.  The state also disputed the idea that Holsey's trial lawyer was ineffective, saying the prosecutor in the case and the judge both testified that the original lawyer performed very well.

December 10, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Madoff aides finally getting sentenced for their roles in massive Ponzi scheme

As reported in this new AP article, a notable set of fraud sentences are being handed out this week and next in New York federal court.  Here are the early parts of a high-profile white-collar sentencing story:

The former secretary for imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff was sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison after she apologized to victims of the multi-decade, multi-billion dollar fraud and berated herself for failing to see past her boss's influence and the riches he bestowed on her.

Annette Bongiorno, 66, was sentenced in Manhattan by U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who said she believed Bongiorno's testimony at trial that she was largely duped by Madoff into manufacturing fake trade results for his private investment business.  She called her "a pampered, compliant and grossly overcompensated clerical worker who supervised other clerical workers with a ferocious enthusiasm."

The judge said Bongiorno "could and should have recognized that Mr. Madoff's success seemed impossible because it was impossible." Swain added: "Ms. Bongiorno chose to put her life and the life of others in the wrong hands."

One of Madoff's computer programmers was awaiting an afternoon sentencing.  Bongiorno was convicted earlier this year along with four others after a six-month trial.  Sentencing proceedings resulting from it will conclude on Monday.

On Monday, Madoff's director of operations was sentenced to a decade in prison.

Prosecutors said in court papers that Bongiorno was "at the very heart of the fraud" for decades. They had sought a prison sentence of more than 20 years. The fraud cost thousands of investors nearly $20 billion. Madoff, 76, was arrested in December 2008 and is serving a 150-year prison sentence.

Before she was sentenced, Bongiorno portrayed herself as a loyal worker who was in over her head from the time she was hired at age 19. "Not once in my 40 years there did anyone say to me, 'Annette, this is not the way it's done in the real world,'" she said. "I thought I was doing my job as I thought it should be done."...

The judge, who also ordered forfeiture of $155 billion, said she will recommend that Bongiorno serve the last year of her prison term in home confinement.

December 9, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"Structuring Pre-Plea Criminal Discovery"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Daniel McConkie Jr. now available on SSRN. The piece spotlights the various links between criminal discovery rules and sentencing procedures and outcomes, and here is the abstract:

Ninety-seven percent of federal defendants plead guilty, and they rely on prosecutors for much of the information about the government’s case on which the decision to plead is based. Although federal prosecutors routinely turn over most necessary discovery to the defense, the law does not require them to turn over any discovery before the guilty plea. This can lead to innocent defendants pleading guilty and to guilty defendants pleading guilty without information that could have affected the agreed-upon sentence.

This article argues that the lack of a judicially enforceable pre-plea discovery regime flouts structural protections that due process is supposed to provide.  Defendants who plead not guilty and go to trial get a jury to adjudicate guilt and a judge to preside over the proceedings and pronounce sentence.  The judge and jury hear an adversarial presentation of the evidence, and the judge at sentencing can consider an even broader spectrum of information about the defendant and the crime.  But defendants who plead guilty effectively act as their own judge and jury.  Unfortunately, because prosecutors are not required to provide any pre-plea discovery, the defendant who pleads guilty may not have nearly as much information as the judge and jury would have had at trial and sentencing.

The Supreme Court has employed a balancing test to determine whether a particular procedure comports with due process.  This article proposes tailoring that test to the pre-plea discovery context.  The proposed test would ask (1) whether the defense is getting sufficient information before the guilty plea to promote accurate sorting of the innocent from the guilty and reasonably informed and consistent sentencing; (2) whether there are there clear rules that allow judges, before a guilty plea, to regulate prosecutors’ decision not to disclose; and (3) whether the production of pre-plea discovery in a given case imposes undue costs on society.

One hopeful development is that several district courts, pursuant to Congressionally-granted authority, have promulgated local rules for pre-plea discovery.  Although the Constitution does not require it, I argue that Congress should adopt several of these time-tested rules to give both clear standards to prosecutors and authority to judges to enforce liberal pre-plea discovery.

December 9, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Lots more notable new posts at Collateral Consequences Resource Center

Last week I noted in this post all the notable posts appearing at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center.  Just a week later, I see again that te CCRC has lots of new content on a bunch of issues not too often discussed in other like fora, such as these recent postings that seemed worth highlighting:

December 9, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Scheduled Georgia execution raising again issues of poor lawyers and intellectual disability

This New York Times article reports on the legal issues surrounding the fate of a condmned murderer scheduled to be executed tonight in Georgia.  Here are the basics:

A parole panel in Georgia refused on Monday to grant clemency to a man who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday evening, apparently unpersuaded by evidence that he was ineptly represented at trial by a drunken lawyer, had an exceptionally harsh childhood and has a severe intellectual deficit.

But in what could be a legal decision with wider effects, lawyers for the man, Robert Wayne Holsey, were still waiting for the Georgia Supreme Court to respond to a last-­minute appeal. They argued that the state’s standard for determining intellectual disability in capital cases — the country’s most stringent — runs afoul of a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court.

