Sunday, March 19, 2017

What crime and punishment questions might you like to see asked of SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch?

I am not really expecting any tough sentencing questions to be directed toward Judge Neil Gorsuch at his coming Supreme Court confirmation hearings, but that will not stop me from imagining what such questions might sound like or from encouraging readers to share their ideas on such questions.  And though I might readily spin out a long list of such questions here, I will be content for now to rattle off just two that come to mind on a Sunday afternoon during a brief break from bracket obsession:

A few prior related posts on Judge Gorsuch:

March 19, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Taking Medical Judgment Seriously: Professional Consensus As a Trojan Horse for Constitutional Evolution"

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

In the 2015 case of Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) undertook a revolutionary approach to its ‘evolving standards’ jurisprudence in punishments clause adjudication.  Hall demonstrated for the first time an earnest embrace of ‘professional consensus’ as an indicia of evolving standards — decided by the liberal-leaning wing of the Court, with Justice Kennedy as the swing.

Through an analysis of Atkins v. Virginia, a case which finally protected intellectually disabled offenders from execution in 2002, this article introduces the professionally-accepted psychiatric definitions of intellectual disability (ID) and challenges the assumptions — still visible across the nation — that intelligence is as straightforward as numerical fact.  It will be shown that an accurate assessment of ID for Atkins claims has so far not been forthcoming in many cases, with Hall as a prime example.

In Moore v. Texas — for which an eight-Justice Court heard oral argument in November 2016 — SCOTUS is faced with the chance to provide further, essential clarity to this debate. The immediate ramifications of Moore are likely to see this inmate spared from execution.  This paper develops the claim that the case could mean far more: The Court’s novel acceptance of professional standards in Hall has created a precedential Trojan Horse — one loaded with medical professionals and armed with epistemic knowledge, and one which provides the strongest opportunity for further Eighth Amendment evolution.  Should the Court follow the Hall trajectory in Moore, such an attack is primed for undermining another fundamental portion of capital punishment deemed abhorrent by medical professionals and civil liberties organisations across the nation: long — often decade-long — stays on death row, invariably in extreme solitary confinement.

March 19, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Remarkable accounting of hundreds of Arizona offenders believing they were getting life with parole after parole abolished in state

The Arizona Republic has fascinating reporting here and here on the significant number of offenders in the Grand Canyon State who were seemingly given life with parole sentences after such sentences had been legislatively abolished. This lengthy main article is headlined "Hundreds of people were sentenced to life with chance of parole. Just one problem: It doesn't exist." Here are excerpts: 

Murder is ugly, and murderers are not sympathetic characters. But justice is justice, and a deal is a deal.

We expect the men and women who administer the criminal justice system — prosecutors, defense attorneys, and especially judges — to know the law and to apply it fairly. Yet, for more than 20 years they have been cutting plea deals and meting out a sentence that was abolished in 1993: Life with a chance of parole after 25 or 35 years....

Danny Valdez, for example, was part of a 1995 drug deal that went bad in Glendale. One person was killed, and no one was sure who fired the shot. Valdez took a plea deal to avoid death row, and following the terms of the agreement, the judge sentenced him to life in prison with a chance of parole after 25 years.

The only problem: Parole was abolished in Arizona in 1993. As of January 1994, it was replaced by a sentence that sounds similar, but in fact nearly eliminates the possibility of ever leaving prison alive.

Valdez should have been sentenced to “life with chance of release after 25 years.” “Parole” was something that could be granted by judgment of a parole board, based on the prisoner's behavior and rehabilitation, without the approval of a politician.  But release is a long shot, because it requires the prisoner to petition the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, which can only recommend a pardon or commutation of sentence by the governor. Parole hasn't existed in Arizona since 1994.  Even if a judge's sentence includes parole, it still won't happen.  Yet since then, hundreds of defendants have been sentenced to life with chance of parole.

No one — not Valdez’s attorney, not the prosecutor, not the judge — ever told Valdez that he was not legally entitled to parole or a parole hearing.  He found out when he received a letter last December from The Republic.  He didn’t want to believe it. "Why would they sentence me with parole if it was abolished?" he asked in a return letter. “I was sentenced in 1995 and will be eligible for parole in 2020,” he wrote. “If I would of (sic) known that I would have to go through the process of pardons and commutations, I would of (sic) went to trial.”...

Between January 1994 and January 2016, a study by The Republic found, half of Arizona murder defendants sentenced to less than natural life sentences — at least 248 current prisoners in the Arizona Department of Corrections — were given sentences of life in prison with a chance of parole after 25 or 35 years.  The sentence has not existed since the law was changed in 1993.  But judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys continued to crank defendants through the system, seemingly unaware of the mistake.

Duane Belcher, a former head of the state clemency board, started gathering examples early in this decade, but he was fired by former Gov. Jan Brewer before he could do anything about it.  He took the issue to the Arizona Supreme Court, which oversees all state courts.

Belcher, appointed to the Arizona Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1992, remained in the office long after it became the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency under the new law. He served many years as its chairman. “I started asking the question in 1994 when the law changed,” Belcher said. “What’s going to happen when 25 years comes? Nobody seemed to have the answer.”

Belcher was only talking about how the state was going to handle those prisoners sentenced to life with a chance of release. Then he noticed that some defendants were still being sentenced to life with chance of parole. He started to collect examples, concerned about the inaccurate sentences. Belcher, a former parole officer and former supervisor at the Department of Corrections, looked at it from both sides.  “People are going into an agreement with the understanding that they will be eligible for parole, and it’s not the case,” he said. But he also worried about whether it could be grounds for reversing a sentence.  “We don’t want to go back to the public and say we paved the way to letting go a murderer.”...

Several prisoners contacted by The Republic were unaware they were not really eligible for parole.  “When they sentenced me, they did not say that parole didn’t exist,” Juvenal Arellano said in a letter to The Republic.  Arellano killed a man while stealing his car in 2004, and he, too, pleaded to life with chance of parole. “The reason why I signed the contract was for the chance to get out after 25 years, and that was in the plea I signed. … I am prepared to pay for my error, but neither should they hide something so important from me.”...

