Wednesday, January 10, 2018

BJS releases "Prisoners in 2016" reporting another drop in state and federal prison populations in 2016

As reported in this press release, the "number of prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities fell by 1 percent from year-end 2015 to 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today. This was the third consecutive year that the U.S. prison population declined." here is more from the release:

State and federal prisons held an estimated 1,505,400 prisoners in 2016, 21,200 fewer than in 2015. The population of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) accounted for more than a third (34 percent) of the total change in the prison population, dropping by 7,300 prisoners, from 196,500 to 189,200 prisoners. Although the overall prison population decreased, the number of prisoners held in private facilities increased 2 percent in 2016

State and federal prisons admitted 2,300 fewer prisoners in 2016 than in 2015. The BOP accounted for the majority (96 percent) of the decline, down 2,200 admissions.

More than half (54 percent) of state prisoners were serving sentences for violent offenses at year-end 2015, the most recent year for which data were available. Nearly half (47 percent) of federal prisoners had been sentenced for drug offenses as of Sept. 30, 2016, the most recent date for which federal offense data were available. More than 99 percent of those drug sentences were for trafficking.

In 2016, the rate at which people were sentenced to more than one year in state or federal prison (imprisonment rate) was the lowest since 1997. There were 450 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents held in state and federal prisons in 2016, compared to 444 prisoners per 100,000 in 1997.

The imprisonment rate decreased for non-Hispanic adult black, non-Hispanic adult white and adult Hispanic prisoners from 2015 to 2016. The rate of imprisonment decreased 4 percent for black adults (from 1,670 to 1,608 per 100,000), 2 percent for white adults (from 281 to 274 per 100,000) and 1 percent for adult Hispanic prisoners (from 862 to 856 per 100,000).

During the decade between 2006 and 2016, the rate of imprisonment decreased 29 percent for black adults, 15 percent for white adults and 20 percent for Hispanic adults.

The full 36-page BJS report, excitingly titled Prisoners in 2016 and full of data of all sorts, is available at this link.

January 10, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Interesting report of plans for Prez Trump to hold a "listening session on prison reform" this week

Axios has this notable new scoop about notable White House plans including President Trump under the headline "Scoop: Jared's policy push on prison reform."  Here are the details:

President Trump tomorrow will hold a listening session on prison reform, after six months of quiet exploration of the issue by senior adviser Jared Kushner (who turns 37 today).

Why it matters: The White House sees this as a conservative issue (save money, cut crime) that could get bipartisan support (spending for workforce development), heading into a midterm election year when it'll be even harder to get congressional accomplishments than it was last year.

  • Under the auspices of Kushner's Office of American Innovation, administration officials have met with faith-based leaders, former inmates who have been rehabilitated, conservative leaders, and experts on the issue.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions will join Thursday's session.
  • Jared and his wife, Ivanka Trump, held a dinner discussion at their home, including Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)
  • The administration is exploring possible legislative proposals and administrative actions. An early step could include a push for public awareness involving churches.
  • The issue came up during this weekend's Camp David meeting with GOP congressional leaders.

Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, a longtime champion of the issue, told me he has been impressed with Kushner's passion, and that the approach the administration is exploring "has been showed to markedly reduce recidivism."

Jared Kushner's interest and "passion" for criminal justice reform is not big or new news, but the direct involvement of President Trump and Attorney General Sessions in talks about possible federal reforms does strike me as big news. It is worth watching as the rest of this week unfolds whether and how the White House or the Prez himself speaks about this planned meeting (either before or after it takes place).  I am still not prepared to assert that significant federal statutory sentencing reform is becoming likely, but this reported meeting seems like a good and important sign.

January 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Two notable new additions to the Senate Judiciary Committee that should generally hearten sentencing reform advocates

As reported here by the Washington Post, "The Senate Judiciary Committee will welcome its first African American members in this century after Democrats added Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to the panel that handles judicial nominations and appointments to the Justice Department." Here is more:

“The Congressional Black Caucus could not be more proud of both of our Senate members and know the experience and expertise they bring to the Committee will be beneficial for all Americans,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the CBC’s chairman, in a statement.

Harris, a former attorney general of California, was seen as a likely candidate to join the committee after Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) announced his resignation late last year. The appointment of Booker was more of a surprise, coming one year after Booker testified against the appointment of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) as attorney general, a rare move for one senator to make against another. Sometime after that hearing, Booker learned that he and Harris were “second and third in line” if openings came up.

“The Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility to the ideals of civil rights and equal justice for all,” Booker said Tuesday in a statement announcing his appointment. “As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I will make it my mission to check and balance President Trump and Attorney General Sessions.”

No African American senator has sat on the Judiciary Committee since the 1990s, when Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat from Illinois, became the first black woman elected to the Senate. There had been pressure on Democrats to elevate Harris; in the end, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer opted to elevate both of the Senate’s black Democrats.

Harris’s appointment was possible because Democrat Doug Jones’s victory last month in Alabama shrank the Republican advantage on two committees. (Republicans now have one-seat advantages on the Judiciary Committee (11 to 10) and Finance Committee (14 to 13); Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who is in his second term, will join the latter committee.)

Senator Booker has been a fairly vocal advocate for sentencing reform since his election to the Senate back in 2013, and he has sponsored bills on a range of criminal justice issues. Senator Harris has worked as a state prosecutor and has expressed support for criminal justice reform in various ways since becoming a Senator just last year.  (Conveniently, Mother Jones has this interesting lengthy new profile of Senator Harris, headlined "The Secret to Understanding Kamala Harris: And why it’s making her a flash point in the Democratic Party," which highlights why some on the left do not see her as a true reform ally.)

Critically, in recent years it has been Senate leadership, not the Senate Judiciary Committee, that has been a roadblock to getting significant statutory sentencing reform enacted.  Thus, the addition of Senators Booker and Harris to the Judiciary Committee does not, in and of itself, directly impact in any dramatic way the likelihood of some form of sentencing reform getting passed in 2018.  But their knowledge and reform-minded vision could and should impact the Committee's work in various ways in the coming year that should be heartening to advocates of sentencing reform.  And their place on the Committee could become a very big deal if the Democrats were able to take back control of the Senate come November.

January 9, 2018 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Taking a close look at the state of women's incarceration in the states

Women_overtime_select_statesThe very fine folks at the Prison Policy Initiative have a very fine new report on incarceration rates and populations for women in the United States.  The report is titled "The Gender Divide: Tracking women’s state prison growth," and the full report is a must read for anyone interested in prison population data and/or the importance of analyzing modern criminal justice systems with gendered sophistication. Here are excerpts from the start and end of the report: 

The story of women’s prison growth has been obscured by overly broad discussions of the “total” prison population for too long. This report sheds more light on women in the era of mass incarceration by tracking prison population trends since 1978 for all 50 states. The analysis identifies places where recent reforms appear to have had a disparate effect on women, and offers states recommendations to reverse mass incarceration for women alongside men.

Across the country, we find a disturbing gender disparity in recent prison population trends. While recent reforms have reduced the total number of people in state prisons since 2009, almost all of the decrease has been among men. Looking deeper into the state-specific data, we can identify the states driving the disparity.

In 35 states, women’s population numbers have fared worse than men’s, and in a few extraordinary states, women’s prison populations have even grown enough to counteract reductions in the men’s population. Too often, states undermine their commitment to criminal justice reform by ignoring women’s incarceration.

Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population, but despite recent interest in the alarming national trend, few people know what’s happening in their own states. Examining these state trends is critical for making the state-level policy choices that will dictate the future of mass incarceration.

Nationally, women’s incarceration trends have generally tracked with the overall growth of the incarcerated population. Just as we see in the total population, the number of women locked up for violations of state and local laws has skyrocketed since the late 1970s, while the federal prison population hasn’t changed nearly as dramatically. These trends clearly demonstrate that state and local policies have driven the mass incarceration of women.

There are a few important differences between men’s and women’s national incarceration patterns over time.  For example, jails play a particularly significant role in women’s incarceration (see sidebar, “The role of local jails”). And although women represent a small fraction of all incarcerated people, women’s prison populations have seen much higher relative growth than men’s since 1978. Nationwide, women’s state prison populations grew 834% over nearly 40 years — more than double the pace of the growth among men.

While the national trend provides helpful context, it also obscures a tremendous amount of state-to-state variation.  The change in women’s state prison incarceration rates has actually been much smaller in some places, like Maine, and far more dramatic in others, like Oklahoma and Arizona. A few states, including California, New York, and New Jersey, reversed course and began decarcerating state prisons years ago. The wide variation in state trends underscores the need to examine state-level data when making criminal justice policy decisions....

The mass incarceration of women is harmful, wasteful, and counterproductive; that much is clear.  But the nation’s understanding of women’s incarceration suffers from the relative scarcity of gender-specific data, analysis, and discourse.  As the number of women in prisons and jails continues to rise in many states — even as the number of men falls — understanding this dramatic growth becomes more urgent.  What policies fuel continued growth today?  What part does jail growth play?  Where is change needed most now, and what kinds of changes will help? This report and the state data it provides lay the groundwork for states to engage these critical questions as they take deliberate and decisive action to reverse prison growth.

January 9, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Making the case against juvenile sex offender registration requirements

Rebecca Fix has this new commentary that caught my eye under the headlined "Young Sex Offenders Shouldn’t Have to Register; It’s Ineffective and Hurts Everyone Around Them." The whole piece (and its many links) are worth checking out, and here is how it gets started:

Sex offender registration policies were initially developed for adults with sexual offenses, but have recently been extended to include youth with sexual offenses as well.  At first glance, sex offender registration and notification (hereafter referred to as SORN) may make us feel safer, produce relief knowing that these individuals are being punished.

However, many of us don’t realize that these practices don’t protect our children.  Required registration of and notification about youth with illegal sexual behavior, in particular, has resulted in serious economic and psychological burdens at multiple levels, affecting not only the youth who have to register (e.g., increase in suicidal ideation), but also their families (e.g., judgment from others, loss of job), neighbors (e.g., devaluation of home value) and communities (e.g., stress levels, potential changes in reputation).

Mental health providers and child advocates like myself and colleagues at the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse who have examined policies concerning sexual offending among youth know that SORN requirements stem from an ill-fitting classification system that has deleterious consequences.

January 9, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Fourth Amendment day for SCOTUS oral arguments

The second day of Supreme Court oral arguments in calendar year 2018 brings forth two Fourth Amendment cases on the SCOTUS calendar.  Here are the basics and links to various previews via this SCOTUSblog posting:

Continuing its themed approach to argument days this session, the court is hearing two Fourth Amendment cases today, both involving searches of motor vehicles. The first argument is in Byrd v. United States, which asks whether a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a rental car when he is not listed as an authorized driver on the rental contract. Amy Howe had this blog’s preview, which first appeared at Howe on the Court. D.E. Wagner and Leonardo Mangat preview the case for Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute.

 This morning’s second case is Collins v. Virginia, in which the justices will consider the scope of the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. Amy Howe previewed the case for this blog; her coverage was first published at Howe on the Court.  Robin Grieff, Jonathan Kim and Hillary Rich have Cornell’s preview, and Subscript offers a graphic explainer for the case.

January 9, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 8, 2018

"Mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Scott Cunningham and Sam Kang that a helpful colleague sent my way.  Here is its abstract:

US incarceration rates quintupled from the early 1970s to the present, leading to the US becoming the most incarcerated OECD country in the world.  A driving cause behind this growth was a nationwide shift to more punitive criminal justice policy, particularly with respect to drug related crimes.  This movement has since been characterized as the "war on drugs."  In this manuscript, we investigate the impact of rising incarceration rates on drug use and drug markets by exploiting a natural experiment in the Texas penitentiary system. In 1993, Texas made massive investments into its prison infrastructure which led to an over doubling of the state's prison capacity.  The effect was that Texas's incarceration rates more than doubled, due in large part to declining paroles. 

We use this event to study the effect that mass incarceration had on drug markets. We find no effect on drug arrests, drug prices or drug purity.  We also find no effect on self-referred cocaine or heroin treatment admissions.  However, we do find large negative effects on criminal justice referrals into treatment for cocaine and heroin, suggesting that mass incarceration reduces drug use in the population.  Furthermore, our results indicate that this decline is driven by incapacitation effects as opposed to deterrence effects.

January 8, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Interesting comments on reform and rehabilitation from Deputy AG Rosenstein

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein today delivered these lengthy remarks at the American Correctional Association's Winter Conference.  Folks interested in prison policies and practices, as well as the messages being delivered by the US Justice Department these days, should make time to  read the entire speech.  And sentencing fans (including students in the Sentencing class I start teaching today) may be especially interested in these interesting comments about reform and rehabilitation from the early part of the speech:

The American Correctional Association has a proud history of supporting the work of prison and jail officials.  More than 147 years ago, in 1870, corrections officials from the United States and abroad met in Cincinnati, Ohio and adopted a “Declaration of Principles” they believed should guide the field of corrections.  One of your principles is that the purpose of incarcerating criminals is “the protection of society.”

One of the most important management principles is that it is essential to articulate the big-picture goal for an organization.  That vision filters down into how other managers understand their mission, and ultimately into everything that our employees do. In law enforcement, our goal is to reduce crime.

Correctional agencies play a critical role in achieving that goal.  By providing inmates with structure, and teaching them discipline and skills during their incarceration, you increase the probability that they will become productive members of society and reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

When I read the original version of your principles, I noticed that the word “reform” appears 27 times.  The word “rehabilitate” does not appear at all.  Rehabilitation came into vogue as a sentencing goal in the 20th century.  Many people ultimately concluded that rehabilitation was not a realistic goal for prisons.

After spending almost three decades in law enforcement, I agree that we need to focus on reform of criminals, not rehabilitation.  The reason is that “re-habilitation,” by definition, is about restoring a person’s good reputation and ability to work.

There are some criminals for whom rehabilitation is a reasonable goal.  They are people who lived law-abiding lives and were productive members of society, before something went wrong and caused them to go astray.

But many of the career criminals housed in our prisons unfortunately were not properly habilitated before they offended.  The criminals who were not productive members of society need reform, not rehabilitation.

Admitting that most of our inmates need reform is not a way of disparaging the criminals.  It is instead a frank way to acknowledge that our task is more than just helping them overcome a few mistakes.  Many inmates do not just lack self-restraint.  They lack job skills.  They lack education.  They lack family structure.  They lack discipline.

While they are under governmental supervision, you have the chance to help them reform by imposing discipline and offering opportunities for improvement.  The most important thing for many inmates to learn is the discipline of following a schedule: wake up at a particular time, report to work when required, eat meals at the designated hours, and go to bed early enough to start fresh the next morning.

Some of the programs you offer also may be useful to reform inmates and set them on the right path. Programs such as institutional work assignments, prison industries, substance abuse treatment, and educational or vocational training.  Your work makes our communities safer.

The principles from 1870 also codify the professionalism that defines corrections officials.  They explain that “[s]pecial training, as well as high qualities of head and heart, [are] required to make a good prison or reformatory officer.”

January 8, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS back to work with remarkable split habeas ruling giving capital defendant another (long-shot?) chance to obtain relief

At the end of this long Supreme Court order list, comprised primarily of a long list of cases in which certiorari has been denied, comes a fascinating little per curiam opinion in Tharpe v. Seller, No. 17–6075 (S. Ct. jan 8, 2018) (available here).  The ruling is a rare summary SCOTUS win for a capital habeas defendant, and the short majority opinion provides only a small glimpse into the case (though a clear view of what motivated a majority of Justices to want to intervene).  Here are excerpts from the opinion (with cites removed):

Petitioner Keith Tharpe moved to reopen his federal habeas corpus proceedings regarding his claim that the Georgia jury that convicted him of murder included a white juror, Barney Gattie, who was biased against Tharpe because he is black. See Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 60(b)(6). The District Court denied the motion on the ground that, among other things, Tharpe’s claim was procedurally defaulted in state court. The District Court also noted that Tharpe could not overcome that procedural default because he had failed to produce any clear and convincing evidence contradicting the state court’s determination that Gattie’s presence on the jury did not prejudice him....