Mr. Holsey was convicted of armed robbery and murder in 1997 and sentenced to death. He had robbed a convenience store and shot and killed a pursuing officer.  His trial lawyer later admitted that at the time he was drinking up to a quart of vodka daily and facing theft charges that would land him in prison. He said he should not have been representing a client.

On appeal, a Superior Court judge ruled that during the penalty phase of Mr. Holsey’s trial, his lawyer had failed to effectively present evidence that might have forestalled a death penalty, including facts about Mr. Holsey’s history and his intellectual deficit. That judge called for a new sentencing trial.  But the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the decision, ruling that the jury had heard enough evidence about mitigating factors during the initial trial....

That Mr. Holsey had received ineffective counsel seemed clear, said John H. Blume, a professor and director of the death penalty project at the Cornell Law School. “But the quality of representation in capital cases is often so low,” he said, “that it’s difficult to shock the courts.”

He and other legal experts said a more promising tack — if not for Mr. Holsey, then for defendants in the future — is the challenge to Georgia’s standard of proof for intellectual disability.  The state requires defendants to prove that they are intellectually disabled “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  For those near the borderline, often described as an I.Q. around 70, that standard is nearly impossible to meet.  Many legal experts think it violates a Supreme Court ruling last May that said states cannot create “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.”

In other states, either a “preponderance of evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence” is necessary to establish disability, said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor and death penalty expert at Hofstra University. Both are less stringent standards than the one used in Georgia.

In a landmark decision in 2002, the United States Supreme Court barred the execution of mentally disabled people, but largely left it to the states to set the criteria. In its decision in May, the court added new conditions, ruling in Hall v. Florida that the state could not rely on a simple I.Q. cutoff but rather must take a broad look at a person’s ability to function.

Mr. Holsey’s I.Q. has been measured at around 70.... The state, he said, had argued that because he could drive a car and had a girlfriend, Mr. Holsey could not be disabled....

Constitutional scholars say it is most likely that at some point either the Georgia Supreme Court or the federal Supreme Court will strike down the standard as an unreasonable outlier. “You’ve got a national constitutional rule that people with intellectual disability shouldn’t be executed, but it’s being applied differently in different states,” Mr. Blume of Cornell said

December 9, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Seventh Circuit affirms, over government complaints, way-below-guideline sentence for child porn producer

Regular readers are familiar with my tendency to lament the failure of circuit courts to scrutinize rigorously post-Booker claims by defendants that within or above-guideline sentences are unreasonably high.  But a recent opinion from a Seventh Circuit panel in US v. Price, No. 12-1630 (7th Cir. Dec. 5, 2014) (available here), prompts me to note that there can be occassions when circuit courts seem a bit too willing to approve way-below-guideline sentences that the government asserts are unreasonably low.  Here are the basics of the defendant's crime and sentencing in Price:

Jeffrey Price took numerous sexually explicit photographs of his daughter R.P. when she was between the ages of 10 and 12.  He put some of them on the Internet, and they have been implicated in at least 160 child-pornography investigations across the country.  Price also kept a large stash of child pornography depicting other children, which he stored on two computers.

For this conduct Price was indicted on charges of producing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2251(a) and possessing child pornography in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B).  A jury convicted him as charged.

Price is more dangerous than the average child-pornography offender because he also has a history of sexually abusing children.  He molested R.P. on multiple occasions, and he sexually abused his sister on a regular basis when she was between the ages of 8 and 14. Despite this history, the district judge imposed a sentence well below the 40-year term recommended by the sentencing guidelines: 18 years on the production count and a concurrent 6-year term on the possession count.

Here is the heart of the Seventh Circuit panel's rejection of the government's appeal of this sentence (with my emphasis added):

The government argues in its cross-appeal that Price’s 18-year sentence — less than half the 40-year guidelines sentence — is substantively unreasonable....

The district judge did exactly what she was supposed to do under the advisory guidelines regime. She correctly calculated the guidelines sentence and exhaustively considered the § 3553(a) factors, giving particular emphasis to the aggravated facts of this case. But she also exercised her discretion to consider the scholarly and judicial criticism of the guidelines for child-pornography offenses, as she is permitted to do. She expressed substantial agreement with the Second Circuit’s opinion in United States v. Dorvee, 616 F.3d 174 (2d Cir. 2010), which explained that the guidelines in this area are not the product of the Sentencing Commission’s empirical expertise, but rather reflect directions from Congress to punish these crimes more harshly, id. at 182.  Dorvee also notes that § 2G2.2, the guideline for possession of child pornography, calls for the application of multiple enhancements that apply in almost every case, making inadequate distinctions between the worst offenders and those who are less dangerous. Id. at 186–87.