Among the components of Arizona’s Truth in Sentencing bill to make life harsher for bad guys was language to abolish parole and disband the parole board. It established the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency in its place. The sentence of “life with chance of parole after 25 years,” the third-harshest sentence possible in Arizona, was eliminated. It was replaced by “life with chance of release after 25 years,” 35 years if the murder victim was a child. The other sentence options for first-degree murderers were death or natural life, which means no possibility of parole or release, ever.

Life with chance of release, in effect, is a mitigated sentence, meaning it is imposed when there are circumstances that render the crime less horrible than a murder that calls for natural life or death.  Life sentences also may be imposed for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, sexual conduct with a child, and in certain cases where a repeat offender is deemed incorrigible.

The two sentences sound very similar.  And this has become a problem, because judges and lawyers tend to conflate the two and use the shorthand phrase “25 to life” to describe either, without defining the end result.  But they are substantially different.  Those eligible for parole could get a guaranteed hearing before the parole board, a state-appointed panel that had the authority to release the prisoner.  It was not a guaranteed release, but instead depended on the prisoner’s behavior and rehabilitation while in prison.  And if denied, the prisoner could re-apply after six months to a year.

But under the new system, there is no automatic hearing. Instead, the prisoner has to petition the Board of Executive Clemency, which would likely require a lawyer. The board can then choose to hold hearings on the prisoner’s likelihood to stay out of trouble and make a recommendation to the governor. Rather than parole, the prisoner needs a pardon or a sentence commutation. Only the governor can provide those.   In essence, the process ceased to be a rehabilitation matter and became a political decision. The earliest “life with chance of release” cases will reach the 25-year mark in 2019.  But there is no mechanism set up to handle the cases yet, and most of the prisoners are indigent and unlikely to be able to hire attorneys to start the process.

March 19, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

A Canadian perspective on constitutional proportionality review

Given the US Supreme Court's various struggles with proportionality review of sentences under the Eighth Amendment, I was intrigue to see this article recently posted on SSRN discussing how the Supreme Court of Canada has approached this same issue. The article authored by Lauren Witten is titled "Proportionality As a Moral Process: Reconceiving Judicial Discretion and Mandatory Minimum Penalties," and here is its abstract:

This article reconceives proportionality in sentencing as a constructive reasoning process rather than as an instrumental means of achieving a fair quantum of punishment.  It argues that the Supreme Court of Canada has wrongly adopted the latter view by determining the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences according to hypothetical outcomes. R v. Nur is a paradigmatic example of how this error presumes a false objectivity in proportionality assessments that leaves the Court vulnerable to critiques of judicial activism.

This paper claims that a process-based conception of proportionality offers a stronger defence of judicial discretion in sentencing than the current framework offers; it better respects institutional roles and provides a more principled basis for declaring the current structure of mandatory minimum penalties unconstitutional. The proportionality as a process theory contends that judges alone are capable of reconciling the values of three constituencies in sentencing — the offender, the judge, and the public — and that this tripartite justification is integral to moral punishment.  This paper shows how the process view of proportionality in sentencing is an implicit, but under-theorized, current in the law that should be explicitly developed as part of Canadian constitutional theory.

March 19, 2017 in Sentences Reconsidered, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, March 17, 2017

"Good, Bad and Wrongful Juvenile Sex: Rethinking the Use of Statutory Rape Laws Against the Protected Class"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Anna High that a helpful reader flagged for me. Here is the abstract:

This article considers the question of whether statutory rape laws can and should be used against members of the class they were designed to protect.  Many commentators have argued that meaningfully consensual sex among similarly situated and sufficiently mature teenagers should be beyond the scope of strict liability rape laws, but the question becomes more fraught in the context of the “contested outer limits” of adolescent sexuality — sexual contact among children and adolescents that offends social norms, leads to harmful outcomes or appears to be exploitative.  What are the implications of using statutory rape laws against minors to target “bad sex”?

I contend that even in relation to “bad sex,” there are serious policy and constitutional objections to the use of statutory rape laws against a member of the class they are designed to protect.  In jurisdictions without all-encompassing age-gap provisions, the response to sex among adolescents needs to be reformulated to ensure that the use of statutory rape laws against minors is confined to cases involving wrongful, as opposed to mere bad, sex, and is predicated on a clear and objective definition of exploitation, as opposed to mere fornication, as the punitive target.

March 17, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12)

Capital debates in central Florida after new prosecutor says she will no longer bring capital charges

This lengthy local article, headlined "Gov. Scott appoints special prosecutor after Ayala says she won't pursue death penalty," reports on a set of interesting developments in the heart of Florida concerning the heart of prosecutorial discretion and application of the death penalty.  Here are the details:

Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday removed Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala from the case of accused cop killer Markeith Loyd after she announced that she would not pursue the death penalty in his or any other case during her tenure.

In an executive order, Scott gave the case to Lake County State Attorney Brad King. “Earlier today, I called on State Attorney Ayala to immediately recuse herself from this case,” Scott said in a statement.  “She informed me this afternoon that she refuses to do that. She has made it clear that she will not fight for justice, and that is why I am using my executive authority to immediately reassign the case.”  Scott cited a state law allowing Florida’s governor to appoint a different prosecutor if he finds a “good and sufficient reason” to take it away from the original prosecutor.

Ayala issued a statement late Thursday, implying that her office would abide by Scott’s order. “Upon receipt of any lawful order, my office will follow that order and fully cooperate to ensure the successful prosecution of Markeith Loyd,” she said.

Ayala created a firestorm of criticism Thursday morning when she announced she would not seek the death penalty against Loyd or anyone else. “I have determined that doing so is not in the best interest of the community or the best interest of justice,” she said.

During a Thursday afternoon press conference, law enforcement leaders and families of victims expressed disappointment in Ayala’s intentions. Orlando Deputy Police Chief Robert Anzueto stood in front of Clayton’s widower, Seth Clayton, and spoke on his behalf. “My closure will be when Markeith Loyd is six-feet under,” Clayton told Anzueto....