Our review of the record compels a different conclusion.  The state court’s prejudice determination rested on its finding that Gattie’s vote to impose the death penalty was not based on Tharpe’s race.  And that factual determination is binding on federal courts, including this Court, in the absence of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.  Here, however, Tharpe produced a sworn affidavit, signed by Gattie, indicating Gattie’s view that “there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Niggers”; that Tharpe, “who wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did”; that “[s]ome of the jurors voted for death because they felt Tharpe should be an example to other blacks who kill blacks, but that wasn’t my reason”; and that, “[a]fter studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.”  Gattie’s remarkable affidavit — which he never retracted — presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe’s race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict.  At the very least, jurists of reason could debate whether Tharpe has shown by clear and convincing evidence that the state court’s factual determination was wrong.  The Eleventh Circuit erred when it concluded otherwise.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch, authored a lengthy dissent to the majority's short ruling. It starts and ends this way:

If bad facts make bad law, then “unusual facts” inspire unusual decisions.  Ante, at 3.  In its brief per curiam opinion, the Court misreads a lower court’s opinion to find an error that is not there, and then refuses to entertain alternative grounds for affirmance. The Court does this to accomplish little more than a do-over in the Court of Appeals: As it concedes, petitioner Keith Tharpe faces a “high bar” on remand to obtain even a certificate of appealability (COA).  Ante, at 2.

One might wonder why the Court engages in this pointless exercise.  The only possible explanation is its concern with the “unusual facts” of this case, specifically a juror affidavit that expresses racist opinions about blacks.  The opinions in the affidavit are certainly odious.  But their odiousness does not excuse us from doing our job correctly, or allow us to pretend that the lower courts have not done theirs.

The responsibility of courts is to decide cases, both usual and unusual, by neutrally applying the law.  The law reflects society’s considered judgments about the balance of competing interests, and we must respect those judgments.  In bending the rules here to show its concern for a black capital inmate, the Court must think it is showing its concern for racial justice.  It is not.  Its summary vacatur will not stop Tharpe’s execution or erase the “unusual fac[t]” of the affidavit.  It will only delay justice for Jaquelin Freeman, who was also black, who is ignored by the majority, and who was murdered by Tharpe 27 years ago. I respectfully dissent....

Today’s decision can be explained only by the “unusual fac[t]” of Gattie’s first affidavit.  Ibid.  The Court must be disturbed by the racist rhetoric in that affidavit, and must want to do something about it.  But the Court’s decision is no profile in moral courage.  By remanding this case to the Court of Appeals for a useless do-over, the Court is not doing Tharpe any favors.  And its unusual disposition of his case callously delays justice for Jaquelin Freeman, the black woman who was brutally murdered by Tharpe 27 years ago. Because this Court should not be in the business of ceremonial handwringing, I respectfully dissent.

This is quite the way to start Supreme Court activity in 2018, a year that seems certain to have at least the usual share of SCOTUS fireworks. (I am also inspired by Justice Thomas's closing thought to imagine a new tagline for this blog: "Engaged in ceremonial handwringing since 2004.")

January 8, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Noticing the continued decline of the federal prison population (for now) ... and a story embedded with intricacies

PrisonPopuGraphicOver at the Washington Post's WonkBlog, Keith Humphreys has this important little discussion of the federal prison population under the headlined "The number of people in federal prisons is falling, even under Trump."  Here are excerpts (with a few lines emphasized for some follow-up commentary):

When states began shrinking their prison populations almost a decade ago, the federal prison system was still growing each year and thereby undermining progress in reducing mass incarceration. But in the past four years, the federal system has cut its inmate population by one-sixth, a decrease of over 35,000 prisoners.

Because criminal justice is mainly the province of the states, the federal prison system holds only about 13 percent of U.S. inmates. Yet that is still a significant number of people in absolute terms: The system held 219,300 inmates at its peak in 2013. Four subsequent years of significant contraction dropped the federal inmate population to 184,000 by the end of 2017.

Obama-era changes to drug crime prosecution and sentencing coupled with a historic level of clemency grants to federal inmates by President Barack Obama helped bring the federal prison system to its lowest population size since mid-2004 and its lowest incarceration rate (i.e., adjusted for population) since the end of 2002.

Given President Trump’s penchant for “tough on crime” rhetoric, some observers may find it surprising that the federal prison population kept dropping under the first year of the Trump administration. The most likely cause is also the most obvious. When a nation is blessed with two decades of falling crime rates, this eventually translates into lower incarceration rates because there just aren’t as many offenders to arrest, charge and imprison.

Whether the federal prison population continues to decline will depend in part on Trump administration policies. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed the Obama-era policy of avoiding mandatory minimum sentences in low-level drug cases, which could result in some future growth in the federal inmate population even if crime continues to fall.

The other key determinant of the federal prison population’s future is whether Trump will make use of his powers to pardon or commute the sentences of federal inmates. He only did so for one inmate this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t grant more clemencies later.

Though it is important and useful to notice that the federal prison population continued its downward trend in the first year of the Trump Administration, it is not quite accurate to attribute this reality to either "two decades of falling crime rates" or to Presidential commutation practices.  For starters, we had falling crimes rates in the decade from 1992 through 2002, and yet the federal prison population more than doubled from less than 80,000 inmates in 1992 to more than 163,000 inmates in 2002.  And we had another decade of falling crimes rates from 2002 through 2012, and yet the federal prison population rose another 55,000 inmates in that period.  And, of course, crimes rates started ticking up significantly in 2015 and 2016.

Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, there is actually a very limited (and quite unclear) relationship between the FBI's reported reductions in violent and property crimes — which is the data base for "falling crime rates" — and the federal criminal caseload which is primarily made up of drug and immigration and firearm and fraud offenses.  Indeed, in light of the empirics of the opioid crisis — not to mention increased marijuana activity thanks to state legal reforms — there is reason to speculate that federal drug offenses have actually been rising (perhaps significantly) in recent years.  The dynamics surrounding recent crime rates for federal immigration and firearm and fraud offenses are hard to assess, but that very reality is part of the reason it is hard to link federal prison population changes to what we know (and do not know) about crime rates.  But, without any doubt, there are still plenty of "offenders to arrest, charge and imprison" engaged in the activities that serve as the modern bread-and-butter of federal prosecution.  Though there are a range of linkages between various crime rates and various federal prosecutorial policies and practices, it is very hard to see and measure and assess with any confidence how basic criminal offending (especially as to classic state crimes) may directly impact the size of federal prison populations.

What we can effectively see and measure are changes in federal sentencing laws and federal prosecutorial practices, and these changes suggest a set of intricate stories help account for recent federal prison population changes.  For starters, the US Sentencing Commission enacted a set of broad retroactive changes to the federal drug sentencing guidelines, with crack guideline reductions in 2007 and 2011 and the "Drugs -2" reductions in 2014.  These changes reduced the sentences of, and is continuing to lead to the early release of, many thousands of federal prisoners.  In addition, and perhaps even more statistically important for the very latest federal prison data, federal prosecutors after 2012 began decreasing dramatically the number of cases getting all the way to federal sentencing.  According to US Sentencing Commission data, in Fiscal Year 2012, federal prosecutors brought over 84,000 cases to sentencing, whereas by Fiscal Year 2016, federal prosecutors brought fewer than 67,750 cases to sentencing.  And, especially with a slow transition to new US Attorney positions, it may take some time for the new Attorney General to ramp up yearly federal prosecutions (assuming he even wishes to do so).

In other words, the always dynamic stock and flow story of prison populations provides a somewhat more granular understanding of declines in the federal prison population.  Changes to federal sentencing laws made retroactive has had a significant impact on the "stock" of federal prisons.  (Prez Obama's commutations are a small part of this "stock" story, but not until they really got going in 2016, and in the end more than 25 federal prisoners got reduced sentences thanks to retroactive guideline changes for every prisoner who got a commutation from Prez Obama.)  And while guideline changes were reducing the federal prison "stock," it seems the prosecutorial policies announced by Attorney General Holder in 2013 — and perhaps other factors, including decreased national concerns about crime — finally began to reduce what had previously been, for two decades, an ever-increasing federal prison "flow."

I would predict that the May 2017 Sessions charging/sentencing memo could contribute, over time, to increasing both the stock and the flow of the federal prison population.  But other directions coming from Main Justice might complicate this story.  AG Sessions has urged US Attorneys to focus on violent crimes, and there may well be fewer of these cases to bring and they may take more time to prosecute than lower-level drug and gun and immigration cases.  But, of course, the AG has also expressed concerns about drug and gun and immigration cases, and he has been seeking to hire and empower more federal prosecutors in certain arenas.  I will be especially watching how all these developments ultimately impact the US Sentencing Commission's data on cases sentenced (and average sentence imposed) in order to try to predict where the federal prison population may be headed next.

January 7, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Candid confession of error on mandatory minimums from former Idaho Attorney General and Chief Justice

This recent op-ed from a local newspaper, headlined "Why warehouse low-risk drug offenders?," caught my attention primarily based on its author and its very first sentence.  The author is Jim Jones, and here is his bio from the piece: "Jim Jones, an Idaho native, was elected as Idaho Attorney General in 1982 and served two elected terms.  He was elected to the Idaho Supreme Court in 2004 and re-elected in 2010.  Jones served as Chief Justice from August 2015 until his retirement from the Supreme Court in January."  And here is how his commentary starts and ends:

I’ll be the first to admit that it was a mistake to support mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers during my tenure as Idaho Attorney General in the 1980s.  Most observers have come to realize that long mandatory sentences are not appropriate for every offender.  Legislatively mandated sentences tie the hands of judges who are best positioned to tailor the appropriate punishment for the crimes committed by a particular defendant.  And, while they do not reduce recidivism, they do needlessly inflict damage on the families of low-risk offenders.  In 2014, Idaho adopted the Justice Reinvestment Act to provide for earlier release of low-level offenders, to ensure their success by providing them greater supervision, to reduce the number of repeat offenders, and to reduce the cost of Idaho’s prison program.  The legislation had broad-based support and holds out great promise for success....

Having observed the judicial system from the inside for 12 years, I believe that our trial court judges have a good feel for who deserves to be incarcerated for a long stretch and who shows promise for staying out of further trouble.  Our judges take into account who is before them and whether they pose a societal risk, rather than just the weight of the drugs they had in their control.  That is how justice is served.  It is not served by a one-size-fits-all system of sentencing where a set of scales determines the length of the prison term.

The court system has worked hard to educate judges as to the correct balance between incarceration and rehabilitation.  Judges share information about sentencing for various offenses throughout the state to bring about a certain amount of uniformity.  The judicial system has developed drug courts to help lower-level offenders get free of drugs and put their lives back on track.  These are the measures that can reduce recidivism, salvage those who can be rehabilitated, and keep families together.  Mandatory sentences do not.  My 1980s mindset was wrong, as was the 1992 legislation.

Last year, Reps. Ilana Rubel and Christy Perry introduced legislation to eliminate the mandatory minimum sentences in the 1992 statute.  Their bill retained the maximum sentences for drug trafficking but left the length of the sentence up to the judge, who can set a minimum prison term of his or her choosing.  That legislation will come up again this year and people should urge their legislators to support it.

January 7, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Some notable recent empirical research on crime

I recently tripped across some recent empirical crime research that seemed worth noting:

From the Journal of Public Economics, "The effect of Medicaid expansion on crime reduction: Evidence from HIFA-waiver expansions," authored by Hefei Wen, Jason Hockenberry and Janet Cummings:

Abstract:  Substance use figures prominently in criminal behavior. As such expanding public insurance and improving access to substance use disorder (SUD) treatment can potentially reduce substance use and reduce crime.  We examine the crime-reduction effect of Medicaid expansions through the Health Insurance Flexibility and Accountability (HIFA) waivers.  We find that HIFA-waiver expansion led to a sizeable reduction in the rates of robbery, aggravated assault and larceny theft. We also show that much of the crime-reduction effect likely occurred through increasing SUD treatment rate and reducing substance use prevalence.  The implied benefit-cost ratio estimate of increased treatment on reducing crime ranges from 1.8 to 3.2.

From the American Journal of Public Health, "Easiness of Legal Access to Concealed Firearm Permits and Homicide Rates in the United States," authored by Michael Siegel, Ziming Xuan, Craig Ross, Sandro Galea, Bindu Kalesan, Eric Fleegler and Kristin Goss:

Abstract

Objectives.  To examine the relation of “shall-issue” laws, in which permits must be issued if requisite criteria are met; “may-issue” laws, which give law enforcement officials wide discretion over whether to issue concealed firearm carry permits or not; and homicide rates.

Methods.  We compared homicide rates in shall-issue and may-issue states and total, firearm, nonfirearm, handgun, and long-gun homicide rates in all 50 states during the 25-year period of 1991 to 2015.  We included year and state fixed effects and numerous state-level factors in the analysis.

Results.  Shall-issue laws were significantly associated with 6.5% higher total homicide rates, 8.6% higher firearm homicide rates, and 10.6% higher handgun homicide rates, but were not significantly associated with long-gun or nonfirearm homicide.

Conclusions.  Shall-issue laws are associated with significantly higher rates of total, firearm-related, and handgun-related homicide.

January 6, 2018 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 5, 2018

"Prosecutors and Democracy: A Cross-National Study"

9781316638149The title of this post is the title of this recently published book by Máximo Langer and David Sklansky. Here is how the publisher describes the book's contents:

Focusing on the relationship between prosecutors and democracy, this volume throws light on key questions about prosecutors and the role they should play in liberal self-government.  Internationally distinguished scholars discuss how prosecutors can strengthen democracy, how they sometimes undermine it, and why it has proven so challenging to hold prosecutors accountable while insulating them from politics.  The contributors explore the different ways legal systems have addressed that challenge in the United States, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe.  Contrasting those strategies allows an assessment of their relative strengths -- and a richer understanding of the contested connections between law and democratic politics. Chapters are in explicit conversation with each other, facilitating comparison and deepening the analysis. This is an important new resource for legal scholars and reformers, political philosophers, and social scientists.

January 5, 2018 in Recommended reading, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

In prelude to federal prosecution, killer of Kate Steinle gets three-year sentence on sole state count of conviction

As reported in this local article, "the Mexican national accused of shooting Pleasanton native Kate Steinle was sentenced today to three years in prison but will not serve any more time in state custody because of credit for time served." Here is more:

Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, 54, will now be handed over to federal authorities to be prosecuted again.

After a four-week trial that drew national attention, a jury in November acquitted the undocumented immigrant of murder, involuntary manslaughter and assault with a semiautomatic firearm in the July 2015 shooting of Steinle on San Francisco’s Pier 14. But jurors convicted him of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Judge Samuel Feng this morning sentenced Garcia Zarate, who has already spent two and a half years in jail waiting for his trial, to time served on his possession conviction.

Garcia Zarate’s defense team urged Feng to throw it out, arguing that the jury received improper instructions about the charge. But Feng denied the motion this morning at San Francisco’s Hall of Justice....

In the coming days, Garcia Zarate will be arraigned in federal court, where he faces similar charges of being a convicted felon and an illegal immigrant in possession of a firearm.

His defense attorneys have argued that the shooting was an accident, suggesting that Garcia Zarate found the gun on the pier and that it accidentally discharged when he touched it, with the bullet ricocheting 78 feet before hitting 32-year-old Steinle. Garcia Zarate threw the gun into the water after it fired.