The judge acknowledged that most of the criticism of the child-pornography guidelines is aimed at § 2G2.2, the guideline for the possession offense. But she concluded that § 2G2.1, the guideline for production of child pornography, “presents some of the same problems.” Both guidelines, she said, are vulnerable to the critique that they are not the product of the Sentencing Commission’s empirical study and independent policy judgment. She also noted that both guidelines call for enhancements that apply in nearly every case, exerting virtually automatic upward pressure on sentences and failing to separate less dangerous offenders from those who are more dangerous....

The government objects that Price’s 18-year sentence is only three years above the 15-year statutory minimum. See § 2251(e). Canvassing the aggravated facts of the case and Price’s history of sexually abusing children, the government argues that the sentence strays too far from the 40-year guidelines sentence and is simply too low to be considered substantively reasonable. “At the very least,” the government maintains, the sentences for the production and possession counts should be consecutive, as the guidelines recommend. See § 5G1.2(d).

Price’s crimes are indeed deplorable, and a sentence of 18 years obviously represents a substantial variance from the recommended 40-year term. But there is room for policy-based disagreement with the guidelines even to this extent. The government has not established that the sentence exceeds the boundaries of reasoned discretion. More specifically, the government has not established that an 18-year sentence for Price’s crimes — even in light of his contemptible history and unrepentant nature — is so low as to be substantively unreasonable.

I have been one of a number of academic critics of the severity of the federal child pornography sentencing guidelines, but that criticism has been largely based on the fact that these guidelines often call for decade-long sentences even for those offenders who did no more than download illegal pictures and thereafter showed remorse, pleaded guilty and sought treatment for their criminal activity. In contrast, the defendant in this Seventh Circuit case seemingly has a long history of child rape to go along with producing and possessing child pornography, and the Seventh Circuit recognizes he has both he has an "contemptible history and unrepentant nature."

Though perhaps 18-year in prison is still plenty long enough for this sexual predator (as the district judge apparently concluded), I would have liked to heard a lot more from the Seventh Circuit about how this way-below-guideline sentence appears reasonable in light of all of the 3553(a) factors. Especially for a defendant who has already shown himself to be a significant danger, "close enough for government work" is not all that satisfying an approach to reasonableness review in my view.

December 8, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Bill Otis provides important (though incomplete) review of the real state of debate over sentencing reform

Today's must-read for all sentencing fans is this lengthy new post by Bill Otis, amusingly titled "Should I Feel Lonely?".  The piece is a fun read in part because Bill is an effective writer and advocate, but it is a must read because it highlights that (1) while many in the media now struggle to find pundits other than Bill to speak actively and vocally in support of severe sentencing laws and mass incarceration, (2) efforts in Congress to significantly reform federal sentencing laws and "on the ground" developments to reduce incarceration levels are still failing to gain much traction.

I cannot do the Bill's full post justice in a brief excerpt, but here is a taste of what one can find by clicking through here:

Not to worry -- this post is not psychobabble about my feelings.  It's about a question I was asked by two journalists with whom I spoke recently.

The two were Ms. Carrie Johnson of NPR and Mr. Mark Obbie, a writer for Slate. The subject of their interviews was sentencing reform.  Both Ms. Johnson and Mr. Obbie were cordial, well-informed, thoroughly pleasant, and -- most important for journalists -- curious.

Each asked me the same question: Whether, as an opponent of sentencing reform, I feel lonely? I told them I don't.

Their question was perfectly natural. Almost everything one sees nowadays about the subject of sentencing sings the same tune -- tough sentencing might have been needed at one point, but we've gone too far; momentum has swung toward "smart sentencing;" reducing the prison population (to cut back on costs if for no other reason) is the wave of both the present and the future; and that the newly-ascendant Republican Party will lead the way through such figures as Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul.

But the mantra leaves something out. That would be the part of the country outside the Beltway (and outside Boston, Berkeley, New York, Seattle and a few other cities). In other words, what it leaves out is the United States.

The omission of Main Street America from the assessment about where the country is going would seem odd to most people, but for those of us, like me, who live inside the Beltway and work in academia, it's no surprise.  The liberal bubble is big. It's also, for the most part, impenetrable.

And it's one more thing -- wrong.

If one wants to know the state of play with "smart sentencing," and the Smarter Sentencing Act in particular, there might be a couple of places to look outside the editorial pages of the Washington Post and Mother Jones.  One might look, for example, to what actually happened in the last Congress, what's likely to happen in the next one, and what imprisonment trends have been over the last several years....

[T]there are some prominent people in the Republican Party on board with "sentencing reform."  But the great majority of Republicans, and the center of the Party, are not being fooled.  The much lower crime that increased incarceration helped produce are both wise policy for the country and good politics for Republicans....

So to return to my first question: Although I am decidedly out-of-step with my learned colleagues inside the Beltway, and despite all the puff pieces in the press running in the other direction, I don't feel lonely in opposing the more-crime-faster proposals marketing themselves as "sentencing reform."  Both the most recent statistics, and the most recent election, show that the American people know better than to cash in a system we know works for one we know fails.

There is much to discuss in Bill's important assessment of the current state of sentencing reform. But I have emphasized the very last phrase because I think it lacks demographic nuance based on the mostly older (and not-too-diverse) "bubble" that I suspect Bill mostly travels in.