Ayala’s announcement was a surprise and a position she had not made public before, despite a five-month campaign for public office, during which she was repeatedly asked about her stance. It also ran counter to information her employees had provided the Orlando Sentinel as recently as Tuesday.

Reaction came swiftly from state and local law enforcement officials, who were sharply critical. Attorney General Pam Bondi called the announcement “dangerous” and “a neglect of duty.”

But Ayala’s decision was heralded by death penalty opponents. “Ending use of the death penalty in Orange County is a step toward restoring a measure of trust and integrity in our criminal justice system,” said Adora Obi Nweze, president Florida State Conference NAACP. Orlando pastor Gabriel Salguero said, “By naming a broken program, Ms. Ayala creates hope in the community for working together to find better alternatives." Salguero leads the Calvario City Church and is president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition....

Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, expressed their anger with the decision. Demings said he supported Scott’s decision to take the case away from Ayala. “To put it bluntly, the law enforcement officers of Central Florida are outraged,” Demings said....

State attorneys have wide discretion in who to charge with a crime, what charge to file and what penalty to seek. State law does not require them to seek the death penalty.  Ayala, 42, has been state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties since Jan. 3.  She upset incumbent Jeff Ashton in a primary election in August with the help of $1.4 million in donations from a political action committee with ties to billionaire George Soros, a liberal activist.

Ashton said Thursday that when Ayala worked for him, she did not oppose the death penalty. He called her newly-declared position “ridiculous.”...  When he was her boss, she was assigned the capital murder case of David Lewis Payne, who’s accused of abducting his ex-girlfriend, putting her in the trunk of her car then killing her in 2015. “She came to me. She was really excited because she got her first death penalty case,” he said of Ayala.

During her news conference, Ayala cited several reasons she will not pursue the death penalty.  Studies have shown, she said, that it provides no public safety benefits, that it is not a deterrent and that it winds up costing the state more than cases in which a defendant is sentenced to life in prison. It also gives victims’ families false hope, she said.

“Some victims will support and some will surely oppose my decision, but I have learned that death penalty traps many victims’ families in decades long cycle of uncertainty,” she said. “ … I cannot in good faith look a victim’s family in the face and promise that a death sentence handed down in our courts will ever result in execution.”...

Former State Attorney Lawson Lamar, who served six terms prior to Ashton, and before that was Orange County Sheriff, had this reaction to Ayala’s announcement: “I, frankly, was flabbergasted. … When you don’t have a death penalty, bad things happen.” He predicted it would mean more homicides in Orange and Osceola counties. Murders, rapists and criminals whose crimes carry a life sentence now have an incentive to kill witnesses, knowing that they face no greater penalty, he said.

“I’ve been telling people, ‘Give Aramis a chance. … She’s smart. She’s well spoken.’ I think this is a big mistake. I hope the backlash from it causes her to reconsider, because in life, as an elected official, you’re supposed to protect, defend and represent the people.”

March 17, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Taking a critical perspective on the work of former US Attorney for SDNY Preet Bharara

David Patton, executive director of the Federal Defenders of New York, penned this notable commentary for the Daily News concerning the work of fired SDNY US Attorney Preet Bharara.  The piece is headlined "An honest assessment of Preet Bharara's record: Harsh prosecutions put more African-Americans and Hispanics behind bars," and here are excerpts:

Last week the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, was fired by President Trump, and the news media rushed to characterize his seven-year tenure.  Was he the "sheriff of Wall Street" for his insider trading prosecutions, a "showy pragmatist" for his affinity for television cameras, or the drainer of political swamps for his political corruption cases?  At least in part, he was surely all of those things.

But none of the tags do much to describe the actual work of his office and the overwhelming number of prosecutions it brings that have nothing to do with Wall Street or Albany.  Federal criminal cases rarely involve the rich or powerful.  Consistent with the rest of the country, 80% of federal defendants in the Southern District of New York are too poor to hire a lawyer.  Seventy percent are African-American or Hispanic.  The most commonly prosecuted offense type, by far, is drugs.

Last year, 45% of all federal criminal prosecutions in the Southern District were for drugs.  Two other leading offense types are firearms and immigration. The firearms cases are mostly gun possession cases transferred from state prosecutions in the Bronx.  They arise when NYPD officers search a car, apartment or person and claim they find a gun. Those arrested are plucked out of state court and brought to federal court for the express purpose of imposing lengthier sentences.  The immigration cases, so-called "illegal re-entry" cases, are prosecutions of people who were previously deported from the United States and came back.  Depending on their criminal history they typically face anywhere from two to seven years in prison before being removed from the United States again.

Bharara surely deserves credit for his efforts to clean up the financial industry and the political system.  But federal prosecutors should be judged primarily on how wisely, or not, they use the awesome power of their office to impose the many years of imprisonment on the thousands of people they choose to prosecute.  

And choose to prosecute they do. Unlike state and local prosecutors who largely react to police investigations and arrests, federal prosecutors have enormous discretion to decide who and what to prosecute.  Their jurisdictions are wide-ranging and overlapping, and many of the people they charge would otherwise be prosecuted in state court under less punitive laws.

Judging Bharara by those standards, his tenure was decidedly mixed.  His office greatly increased the prosecution of poor people of color using sprawling conspiracy and racketeering statutes to charge many low level drug dealers and addicts together with bigger players in the same indictments.  Some of the people charged were already serving time in state prisons for the same conduct.  Many others were caught up in "sting" operations in which the criminal conduct was initiated by agents and informants.

He also continued the programs begun by his predecessors in the Bush administration of prosecuting people for street crimes that were once considered the exclusive province of state courts.  Once again, those charges are brought almost entirely against poor people of color from the Bronx.  And across the board in drug and immigration cases, his office too often sought unnecessarily severe sentences....

When we evaluate the performance of top prosecutors, we should pay attention to whether they advance the goals of maintaining public safety while also reducing unnecessary and unequal terms of punishment.  And we should spend a lot less time concerned about how they handle the small sliver of cases that make the headlines.