Prior related post:

January 5, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6)

"What to Know About the Death Penalty in 2018"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Marshall Project piece that astutely previews what the year ahead might hold in the arena of capital punishment.  Here is how the piece starts and its preview themes:

Only a little more than a year ago, many opponents of the death penalty were cautiously optimistic that the U.S. Supreme Court — perhaps with a Clinton appointee or two — might strike down the punishment for good. Then came President Donald Trump, who tweeted “SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” about one criminal suspect and recently called for the execution of anyone who kills a police officer. He picked an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, known for his efforts to pursue executions in Alabama, and a Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch, whose first major decision was to deny a prisoner’s request for a stay of execution.

But does all that matter? The number of executions and new death sentences have been trending downward for years. Support for capital punishment in the U.S. is at about 55 percent, its lowest point in more than four decades. Trump’s first year saw a slight rise in death sentences and executions, but those are the product of counties and states; the president and attorney general have little say beyond the occasional federal case. What can we expect at the beginning of 2018? Is the death penalty almost gone, or will the president’s support rejuvenate it?

To answer those questions, there will be four places to watch:

The Counties

It’s up to local, elected district attorneys to decide whether to ask a jury for the death penalty. In the 1990s, many prosecutors campaigned on their successes sending men to death row. But much has changed....

The States

It takes a DA and a jury to send someone to death row, but it takes a massive state bureaucracy to kill him. Courts must uphold the convictions, prison officials must secure lethal injection drugs, and governors and attorneys general must clear political and legal obstacles....

The Supreme Court

Trump could leave a massive legacy at the Supreme Court, especially if Justice Anthony Kennedy follows through on his plan to retire....

The U.S. Attorney General

The federal government has successfully sought capital punishment 76 times since 1988. It will become clear in 2018 whether Sessions will try to impose capital punishment in some current cases.

January 5, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 4, 2018

DOJ casting new marijuana enforcement memo in terms of "rule of law" and "local control"

Confirming morning reports, today Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued this new one-page memo to all US Attorneys on the topic of "Marijuana Enforcement." The memo rescinds the Cole and Ogden and related Obama-era enforcement memos (calling them "unnecessary"), and does so without announcing any formal or even informal new policy while saying DOJ's well-established general policies and principles for all federal prosecutions should govern.

Notably, this press release issued with the new Sessions marijuana memo provides some of thematic justifications for his decision:

The Department of Justice today issued a memo on federal marijuana enforcement policy announcing a return to the rule of law and the rescission of previous guidance documents....

In the memorandum, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directs all U.S. Attorneys to enforce the laws enacted by Congress and to follow well-established principles when pursuing prosecutions related to marijuana activities. This return to the rule of law is also a return of trust and local control to federal prosecutors who know where and how to deploy Justice Department resources most effectively to reduce violent crime, stem the tide of the drug crisis, and dismantle criminal gangs.

"It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States, and the previous issuance of guidance undermines the rule of law and the ability of our local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement partners to carry out this mission," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "Therefore, today's memo on federal marijuana enforcement simply directs all U.S. Attorneys to use previously established prosecutorial principles that provide them all the necessary tools to disrupt criminal organizations, tackle the growing drug crisis, and thwart violent crime across our country."

Interestingly, this new AP article from Colorado, headlined "U.S. Attorney for Colorado: Status quo on marijuana enforcement," suggests local control could mean little or no change in some regions:

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado said Thursday there will be no immediate changes in marijuana enforcement after Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a policy that paved the way for legalized pot to flourish in states across the country.

“Today the Attorney General rescinded the Cole Memo on marijuana prosecutions, and directed that federal marijuana prosecution decisions be governed by the same principles that have long governed all of our prosecution decisions,” U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer said.

“The United States Attorney’s Office in Colorado has already been guided by these principles in marijuana prosecutions — focusing in particular on identifying and prosecuting those who create the greatest safety threats to our communities around the state.

“We will, consistent with the Attorney General’s latest guidance, continue to take this approach in all of our work with our law enforcement partners throughout Colorado.”

It will be interesting to see whether a host of other US Attorneys will explain, in general or in detail, how they play to operationalize the "trust and local control" that AG Sessions says he has now given them.

Related posts from here and MLP&R:

January 4, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"I was Raped. And I Believe The Brock Turner Sentence Is a Success Story."

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary authored by Meaghan Ybos, who is the founder and executive director of People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws. I recommend the piece is full, and here is a snippet:

[T]hose critical of the scrutiny of Judge Persky have not defended Turner’s sentence. I will do so here. I am a rape victim engaged in a lawsuit against the Memphis Police Department for systematically failing to investigate rape cases and I believe that Judge Persky’s sentence was just.

The outrage over the supposedly lenient sentence misunderstands the consequences of Turner’s conviction, which includes lifetime registration as a sex offender, and vilifies individualized sentencing. I also believe that the energy and vitriol directed at Judge Persky should have been used instead to hold police departments accountable for properly investigating rape, which too many fail to do....

We should not demonize judges for handing out individualized sentences, even to Brock Turner. Instead, we should demand that judges use discretion more broadly and in favor of people from all backgrounds.  And we must recall that the very worst criminal justice policy springs from outrage over individual high profile cases from Willie Horton to, more recently, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a homeless Mexican immigrant in San Francisco who was just acquitted in a high profile murder that Donald Trump seized upon in his 2016 campaign to support his anti-immigration platform.

Furthermore, advocates ... have falsely characterized Turner’s sentence as a slap on the wrist, but his punishment also involves much more than the number of hours he was caged.  Turner owes court fees and is required to pay the victim restitution.  He must attend a year-long rehabilitation program for sex offenders, which includes mandatory polygraph exams for which he must waive his privilege against self-incrimination.  If he violates the terms of his three-year felony probation, he faces a 14-year prison sentence.  He now has a strike that can be used against him under California’s three-strikes law if he is accused of any future criminal activity.  As a convicted felon, he will not be allowed to own a gun....

The most severe part of Turner’s sentence, which anti-rape advocates largely have glossed over, is the requirement that he register as a sexual offender for the rest of his life. This means that an online sex offender registry will show his picture, his address, his convictions, and details of his probation. These lists, which contain people convicted of an ever-growing number of offenses, are so broad and oppressive that a Colorado federal court deemed them cruel and unusual punishment. They are “modern-day witch pyres” that often lead to homelessness, instability, and more time in prison.

As with Jose Ines Garcia Zarate and Willie Horton before him, political leaders seized on outrage over Turner’s sentence to justify punitiveness. The Turner case spurred a new mandatory minimum law in California removing the option of probation for people convicted of sexually assaulting a person who is intoxicated or unconscious.  By imposing a three-year mandatory sentence, the law removes judicial discretion.  “The bill is about more than sentencing,” said Democratic Assembly member Bill Dodd in a written statement following the bill’s passage. “It’s about supporting victims and changing the culture on our college campuses to help prevent future crimes.”

But it’s at the “front end” of the criminal justice system where most rape complaints falter.  Police have often acted as hostile gatekeepers preventing complaints from ever reaching a courtroom.  History shows police gatekeeping in cities like Philadelphia, St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York City.  In recent years, police have regularly closed cases before doing any investigation, discarded rape kits (the San Jose Police Department currently has over 1,800 untested rape kits and refuses to count the rape kits collected before 2012), and have even arrested victims for false reporting. It’s not surprising that police departments solve abysmally few rapes, with some cities’ clearance rates in the single digits.

The Turner case was investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  For a sexual assault case, it is a rare success.  More punishment isn’t always the best or most just response.  Nor does it necessarily provide justice for victims.  And as long as police gatekeeping prevents rape victims from having consistent access to the criminal justice system, recalling judges and increasing sentences will yield no progress in reducing sexual assault.

January 4, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

US Sentencing Commission announces public meeting to vote on proposed guideline amendments

As detailed in this announcement, the US Sentencing Commission has scheduled "a public meeting ... for Friday, January 19, 2018, at 10:30 a.m." The announced agenda includes "Possible Vote to Publish Proposed Guideline Amendments and Issues for Comment."

As detailed in this prior post from mid 2017, the Commission did not to promulgate guideline amendments in the 2016-17 amendment cycle, but did articulate an ambitious set of proposed priorities for 2017-18 amendment cycle (and also release a set of proposed holdover amendments for comment).  So there certainly could be some significant federal sentencing guidelies news emerging from the Commission in a couple of weeks.  Stay tuned.

January 4, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The New Reformer DAs"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new American Prospect article.  The piece's lengthy subheadline highlights its themes: "As cities grow more progressive, a new breed of prosecutors are winning office and upending the era of lock-’em-up justice. They may hold the key to resisting Trump’s mania for mass incarceration." And here is an excerpt:

District attorneys “are in many ways the most important figures in the system,” says David Alan Sklansky, a Stanford law professor who studies DAs. “They are crucial gatekeepers between the police and the courts. They get to decide who gets charged and what they get charged with. They are the ones who recommend sentencing and negotiate plea agreements.  And since the vast majority of criminal convictions in this country are the result of plea agreements, they are the ones who are negotiating sentences.”

While the war on drugs, mandatory minimums, and discriminatory policing practices have all earned a great deal of scrutiny for creating the levels of mass incarceration we see today, more and more reformers are recognizing the pernicious role that prosecutors — who have a tremendous amount of power and discretion within the system — have played.

John Pfaff, a Fordham law professor and author of the provocative book Locked In, argues that the role low-level drug charges have played in the rise in mass incarceration is overblown. The main drivers, he contends, are the prosecutors in the country’s DA offices. By examining state court data, Pfaff finds that almost all prison population growth since 1994 derives from overzealous prosecutors, who have doubled the rate of felony charges brought against arrestees.

For decades, district attorney politics (almost all counties elect their chief prosecutors) have been relatively conservative affairs, animated by white suburban voters who want assurances of law and order — not by the people of color living in the city and on the receiving end of tough-on-crime policies.  Of the more than 2,400 elected prosecutors in the United States, 95 percent are white, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign.  In 14 states, all elected prosecutors are white.  Just 1 percent of prosecutors are women of color.

January 4, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

How will local US Attorney's likely respond to new marijuana enforcement guidance coming from AG Jeff Sessions?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this morning's big federal criminal justice news reported here by AP (and also covered here at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform):

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is rescinding the Obama-era policy that had paved the way for legalized marijuana to flourish in states across the country, two people with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press.  Sessions will instead let federal prosecutors where pot is legal decide how aggressively to enforce federal marijuana law, the people said. The people familiar with the plan spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it before an announcement expected Thursday....

The move by President Donald Trump’s attorney general likely will add to confusion about whether it’s OK to grow, buy or use marijuana in states where pot is legal, since long-standing federal law prohibits it.  It comes days after pot shops opened in California, launching what is expected to become the world’s largest market for legal recreational marijuana and as polls show a solid majority of Americans believe the drug should be legal.

While Sessions has been carrying out a Justice Department agenda that follows Trump’s top priorities on such issues as immigration and opioids, the changes to pot policy reflect his own concerns.  Trump’s personal views on marijuana remain largely unknown.

Sessions, who has assailed marijuana as comparable to heroin and has blamed it for spikes in violence, had been expected to ramp up enforcement.  Pot advocates argue that legalizing the drug eliminates the need for a black market and would likely reduce violence, since criminals would no longer control the marijuana trade....

Sessions’ policy will let U.S. attorneys across the country decide what kinds of federal resources to devote to marijuana enforcement based on what they see as priorities in their districts, the people familiar with the decision said.

Sessions and some law enforcement officials in states such as Colorado blame legalization for a number of problems, including drug traffickers that have taken advantage of lax marijuana laws to hide in plain sight, illegally growing and shipping the drug across state lines, where it can sell for much more. The decision was a win for pot opponents who had been urging Sessions to take action....

The change also reflects yet another way in which Sessions, who served as a federal prosecutor at the height of the drug war in Mobile, Alabama, has reversed Obama-era criminal justice policies that aimed to ease overcrowding in federal prisons and contributed to a rethinking of how drug criminals were prosecuted and sentenced.  While his Democratic predecessor Eric Holder told federal prosecutors to avoid seeking long mandatory minimum sentences when charging certain lower level drug offenders, for example, Sessions issued an order demanding the opposite, telling them to pursue the most serious charges possible against most suspects.

I want to see exactly what new guidance and statements will come from the Department of Justice and Attorney General Sessions before opining on what this all likely means and portends for federal criminal enforcement and sentencing.  But the question that serves as the title of this post strikes me as the really critical one concerning what comes next. I am inclined to guess that a few local US Attorneys we eager to be free of restrictions created by the 2013 Cole Memo, but that many others have been happy to have a reason not to be to focused on state-legal marijuana business activity. How the implement the new instructions from their boss will be extremely interesting and important for federal marijuana policy, politics and practices in the weeks and months ahead.

Related post from MLP&R:

UPDATEA helpful reader highlighted to me that this news comes on the heels of the announcement yesterday, as detailed in this press release, that "Attorney General Jeff Sessions [Wednesday] announced the appointment of 17 federal prosecutors as Interim United States Attorneys pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 546."

January 4, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Spotlighting felon disenfranchisement in Florida

I am always pleased to see the New York Times editorial board giving attention to criminal justice issues, and I am especially pleased to see this new editorial focused on felon disenfranchisement.  The lengthy piece is headlined "Florida’s 1.5 Million Missing Voters," and here are excerpts:

Everyone remembers that the 2000 presidential election was decided by 537 votes in Florida.  Far fewer remember another important number from the state that year — 620,000, the Floridians who were barred from voting because state records showed, correctly or not, they had been convicted of a felony.

It didn’t matter whether their crime was murder or driving with a suspended license, nor whether they had fully served their sentence. In Florida, the voting ban is entrenched in the Constitution, and it’s for life.  Today, Florida disenfranchises almost 1.5 million of its citizens, more than 11 states’ populations and roughly a quarter of the more than six million Americans who are unable to vote because of a criminal record.

Felon disenfranchisement is a destructive, pointless policy that hurts not only individuals barred from the ballot box, but American democracy at large.  Its post-Civil War versions are explicitly racist, and its modern-day rationales are thin to nonexistent. It can make all the difference in places like Florida, which didn’t stop being competitive in 2000; the state remains a major presidential battleground, and victories for both parties in state and local elections are often narrow.

That could all change if a proposed constitutional amendment gets enough signatures to be placed on the ballot in November and wins enough support.  The initiative would automatically restore voting rights to the vast majority of Floridians who have completed their sentence for a felony conviction, including any term of parole or probation.

This is a long overdue and urgently needed reform.  The only way around Florida’s lifetime ban — as in the other three states with such a ban, Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia — is a direct, personal appeal to the governor.  In the last few years, Terry McAuliffe, as Virginia’s governor, restored voting rights to more than 168,000 people, and the governors in Kentucky and Iowa granted roughly 9 in 10 of the restoration requests they received in the first half of the decade....

The right to vote is the most meaningful mark of citizenship in a democracy. It should be withheld only in extreme circumstances, and its restoration shouldn’t depend on the whims of a governor.  What’s worse, many of these laws, especially in the South, are inextricable from their racist origins. Florida’s was enacted in 1868 — two years after the state thumbed its nose at the 14th Amendment — with the intent to prevent newly freed black people from voting.  Those effects linger today, as one in five black adults in Florida remain disenfranchised because of a criminal record.

The new initiative, which excludes people convicted of murder or sexual offenses, will be placed on the ballot if it receives 766,200 signatures and will take effect if it earns at least 60 percent of the vote. Its advocates have submitted more than one million signatures to date, although many still need to be verified before the Feb. 1 deadline.

One hundred and fifty years after Florida enshrined this awful law, there’s only one clear way to get rid of it.  Legal challenges have fallen short, the governor is no friend to voting rights, and lawmakers have limited power when it comes to constitutional amendments.  It’s time for Florida’s voters to step up and restore the most fundamental constitutional right to more than a million of their neighbors.