Bill surely seems correct that an older (and mostly white) population of voters and political leaders are reasonably content with the sentencing/incarceration status quo, and that these voters and leaders still have considerable control over the policies and practices of the Republican party (as well as, for that matter, the Democratic party).  Bill stresses in his post, for example, that we do not hear much talk of sentencing reform coming from "Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Chuck Grassley (the incoming Chairman of SJC), or Bob Goodlatte (the once-and-future Chairman of HJC) [or] Michael Mukasey."  Notably, everyone on that list is well over 60 years old, and they have all succeeded politically with "tough on crime" rhetoric and policies.

But as a new generation of GOP leaders emerge who are much younger (even though they are still mostly white), we are seeing growing concern for and focus on sentencing reform.  Leading GOP Governors from Chris Christie to Rick Perry, and leading GOP Senators from Rand Paul to Mike Lee, and leading GOP Reps from Paul Ryan to Jason Chaffetz, all have talked up sentencing reform in recent years.  And while Bill's list of older GOP leaders will control GOP policies and politics for the next few years, the younger leaders already on record supporting sentencing reform are likely to control GOP policies and politics for the subsequent few decades.

Turning from political leaders to voters, we see the same basic dynamics in play in recent election seasons.  According to polls and other sources, older and whiter voters seem much more wary about any significant changes to sentencing laws or drug laws.  But younger voters and people of color are much more open and eager to support significant sentencing and drug law reform as represented by the passage of Prop 47 and prior three-strikes reform in California and by initiatives for marijuana legalization in an array of states.

(Notably, these generational and demographic realities concerning sentencing reform are not only a  GOP story.  Older and whiter Democrats — from the Clintons to Joe Biden to Harry Reid to Nancy Pelosi to even Jerry Brown — have largely been stuck in political thinking of the 1990s and slow to warm to advocating for significant sentencing reform.  But if and when younger and more diverse voices continue to emerge on the Democratic side of the aisle, we should expect even more liberal advocacy for the kinds of criminal justice reforms championed by the Obama Administration rather than a return to the toughness championed throughout the Clinton Administration.)

Finally, and to give Bill still more credit for his analysis, despite generational and demographic shifts and divides on these matters, I agree that the future of significant sentencing reform is quite uncertain and will turn greatly on short-term and long-term assessments of "what really works."   Americans are a pragmatic people who will always move away from criminial justice policies shown or felt not to be really working.  That is why, I believe, alcohol Prohibition failed even though it had constitutional gravitas and also why we moved away from a purely rehabilitation model of sentencing and corrections through the 1970s and 1980s.  

Now we are seeing a push back on the modern drug war and mass incarceration mostly from younger folks and people of color have come to conclude that these policies are not working for their interests abd communties.  But there are still a whole lot of folks in power (particularly those who are older and whiter like Bill) who still see more a lot more good than bad from the sentencing and mass incarceration status quo.  Whether and how these competing groups views as to  "what really works" unfold and compete in the coming years will determine whether sentencing and incarceration policies in the US circa 2050 look more like they did in 2000 or in 1950. 

December 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Notable new resources from DOJ and DOE to improve education in juve justice systems

I am pleased and intrigued to see this new DOJ press release titled "Attorney General Holder, Secretary Duncan, Announce Guidance Package on Providing Quality Education Services to America's Confined Youth." Here are notable excerpts from the press release which, inter alia, links to a whole array of additional related resources:

Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today announced a Correctional Education Guidance Package aimed at helping states and local agencies strengthen the quality of education services provided to America’s estimated 60,000 young people in confinement every day....

“In this great country, all children deserve equal access to a high-quality public education — and this is no less true for children in the juvenile justice system,” said Attorney General Holder.   “At the Department of Justice, we are working tirelessly to ensure that every young person who's involved in the system retains access to the quality education they need to rebuild their lives and reclaim their futures.   We hope and expect this guidance will offer a roadmap for enhancing these young people's academic and social skills, and reducing the likelihood of recidivism.”

“Students in juvenile justice facilities need a world-class education and rigorous coursework to help them successfully transition out of facilities and back into the classroom or the workforce becoming productive members of society,” said Secretary Duncan.   “Young people should not fall off track for life just because they come into contact with the justice system.”...

“High-quality correctional education is thus one of the most effective crime-prevention tools we have,” Attorney General Holder and Secretary Duncan wrote in a dear colleague letter to chief state school officers and state attorneys general.  “High-quality Correctional education – including postsecondary correctional education, which can be supported by Federal Pell Grants — has been shown to measurably reduce re-incarceration rates. Less crime means not only lower prison costs — it also means safer communities.”...

Providing young people in confinement with access to the education they need is one of the most powerful and cost-effectives strategies for ensuring they become productive members of their communities.  The average cost to confine a juvenile is $88,000 per year — and a recent study showed that about 55 percent of youth were rearrested within 12 months of release.  Inmates of all ages are half as likely to go back to jail if they participate in higher education — even compared to inmates with similar histories.