March 17, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Eleventh Circuit panel declares Alabama murderer incompetent to be executed

A panel of the Eleventh Circuit on Wednesday reached the rare conclusion that an Alabama death row prisoner was not competent to be executed.  The majority opinion authored by Judge Martin in Madison v. Commissioner, No. 16-12279 (11th Cir. March 15, 2017) (available here), gets started this way:  

Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of a person who is incompetent.  Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399, 409–10, 106 S. Ct. 2595, 2602 (1986).  The Court has since clarified that a person cannot be executed if he lacks a “rational understanding” of the reason for his execution. Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 954–60, 127 S. Ct. 2842, 2859–62 (2007).  This standard requires the prisoner to be able to rationally understand the connection between the crime he committed and the punishment he is to receive.  See Ferguson v. Sec’y, Florida Dep’t of Corr., 716 F.3d 1315, 1336 (11th Cir. 2013).  The Supreme Court told us that if the prisoner does not understand this connection, “the punishment can serve no proper purpose” and cannot be carried out. Panetti, 551 U.S. at 960, 127 S. Ct. at 2862.

This habeas petitioner, Vernon Madison, is a 66-year-old man on death row for the murder of a police officer over three decades ago.  In recent years, Mr. Madison has suffered strokes resulting in significant cognitive and physical decline.  His lawyers argue here that he is mentally incompetent to be executed under Ford and Panetti.  Finding that Mr. Madison had made a substantial threshold showing of incompetency, an Alabama trial court held a competency hearing.  At the hearing, Mr. Madison presented unrebutted testimony from Dr. John Goff that his strokes caused major vascular disorder (also known as vascular dementia) and related memory impairments and that, as a result, he has no memory of committing the murder — the very act that is the reason for his execution.  To the contrary, Mr. Madison does not believe he ever killed anyone. Dr. Goff testified that due to his memory impairments, Mr. Madison does not have a rational understanding of why the state is seeking to execute him.  The State presented expert testimony from Dr. Karl Kirkland. Dr. Kirkland testified that Mr. Madison was able to accurately discuss his legal appeals and legal theories with his attorneys and — on pretty much this basis alone — concluded that Mr. Madison has “a rational understanding of [his] sentence.”  Accepting the testimony of Dr. Kirkland, the Alabama trial court decided that Mr. Madison is competent to be executed.  Mr. Madison argues that the trial court’s decision relied on an unreasonable determination of the facts and involved an unreasonable application of the law. We agree.

In so holding, we are mindful of the great deference due to state court decisions on federal habeas review, particularly when the state court is applying a general standard like the one in Panetti.  See Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 101, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786 (2011) (“The more general the rule, the more leeway courts have in reaching outcomes in case-by-case determinations.” (quotation omitted)).  But “even a general standard may be applied in an unreasonable manner.” Panetti, 551 U.S. at 953, 127 S. Ct. at 2858. Panetti may set out a general standard for competency, but the focus of the inquiry is clear. Panetti doesn’t ask whether the prisoner can talk about the history of his case or legal theories with his attorneys.  Instead, Panetti requires courts to look at whether the prisoner is able to rationally understand the connection between the crime he committed and the punishment he is to receive. See Panetti, 551 U.S. at 960, 127 S. Ct. at 2862.  One of the experts testified that due to a mental disorder, Mr. Madison was not able to make this connection.  The other expert never addressed this question at all. This record is therefore wholly insufficient to support the trial court’s decision.  We conclude that the state court’s decision that Mr. Madison is competent to be executed rested on an unreasonable determination of the facts and involved an unreasonable application of Panetti. We therefore reverse the District Court’s denial of habeas relief.

A dissent authored by Judge Jordan gets started this way:

After reviewing the record, I believe that Vernon Madison is currently incompetent.  I therefore do not think that Alabama can, consistent with the Constitution, execute him at this time for his murder of a police officer three decades ago. See generally Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930, 958 (2007) (explaining that a state cannot put to death a prisoner who “cannot reach a rational understanding of the reason for the execution”). But Congress has chosen to generally prohibit federal courts from adjudicating constitutional claims anew on habeas review, so Mr. Madison’s competency (or lack thereof) is not our initial call to make. Under the restrictive standards we are required to apply, see 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), and given the way we interpreted Panetti in Ferguson v. Secretary, 716 F.3d 1315 (11th Cir. 2013), I do not think Mr. Madison can obtain habeas relief.

March 17, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

New Sentencing Project report on "Immigration and Public Safety"

Via email, I got word that the Sentencing Project has released this new report discussing research about the impact of immigration on public safety. Here is the report's executive summary:

Foreign-born residents of the United States commit crime less often than native-born citizens.  Policies that further restrict immigration are therefore not effective crime-control strategies.  These facts — supported by over 100 years of research — have been misrepresented both historically and in recent political debates.

Starting from his first day as a candidate, President Donald Trump has made demonstrably false claims associating immigrants with criminality.  As president, he has sought to justify restrictive immigration policies, such as increasing detentions and deportations and building a southern border wall, as public safety measures.  He has also linked immigrants with crime through an Executive Order directing the Attorney General to establish a task force to assist in “developing strategies to reduce crime, including, in particular, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime,” and by directing the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to assist and publicize victims of crimes committed by immigrants.

By surveying key research on immigration and crime, this report seeks to enable the public and policymakers to engage in a more meaningful policy debate rooted in facts. Immigrants’ impact on public safety is a well-examined field of study.

A rigorous body of research supports the following conclusions about the recent impact of immigrants in the United States:

1. Immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens.

2. Higher levels of immigration in recent decades may have contributed to the historic drop in crime rates.

3. Police chiefs believe that intensifying immigration law enforcement undermines public safety.

4. Immigrants are under-represented in U.S. prisons.

March 16, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (7)

"Technological Incarceration and the End of the Prison Crisis"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by Mirko Bagaric, Dan Hunter and Gabrielle Wolf.  Here is the abstract:

The United States imprisons more of its people than any nation on Earth, and by a considerable margin.  Criminals attract little empathy and have no political capital.  Consequently, it is not surprising that, over the past forty years, there have been no concerted or unified efforts to stem the rapid increase in incarceration levels in the United States. Nevertheless, there has recently been a growing realization that even the world’s biggest economy cannot readily sustain the $80 billion annual cost of imprisoning more than two million of its citizens.  No principled, wide-ranging solution has yet been advanced, however.  To resolve the crisis, this Article proposes a major revolution to the prison sector that would see technology, for the first time, pervasively incorporated into the punishment of criminals and result in the closure of nearly all prisons in the United States.