I hope this proposed constitutional amendment can get to the ballot and can garner a super-majority of votes.   As long time readers may know, I have long believed as many people as possible should be enfranchised in a democracy, and my basic thinking on this front was explained in this Big Think piece years ago headlined "Let Prisoners Vote."

Thinking beyond this ballot initiative, I suspect Congress could enact legislation that could restrict the reach of extreme state felon disenfranchisement laws.  I know Senator Rand Paul spoke about this issue some years back, and I would guess they might be some opportunity for some bipartisan legislation to try to limit how some states seek to limit the franchise.  (I recognize there could be some constitutional/federalism issues raised if Congress gets too involved in state voting laws, but often if there is a will to expand the franchise, there can be a way.) 

January 3, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Detailing increase in felony convictions nationwide in modern times

Stateline has this new piece, headlined "Felony Conviction Rates Have Risen Sharply, But Unevenly," with detailed data on how increases in the number of felony convictions has come to define the modern criminal justice era in the United States. Here are some details:

In recent decades, every state has seen a dramatic increase in the share of its population convicted of a felony, leaving more people facing hurdles in finding a job and a place to live and prompting some states to revisit how they classify crimes.

In Georgia, 15 percent of the adult population was a felon in 2010, up from around 4 percent in 1980. The rate was above 10 percent in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas. Less than 5 percent of the population in Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Utah and West Virginia were felons, but every state had a large increase between 1980 and 2010, when the felony population ranged from 1 to 5 percent, according to a University of Georgia study published in October....

Proponents of more lenient sentencing tend to focus on imprisonment, where Louisiana and Oklahoma have the highest rates, but probation is more common. There were 1.9 million people on felony probation in 2015, compared to 1.5 million in prison. In 2010, the two figures were about the same, at 1.6 million, according to the latest federal statistics.

Many view probation as a more humane alternative to imprisonment, said Michelle Phelps, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. But in some states probation has become a “net widener” that draws more nonviolent criminals into the stigma and harsh supervision of a felony conviction.

Phelps pointed to Minnesota, which has one of the lowest rates of imprisonment, but ranked 16th for felon population in 2010. That year felons were about 9 percent of Minnesota’s population, or nearly quadruple the rate in 1980. “Though it’s frequently dismissed as a slap on the wrist, probation can entail onerous requirements,” Phelps said. For instance, probation can require a job and good housing as a condition for staying out of prison, but the felony conviction itself can make it hard or impossible to get that job.

Gary Mohr, who heads Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said a felony conviction can have lifelong consequences, no matter whether the punishment is imprisonment or probation. “Even probation or a six-month sentence is really a life sentence because it affects jobs, it affects housing, it affects everything in their lives,” Mohr said....

The findings may help put probation reform on the front burner in some states. In Georgia, a February 2017 report by a state commission called for shorter probation sentences and lighter caseloads for probation officers. (The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline, assisted with the paper.) Almost 3 percent of Georgia’s adult population was on felony probation as of 2015 — far more than any other state and a 12 percent increase from 2010, according to the latest federal figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics....

When crime rates rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, local and state leaders hired more police and they made more arrests, including felony arrests, Phelps said. In addition, many states elevated nonviolent crimes like drug possession to felony status, and many district attorneys adopted a get-tough strategy, seeking felony charges whenever possible. Police focused drug enforcement on high-crime neighborhoods, which were often predominantly African-American, Phelps said. As a result, felony convictions rose much faster among blacks than among whites.

In 2010, about 23 percent of the black population had a felony conviction. The number of African-American felons increased more than fivefold between 1980 and 2010, while the number increased threefold for other felons. The University of Georgia study did not calculate separate rates for Hispanics or other minority groups.

In left-leaning states such as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon, one contributor to the growing share of the population with a felony conviction was an increased awareness of new crimes like domestic violence, sexual abuse and animal abuse, said Josh Marquis, a district attorney in Oregon and a 20-year board member of the National District Attorneys Association.

When crime is a major concern in a community, elected district attorneys are especially sensitive to public pressure to file more felony charges, Marquis said. “We are not rewarded for the number of felonies filed,” Marquis said. “But we do face election and accountability to our neighbors who are also our bosses.”

January 3, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

NY Times again forcefully calls for Supreme Court to end the use of the death penalty

The New York Times editorial page has long advocated for the abolition of the death penalty, and it started the new year with another long and forceful editorial on this front.  Headlined "Capital Punishment Deserves a Quick Death," here are excerpts:

As the nation enters 2018, the Supreme Court is considering whether to hear at least one case asking it to strike down the death penalty, once and for all, for violating the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments.

Whether the justices take that or another case, the facts they face will be the same: The death penalty is a savage, racially biased, arbitrary and pointless punishment that becomes rarer and more geographically isolated with every year. In 2017 the total number of people sitting on death rows across America fell for the 17th straight year. In Harris County, Tex., the nation’s undisputed leader in state-sanctioned killing, the year passed without a single execution or death sentence — the first time that’s happened in more than 40 years.

Still, Texas was one of just two states — Arkansas is the other — responsible for almost half of 2017’s executions. And nearly one in three of the nation’s 39 new death sentences last year were handed down in three counties: Riverside in California, Clark in Nevada and Maricopa in Arizona.

It would be tempting to conclude from this litany, which is drawn from an annual report by the Death Penalty Information Center, that capital punishment is being reserved for the most horrific crimes committed by the most incorrigible offenders. But it would be wrong. The death penalty is not and has never been about the severity of any given crime. Mental illness, intellectual disability, brain damage, childhood abuse or neglect, abysmal lawyers, minimal judicial review, a white victim — these factors are far more closely associated with who ends up getting executed. Of the 23 people put to death in 2017, all but three had at least one of these factors, according to the report. Eight were younger than 21 at the time of their crime....

The rest of the developed world agreed to reject this cruel and pointless practice long ago. How can it be ended here, for good?

Leaving it up to individual states is not the solution. It’s true that 19 states and the District of Columbia have already banned capital punishment, four have suspended it and eight others haven’t executed anyone in more than a decade. Some particularly awful state policies have also been eliminated in the past couple of years, like a Florida law that permitted non-unanimous juries to impose death sentences, and an Alabama rule empowering judges to override a jury’s vote for life, even a unanimous one, and impose death.

And yet at the same time, states have passed laws intended to speed up the capital appeals process, despite the growing evidence of legal errors and prosecutorial misconduct that can be hidden for years or longer. Other states have gone to great lengths to hide their lethal-injection protocols from public scrutiny, even as executions with untested drugs have gone awry and pharmaceutical companies have objected to the use of their products to kill people.

Last summer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested that the death penalty would eventually end with a whimper. “The incidence of capital punishment has gone down, down, down so that now, I think, there are only three states that actually administer the death penalty,” Justice Ginsburg said at a law school event. “We may see an end to capital punishment by attrition as there are fewer and fewer executions.”

That’s a dispiriting take. The death penalty holdouts may be few and far between, but they are fiercely committed, and they won’t stop killing people unless they’re forced to. Relying on the vague idea of attrition absolves the court of its responsibility to be the ultimate arbiter and guardian of the Constitution — and specifically of the Eighth Amendment. The court has already relied on that provision to ban the execution of juvenile offenders, the intellectually disabled and those convicted of crimes against people other than murder.

There’s no reason not to take the final step. The justices have all the information they need right now to bring America in line with most of the rest of the world and end the death penalty for good.

January 2, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

"American Exceptionalism in Crime and Punishment"

9780190203542The title of this post is the title of this new book published by Oxford University Press. The book is an edited collection of essays curated by Kevin Reitz. Here is the publisher's description of the book:

Across the U.S., there was an explosion of severity in nearly every form of governmental response to crime from the 1970s through the 2000s.  This book examines the typically ignored forms punishment in America beyond incarceration and capital punishment to include probation and parole supervision rates-and revocation rates, an ever-growing list of economic penalties imposed on offenders, and a web of collateral consequences of conviction unimaginable just decades ago.  Across these domains, American punitiveness exceeds that in other developed democracies-where measurable, by factors of five-to-ten.  In some respects, such as rates of incarceration and (perhaps) correctional supervision, the U.S. is the world "leader."  Looking to Europe and other English-speaking countries, the book's contributors shed new light on America's outlier status, and examine its causes.  One causal theory examined in detail is that the U.S. has been exceptional not just in penal severity since the 1970s, but also in its high rates of high rates of homicide and other serious violent crimes.

With leading researchers from many fields and national perspectives, American Exceptionalism in Crime and Punishment shows that the largest problems of crime and justice cannot be brought into focus from the vantage point of any one jurisdiction.  Looking cross-nationally, the book addresses what it would take for America to rejoin the mainstream of the Western world in its uses of criminal penalties.

Kevin kindly sent me a copy of the book's Table of Contents and his introductory chapter for posting. That chapter can be downloaded below, following these passages from that chapter's introduction:

One goal of this book is to broaden the scope of American Exceptionalism in Crime and Punishment (AECP) inquiry to include sanctions beyond incarceration and the death penalty.  From what we know, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the United States imposes and administers probation, parole, economic sanctions, and collateral consequences of conviction with a heavier hand than other developed democracies.  Although the inquiries in this book are preliminary, they raise the possibility that AECP extends across many landscapes of criminal punishment — and beyond, to the widespread social exclusion and civil disabilities imposed on people with a conviction on their record.

In addition, the book insists that any discussion of AECP should focus on US crime rates along with US penal severity.  More often than not, American crime is discounted in the academic literature as having little or no causal influence on American criminal punishment.  This is a mistake for many reasons but is especially unfortunate because it truncates causation analyses that should reach back to gun ownership rates, income inequality, conditions in America’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, and possibilities of joint or reciprocal causation in the production of US crime rates and punitive severity.

This chapter is divided into three segments.  First, it includes a brief tour of the conventional AECP subject areas of incarceration and the death penalty.  Second, it will introduce claims that a wider menu of sanction types should be included in AECP analyses. Third, it will speak to the importance of late twentieth-century crime rates to US punitive expansionism.

Download AECP Reitz Introduction for SSRN

January 2, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 1, 2018

Prez Reagan's Secretary of State laments "The Failed War on Drugs"

There is nothing really all that notable about this recent New York Times op-ed, headlined "The Failed War on Drugs," save for its authors.  George Shultz, who served as Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration, penned the piece alon with Pedro Aspe, a former secretary of finance in Mexico.  Actually, the op-ed is also notable because it is has some shaky statements (like its suggestion Nancy Reagan tried to charge the modern US drug war), but it is still worth seeing how it makes its case for modern reform in the Americas:

The war on drugs in the United States has been a failure that has ruined lives, filled prisons and cost a fortune.  It started during the Nixon administration with the idea that, because drugs are bad for people, they should be difficult to obtain.  As a result, it became a war on supply.

As first lady during the crack epidemic, Nancy Reagan tried to change this approach in the 1980s.  But her “Just Say No” campaign to reduce demand received limited support. Over the objections of the supply-focused bureaucracy, she told a United Nations audience on Oct. 25, 1988: “If we cannot stem the American demand for drugs, then there will be little hope of preventing foreign drug producers from fulfilling that demand.  We will not get anywhere if we place a heavier burden of action on foreign governments than on America’s own mayors, judges and legislators. You see, the cocaine cartel does not begin in Medellín, Colombia. It begins in the streets of New York, Miami, Los Angeles and every American city where crack is bought and sold.”

Her warning was prescient, but not heeded.  Studies show that the United States has among the highest rates of drug use in the world.  But even as restricting supply has failed to curb abuse, aggressive policing has led to thousands of young drug users filling American prisons, where they learn how to become real criminals.

The prohibitions on drugs have also created perverse economic incentives that make combating drug producers and distributors extremely difficult.  The high black-market price for illegal drugs has generated huge profits for the groups that produce and sell them, income that is invested in buying state-of-the-art weapons, hiring gangs to defend their trade, paying off public officials and making drugs easily available to children, to get them addicted.

Drug gangs, armed with money and guns from the United States, are causing bloody mayhem in Mexico, El Salvador and other Central American countries. In Mexico alone, drug-related violence has resulted in over 100,000 deaths since 2006.  This violence is one of the reasons people leave these countries to come to the United States.

First the United States and Mexican governments must acknowledge the failure of this strategy.  Only then can we engage in rigorous and countrywide education campaigns to persuade people not to use drugs.  The current opioid crisis underlines the importance of curbing demand.  This approach, with sufficient resources and the right message, could have a major impact similar to the campaign to reduce tobacco use.

We should also decriminalize the small-scale possession of drugs for personal use, to end the flow of nonviolent drug addicts into the criminal justice system.  Several states have taken a step in this direction by decriminalizing possession of certain amounts of marijuana.  Mexico’s Supreme Court has also declared that individuals should have the right to grow and distribute marijuana for their personal use.  At the same time, we should continue to make it illegal to possess large quantities of drugs so that pushers can be prosecuted and some control over supply maintained.

Finally, we must create well-staffed and first-class treatment centers where people are willing to go without fear of being prosecuted and with the confidence that they will receive effective care.  The experience of Portugal suggests that younger people who use drugs but are not yet addicted can very often be turned around.  Even though it is difficult to get older addicted people off drugs, treatment programs can still offer them helpful services....

We have a crisis on our hands — and for the past half-century, we have been failing to solve it.  But there are alternatives.  Both the United States and Mexico need to look beyond the idea that drug abuse is simply a law-enforcement problem, solvable through arrests, prosecution and restrictions on supply.  We must together attack it with public health policies and education.  We still have time to persuade our young people not to ruin their lives.

January 1, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Looking at enduring challenges in Miller's application in Louisiana and elsewhere

This new lengthy AP piece, headlined "Ruling but no resolution on which teen killers merit parole," details the continuing debate in Louisiana and other states over application of the Supreme Court's recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence on juve LWOP sentences. Here are excerpts:

Nearly two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prison inmates who killed as teenagers are capable of change and may deserve eventual freedom, the question remains unresolved: Which ones should get a second chance? Now the ruling — which came in the case of a 71-year-old Louisiana inmate still awaiting a parole hearing — is being tested again in that same state, where prosecutors have moved in recent months to keep about 1 in 3 former juvenile offenders locked up for the rest of their lives.

“There is no possible way to square these numbers with the directive of the Supreme Court,” said Jill Pasquarella, supervising attorney with the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, which found that district attorneys are seeking to deny parole eligibility to 84 of 255 juvenile life inmates whose cases are up for review.

Some prosecutors countered that the heinousness of some of the crimes makes these inmates the rare teen offenders the court said could still be punished with life behind bars. “In this community, some of the most violent crimes we’ve had have been committed by juveniles,” said Ricky Babin, district attorney for Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes, who has filed motions seeking new life-without-parole sentences in four of five cases.

The moves by Louisiana prosecutors echo the aggressive approach in Michigan, where district attorneys are seeking to keep two-thirds of 363 juvenile life inmates behind bars for good. That state’s cases have been on hold for months now awaiting a ruling on whether judges or juries should decide them. The friction prompts agreement by prosecutors and advocates that the nation’s highest court likely needs to step back into the debate over how the U.S. punishes juvenile offenders.

“It’s definitely clear now that the court does need to ... clarify that life without parole is unconstitutional for all children,” said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “We’ve seen in certain states, in certain jurisdictions, that the standard that was set by the court ... is one that prosecutors and judges don’t necessarily feel compelled to follow.”

The court’s January 2016 ruling extended a ban on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders to those already in prison for murders committed when they were under 18. The decision didn’t lay out specific procedures for states to follow in reviewing the cases of those 2,000-plus inmates nationwide. Rather it said only that a lifetime behind bars should be reserved for the “rarest” offenders whose crimes reflect “irreparable corruption.”...

The decision ushered in a wave of new sentences and the release of dozens of inmates in states from Pennsylvania to Michigan, Arkansas and beyond — but also brought confusion and inconsistent approaches in other states, an Associated Press investigation earlier this year found.