December 8, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"Are prosecutors above the law?"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new commentary at Daily Kos.  It starts and ends this way: 

There is something terribly wrong with a justice system that allows an inordinate amount of power to reside in the hands of one office that not only has no real accountability or oversight, but is insulated from the consequences of its actions by court-granted immunity. And no, I am not talking about Supreme Court justices, but about prosecuting attorneys.

The prosecuting attorney — whether local, state, or federal — has an incredible amount of authority and discretion in how to exercise that authority.  The prosecuting attorney decides how many, and what kind of charges are brought in criminal prosecutions. The prosecuting attorney has the ability to directly charge a crime, or to use a grand jury for more serious crimes, to indict a defendant.  The prosecuting attorney has the authority to offer plea bargains.

And while there should be some type of accountability other than election, and while the fiction exists that prosecuting attorneys could be disbarred, in reality, they face little punishment for abusing their discretion or authority....

Prosecutors do need some level of immunity in order to properly perform their duties. And they require prosecutorial discretion in order to keep the wheels of justice turning. We have seen how efforts to restrict judicial discretion resulted in mandatory minimum sentences, removing a judge's discretion in sentencing entirely.  (Now it is the prosecutor who determines the sentence by exercising his discretion in deciding what charges an offender will face.)  But there does need to be some limit, some oversight to a prosecutor's office.

If grand juries only exist to give the result the prosecutor desires, what is the point of using them?  Initially, they were to allow citizens some input into the system, but as that system has become more complicated and more laws have been enacted to criminalize behavior, most citizens do not have the knowledge necessary to fulfill that role.  Since all of their actions are taken in secret, and since they are never allowed to reveal what happened within the jury room, it is impossible to determine if they are working the way they were intended.

The most powerful office in the justice system, whose decisions carry the greatest impact and consequence, is still occupied by human beings, subject to all of the normal human failings.  In order to ensure that the power is used properly, sunshine, oversight, and accountability must become part of the system.

December 8, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Two astute commentaries about California's emerging Prop 47 issues

0Two local California paper have two distinct commentaries about Proposition 47 and its aftermath. Both are worth reading, and here are links and excerpts from the start and end of each piece:

Opinion by Alexandra Natapoff, headlined "Prop 47 empties prisons but opens a can of worms":

California is doubling down on decriminalization. Three weeks ago, the passage of Prop. 47 converted a half-dozen felonies to misdemeanors. In 2011, marijuana possession was reclassified from a misdemeanor to an infraction without jail time. If Rip Van Winkle fell asleep a decade ago at the height of California’s prison boom and woke up this morning, he’d quickly recognize this as a scramble to undo decades of harsh and expensive policy.

The state is not alone — we are seeing a seismic shift in how the United States handles punishment, especially with respect to misdemeanor decriminalization. Marijuana is the most famous example, but many states are eliminating jail time for other minor offenses, such as driving violations and public order crimes, and replacing them with so-called “nonjailable misdemeanors,” “nonarrestable” or “fine-only” offenses, and “civil infractions.”

There are a lot of great things about decriminalization. But it has a surprisingly punitive and racially charged dark side, and it doesn’t always work the way people think it does. The “non-jailable misdemeanor” — popular in many states — is still a crime that triggers arrest, probation and fines, criminal records and other collateral consequences. Even the gold standard of decriminalization — the “non-arrestable” civil infraction — can derail a defendant’s employment, education and immigration status, while the failure to pay noncriminal fines can lead to contempt citations and incarceration. And while decriminalization sounds egalitarian — after all, it’s a promise not to lock up people who would usually get locked up — sometimes it might actually make things worse for the poor and people of color....

It’s often hard to tell whether criminal justice reform is real progress or a shell game. Is California actually reducing incarceration, or is it quietly shifting prisoners around or repackaging punishment so as to avoid appointing lawyers for poor people? Decriminalization offers great promise, but it needs to be carefully monitored to make sure it lives up to its tantalizing name.

Editorial by Los Angeles Daily News, headlined "Prop. 47 sentencing changes are working out just as feared":

The saga of Proposition 47 and its troublesome implications is a crime story in which everybody left fingerprints except the real villains. The villains are California legislators, who kept their hands off the crucial challenge of criminal sentencing reform despite the need to address the state’s big problems with prison overcrowding and overly harsh policies that favor punishment over rehabilitation.

With lawmakers unwilling or unable to touch the issue, advocates picked it up and handed over the complex topic of sentencing reform to the public in the form of last month’s ballot initiative. Voters were asked to say yes or no to reducing felony sentences to misdemeanor penalties for many drug-possession and other criminal convictions.

The well-intended but dangerously flawed Prop. 47 passed easily with 59 percent of the vote. Now state and local legal authorities, including those in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, are having to confront the consequences....

In Humboldt County, the release of 35 percent of the county jail population has been accompanied by a reported rise in burglaries, thefts and vandalism. If that becomes a state trend, so much for Prop. 47 supporters’ title for the measure: The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act.