The alternative to prison that we propose involves the fusion of three technological systems.  First, offenders would be required to wear electronic ankle bracelets that monitor their location and ensure they do not move outside of the geographical areas to which they would be confined.  Second, prisoners would be compelled to wear sensors so that unlawful or suspicious activity could be monitored remotely and by computers.  Third, conducted energy devices would be used remotely to immobilize prisoners who attempt to escape their areas of confinement or commit other crimes.

The integrated systems described in this Article could lead to the closure of more than ninety-five percent of prisons in the United States.  We demonstrate that the technological and surveillance devices can achieve all of the appropriate objectives of imprisonment, including both the imposition of proportionate punishment and also community protection.

In our proposal, only offenders who have committed capital offenses or their equivalents, or who attempt to escape from technological custody would remain in conventional bricks-and-mortar prisons.  As a result, our proposal would convert prisons from a major societal industry to a curious societal anomaly.  If these reforms are implemented, the United States would spend a fraction of the amount currently expended on conventional prisons on a normatively superior mechanism for dealing with society’s criminals.

March 16, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (2)

Focused look at midazolam as the latest (but not greatest) execution protocol drug

Earlier this week, the New York Times had this extended article about a recent development in modern execution protocols. The piece is headline "When a Common Sedative Becomes an Execution Drug," and here are excerpts:

[D]ecades after the drug, known as midazolam, entered the market, a product more often used during colonoscopies and cardiac catheterizations has become central to executions around the country and the debate that surrounds capital punishment in the United States....

The most recent controversy is the extraordinary plan in Arkansas to execute eight inmates in 10 days next month. The state is racing the calendar: Its midazolam supply will expire at the end of April, and given the resistance of manufacturers to having the drug used in executions, Arkansas would most likely face major hurdles if it tried to restock.

In Arkansas, where no prisoner has been put to death since November 2005, midazolam is planned as the first of three drugs in the state’s lethal injections. The drug is intended to render a prisoner unconscious and keep him from experiencing pain later in the execution, when other drugs are administered to stop the breathing and heart.

Supporters of midazolam’s use, which the United States Supreme Court upheld in a case from Oklahoma less than two years ago, say it is a safe and effective substitute for execution drugs that have become difficult to purchase. Death penalty critics, citing executions that they say were botched, argue that midazolam puts prisoners at risk of an unconstitutionally painful punishment because the condemned may be insufficiently numbed to the agony caused by the execution drugs.

A major legal test is in Ohio, where a federal appeals court heard arguments last week about the drug’s future there. “The states will be watching the legal proceedings out of Ohio, but also the on-the-ground experiences out of Arkansas, Virginia and elsewhere,” said Megan McCracken, who specializes in lethal injection litigation at the law school of the University of California, Berkeley. “Time and time again when you see executions with midazolam, you see, at best, surprises and, at worst, very bad executions.”

States have resisted such critiques, and during arguments last week before a federal appeals court in Cincinnati, Eric Murphy, the Ohio state solicitor, said midazolam’s use in a three-drug protocol “does not create a substantial risk of pain that is sure or very likely to occur.”...

[T]he drug’s critics have found limited solace in the courts, including the Supreme Court, which last month declined to hear cases from Alabama and Arkansas, both of which include midazolam in their lethal injection protocols. Those moves amounted to reinforcement of a ruling in 2015, when Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for a divided court, noted that the court had found “that the Constitution does not require the avoidance of all risk of pain.” He continued: “After all, while most humans wish to die a painless death, many do not have that good fortune. Holding that the Eighth Amendment demands the elimination of essentially all risk of pain would effectively outlaw the death penalty altogether.”

Indeed, some supporters of the death penalty, including people who have witnessed executions that included midazolam, have defended lethal injections and any pain they might cause violent offenders. Proponents also acknowledge that midazolam is far from a drug of choice for executions, but they blame abolitionists for effectively leaving states with limited choices. “No state would use it if they could get the barbiturates,” said Kent S. Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. “The opponents have created the situation where states are forced to use a drug that is not the optimum.”

March 16, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (10)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

AG Sessions talks again about "the challenge of violent crime and drugs" and about support for law enforcement

Jeff-sessions-attorney-general-630x354The Department of Justice now has posted here an extended speech delivered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions today in Richmond, Virginia (which just happens to be where I am headed tomorrow for a faculty workshop).  Those who have been following what AG Sessions has been saying in recent months (and really throughout his whole career) will likely not find anything all that new or surprising in this latest speech.  Nevertheless, I still found the entire speech and especially the following passages worth flagging in this space.  And I have highlight two particular sentences in the discussion of drugs that I have not previously seen and that could and perhaps should capture a lot of attention:

First, we should keep in mind some context. Overall, crime rates in our country remain near historic lows. Murder rates are half of what they were in 1980.  The rate of violent crime has fallen by almost half from its peak....  In the past four decades, we have won great victories against crime in America. This happened under leadership from both political parties, and thanks above all to the work of prosecutors and good police using data-driven methods and professional training.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans are alive today as a result.

But in the last two years, we’ve seen warning signs that this progress is now at risk.  The latest FBI data tell us that from 2014 to 2015, the violent crime rate in the U.S. increased by more than 3 percent — the largest one-year increase since 1991. The murder rate increased 10 percent — the largest increase since 1968.  And all of this is taking place amid an unprecedented epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse....

My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a “blip,” but the start of a dangerous new trend.  I worry that we risk losing the hard-won gains that have made America a safer and more prosperous place.  While we can hope for the best, we can’t afford to be complacent.  When crime rates move in the wrong direction, they can move quickly....