In Louisiana, a law that took effect in August makes former teen offenders with no-release life terms eligible for parole after serving 25 years — unless a prosecutor intervenes. District attorneys had until the end of October to ask a judge to deny parole eligibility. Several district attorneys refused to discuss individual cases, and court paperwork they filed does not detail arguments against release. But prosecutors said their decisions were based on reviews of offenders’ crimes, their records in prison and talks with victims’ families. “These are all sensitive cases to victims. They lost a loved one in this,” said Scott Stassi, first assistant district attorney for Point Coupee, West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes. His office is seeking life without parole in all four of its cases....

Louisiana is being closely watched because the state has so many cases — only Pennsylvania and Michigan have more — and its justice system has a reputation for stiff punishment. A new U.S. Supreme Court petition filed by Pasquarella’s group and the national Juvenile Law Center calls out Louisiana for continuing to sentence juveniles to life without parole in 62 percent of new cases since 2012, including those in which offenders were convicted of second-degree murder. The petition seeks an outright ban on life without parole for juveniles; 20 states and the District of Columbia already prohibit the sentence for teens....

In New Orleans, with more juvenile life cases than any other judicial district in Louisiana, prosecutors are seeking to deny 30 inmates a chance for parole. The district has 64 cases, but nearly a quarter had been resolved before the new law took effect. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Jr. said the decisions should have been left to the state’s parole board, because it is better able than prosecutors to assess how inmates may have changed. The board will pass judgment on inmates whose parole eligibility is not opposed by prosecutors, but cases in dispute will be argued before a judge....

E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, thinks it is inevitable that the nation’s top court will be pressed to weigh in as prosecutors test the boundaries of the 2016 ruling. “Ultimately, whatever the court says we’ll abide by,” he said. The Supreme Court recently declined to hear two related cases, including an Idaho petition asking the justices for an all-out ban on juvenile life without parole. For now, that leaves decisions to local prosecutors, judges and parole officials.

A few recent related posts:

December 31, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Is criminal justice reform really "poised to take off in 2018"?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Washington Examiner article headlined "Criminal justice reform poised to take off in 2018."  Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform came back with such renewed energy this year after sputtering out in Congress in 2016 that meaningful bipartisan legislation is poised for success in 2018.

In October, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, announced he and a bipartisan group of senators were reintroducing the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would overhaul prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and allow for more judicial discretion during sentencing. The bill mirrors legislation introduced last Congress that failed after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to bring it up.

Then days later, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, reintroduced the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers In Our National System Act, which builds off of successful criminal justice reforms in the senators' respective states.

The CORRECTIONS Act requires the Department of Justice and its Federal Bureau of Prisons to find a way to reduce inmate recidivism rates. It also calls for lower-risk inmates to be put in less-restrictive conditions to reduce prison costs and allow for more resources to be shifted to law enforcement. The legislation also expands recidivism-reduction programs, and requires the federal probation office to plan for re-entry of prisoners ahead of time....

And finally, the Mens Rea Reform Act was introduced by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas, David Perdue of Georgia and Rand Paul of Kentucky....

Kara Gotsch, who oversees the Sentencing Project's federal advocacy work, told the Washington Examiner, she sees the likelihood of legislation passing as "small" and cited changes being made at the federal level in the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a cause for concern. "Areas to watch are how Sessions' harsher charging and sentencing policies take effect now that more Trump-appointed U.S. attorneys are being installed," Gotsch said, noting the Justice Department has predicted an increase in the prison population in 2018 after four years of decline under the Obama administration.

"Also, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is poised to issue new guideline amendments related to alternatives to incarceration which would expand eligibility for federal dependents to receive a non-incarceration sentence. I will be watching to see how far they extend it."

The Justice Department says it will "continue to enforce the law" as the nation faces an opioid epidemic and rising violent crime. “In 2016, 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. For two straight years, violent crime has been on the rise. Americans voted for President Trump's brand of law and order and rejected the soft on crime policies that made it harder to prosecute drug traffickers and put dangerous criminals back on the street where our law enforcement officers face deadly risks every day," Justice Department spokesman Ian Prior said.

Where Congress could fail in 2018, states are there to pick up the slack....

For example, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan signed an 18-bill criminal justice reform package in March, and state legislators in Florida ended the year championing various bills that they say would help reduce the state’s burgeoning prison population. A pair of measures are set to be taken up that would implement pre-arrest diversion programs statewide that Florida lawmakers say would reduce crime and incarceration rates, as well as a measure that would restore voting rights to some 1.6 million felons in the Sunshine State.

Other states such as New Jersey, Virginia, Alabama and New York elected candidates during the 2017 elections who openly support criminal justice reform, setting up the possibility for revamping at the state and local levels next year.

Phil Murphy, who was elected in a landslide to be the new governor of New Jersey, promised he would put the Garden State in a position to pass criminal justice reform. On his campaign website, he promises changes such as creating a commission to examine mandatory minimum laws, implementing bail reform to prevent someone from being stuck behind bars for being unable to pay a fine, and the legalization of marijuana “so police can focus resources on violent crime.”

"It's important to recognize that 2017 saw passage of criminal justice reform in red and blue states throughout the nation, in contrast to reforms stalling on the federal level," Udi Ofer, deputy national political director at the America Civil Liberties Union said. The ACLU worked to help pass 57 pieces of criminal justice reform legislation in 19 states, he noted.

"From sentencing reform in Louisiana and bail reform in Connecticut, to drug reform in Oregon and probation reform in Georgia, this year proved that the movement for criminal justice reform continues to be strong in the states, even under a Trump-Sessions administration," Ofer said, adding that in 2018, the ACLU expects "these reforms to continue, and to grow, particularly around bail reform, prosecutorial reform and sentencing reform."

For 2018, he said the ACLU is working on bail reform in 33 states including California, Georgia, Ohio and New York. In July, Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, which would encourage states to change or replace the process they use for allowing people to pay money to avoid sitting in jail until their trial. Ofer also said he expected the issues of mass incarceration and criminal justice reform to "play a larger role in federal and state elections in 2018" following the wins of candidates supporting such reforms in 2017.

As is my general tendency, I am hopeful but not optimistic about the prospects for federal statutory sentencing reform during a pivotal election year. If other possible "easier" legislative priorities get completed (or falter), I could see at least some modest reforms making it through the legislative process. But inertia can be a potent political and practical force in this setting, especially in an election year, so I am not holding my breath.

December 31, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, December 29, 2017

Interesting accounting of "Top Criminal-Justice Wins of 2017"

John Legend and Carimah Townes have this extended review of notable 2017 criminal justice developments at The Root under the headline "The Top Criminal-Justice Wins of 2017."  Here is part of the lead into the listing of 11 "victories," which I have then reprinted without the accompanying explanation:

The criminal-justice system took a hard beating this year — especially at the federal level. The Department of Justice’s head honcho, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, directed all federal prosecutors to seek the harshest charges possible in every criminal case, scaled back police department investigations, bolstered civil asset forfeiture, put military-grade weapons back in the hands of local police and expanded the federal government’s role in immigration enforcement.  Important crime statistics  —  including arrest data  —  were stripped from the FBI’s annual crime report, which is typically used to assess national trends and develop potential solutions. Police officers are still getting away with killing unarmed civilians.

Yes, this year was one of the worst in recent memory.  But what if I told you that there’s reason to hope  —  that there is still some good to latch on to?  Well, there is.  Here are 11 criminal-justice victories to prove it.

1. New York and North Carolina “raised the age.”...

2. The Senate passed critical juvenile-justice legislation....

3. Some juvenile lifers were released from prisons....

4. Thousands of convictions were dropped because of lab scandals in Massachusetts....

5. Louisiana passed a comprehensive reform package....

6. A progressive district attorney candidate in Philadelphia won the election by a landslide....

7. New York City announced a plan to close Rikers Island....

8. There are more eyes on prosecutors....

9. Use of the death penalty is still on the decline....

10. Poor drivers in California got some relief....

11. Multiple programs are helping formerly incarcerated people rebuild....

December 29, 2017 in Recap posts, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Wall Street Journal taking a close look at "Murder in America" while NYC hits a record low

Over the last few days, the Wall Street Journal has run these two extended articles under the label "Murder in America":

Meanwhile, the largest city in the US is making the largest headlines with its smallest body count ever.  Via Slate here, "New York City Set to Have Fewer Murders This Year Than Any Year Since the City Began Keeping Track":

Just days from the end of 2017, New York City is set to tally a record low number of murders for the year and serious crime, more generally, will have declined for the 27th straight year.  As of Wednesday, 286 murders had been committed in the city, putting New York on pace to dip below its previous homicide low of 333 in 2014.  To give some perspective to how far the murder rate has dropped in the city over the past several decades, the New York Times notes this year’s murder rate is on the verge of being “the lowest since reliable records have been kept,” an unthinkable turnaround from 1990 when there were 2,245 killings in New York City.

Other types of major felony crimes — manslaughter, rape, assault, robbery, burglary, grand larceny, and car thefts — have fallen since last year and, put together, are also likely to close out the year at historic lows.  The nearly 95,000 major felony crimes committed so far this year is on pace to best last year’s record low of 101,716.  In 1990, by contrast, there were 527,000 major felony crimes recorded in New York City.

December 28, 2017 in National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (8)

Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht raises notable sentencing issue in SCOTUS cert petition

As detailed in this new Reason piece, headlined "Ross Ulbricht Files Appeal to the Supreme Court on His Life Sentence Without Parole: Silk Road founder's appeal stresses the dangerous Fourth and Sixth Amendment implications of his prosecution and sentencing," a notable federal criminal defendant is bringing some notable issues to the Supreme Court via a new cert petition. The full cert petition is available at this link, and here are the petition's seemingly simple questions presented:

1. Whether the warrantless seizure of an individual’s Internet traffic information without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment.

2. Whether the Sixth Amendment permits judges to find the facts necessary to support an otherwise unreasonable sentence.

SCOTUS gurus know that the first question intersects with issues in the pending Carpenter case, and that fact alone might make this high-profile case a poor vehicle for getting to the post-Booker sentencing issue also raised. The petition, notably, suggests "It would be most efficient for the Court to resolve the question presented in this case now, while it is considering a related question in Carpenter."

SCOTUS gurus know that the second question is one that has been repeatedly avoided by SCOTUS since its Booker-Rita rulings wherein the late Justice Scalia suggested that, even within the advisory guideline system created by Booker, there must be some Sixth Amendment limits on findings by judges to justify lengthy prison sentences.  Despite pushing the matter, Justice Scalia could not garner enough votes for this Sixth Amendment issue to be addressed by the full Court on the merits before his untimely demise.  I am not really expecting a different reality now, although Ulbricht's lawyers astutely notes in his cert petition that Justice Scalia's replacement has previously suggested concerns on this front:

Shortly after Justice Scalia’s opinion in Jones, then-Judge Gorsuch similarly observed that “[i]t is far from certain whether the Constitution allows” a judge to increase a defendant’s sentence within the statutorily authorized range “based on facts the judge finds without the aid of a jury or the defendant’s consent.” United States v. Sabillon-Umana, 772 F.3d 1328, 1331 (10th Cir. 2014) (citing Jones).  Three years later, however, that question re- mains unanswered by the Court, despite intervening opportunities to address it.

A few prior related posts on sentencing and appeals of Ross Ulbricht:

December 28, 2017 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"No Trump windfall for private prisons yet, but some bet on gains"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Reuters piece, and here are excerpts:

Investors who bet on private prison operators as big winners from Donald Trump’s tough line on crime and illegal immigration are looking back at a bruising year of high hopes and disappointment. Some, however, say the stocks still offer good value even though an anticipated windfall under the Trump administration so far has failed to materialize.

They say the two listed operators - Geo Group Inc (GEO.N) and CoreCivic Inc (CXW.N) - stand to win contracts from states struggling with prison overcrowding, such as Kansas and Oklahoma, and have plenty of room to accommodate new demand....

The administration’s proposals to bolster the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency could help in the future though it is still unclear how much new money it will bring. “People are focusing on ICE and ignoring the state level opportunities,” said Jordan Hymowitz managing partner Philadelphia Financial Management in San Francisco.

Geo and CoreCivic shares soared after Trump won the White House, partly on expectations that detention centers they run for ICE would fill up thanks to an anticipated surge in arrests along the Mexican border. Yet the opposite happened - arrests declined for months after Trump's inauguration because fewer people attempted to cross the border and shares in CoreCivic and Geo reversed course after peaking in February and April respectively.

While detentions have been rising from month to month since hitting a year-low in May, the stocks have not yet recovered. CoreCivic now trades 37 percent below its post election high, while Geo is about 32 percent below its 2017 peak.

Investors say lack of clarity on how much business they will get from ICE, the companies’ biggest client, is holding the shares back.... The immigration enforcement agency, which cites its average cost per bed at $129 per day, accounted for about a quarter of CoreCivic’s and Geo’s revenue in the first nine months of 2017. Federal, state and local prisons make up most of the remaining revenue. ICE asked Congress for a $1.2 billion funding increase, but the latest budget proposal offered $700 million, according to Geo, and its 2018 funding remains unclear.

GEO and CoreCivic make up two-thirds of the roughly $5.3 billion per year U.S. private prison business, according to market research firm IBISWorld. However, potential state contracts promise to boost prison companies’ earnings and make them less controversial.... Investors said a pending Kansas Department of Corrections proposal for CoreCivic to build a new prison which the state would manage, would address some investor concerns by making the company a landlord rather than a prison operator. If copied by other states, such approach would open new opportunities for the companies, which mostly derive revenue from running their own prisons or government facilities....

Thousands of vacancies at CoreCivic and Geo facilities should also be viewed as a positive, because they could lift earnings with little extra investment, investors say. Hymowitz estimated that CoreCivic, which has around 15,000 empty beds, could boost by a fifth its funds from operations (FFO) per share if it could fill just a quarter of them. CoreCivic said in November it could add $1 to annual earnings per share (FFO) if it can open its eight idle prisons and boost inmate numbers in partially vacant facilities. Geo said in October that filling 7,000 empty beds could add $50-$60 million to its annual earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA), a roughly 11-13 percent increase to 2018 analyst estimates.

December 27, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Garden State perspective on sex offender castration ... for no obvious reason

This lengthy new local article from New Jersey, headlined "New Jersey child molesters won’t face castration threat any time soon," provides an example of how castration of sex offenders interests reporters even absent having an obvious reason to focus on the issue.  Here is how the article starts and some additional excerpts:

In a year filled with arrests for sexual crimes against child victims, there is a familiar refrain heard each time one of these arrests is announced.  “Castrate him,” is shouted from all corners of society and social media.

Almost 80 alleged child molesters or kiddie porn collectors were arrested this year by a regional task force.  None of those offenders, however, will ever have to face castration-style penalties if convicted in New Jersey Superior Court.  That’s because New Jersey, unlike a handful of states across America, lacks a law that would require certain sex offenders to be neutered or semi-neutered.

Removing a sex offender’s testicles or doping him up on testosterone-reducing drugs may sound harsh, but that is the law of the land in certain jurisdictions outside the Garden State. Several states across America have laws requiring certain child molesters to take so-called “chemical castration” hormonal drugs that curtail sexual desire by sharply reducing testosterone levels, but New Jersey state lawmakers have not seriously considered that idea since the turn of the century. Surgical castration — a medical procedure that physically removes a male’s testicles — is an option for certain Megan’s Law offenders in California who prefer to voluntarily undergo a permanent, surgical alternative to hormonal chemical treatment....

New Jersey politicians have concerns about the sexual exploitation of children — Republican Gov. Chris Christie on July 21 signed a bill sponsored by Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer/Middlesex) to strengthen New Jersey’s child pornography laws and establish additional penalties against leaders of child porn networks — but a politician has not introduced a castration bill in the state Legislature in over 20 years.