It’s possible Prop. 47’s troubles can be worked out and it will achieve its goals. When FiveThirtyEight.com’s data journalists analyzed outcomes in states that have undertaken similar sentencing reforms, they found more positive than negative results at reducing prison populations and incarceration costs.

But the results in California will bear watching. Gov. Jerry Brown, who had planned to issue prison-reform proposals in January, other state officials and legislators must be ready and willing to act to make this work. Of course, if lawmakers had been willing to tackle the issue earlier, we wouldn’t be in this situation now.

December 7, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Former basketball star taking (wild?) shot at fighting loss calculation in federal fraud sentencing

TateThis notable article from Connecticut reports that a notable fraud defendant is going to be representing himself as he agrues against how loss is being calculated and used against him in his upcoming federal sentencing.  Here are some of the interesting details:

Ever since being convicted on four felony counts in a real estate scheme, former University of Connecticut basketball star Tate George has been complaining about his legal representation.  He criticized his trial attorney, saying he didn't listen to requests for calling witnesses and other strategies.

After dropping his first attorney, George briefly switched to another, who is also out of the picture.  Now George has received permission from a federal judge to represent himself at his sentencing.

A first-round NBA draft pick, George has more basketball experience than legal experience.  He is best known for hitting "The Shot" at the Meadowlands arena in New Jersey in the final second to defeat Clemson in the NCAA playoffs in 1990, one of the most stunning victories in UConn basketball history.

Before his request was granted this week, federal prosecutors warned George in court papers about "the dangers and perils of self-representation."  They quoted the saying that "he who represents himself has a fool for a client."  Prosecutors told George, "There are many complex rules in court, and that most non-lawyers, including yourself, cannot know all of these rules."

But George, 46, has gone his own way before.  After expressing dissatisfaction with his trial attorney, George began sending letters directly from his prison cell to the federal judge instead of sending them through his attorney.  In at least five letters to U.S. District Court Judge Mary L. Cooper in Trenton, George proclaimed his innocence.

"I understand that my life has no value to all those who have gone about defaming my name, but I beg to differ and will continue to fight to prove my innocence," George wrote to the judge.  "Again, for the record, even though the government refuses to want to hear or admit to the truth above their lies to make me look guilty, there are no losses to report at this time, which means there is no crime or victims.  PERIOD! AS I HAVE SAID, BUT NO ONE SEEMS TO BE LISTENING, THERE ARE MONIES OWED YES, BUT NOT LOSSED!"

As part of his legal strategy, George is saying that the $250,000 investment by former UConn basketball star and NBA player Charlie Villanueva that was never repaid should not be counted as a financial loss.  Since he has promised to repay Villaneuva, George says there is no victim and no loss....  

George has said he was upset that his attorney, David E. Schafer, a federal public defender, said that investors in his case had lost $833,000 when George maintained that the actual loss was zero.  Federal prosecutors say the investors lost more than $2.5 million. At one point, a prosecutor described George as a "baby Madoff," referring to the massive Ponzi scheme operated by now-imprisoned New York City financier Bernie Madoff in which investors lost billions of dollars in a long-running scheme.

George was convicted in September 2013 and could face as many as nine years in prison when he is sentenced. Although he was convicted more than a year ago, his sentencing has been postponed multiple times.

December 7, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Blanket prohibition of tobacco now officially the law of the federal prisons land

As reported in this US News article, the "Federal Bureau of Prisons is officially banning smoking and possession of tobacco in any form by prison inmates."  Here is more:

The prohibition takes effect 30 days after publication of a final regulatory rule Monday in the Federal Register.  Prison guards still will be allowed to possess tobacco, but inmates will be permitted to smoke only for religious purposes.

“I’m a little surprised to be getting calls about this,” says Bureau of Prisons spokesman Ed Ross. Tobacco use by inmates, he says, is already banned in practice due to a 2006 policy taking tobacco products off the shelves of prison commissaries.  Cigarettes became contraband when commissaries stopped selling them, despite regulations technically allowing for outdoor smoking.

“If an inmate is found to be in possession of tobacco they are subject to discipline,” possibly including loss of phone or visitation privileges, Ross says. “I think it’s just formalizing the policy that’s in place.”...

Prisoners are historically more likely to smoke than the general public. Before the 2006 policy change, an estimated 60 to 80 percent of prison and jail inmates were smokers — far higher than the national average — alarming public health advocates who noted poor ventilation at facilities exposed nonsmokers to significant amounts of secondhand smoke.

But there's a flip side to banning tobacco.  The New York Daily News reported in 2013 tobacco prohibitions led to a surge in black market prices, with individual cigarettes selling for an average of $30 on New York City’s Rikers Island.  The Daily Beast reported the restrictions created a “cash cow” for prison gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood.

The new rule applies only to the 212,438 inmates housed in federal facilities. Many state and local jails, however, have independently banned tobacco use.