Last month the President gave us clear direction, issuing three executive orders that direct the federal government to reduce crime and restore public safety. This task will be a top priority of the Department of Justice during my time as Attorney General. I’d like to talk briefly about how we’re tackling this challenge.

First, we’re making sure the federal government focuses our resources and efforts on this surge in violent crime.  Two weeks ago, I announced the formation of a Department of Justice Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. It includes crime reduction experts from throughout the Department of Justice, including the heads of the FBI, the ATF, the DEA and the U.S. Marshals Service.  The task force will evaluate everything we are doing at the federal level.

Second: We need to use every lawful tool we have to get the most violent offenders off our streets. In recent years, we have seen a significant shift in the priority given to prosecuting firearms offenders at the federal level.  This trend will end.  This Department of Justice will systematically prosecute criminals who use guns in committing crimes....

Third: To turn back this rising tide of violent crime, we need to confront the heroin and opioid crisis in our nation — and dismantle the transnational cartels that bring drugs and violence into our neighborhoods.

Our nation is in the throes of a heroin and opioid epidemic.  Overdose deaths more than tripled between 2010 and 2014.  According to the CDC, about 140 Americans on average now die from a drug overdose each day.  That means every three weeks, we are losing as many American lives to drug overdoses as we lost in the 9/11 attacks.  Illegal drugs are flooding across our southern border and into cities across our country, bringing violence, addiction, and misery.  We have also seen an increase in the trafficking of new, low-cost heroin by Mexican drug cartels working with local street gangs.  As the market for this heroin expands, gangs fight for territory and new customers and neighborhoods are caught in the crossfire.

There are three main ways to fight the scourge of drugs: criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention.  Criminal enforcement is essential to stop both the transnational cartels that ship drugs into our country, and the thugs and gangs who use violence and extortion to move their product.  One of the President’s executive orders directed the Justice Department to dismantle these organizations and gangs — and we will do just that.

Treatment programs are also vital. But treatment often comes too late to save people from addiction or death.  So we need to focus on the third way we can fight drug use: preventing people from ever taking drugs in the first place.

I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use.  But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable.  I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store.  And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana — so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.

In the ’80s and ’90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction.  We can do this again. Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices. We can reduce the use of drugs, save lives and turn back the surge in crime that inevitably follows in the wake of increased drug abuse.

Finally: The federal government alone cannot meet the challenge of violent crime and drugs — so we need to protect and support our brave men and women in law enforcement. About 85 percent of all law enforcement officers in our nation are not federal, but state and local. These are the men and women on the front lines — the ones doing most of the tough and often dangerous work that keeps our neighborhoods safe....

The new challenge of violent crime in our nation is real — and the task that lies before us is clear. We need to resist the temptation to ignore or downplay this crisis. Instead, we must tackle it head-on, to ensure justice and safety for all Americans. We will enforce our laws and put bad men behind bars. We will fight the scourge of drug abuse. And we will support the brave men and women of law enforcement, as they work day and night to protect us. Together, let us act to meet this challenge, so that our children will not look back and say that we let slip from our grasp all we had done to make America a safer place.

I find it quite interesting and significant that AG Sessions, in the first sentence highlighted above, has highlighted the severity of the current US drug problem in term of the number of deaths caused by the worst and deadliest terrorist attack in US history.  The decision to frame the problem in these terms reveals just how seriously the Attorney General sees the problem, and I am in some sense inclined to respect and applaud this framing in part because I fear a lot of people who have not been directly touched by the modern opioid epidemic do not fully appreciate how many lives are being lost to it.

Ironically, though, the kind of wise intensity I see reflected in the first sentence highlighted above is undercut but what strikes me as a misguided intensity reflected in the second sentence highlighted above.  Because tens of thousands of individuals are dying for opioid overdoses and nobody dies from a marijuana overdoes, it make a whole lot of sense to me that a whole lot of people would see a whole lot of value in encouraging people to trade an opioid dependency for a marijuana dependency.  (And this simple analysis, of course, leaves out the statistically reality that the vast majority of people who use marijuana do not become dependent on it.) 

March 15, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Noting how prisons serve as a kind of public works program in rural areas

This recent Business Insider commentary authored by John Eason provides an important reminder of some economic realities integral to the modern American prison system. The piece is headlined "The prison business is booming in rural America and there's no end in sight," and here are excerpts:

While much has been written about mass incarceration, less is known about the prison building boom and the role it plays in slowing reform of the criminal justice system.  As I explain in my book, "Big House on the Prairie," the number of prisons in the US swelled between 1970 and 2000, from 511 to nearly 1,663.  Prisons constructed during that time cover nearly 600 square miles, an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island. More than 80 percent of these facilities are operated by states, approximately 10 percent are federal facilities and the rest are private.

The prison boom is a massive public works program that has taken place virtually unnoticed because roughly 70 percent of prisons were built in rural communities. Most of this prison building has occurred in conservative southern states like Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas.  Much of how we think about prison building is clouded by the legacy of racism and economic exploitation endemic to the US criminal justice system. Many feel that prison building is the end product of racist policies and practices, but my research turned up a more complicated relationship.

People of color have undoubtedly suffered from the expansion of prisons, where they are disproportionately locked up, but they have also benefited. Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented among the nation’s 450,000 correctional officers.  Prisons are also more likely to be built in towns with higher black and Latino populations. Many may be surprised to learn that residents of these often distressed rural communities view local prisons in a positive light....

Because rural communities have grown increasingly dependent on prisons, they will not be easily convinced to give them up.  My research shows that for many struggling rural communities plagued by problems most associate with urban neighborhoods — poverty, crime, residential segregation, de-industrialization and failing schools — prisons offer a means of survival. Prisons provide a short-term boost to the local economy by increasing median family income and home value while reducing unemployment and poverty....

It doesn’t look like the footprint of prisons will be shrinking any time soon. Given our current political climate, it’s more likely we will see more prisons built. Weaning rural communities off the prison economy will mean considering alternative investment strategies like green industries. If we do not provide creative alternatives to depressed rural communities, we stand little chance in reducing their over-reliance on prisons.