A state senator in 1996 wanted New Jersey to force male defendants convicted twice of aggravated sexual assault on a young child to receive chemical castration as punishment. Inspired by California’s example, former State Sen. Joseph L. Bubba (R-Passaic) introduced Senate Bill No. 1568 in the chamber on Oct. 3, 1996. He signed on as the primary sponsor of the bill that, if enacted, would have required chemical castration of certain sex offenders.  The bill was introduced in the New Jersey Senate and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it died without being acted upon. 

Bubba’s political career then quickly unraveled when he lost a GOP primary in June 1997.  No other politician since Bubba has introduced a chemical castration bill in the New Jersey Legislature.

December 27, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13)

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

"Association of Childhood Blood Lead Levels With Criminal Offending"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new research from JAMA Pediatrics published online today. The research examines what has been for some a popular theory to try to explain when violent crime increased and decreased considerable over the last half-century. As these "Key Points" reveal, the research does not support a lead-crime connection:

Question Is childhood lead exposure associated with criminal offending in a setting where the degree of lead exposure was not confounded by socioeconomic status?

Findings  In this cohort study of 553 New Zealanders observed for 38 years, lead exposure in childhood was weakly associated with official criminal conviction and self-reported offending from ages 15 to 38 years. Lead exposure was not associated with the consequential offending outcomes of a greater variety of offenses, conviction, recidivism, or violence.

Meaning  Responses toward lead exposure should focus on consequences for health, not potential consequences for crime.

The notable uptick in violent crime in the US over the last two years had seemed to significantly mute a number of earlier discussions of the prospect that reduced led exposure largely explained the major modern crime declines from 1991 through 2014. Of course, neither recent crime data in the US nor this study from New Zealand can itself conclusively prove or disprove any contestable proposition. But I am always inclined in these setting to assert that human behaviors of all sorts often defy any simple explanation.

Some prior related posts talking up lead-crime links:

December 26, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas season clemency headlines

President Trump only granted a single commutation this holiday season (details here), but the stories linked below document that a good number of state offenders in a good number of states were able to enjoy an extra merry Christmas thanks to Governors exercising their clemency powers:

Though I suspect this is not a comprehensive accounting of recent clemency actions by Governors, I still cannot help but notice that four of five Governors making holiday headlines with their clemency actions are Republicans.

December 25, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Noting some notable SCOTUS petitions

Via How Appealing, I noticed these two notable stories about notable certiorari petitions on notable sentencing issues.  The first linked story concerns a petition in a capital case that has been widely discussed, but that I doubt will be granted; the second linked story concerns a petition in a non-capital juve case that raises an issue that has been festering in lower courts ever since the Supreme Court's Graham ruling in 2010:

December 24, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Interesting (and sound?) outcome for juve who pled guilty to Slender Man stabbing

Serious crimes committed by young kids present a range of difficult sentencing issues, and a high-profile case of this variety was resolved on quite interesting terms last week.  This ABC News article, headlined "Teen who pleaded guilty in Slender Man stabbing case to remain in institutional care for 25 years, judge says," provide this account of the outcome:

A judge has sentenced one of the two Wisconsin teenagers accused of stabbing their friend in the woods to please the online fictional character Slender Man. Anissa Weier, 16, will now spend 25 years under a mental health institution’s supervision, with credit for her 1,301 days already spent in incarceration.  More than two years and six months of her sentence will be spent in a mental hospital before she can petition the court for release every six months.  If released, Weier will remain under institutional supervision until year 2039 and will be 37 years old.

“I just want everyone involved in this to know that I do hold myself accountable for this,” Weier told the court.  “I want everybody involved to know that I deeply regret everything that happened that day, and that I know that nothing I say is going to make this right, your honor, and nothing I say is going to fix what I broke.  I am just hoping that by holding myself somewhat accountable and making myself responsible for what I took part in that day, that I can be responsible and make sure this doesn’t happen again. I’m never going to let this happen again.”

Weier pleaded guilty earlier this year to attempted second-degree intentional homicide, as a party to a crime, with the use of a dangerous weapon as part of a plea deal.  A jury then found Weier not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. Earlier this year the court also accepted a plea deal for co-defendant Morgan Geyser, who pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree intentional homicide.  In accordance with the plea deal, the court also found Geyser not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect despite her earlier guilty plea. Geyser’s sentencing is set for 2018.

In a victim impact statement, Stacie Leutner, mother of the stabbing survivor Payton Leutner, wrote that she and her family accept the plea deals but petitioned Judge Michael Bohren to “consider everything Payton and those closest to her have endured over the last three-and-a-half years” prior to the sentencing. In the victim impact statement, Stacie Leutner wrote that some of her daughter’s wounds from the attack still “tingle and ache and remind her of their presence every day.”...

“We accepted the plea deals for Morgan and Anissa for two reasons,” Stacie Leutner wrote. “First, because we believed it was the best thing to do to ensure Payton would not have to testify.  Traumatizing her further didn’t seem worth it. She has never talked about her attack so asking her to testify and relive her experience in front of a courtroom of strangers felt cruel and unnecessary. And second, because Payton felt placement in a mental health facility was the best disposition for both girls.”  Although she has accepted the plea deals, Stacie Leutner writes that her daughter “still fears for her safety.”

Weier and Geyser were arrested May 31, 2014, after the stabbing of Payton Leutner, whom they left in the woods in Waukesha, Wisconsin.  Leutner crawled to a nearby road and was helped by a passing bicyclist before she was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries but survived. Weier, Geyser and Payton Leutner were 12 years old at the time. Prosecutors have said that both girls were obsessed with the character Slender Man, who is often depicted in fan fiction stories online as a horror figure who stalks children.

In January, Weier's parents told “Good Morning America” that their daughter had expressed remorse. Her mother, Kristi Weier, said that according to police interview tapes of Geyser and her daughter, "They thoroughly believed that Slender Man was real and wanted to prove that he was real."

December 24, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Making a space, yet again, for the airing of sentencing grievances this Festivus

Senator Rand Paul, as is his modern tradition, is using Twitter today to air Festivus grievances for all sorts.  My personal favorite is this one, which laments that an "octogenarian Mormon has better pot jokes than" he does.  But one of my grievances is that Senator Paul has not been quite so vocal an advocate for sentencing reforms in recent years, although he set the bar so high back in 2013 (even on Festivus) that I probably should not have expected him to keep at it so aggressively.  (Also, I wonder if having been the victim of a mysterious violent crime at the hand of his neighbor has impacted his thinking on some criminal justice issues.)

As I did here in this space a few years ago, I readily could rattle off a wide range of sentencing grievances against a wide range of persons.  But both Festivus and life are too short (and my family and friends too lovely and my stack of exams to grade too large) to justify spending too much time on grievances today.  But I always welcome, and benefit from, hearing others air their sentencing grievances; I welcome folks to do just that in the comments here.

December 23, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Reviewing the "hope and skepticism" engendered by Prez Trump's Rubashkin commutation

As reported in this prior post, Prez Trump made some minor modern clemency history by commuting the 27-year prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin. This NBC News piece, headlined "Trump’s first commutation met with hope and skepticism," provides some context and commentary on this decision:

After President Donald Trump commuted the 27-year sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, a former kosher meatpacking plant CEO convicted of financial fraud, prison reform advocates on Thursday immediately perked up.

Trump, they said, did something not even President Barack Obama — a strong proponent for reform — had done: commuted a sentence during his first year in office. It wasn't until 2011 when Obama — three years into his first term — commuted the sentence of a federal prisoner, although he had pardoned nine people a year before.

"I'm extremely excited about this and am very optimistic that Trump is going to surprise people," said Amy Povah, the founder of CAN-DO, a nonprofit that advocates clemency for federal prisoners convicted of drug crimes.  "I communicate with a lot of prisoners, and I guarantee you they woke up to renewed hope."

Still, the number of commutations that could roll out under the Trump administration remains unknown.  With so much at stake, some fighting for criminal justice reform are asking whether the Rubashkin case is a precursor of things to come — or just a rare one-off.  Neither the White House nor the Justice Department immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday....

Rubashkin had the support of both Democrats and Republicans in Washington for his commutation.  Notably, a push for the Obama administration to take action fell on deaf ears. That was even as Obama moved swiftly later in his final term to begin commuting sentences.  Obama granted clemency to 1,715 federal prisoners — more than any other U.S. president in history. The vast majority had been sentenced under mandatory minimum laws that were enacted in the 1980s and ’90s to address the scourge of drugs....

Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said he's concerned that the bar might be set too high for inmates seeking commutations — given that Rubashkin's case was high-profile enough to attract the interest of lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.  He also questioned if certain types of prisoners — those not associated with white-collar crimes like Rubashkin — would benefit from clemency.  "Most are just families who don't wield any political influence," Ring said.....

In recent days, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has suggested Congress could tackle criminal justice reform in the next year.  That's important to Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a lobbying group with advocates from the left and right.

She said a bipartisan bill in the House, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, which would allow certain prisoners to serve the end of their sentences in halfway homes or home confinement, could be a catalyst in overhauling the system.  "Voters are very well educated and realize that one-size sentencing doesn't work," Harris said.  "The president of the United States has sent a really positive signal" with the release of Rubashkin.

While Trump ran as the "law and order" candidate, his lack of specifics on the criminal justice issue, apart from how it relates to immigration and national security, could end up going beyond what Obama started and result in sweeping change, Povah added.  "We know that he's an outsider, and I don't think he always necessarily cares what's conventional," she said.  "So I kind of hope that that can benefit people."

Recent related post:

December 22, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Noting executions uncompleted in 2017

This recent Houston Chronicle story, headlined "71 percent of scheduled executions not carried out in 2017," provides another perspective on US execution data for the year winding down. Here are some details:

Nearly three out of four death dates scheduled nationwide in 2017 were cancelled, after courts and governors intervened in 58 executions across the country.  That's one of the striking takeaways from a pair of end-of-year reports that offer sweeping overviews of capital punishment in 2017.

The broader trends offer no surprises: executions are down, but Texas is still the nation's killingest state. Nearly a third of the year's 23 executions took place in Texas....

"The process is better than it was a decade ago," said Robert Dunham of DPIC. "And there were some potentially wrongful executions that resulted in stays this year that would have resulted in executions a decade ago, but there are still significant and troubling failures."

Ohio and Texas both contributed significantly to the number of cancelled executions, Dunham said.  The Lone Star state saw nine prisoners' execution dates called off this year, many due to claims of false or misleading testimony or forensic evidence. San Antonio death row inmate Juan Castillo had three dates called off, including one delayed due to Hurricane Harvey and another cancelled in light of claims that his conviction was based on false testimony.

Prior recent related post:

December 22, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 21, 2017

"Even Imperfect Algorithms Can Improve the Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times commentary authored by Sam Corbett-Davies, Sharad Goel and Sandra González-Bailón. Here are excerpts:

In courtrooms across the country, judges turn to computer algorithms when deciding whether defendants awaiting trial must pay bail or can be released without payment. The increasing use of such algorithms has prompted warnings about the dangers of artificial intelligence.  But research shows that algorithms are powerful tools for combating the capricious and biased nature of human decisions.

Bail decisions have traditionally been made by judges relying on intuition and personal preference, in a hasty process that often lasts just a few minutes.  In New York City, the strictest judges are more than twice as likely to demand bail as the most lenient ones.

To combat such arbitrariness, judges in some cities now receive algorithmically generated scores that rate a defendant’s risk of skipping trial or committing a violent crime if released.  Judges are free to exercise discretion, but algorithms bring a measure of consistency and evenhandedness to the process.

The use of these algorithms often yields immediate and tangible benefits: Jail populations, for example, can decline without adversely affecting public safety. In one recent experiment, agencies in Virginia were randomly selected to use an algorithm that rated both defendants’ likelihood of skipping trial and their likelihood of being arrested if released. Nearly twice as many defendants were released, and there was no increase in pretrial crime. New Jersey similarly reformed its bail system this year, adopting algorithmic tools that contributed to a 16 percent drop in its pretrial jail population, again with no increase in crime.

Algorithms have also proved useful in informing sentencing decisions. In an experiment in Philadelphia in 2008, an algorithm was used to identify probationers and parolees at low risk of future violence.  The study found that officers could decrease their supervision of these low-risk individuals — and reduce the burdens imposed on them — without increasing rates of re-offense.

Studies like these illustrate how data and statistics can help overcome the limits of intuitive human judgments, which can suffer from inconsistency, implicit bias and even outright prejudice.

Algorithms, of course, are designed by humans, and some people fear that algorithms simply amplify the biases of those who develop them and the biases buried deep in the data on which they are built.  The reality is more complicated.  Poorly designed algorithms can indeed exacerbate historical inequalities, but well-designed algorithms can mitigate pernicious problems with unaided human decisions.  Often the worries about algorithms are unfounded...

Still, like humans, algorithms can be imperfect arbiters of risk, and policymakers should be aware of two important ways in which biased data can corrupt statistical judgments. First, measurement matters. Being arrested for an offense is not the same as committing that offense.  Black Americans are much more likely than whites to be arrested on marijuana possession charges despite using the drug at similar rates. As a result, any algorithm designed to estimate risk of drug arrest (rather than drug use) would yield biased assessments.  Recognizing this problem, many jurisdictions — though not all — have decided to focus on a defendant’s likelihood of being arrested in connection with a violent crime, in part because arrests for violence appear less likely to suffer from racial bias....

The second way in which bias can enter the data is through risk factors that are not equally predictive across groups.  For example, relative to men with similar criminal histories, women are significantly less likely to commit future violent acts.  Consequently, algorithms that inappropriately combine data for all defendants overstate the recidivism risk for women, which can lead to unjustly harsh detention decisions.  Experts have developed gender-specific risk models in response, though not all jurisdictions use them. That choice to ignore best statistical practices creates a fairness problem, but one rooted in poor policy rather than the use of algorithms more generally.

Despite these challenges, research shows that algorithms are important tools for reforming our criminal justice system.  Yes, algorithms must be carefully applied and regularly tested to confirm that they perform as intended. Some popular algorithms are proprietary and opaque, stymieing independent evaluation and sowing mistrust. Likewise, not all algorithms are equally well constructed, leaving plenty of room for improvement.  Algorithms are not a panacea for past and present discrimination.  Nor are they a substitute for sound policy, which demands inherently human, not algorithmic, choices.  But well-designed algorithms can counter the biases and inconsistencies of unaided human judgments and help ensure equitable outcomes for all.

December 21, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"President Trump Commutes Sentence of Sholom Rubashkin"!?!?!

The title of this post is the headline of this press release from the White House this evening.  Here are the details:

Today, President Donald J. Trump commuted the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, an action encouraged by bipartisan leaders from across the political spectrum, from Nancy Pelosi to Orrin Hatch.

Mr. Rubashkin is a 57-year-old father of 10 children.  He previously ran the Iowa headquarters of a family business that was the country’s largest kosher meat-processing company.  In 2009, he was convicted of bank fraud and sentenced thereafter to 27 years in prison.  Mr. Rubashkin has now served more than 8 years of that sentence, which many have called excessive in light of its disparity with sentences imposed for similar crimes.

This action is not a Presidential pardon.  It does not vacate Mr. Rubashkin’s conviction, and it leaves in place a term of supervised release and a substantial restitution obligation, which were also part of Mr. Rubashkin’s sentence.

The President’s review of Mr. Rubashkin’s case and commutation decision were based on expressions of support from Members of Congress and a broad cross-section of the legal community. A bipartisan group of more than 100 former high-ranking and distinguished Department of Justice (DOJ) officials, prosecutors, judges, and legal scholars have expressed concerns about the evidentiary proceedings in Mr. Rubashkin’s case and the severity of his sentence.  Additionally, more than 30 current Members of Congress have written letters expressing support for review of Mr. Rubashkin’s case.