December 7, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, December 5, 2014

SCOTUS takes up new capital procedures case from Louisiana

As reported in this SCOTUSblog post, the Supreme Court this afternoon granted cert on three new cases, one of which involves death penalty procedure.  Here is Lyle Denniston's description of Brumfield v. Cain, the new capital case on the Supreme Court's agenda:

In accepting a Louisiana murder case for review on Friday, the Court agreed to sort out whether an individual accused of a capital crime has a right to an independent court hearing on whether he suffers from mental incapacity, and thus could not be sentenced to death.  In the case of Brumfield v. Cain, the issue of Kevan Brumfield’s mental state was decided as an issue at the penalty phase of his murder trial, rather than at a separate inquiry.

Brumfield was sentenced to death for the shooting death of an off-duty Baton Rouge, La., police officer during an attempted robbery at a night deposit box at a bank in 1993. The officer had used a police car to transport a store manager on a trip to the bank to deposit the store’s proceeds.  Brumfield was charged with killing the officer and wounding the store manager.

In taking the case to the Supreme Court, Brumfield’s lawyers argued that he has a serious defect in his intellectual capacity, but that state courts dealt with that only as an issue during his death sentencing hearing to determine whether it should mitigate the penalty.  The petition contended that he was entitled to a separate hearing on that question.  His petition raised a separate question on whether Brumfield was entitled to have the state pay for gathering evidence of his mental incapacity.

UPDATE: A lot more information about this crime and the defendant in this new SCOTUS case can be found in this local article, headlined "U.S. Supreme Court to hear mental retardation claim of Baton Rouge convicted killer: Mental retardation, execution eligibility at heart of the matter."

December 5, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

District Judge pushes federal prosecutors to back off extreme trial penalty sentence

As reported in this Reuters article, headlined "Prosecutors rethink convict's sentence after judge cites Holder," a federal judge earlier this week put some bite into the Attorney General's advocacy for reducing reliance on extremely long prison term by urging local federal prosecutors to reconsider an extreme sentence driven by application of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Here are the details of an interesting on-going sentencing story:

Prosecutors are reconsidering a 50-year sentence for a convicted robber and drug dealer, after a judge on Wednesday suggested they call Attorney General Eric Holder to ask him whether it was fair to "punish" a man for rejecting a plea deal and opting for a trial.

Randy Washington, 27, the Bronx man who faced the lengthy term after turning down a 10-year plea deal and getting convicted at trial, had been scheduled for sentencing in New York federal court on Wednesday.  But the hearing was adjourned so prosecutors could rework a deal carrying a shorter sentence, after U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan repeated his criticism that the 50-year mandatory minimum sentence appeared to "punish" Washington for going to trial.

Sullivan even suggested prosecutors call Holder himself to ask if their actions comport with his recent directive cautioning prosecutors against routinely using the threat of harsher sentences to induce defendants to plead guilty.  "He won't look with pride on what you're doing here today," Sullivan said....

In September, Holder issued a memo advising prosecutors to avoid employing the prospect of longer mandatory minimum prison terms in plea talks.  Sullivan cited the memo Wednesday in criticizing the sentence for Washington, who was convicted of robbery, narcotics and related charges.

In July, Sullivan said the potential 50-year term was legal but "unnecessary and unjust" and in a rare move pushed Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office to seek a reduced sentence. In response, prosecutors offered to drop a 10-year enhancement based on a prior felony conviction for Washington.

They separately offered Washington a new 25-year deal, which Washington rejected as it included an appellate waiver, a provision Sullivan questioned on Wednesday. "I'm not sure there's great consistency in the position that says, 'We agree that 50 years is too long, but it's too long only if you give up your appellate rights,'" he said.

After prosecutors consulted with Bharara himself, Assistant U.S. Attorney Telemachus Kasulis told Sullivan they would consider a 25-year deal without requiring Washington to waive all of his appellate rights. Sentencing was rescheduled for Dec. 12.

December 5, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"The True Legacy of Atkins and Roper: The Unreliability Principle, Mentally Ill Defendants, and the Death Penalty's Unraveling"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper by Scott Sundby now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In striking down the death penalty for intellectually disabled and juvenile defendants, Atkins v. Virginia and Roper v. Simmons have been understandably heralded as important holdings under the Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence that has found the death penalty "disproportional" for certain types of defendants and crimes.  This Article argues, however, that the cases have a far more revolutionary reach than their conventional understanding.  In both cases the Court went one step beyond its usual two-step analysis of assessing whether imposing the death penalty violated "evolving standards of decency."  This extra step looked at why even though intellectual disability and youth were powerful mitigators, juries were not able to reliably use them in their decision making.

The Court thus articulated expressly for the first time what this Article calls the "unreliability principle:" if too great a risk exists that constitutionally protected mitigation cannot be reliably assessed, the unreliability means that the death penalty cannot be constitutionally imposed.  In recognizing the unreliability principle, the Court has called into serious question the death penalty for other offenders to whom the principle applies, such as mentally ill defendants.  And, unlike with the "evolving standards" analysis, the unreliability principle does not depend on whether a national consensus exists against the practice.