March 15, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Split en banc Eleventh Circuit writes at length restricting habeas authority in ACCA case

The Eleventh Circuit has a massive new en banc opinion about federal habeas law in McCarthan v. Director of Goodwill Industries-Suncoast, Inc., No. 12-14989 (11th Cir. March 14, 2017) (available here). The start of the majority opinion in McCarthan, which was authored by Judge Willaim Pryor, should provide enough context for interested readers to figure out why this McCarthan decision engendered a bunch of concurring and dissenting opinions. Here is the start of a whole set of opinions that together runs nearly 200 pages:

This appeal requires us to decide whether a change in caselaw entitles a federal prisoner to an additional round of collateral review of his sentence.  Congress gives a federal prisoner like Dan McCarthan one opportunity to move to vacate his sentence unless that remedy is “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e).  When McCarthan pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), he understood that the district court would enhance his sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act, id. § 924(e).  He did not appeal that sentence.  When McCarthan later moved to vacate his sentence, he again said nothing about the enhancement. After foregoing those opportunities to complain about the enhancement of his sentence, McCarthan petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus.  McCarthan argues that his earlier motion to vacate was inadequate to test his objection to his sentence enhancement because our caselaw about the Armed Career Criminal Act has changed. But because the motion to vacate gave McCarthan an opportunity to challenge his sentence enhancement, his remedy was not inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his sentence, regardless of any later change in caselaw.

For eighteen years, our Court has maintained that a change in caselaw may trigger an additional round of collateral review, see Wofford v. Scott, 177 F.3d 1236 (11th Cir. 1999), but our precedents have ignored the text of the statute. As we struggled to apply our precedents, we employed a five-factor test and granted relief only twice.  See Mackey v. Warden, FCC Coleman-Medium, 739 F.3d 657 (11th Cir. 2014); Bryant v. Warden, FCC Coleman-Medium, 738 F.3d 1253 (11th Cir. 2013).  Because our precedents have failed to adhere to the text of section 2255(e), have not incurred significant reliance interests, and have proved unworkable, today we overrule them.  We join the Tenth Circuit in applying the law as Congress wrote it, see Prost v. Anderson, 636 F.3d 578 (10th Cir. 2011) (Gorsuch, J.), and hold that a change in caselaw does not make a motion to vacate a prisoner’s sentence “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention,” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e).  We affirm the dismissal of McCarthan’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

March 14, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Prison Policy Initiative releases 2017 version of "Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie"

Pie2017The Prison Policy Initiative has an updated version of its terrific incarceration "pie" graphic and report, which is available at this link (along with a larger version of the pie graphic reprinted here). Here is part of the report's introductory text and subsequent discussion:

Wait, does the United States have 1.3 million or more than 2 million people in prison? Are most people in state and federal prisons locked up for drug offenses? Frustrating questions like these abound because our systems of confinement are so fragmented and controlled by various entities. There is a lot of interesting and valuable research out there, but varying definitions make it hard — for both people new to criminal justice and for experienced policy wonks — to get the big picture.

This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement. The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories. And we go deeper to provide further detail on why people are locked up in all of those different types of facilities.

Pie chart showing the number of people locked up on a given day in the United States by facility type and the underlying offense using the newest data available in March 2017.Pie chart showing the number of people locked up on a given day in the United States in jails, by convicted and not convicted status, and by the underlying offense, using the newest data available in March 2017. Graph showing the number of people in jails from 1983 to 2014 by whether they have been convicted or not. The number of convicted people stopped growing in 1999, but the number of unconvicted people continues to grow.Graph showing, for the years 2007 to 2015, the number of people ~~ 10.9 to 13.6 million ~~ a year who are admitted to jail per year and the number of people ~~ about 700,000 to 800,000 ~~ who are in jail on a given day.Graph showing the incarcerated populations in federal prisons, state prisons, and local jails from 1925 to 2015. The state prison and jail populations grew exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s, and began to decline slowly after 2008, while federal prison populations have always been smaller and show less change over time.

While this pie chart provides a comprehensive snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities and the far larger universe of people whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system. Every year, 641,000 people walk out of prison gates, but people go to jail over 11 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted. Some have just been arrested and will make bail in the next few hours or days, and others are too poor to make bail and must remain behind bars until their trial. Only a small number (187,000 on any given day) have been convicted, generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year....

With a sense of the big picture, a common follow-up question might be: how many people are locked up for a drug offense? We know that almost half a million people are locked up because of a drug offense. The data confirms that nonviolent drug convictions are a defining characteristic of the federal prison system, but play only a supporting role at the state and local levels. While most people in state and local facilities are not locked up for drug offenses, most states’ continued practice of arresting people for drug possession destabilizes individual lives and communities. Drug arrests give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, which then reduce employment prospects and increase the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses.

All of the offense data presented comes with an important set of caveats. A person in prison for multiple offenses is reported only for the most serious offense so, for example, there are people in prison for “violent” offenses who might have also been convicted of a drug offense. Further, almost all convictions are the result of plea bargains, where people plead guilty to a lesser offense, perhaps of a different category or one that they may not have actually committed.

And many of these categories group together people convicted of a wide range of offenses. For example, “murder” is generally considered to be an extremely serious offense, but “murder” groups together the rare group of serial killers, with people who committed acts that are unlikely for reasons of circumstance or advanced age to ever happen again, with offenses that the average American may not consider to be murder at all. For example, the felony murder rule says that if someone dies during the commission of a felony, everyone involved can be as guilty of murder as the person who pulled the trigger. Driving a getaway car during a bank robbery where someone was accidentally killed is indeed a serious offense, but many may be surprised that this is considered murder.

March 14, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Florida law now officially requires jury unanimity for death verdicts

Roughly fourteen months after the Supreme Court in Hurst found constitutional problems with the way Florida operationalized juries in its capital punishment scheme, and after some legislative and litigation fits and starts, the state's lawmakers have now reformed its system to require jury unanimity at sentencing.  This local article, headlined "Gov. Rick Scott signs new unanimous jury standard for death penalty into law," reports on the basics:

It now takes a unanimous jury to sentence someone to death in the state of Florida. Gov. Rick Scott on Monday night signed into law a new requirement that raises the jury standard for death penalty cases from 10-2.  The legal change was made necessary by a Florida Supreme Court ruling in October that found the state's sentencing laws unconstitutional.