Because I have some personal history working on this case, I am not inclined to comment at great length beyond wanting to here praise President Trump for bringing some (non-political?) attention to his historic clemency powers through this grant. I also will link to some prior posts about this long-controversial case.

Some of many prior posts on the Rubashkin case:

December 20, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Lamenting that the "law descends into a ghoulish inferno" as it contemplates the execution of a condemned Alabama murderer

LawProf Bernard Harcourt has this lengthy new op-ed in the New York Times under the headline "The Ghoulish Pursuit of Executing a Terminally Ill Inmate."  Both the substance and style of the commentary is compelling, and here are excerpts:

When judges schedule a lethal injection for a terminally ill prisoner whose struggle against lymphatic cancer and extensive medical history has left him without any easily accessible veins, our law descends into a ghoulish inferno.  It is a dreadful place where our most august jurists ruminate over catheter gauges and needle sizes, and ponder whether to slice deep into the groin or puncture internal jugular veins. History will not judge us favorably.

Last week, only a few hours after the stunning electoral victory of a Democratic candidate in the Alabama senatorial race, the justices of the Alabama Supreme Court signed a death warrant in the case of a 60-year-old man who has been languishing on death row for 30 years and fighting cranial cancer since 2014.

I had barely managed to absorb the news from Alabama’s election when I got the call at noon the next day. I recognized the Alabama area code but thought it was a reporter seeking a comment on the election.  Instead, a clerk from the Alabama Supreme Court dryly notified me that the justices had just set an execution date for my longtime client, Doyle Lee Hamm.

Mr. Hamm has been on Alabama’s death row since 1987, after being convicted of murdering a motel clerk, Patrick Cunningham, during a robbery.  For over three years now, he has been battling a fierce lymphatic and cranial cancer.  In February 2014, Mr. Hamm was found to have a large malignant tumor behind his left eye, filling the socket where the nerves from his brain went into his eye.  The doctors found B-cell lymphoma, a type of blood cancer of the lymph nodes, with a large mass protruding through the holes of his skull. They also discovered “numerous abnormal lymph nodes” in the abdomen, lungs and chest....

His medical treatment and history has left him without any usable peripheral veins.  Back in late September, an anesthesiologist from Columbia University Medical Center, Dr. Mark Heath, conducted an extensive physical examination to determine whether there were any veins suitable to deliver a lethal injection.  Dr. Heath found no usable veins. He also found that Mr. Doyle’s lymphatic cancer was likely to interfere with any attempt to utilize his central veins.  In Dr. Heath’s expert opinion, “the state is not equipped to achieve venous access in Mr. Hamm’s case.”

Yet, without even addressing the risks associated with attempting venous access for a man who will be 61 years old with no usable veins in his arms or legs, the justices of the Alabama Supreme Court set an execution date.  Some other judges — perhaps on the federal bench — now will have to deal with the bloody mess.  And a bloody mess it would be.

Those other judges will have to pore over medical reports and sonograms — as a federal judge did in the case of David Nelson, another Alabama death row inmate, in 2006, before he died of cancer — to decide whether they can insert an 18-gauge catheter into Mr. Hamm’s femoral vein in his groin, or scalpel him open to find a subclavian vein, or poke around his neck to find his internal jugular vein; whether the thickness of the catheter would preclude pricking a vein in his hand where a butterfly needle can no longer enter; and how to navigate around malignant lymph nodes while trying to achieve percutaneous access to his central veins....

This is justice today. Court opinions filled with ghastly details about how we prick and poke, and slice and cut, and poison other human beings. Opinions that, someday soon, we will look back on with embarrassment and horror.  Our justice is so engrossed with how we kill that it does not even stop to question the humanity of executing a frail, terminally ill prisoner.

In Doyle Hamm’s case, the lack of peripheral veins and lymphatic inflammations create the unconstitutional risk of a cruel and unnecessarily painful execution.  But the constitutional violation is only half of it.  It is justice itself that is in peril.

You may recall the machine that Franz Kafka brilliantly described in the haunting pages of “The Penal Colony.” That machine tattooed the penal sentence on the condemned man’s body, over hours and hours, before sucking the life out of him.  Our machinery of death today makes Kafka’s imaginative machine seem almost quaint.  Ours not only tattoos the condemned man’s body with needles and scalpels but also irremediably taints our justice for years to come.

Stories like these continue to reinforce my belief that states seriously interested in continuing with the death penalty ought to be seriously involved in exploring execution alternatives to lethal injection.

Meanwhile for more background on this particular lawyer's work to prevent his client from being executed, one should check out this New Yorker post  headlined, "The Decades-Long Defense of an Alabama Death-Row Prisoner Enters a Final Phase."

December 20, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"Three ways conservatives can lead criminal justice reform"

The title of this post is the title of this new commentary authored by Bob McClure, who is president and CEO of The James Madison Institute. Here are excerpts:

As head of a conservative think tank dedicated to principles of limited government and constitutional liberties, I find two things increasingly obvious: Our criminal justice system is in dire need of comprehensive reform, and that effort is being led not by bureaucrats in Washington but by policymakers and leaders in the states.  I look around the country and see great strides by states like Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana.  I see policymakers in my home state of Florida starting to join the movement, and I want to get excited at the possibilities for real culture-changing efforts.

The reforms these states have passed will ultimately accomplish two things: They will improve public safety and will save millions of taxpayer dollars.  Nevertheless, the road forward is anything but a clear or easy journey.

In our organization’s research of policy initiatives, a particular statistic disappoints me more than all others: our nation’s incarceration rate.  According to data from the International Center for Prison Studies, the United States currently incarcerates approximately 737 people per 100,000 citizens, counting both adults and juveniles.  This puts us right at the top of the list -- more than Iran, more than Russia, more than Rwanda.  We owe it to ourselves to ask why this is the case and how we can correct course....

Drug and non-violent offenses have created a revolving door in our jails and prisons, both at the state and federal levels.  It’s estimated that as many as one-fourth to one-third of our inmates are in prison for drug-related offenses.  Many are there because of oppressive sentencing rules that have eliminated the proper role of judges and created an incarceration-industrial complex trapping far too many families in a cycle of prison, poverty and despair.  Consequently, we have seen our prisons jam-packed with hundreds of thousands of offenders who have the potential to be rehabilitated but who end up sliding further down the path of crime and punishment....

There are three specific actions that can and should be championed at the state level to continue the progress conservatives have made in addressing criminal justice policy reform:

1.  Restore the role of judges in the system. For far too long, judicial discretion in sentencing has been eroded, the unfortunate result of well-intentioned conservatives over many years.

2.  Begin to address the distinction between those trafficking in narcotics as a criminal enterprise and those individuals selling smaller amounts of drugs to feed their addiction.  We want to lock up the bad guys feeding poison to our children, but we should be able to distinguish between those hardened criminals and addicts needing treatment.

3.  Reaffirm the need for substance abuse and mental health approaches in the justice system. The cost for drug crimes is a sliding scale over time.  As individuals reoffend and continue the cycle, the long-term costs of incarceration, safety net use, and lower employability far outweigh the short-term investment in treatment and rehabilitation.

This trio of actions is just a small piece of a very broad conservative policy reform agenda that states must champion.  As we seek to promote conservative principles and at the same time address the challenges impacting our society from scourges like addiction, it is my hope that states can be the shining example of how to lead the way forward.

December 20, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Brennan Center provides its latest encouraging accounting of crime in 2017

Ames Grawert and James Cullen at The Brennan Center has authored this new report titled "Crime in 2017: Updated Analysis." Here is how it gets started:

In September, the Brennan Center analyzed available crime data from the nation’s 30 largest cities, estimating that these cities would see a slight decline in all measures of crime in 2017.  The report, Crime in 2017: A Preliminary Analysis, concluded by noting that “these findings directly undercut any claim that the nation is experiencing a crime wave.”

That statement holds true in this analysis, which updates the September report with more recent data and finds that murder rates in major American cities are estimated to decline slightly through the end of 2017.  Murder rates in some cities remain above 2015 levels, however, demonstrating a need for evidence-based solutions to violent crime in these areas.

Updated Tables 1 and 2 show conclusions similar to the initial report, with slightly different percentages:

• The overall crime rate in the 30 largest cities in 2017 is estimated to decline slightly from the previous year, falling by 2.7 percent. If this trend holds, crime rates will remain near historic lows.

• The violent crime rate will also decrease slightly, by 1.1 percent, essentially remaining stable. Violent crime remains near the bottom of the nation’s 30-year downward trend.

• The 2017 murder rate in the 30 largest cities is estimated to decline by 5.6 percent. Large decreases this year in Chicago and Detroit, as well as small decreases in other cities, contributed to this decline.  The murder rate in Chicago — which increased significantly in 2015 and 2016 — is projected to decline by 11.9 percent in 2017.  It remains 62.4 percent above 2014 levels.  The murder rate in Detroit is estimated to fall by 9.8 percent. New York City’s murder rate will also decline again, to 3.3 killings per 100,000 people.

• Some cities are projected to see their murder rates rise, including Charlotte (54.6 percent) and Baltimore (11.3 percent). These increases suggest a need to better understand how and why murder is increasing in some cities.

Like all data, especially crime data, these numbers can and likely will get spun in any number of ways.  The start of this report reveals that some will point to these data to accuse AG Jeff Sessions and others of being fear-mongers when talking about a scary new crime trend.  But AG Sessions can (and I suspect will) say that any significant 2017 crime declines should be credited to criminal justice policy shifts he and others in the Trump Administration have made this year.  AG Sessions and others also can (and I suspect will) assert that 2017 crime rates are still significantly higher than the historic lows reached a few years ago and that we should aspire to have them be lower still.

These dynamics help account for why tough-on-crime thinking and messaging persist: when crime starts going up, claiming we need to get tougher resonates; when crime starts going down, claims about the benefits of toughness resonate.  Though many in both political parties and many members of the public are coming to embrace "smart on crime" ideas, nobody should lose sight of the (inevitable?) appeal of tough-on-crime mantras.

December 20, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Notably lenient Nebraska sex offense sentence reversed based on notably questionable judicial comments

This local press report, headlined "Sentence of probation in Nebraska sexual assault case overturned; judge called 12-year-old girl the 'aggressor'," reports on an interesting state appellate court sentencing reversal.  Here are the basic details:

The Nebraska Court of Appeals has overturned a Kearney judge’s decision to put a man on probation for a felony sexual assault conviction.  In its ruling issued Tuesday morning, the Court of Appeals said Buffalo County District Judge Bill Wright considered forbidden and irrelevant factors when he decided to place Taylor Welty-Hackett on probation.

In February, Wright placed Welty-Hackett on four years of intensive supervised probation for attempted felony first-degree sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl on Aug. 1, 2015, in Kearney.  The charge was punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The Court of Appeals ordered Welty-Hackett’s case be sent back to Buffalo County, where he will be resentenced by a different judge.  A hearing date hasn’t been set.  Buffalo County Attorney Shawn Eatherton had argued that Welty-Hackett’s sentence was too lenient.  During the Feb. 23 sentencing hearing, Wright called Welty-Hackett’s victim the "aggressor" in the case saying, “She made the advances.”

Wright also went on to tell Welty-Hackett that he “screwed up big time, but I’ve got to find some way of bringing balance back into the system, given the nature of what’s been occurring in this community.”

The Court of Appeals said Wright’s statement about the promiscuity of teenage girls and the need to bring “balance” into sentencing sexual offenders went beyond consideration of the facts in the case.  “If the sentencing judge (Wright) went awry in this case, it was only in failing to provide a more detailed explanation on the record of the multiple factors in the PSI (pre-sentence investigation report) which clearly justified the probationary sentences. ... Such failure caused the trial judge’s brief mention of the defendant’s small stature to become the focus of attention, when in reality it was but a minor point,” the Court of Appeals ruled.

The full opinion in Nebraska v. Welty-Hackett, No. A-17-239 (Neb. Ct. App. Dec. 19, 2017) (available here), makes for an interesting read.  Here are some of its concluding paragraphs:

Unlike in State v. Thompson, the sentencing judge’s comments in this case were more than just a “brief mention” of factors not relevant to imposing sentence.  The court’s discussion of the general promiscuity of teenage girls and the need to bring balance into the system was fairly substantial.  Further, the comments had nothing to do with this particular defendant, in contrast to State v. Thompson.  We recognize that the trial judge in this case indicated he had reviewed the PSR before the sentencing hearing.  While the information contained in the PSR may well have supported the probationary sentence imposed, we cannot determine from the judge’s comments at sentencing how much weight was given to the permissible and relevant sentencing factors compared to the impermissible and irrelevant factors.  We note, however, the court’s final comments before imposing sentence that Welty was getting the benefit of the court’s desire to “find some way of bringing some balance back into the system, given the nature of what’s been occurring in this community.”

Because it appears that the trial court’s reliance upon the impermissible and irrelevant sentence factors largely influenced his decision to impose probation, we find it necessary to vacate the sentence imposed and remand for resentencing before a different judge.

December 19, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

"The Unconstitutionality of Criminal Jury Selection"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Brittany Deitch and available via SSRN. Though focused on jury rights rather than sentencing, the ideas here might be especially significant and impactful in jury sentencing arenas (both capital and non-capital). Here is the abstract:

The criminal defendant’s right to a jury trial is enshrined within the U.S. Constitution as a protection for the defendant against arbitrary and harsh convictions and punishments.  The jury trial has been praised throughout U.S. history for allowing the community to democratically participate in the criminal justice system and for insulating criminal defendants from government oppression.  This Article asks whether the jury selection process is consistent with the defendant-protection justification for the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury. Currently, the prosecution and defense share equal control over jury selection.  Looking to the literal text of the Sixth Amendment, the landmark case on the right to a jury trial, and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure for guidance, this Article explains that jury selection procedures undermine the defendant-protection rationale for the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.  Because the Sixth Amendment grants this right personally to the defendant and the Supreme Court has construed this right as intending to protect the defendant from governmental overreach, the prosecution should not be entitled to select the very jury that is supposed to serve as a check against its power.  After concluding that symmetrical power in jury selection undermines the constitutional purpose of the jury trial, this Article proposes two possible remedies.

December 19, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Notable account of notable application of death penalty in China

This article from The Guardian, headlined "Thousands in China watch as 10 people sentenced to death in sport stadium," highlights that criminal procedure and drug enforcement in another large nation can look a lot different than they do in the United States.  Here are the details:

A court in China has sentenced 10 people to death, mostly for drug-related crimes, in front of thousands of onlookers before taking them away for execution.

The 10 people were executed immediately after the sentencing in Lufeng in southern Guangdong province, just 160km (100 miles) from Hong Kong, according to state-run media. Seven of the 10 executed were convicted of drug-related crimes, while others were found guilty of murder and robbery.

Four days before the event, local residents were invited to attend the sentencing in an official notice circulated on social media.  The accused were brought to the stadium on the back of police trucks with their sirens blaring, each person flanked by four officers wearing sunglasses.

They were brought one by one to a small platform set up on what is usually a running track to have their sentences read, according to video of the trial.  Thousands watched the spectacle, with some reports saying students in their school uniforms attended. People stood on their seats while others crowded onto the centre of the field, some with their mobile phones raised to record the event, others chatting or smoking.

China executes more people every year than the rest of the world combined, although the exact figure is not published and considered a state secret.  Last year the country carried out about 2,000 death sentences, according to estimates by the Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights NGO based in the United States.  China maintains the death penalty for a host of non-violent offences, such as drug trafficking and economic crimes.

However, public trials in China are rare.  The country’s justice system notoriously favours prosecutors and Chinese courts have a 99.9% conviction rate. The trend to reintroduce open-air sentencing trials is reminiscent of the early days of the People’s Republic, when capitalists and landowners were publicly denounced.

The most recent public sentencing and subsequent executions were not a first for Lufeng. Eight people were sentenced to death for drug crimes and summarily executed five months ago in a similar public trial, according to state media.