This Article identifies the six Atkins-Roper factors that bring the unreliability principle into play and shows why they make application of the death penalty to mentally ill defendants unconstitutional.  The principle, which finds its constitutional home in the cases of Woodson v. North Carolina and Lockett v. Ohio, has profound implications for the death penalty, and if taken to its logical endpoint calls into question the Court's core premise since Furman v. Georgia, that by providing individualized consideration of a defendant and his crime, the death penalty decision will be free of arbitrariness.

December 4, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Fourth Circuit find LWOP + 60 month sentence (!?!) for drug offenses substantively unreasonable

Thanks to a few helpful readers, I was alerted to a notable opinion from a Fourth Circuit panel today in US v. Howard, No. 13-4296 (4th Cir. Dec. 4, 2014) (available here).  Here are excerpts from the start, middle and end of the lengthy opinion:

In appeal No. 13-4296, a jury convicted Dennis Ray Howard on one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, phencyclidine (“PCP”), nine counts of distribution of PCP, and one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.  The district court sentenced Howard to a term of life imprisonment plus 60 months....  For the reasons set forth within, we affirm the convictions, vacate the sentence as substantively unreasonable, and remand for resentencing....

The district court reached its life imprisonment sentence by making an upward departure based on Howard’s de facto career offender status, and by reasoning that the § 3553(a) factors supported a sentence at the top of the Guidelines range determined after the departure.  Because we are persuaded that the extent of the upward departure is unwarranted and amounts to an abuse of discretion, and because, in any event, a sentence of life in prison on this record is not justified by consideration of the § 3553(a) factors as articulated by the district court, we conclude that the sentence imposed is substantively unreasonable....

By declaring Howard a serial recidivist dedicated to dispensing “poison” with no hope of redemption, and by basing this judgment on stale criminal history, the bulk of which was non-violent and committed when Howard was a juvenile, the district court failed in its effort to comply with the aims of sentencing prescribed by § 3553(a)(2)....

The district court plainly sought to intone all of the principles underlying § 3553(a)(2) when it announced its sentence.  It stated the need for individual and general deterrence, incapacitation, and just punishment.   There is no doubt that the sentence sent a “message” of deterrence to the people of Wilson and the Eastern District of North Carolina.  The district court made those intentions clear. But we simply fail to see, on the whole record, how the life-plus-60-months sentence reasonably reflects the seriousness of the offense or just punishment.  Manifestly, it is a sentence “greater than necessary,” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), to achieve the purposes of § 3553(a)(2).

December 4, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Nevada completes detailed accounting of costs of death penalty cases

As reported in this local article, headlined "High cost of death penalty could affect its future in Nevada," the Silver State's audits have recently completed a detailed report on how much taxpayer gold is typically spent in capital cases. Here are the details:

Nevada’s criminal justice system spends nearly twice as much handling death penalty cases compared with murder cases where capital punishment isn’t sought, according to a report released Tuesday by state auditors.

The state-mandated study, which surveyed data from 27 state and local agencies, gives ammunition to death penalty opponents who have failed to defeat public support for capital punishment using moral objections. It is, by far, Nevada’s most comprehensive study on the controversial practice and will serve as a law makers' guide for years to come....

Auditors assembled the 105-page report by sampling data from 28 cases, calculating costs associated with legal counsel — both defense and prosecution — as well as for money spent on court proceedings and incarceration.

Here are three highlights from the document's release:

From a suspect’s arrest through his or her final days behind bars, officials spend at least $1.3 million on murder cases where convicts are sentenced to death but not executed — that’s $532,000 more compared with murder cases where capital punishment wasn't sought. Litigation costs, including the trial and appeal phase, averaged about three times more for death penalty versus non-death penalty cases. And expenses are similar for all death penalty cases, regardless of whether a sentence is given or not.

Among all prison inmates convicted of murder, costs are highest for people on death row. There were 83 people sentenced to death in Nevada as of late last year. Prosecutors could have potentially saved an estimated $44 million by never pursuing corporal punishment in those cases....

Nevada's per capita death penalty rate ranks fourth in the country and tops Texas and California, according to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center. But the state's death chamber is seldom used, and only a dozen people have been executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the capital punishment in 1976. Of those, only one died against his will. The last execution in Nevada happened more than eight years ago.

It’s likely the study underestimated the cost of death penalty cases because of underreporting from government agencies....

The study’s findings fall in line with previous research examining the financial burden of capital murder cases — a study released this year by the Kansas Judicial Council found that defending a death penalty case costs as much as four times more than other murder cases.

Critics of the practice hope Nevada’s study will bolster efforts to erode support for capital punishment. “A lot of people who favor the death penalty think it’s cheaper,” said Las Vegas criminal defense attorney Lisa Rasmussen, who also watched Tuesday's meeting from Las Vegas. “Once people understand and they’re informed, maybe things will change.”

The full 100+ page Nevada legislative audit document released this week, which carries the exciting title "Fiscal Costs of the Death Penalty," can be accessed at this link.

December 4, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)