The town was the site of a large drug bust in 2014, when 3,000 police descended on Lufeng and arrested 182 people. Police confiscated three tonnes of crystal meth, and authorities at the time said the area was responsible for producing a third of China’s meth.

December 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, December 18, 2017

Remarkable Utah Supreme Court opinions debating due process rights (and originalism) in parole decision-making

Via a colleague's tweet, I just learned about a remarkable sent of opinions handed down late last week by the Utah Supreme Court in Neese v. Utah Board of Pardons & Parole, 2017 UT 89 (Utah Dec. 14, 2017) (available here).  The start of the majority opinion in Neese provides just a hint on the remarkable 40+ page discussion that follows:

Michael Neese, a Utah prison inmate, has never been convicted of a sex offense, subjected to prison discipline for sexual misconduct, or otherwise adjudicated a sexual offender. Yet the Board of Pardons and Parole (Parole Board) has denied him an original release date for parole largely based on its determination that he’s a sex offender and his refusal to participate in sex offender treatment. Applying the principles we articulated in Labrum v. Utah State Board of Pardons, 870 P.2d 902 (Utah 1993), we hold today that the district court erred in granting summary judgment to the Parole Board on the question of whether it violated Mr. Neese’s due process rights under article I, section 7 of the Utah Constitution.  Before the Parole Board may take the refusal of inmates in Mr. Neese’s shoes to participate in sex offender treatment into consideration in deciding whether to grant them parole, it owes them (1) timely, particularized written notice that allegations they committed unconvicted sexual offenses will be decided; (2) the opportunity to call witnesses; and (3) a written decision adequately explaining its basis for determining that they’re sex offenders and asking them to participate in sex offender treatment.

Much of the discussion of the majority opinion is in response to the claims of the lone dissent authored by Associate Chief Justice Thomas Lee, which gets started this way:

I share some of the majority’s concerns about the fairness of the procedures afforded to Neese by the Parole Board.  The Board’s refusal to allow Neese to call and question his accuser made it difficult for him to persuasively refute the sex-offense charge against him.  And without a persuasive means of rebuttal, Neese is likely to face substantially more prison time than most other inmates serving time for his crime of conviction (obstruction of justice).  He would also serve that time without a trial-like adjudication of the sex-offense charge in question.

For these and other reasons I might endorse the procedures set forth in the majority opinion if I were in a position to make policy in this field — to promulgate administrative rules governing the Parole Board.  I hedge—saying only that I might—because I am certain that my understanding of the Board’s decisionmaking process is incomplete.  And I frame this conclusion in the subjunctive — speaking of what I might do if I were in a position to promulgate rules for the Board — to underscore the limited scope of our authority in a case like this one.  In deciding this case we are deciding only on the demands of the Utah constitution. We are not deciding what set of procedural rules strike us as ideal under these circumstances.

The line between those two concepts is too often blurred in modern judicial thinking.  And the blurriness is perhaps at its height when we speak of the requirements of “due process.”  Here, perhaps more than in other constitutional fields, it is tempting to think of the constitutional requirement of due process as a general charter for assuring a vague ideal of fairness — an ideal that will ebb and flow or evolve over time.  But that is not what is enshrined in the due process clause.  “[T]he Due Process Clause is not a free-wheeling constitutional license for courts to assure fairness on a case-by-case basis.”  In re Discipline of Steffensen, 2016 UT 18, ¶ 7, 373 P.3d 186.  “[I]t is a constitutional standard” with a specific, if somewhat flexible, meaning. Id.

I hope to find some time to read and comment on these remarkable opinions in the days ahead, and in the meantime I welcome reader perspectives on the philosophies and particulars reflected in this case.

December 18, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

"The Myth of the Playground Pusher: In Tennessee and around the country, 'drug-free school zones' are little more than excuses for harsher drug sentencing."

The title of this post is the headline of this extended article authored by C.J. Ciaramella and Lauren Krisai published in the January 2018 issue of Reason magazine. The full article merits a full read, and here is just a snippet of the important work in this piece:

Drug-free school zone laws are rarely if ever used to prosecute sales of drugs to minors. Such cases are largely a figment of our popular imagination — a lingering hangover from the drug war hysteria of the 1980s.  Yet state legislatures have made the designated zones both larger and more numerous, to the point where they can blanket whole towns. In the process, they have turned minor drug offenses into lengthy prison sentences almost anywhere they occur.

In some cases, police have set up controlled drug buys inside school zones to secure harsher sentences.  That gives prosecutors immense leverage to squeeze plea deals out of defendants with the threat of long mandatory minimum sentences.

In recent years, this approach has begun to trouble some state lawmakers, and even some prosecutors are growing uncomfortable with the enormous power — and in some cases, the obligation — they have been handed to lock away minor drug offenders.  Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk ran for office in 2014 on a platform that included not prosecuting school zone violations except in cases that actually involve children.  He says almost every single drug case referred to his office falls within a drug-free zone.

He's right.  Data obtained from the Tennessee government show there are 8,544 separate drug-free school zones covering roughly 5.5 percent of the state's total land area.  Within cities, however, the figures are much higher.  More than 27 percent in Nashville and more than 38 percent in Memphis are covered by such zones.  They apply day and night, whether or not children are present, and it's often impossible to know you're in one.

For a drug offender charged with possession of under half a gram of cocaine with intent to distribute, a few hundred feet can mean the difference between probation vs. eight years of hard time behind bars.  "In places like Nashville, almost the entire city is a drug-free zone," Funk says.  "Every church has day care, and they are a part of drug-free zones.  Also, public parks and seven or eight other places are included in this classification.  And almost everybody who has driven a car has driven through a school zone.  What we had essentially done, unwittingly, was increased drug penalties to equal murder penalties without having any real basis for protecting kids while they're in school."...

States created drug-free school zones thinking that the threat of draconian prison sentences would keep dealers away from schools.  But the very size of these zones undercuts that premise.  If a whole city is a drug-free zone, then the designation has no targeted deterrent effect. In practice, it exists to put more people in prison for longer periods of time, not to keep children safe.

"Drug-free school zone laws show how good intentions can go horribly wrong," says Kevin Ring, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  "Adult offenders who aren't selling drugs to or even near kids are getting hammered with long sentences.  Most don't even know they are in a school zone. These laws aren't tough on crime.  They're just dumb."

By covering wide swaths of densely populated areas in drug-free zones, states end up hitting low-level and first-time drug offenders with sentences usually reserved for violent crimes.  Tennessee's drug-free school zone laws bump up drug felonies by a level and eliminate the possibility of an early release.  For example, a first-time drug offender found guilty of a Class C felony for possession with intent to distribute of less than half a gram of cocaine — which carries a maximum six-year sentence — instead receives a Class B felony with a mandatory minimum sentence of eight years.

These penalties are zealously applied. Knoxville criminal defense attorney Forrest Wallace says that one of his clients received an enhanced drug sentence for merely walking through a school zone that bisected the parking lot of his apartment complex on his way to meet the informant who had set him up.  The client received a normal sentence for the sale of the cocaine, but an enhanced charge of possession with intent to distribute for passing through the school zone.  "If they can prove it's in a zone, you know they're going to charge it," Wallace says.  "That's just the way it is."

Undercover cops and confidential informants sometimes go to extra lengths to get these enhanced sentences.  David Raybin, a Nashville criminal defense attorney, says that police informants often purposely set up deals in school zones, a practice that has led to accusations of entrapment from defendants and rebukes from judges dismayed by the practice.  "The police will frequently have people sell drugs in a school zone so they can enhance them," Raybin says.  "The only cases that I'm aware of involving dealing drugs on or in a school are always kids selling to other kids.  Usually in those cases, you don't want them getting a two-year mandatory minimum. It's just totally in appropriate."

December 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Another look at trend to prosecute some opioid overdose deaths as homicides

This morning's Wall Street Journal has this new article on the (not-all-that) new trend of considering homicide charges in response to drug-overdose deaths.  The full lengthy headline of the lengthy article is "Prosecutors Treat Opioid Overdoses as Homicides, Snagging Friends, Relatives As U.S. drug deaths hit record levels, prosecutors and police are trying a tactic that echoes tough-on-crime theories of the 1990s." Here are excerpts (with a few lines emphasized for follow-up commentary):

After Daniel Eckhardt’s corpse was found on the side of a road in Hamilton County, Ohio, last year, police determined he died of a heroin overdose. Not long ago, law enforcement’s involvement would have ended there. But amid a national opioid-addiction crisis fueling an unprecedented wave of overdose deaths, the investigation was just beginning.

Detectives interrogated witnesses and obtained search warrants in an effort to hold someone accountable for Mr. Eckhardt’s death.  The prosecutor for Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati and its suburbs, charged three of Mr. Eckhardt’s companions, including his ex-wife and her boyfriend, with crimes including involuntary manslaughter, an offense carrying a maximum prison sentence of 11 years.

Mr. Eckhardt voluntarily took the heroin that killed him, but prosecutors alleged the trio were culpable because they bought and used heroin with him that they knew could result in death.  The indictments were part of a nationwide push to investigate overdose deaths as homicides and seek tough prison sentences against drug dealers and others deemed responsible.  It’s an aggressive tactic law-enforcement officials say they’re using in a desperate attempt to stanch the rising tide of overdose deaths.

Fueled by a flood of heroin laced with fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids, the overdose death rate in Hamilton County more than tripled between 2006 and 2016 to 50 per 100,000 people, or four times as many as those killed in traffic accidents.  Nationally, some 64,000 Americans died from overdoses last year, up 86% from 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A newly created heroin task force in Hamilton County has investigated hundreds of deaths in the past two years, resulting in a dozen involuntary manslaughter indictments in state court and 13 federal indictments for distribution of controlled substances resulting in death. “The deaths—that’s why. All the people dying,” Cmdr. Thomas Fallon, who leads the Hamilton County task force, says of the prosecution push. “Even in the cocaine and crack days, people didn’t die like this.”

At least 86 people nationwide received federal prison sentences last year for distributing drugs resulting in death or serious injury, up 16% from 2012, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a federal agency that determines sentencing guidelines for judges.  An analysis of news reports found 1,200 mentions nationally about drug-death prosecutions in 2016, three times the number in 2011, according to a recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group that supports decriminalizing drug use.

The prosecutions often employ tough-on-crime legislation born of the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.  These state and federal laws hold drug distributors liable for overdose deaths.  Selling even small amounts can result in decades or even life in prison.

In some states, such laws were rarely enforced until recently.  Benjamin J. Agati, a veteran prosecutor in the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office, has helped train police departments throughout the state in how to build cases under the state’s drug-induced homicide law, which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. The law was enacted in the late 1980s but was rarely applied before the surge in opioid deaths, Mr. Agati says....

The prosecutions sometimes nab members of drug-distribution gangs like that of Navarius Westberry.  Last year, Mr. Westberry pleaded guilty in federal court in Kentucky to operating a drug-trafficking ring that distributed up to a kilogram of heroin and 50 grams of fentanyl over an 18-month period that killed at least one person.  He was sentenced to life in prison.  But in courtrooms around the country, prosecutors are also sweeping up low-level dealers who are addicts trying to support their habit, as well as friends and family members of overdose victims who bought or shared drugs with the deceased. Some critics of the prosecution tactic say these users need treatment, not harsh prison sentences.

Critics see the prosecutions as more of the same drug-war tactics that have filled America’s prisons with nonviolent criminals but done little to stop illicit drug use. There’s scant evidence that fear of prison deters addicts from using, and for every dealer put behind bars, another is ready to take his place, says Lindsay LaSalle, an attorney with the Drug Policy Alliance.

Law-enforcement officials say they’ve seen some signs the prosecutions may be deterring dealers, including jailhouse phone calls they say they’ve overheard in which inmates warn associates that police are pressing homicide charges against drug traffickers.  They say drug-death prosecutions are just one piece of a broader strategy to combat the crisis, including urging addicts into rehab and taking down large-scale traffickers....

A two-hour drive south from Hamilton County, Kerry B. Harvey, the mustachioed U.S. attorney for eastern Kentucky from 2010 to early 2017, made prosecuting drug-deaths a priority around 2015.  He used a 1986 federal law that had rarely been applied in the district, which established a mandatory 20-years-to-life sentence for distributing drugs that resulted in death or serious injury.  The penalty grew to life in prison for defendants with prior felony drug convictions.

He saw the approach as a way to bring solace to families devastated by the increasing number of heroin-related deaths in the area.  Plus, the law’s stiff penalties helped persuade dealers to cooperate against bigger suppliers, he said. “When someone is looking at 20 years to life, they’re gonna tell you whatever they know to save themselves,” he said.

Mr. Harvey assigned three prosecutors to work on the cases and began working with local police to investigate overdose deaths as homicides.  Since 2015 one of the prosecutors, Todd Bradbury, has convicted 16 people for selling drugs that resulted in death, two of whom received life sentences.  One of those convicted was Fred Rebmann, who in 2016 sold $60 of fentanyl to Kathleen Cassity.  Ms. Cassity was six months pregnant and died within hours of buying the drugs. Doctors performed an emergency C-section, but failed to save the life of her unborn child.

At the time, Mr. Rebmann was 31 and spent his days scheming to obtain enough heroin to avoid withdrawal. “I would work odd jobs…steal…hold up signs for money,” he said in an email from prison. He also dealt drugs. “There were days I’d sell heroin to get my own, and there were days I sold scrap metal,” he said in a telephone interview.  Addiction doesn’t “disqualify” small-time dealers like Mr. Rebmann from prosecution, says Mr. Bradbury, the prosecutor.  “He knew he was selling something extremely dangerous to a pregnant woman,” he says.  Mr. Rebmann says he didn’t know Ms. Cassity was pregnant.

Mr. Bradbury offered him a deal.  If Mr. Rebmann pleaded guilty, prosecutors would recommend a 20-year sentence that, with credit for good behavior, could be reduced by three years.  If he went to trial and lost, Mr. Rebmann faced mandatory life in prison because of a 2012 heroin-possession conviction.

Mr. Rebmann took the deal and pleaded guilty in August 2016, but U.S. District Judge Joseph M. Hood, a Vietnam War veteran appointed to the bench in 1990, rejected Mr. Bradbury’s sentencing recommendation.  Ms. Cassity died “because you wanted to stick a needle in your arm,” Judge Hood told Mr. Rebmann, according to a transcript of the hearing.  He sentenced Mr. Rebmann to 30 years in prison. “I want it to be known here in Lexington… if you get convicted of dealing in heroin and a death results, 20 years isn’t enough,” Judge Hood said. “Time for coddling is over.”

The lines I have put in bold in the excerpts above are intended to highlight that, as I have sought to make in some prior blogging on this topic, that whether a drug defendant is prosecuted in federal or state court may ultimately matter a whole lot more than whether a defendant actually faces a formal homicide charge (or even whether the defendant can be linked to an overdose death).  As noted at the outset of this article, the maximum state prison sentence an Ohio defendant can face for involuntary manslaughter is 11 years, but that same defendant can be looking at a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence of 20 years or even LWOP just based on the quantity of drugs even without a direct connection to an overdose death.  Moreover, a defendant facing homicide charges in state court can perhaps hope that a prosecutor will not be able to prove to a jury a sufficient causal link with a drug death beyond a reasonable doubt; a defendant facing a mere allegation of causing a death in federal court has no right to a jury finding or to demand proof beyond a preponderance of the evidence unless that particular finding directly impacts the statutory sentencing range.

These realities serve to inform and underline the importance and significance of an (Obama-appointed) US Attorney like Kerry Harvey deciding to make these cases a federal priority.  This federal prosecutor's stated belief that federal intervention with extreme federal mandatory minimums brings solace to families and enables going after bigger suppliers ultimately likely results in far more prison for far more defendants than any decision by any state prosecutor to start leveraging state homicide laws.

Some prior related posts:

December 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)