The Legislature passed the new rules (SB 280) overwhelmingly last week.  The death penalty fix is the first major law passed and signed in the 2017 session.  Florida joins most other states in requiring unanimous juries....  "Our goal was that the death penalty cases proceed in an orderly manner under a law that was constitutional," Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said last week.

Scott's signature also allows prosecutors to move forward with cases in which they plan to seek the death penalty.  Uncertainty around the court's order in Hurst vs. Florida put a pause on new death sentences.

In passing the death penalty fix, the Legislature opted not to address the hundreds of existing death row inmates whose cases were decided under sentencing laws thrown out by the courts.  Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a former prosecutor and the House Judiciary chairman, said he wanted to deal with this issue and left it up to the courts to handle existing death cases decided by a nonunanimous jury.  Some of those inmates have already been granted a new sentencing hearing.

Just three lawmakers voted against the death penalty fix: Two House Democrats, Joseph Geller of Aventura and Robert Asencio of Miami, who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds; and Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill. His was a protest vote, Ingoglia said.  "With a unanimous jury, you need all 12," he said Friday.  "You can have one activist and one vote and prevent the death penalty from kicking in."

March 14, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 13, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases 2016 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics

Via email I received this cursory report on the publication of lots of federal sentencing data that is anything but cursory:

The United States Sentencing Commission’s 2016 Annual Report and 2016 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics are now available online.

The Annual Report provides an overview of the Commission’s activities and accomplishments in fiscal year 2016.

The Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics presents tables, figures, and charts on selected district, circuit, and national sentencing data for fiscal year 2016. The Commission collected and analyzed data from approximately 315,000 court documents for nearly 68,000 federal criminal cases in the production of this year’s Sourcebook.

I am hoping to find time to churn over a lot of the data in these reports, but already from the start of the 2016 Annual Report these data items jumped out:

March 13, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

A notable pitch (from a notable author) to look at criminal justice reform as a "women's issue"

The Hill today published this notable new commentary authored by Mia Love and Holly Harris under the headline "Criminal justice reform: A women’s issue." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The media has devoted a lot of ink and airtime to the sky-high incarceration rates here in the U.S., but sadly, that coverage often ignores a key demographic: women.  The female prison population has spiked in recent years, and since Wednesday marked International Women’s Day, we thought this would be a good time to shed more light on this disturbing trend.

Between 1980 and 2014, the number of women in prison grew by an alarming 700 percent — increasing at a rate 50 percent higher than men. Over the same period, the number of women in local jails has increased 14-fold. This impact falls disproportionately on African-American women, whose rate of imprisonment is double that of white women.

Those statistics are even more disheartening when you consider approximately 60 percent of women in prison are mothers. We need to take a serious look at what it means for those women — and the children they leave behind....

Women in the federal system are more likely to be incarcerated for a nonviolent offense.  Some 94 percent of women in federal prison are serving a sentence for nonviolent drug, property or public-order offenses, as well as 63 percent of women in state prisons.  Our system needs to do better addressing the root causes of these crimes and offering alternatives to incarceration for women who pose no grave threat to society.  We need to pursue policies that offer better access to community supervision programs and treatment instead of jail time for those with drug addictions....

While female incarceration declined 2 percentage points between 2014 and 2015, criminal-justice reform is still as critical as ever.  As the laboratories of democracy, red and blue states across our nation have enacted innovative reforms that have prioritized public safety while strengthening families, ultimately benefiting society as a whole.

We must pay more attention to the spike in female inmates and, more importantly, the emotional and financial costs of women in and out of prison.  As a society we are not only failing ourselves, we are failing our mothers, wives, and sisters.  For that reason — and so many others — we hope Congress moves comprehensive criminal-justice reform to the president’s desk in 2017.

Astute readers perhaps recall that Mia Love holds the notable distinction of being the first black Republican woman ever elected to Congress. As this post from 2014 after her election reveals, I had an inkling that Mia Love might be inclined to become an important voice in support of criminal justice reform.  This latest commentary suggests that inkling is proving accurate.

March 13, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Reassessing Prosecutorial Power Through the Lens of Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this new and notable book review authored by Jeffrey Bellin. Here is the abstract:

Prosecutors have long been the Darth Vader of academic writing: mysterious, all-powerful and, for the most part, bad. This uber-prosecutor theme flows like the force through John Pfaff’s highly-anticipated new book, "Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration — and How to Achieve Real Reform."  The book concludes that police, legislators, and judges are not to blame for Mass Incarceration.  Instead, “the most powerful actors in the entire criminal justice system” (prosecutors) have used their “almost unfettered, unreviewable power to determine who gets sent to prison and for how long.”

Locked In’s data-driven thesis aligns neatly with the academic consensus.  If prosecutors are the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system, they must be responsible for its most noteworthy product — Mass Incarceration.  The only problem is that it probably isn’t right.  While Pfaff’s empirical findings have been embraced by the media, the legal academy, and even former President Obama, they are grounded in questionable data.  With these flaws exposed, the familiar villains of the Mass Incarceration story reemerge: judges and, above all, legislators.  This reemergence provides a very different focus for reforms designed to unwind Mass Incarceration.  It also says something profound about prosecutorial power.

Prosecutors possess substantial power to let people escape from an increasingly inflexible system. But decades of academic claims suggesting that prosecutors are equally powerful when acting in the opposite direction — to dictate sanctions — fold under scrutiny.  When it comes to imposing incarceration, prosecutorial power is largely contingent on the actions of other, more powerful criminal justice actors.

March 12, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Reviewing why a Justice Gorsuch "might be hard to pigeonhole on criminal justice issues"

We are now only a week from the start of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, and this new extended AP article reviews Judge Gorsuch's record on the cases that I usually give the most attention.  The article is headlined "Gorsuch has ruled for police, and suspects, in crime cases," and here are excerpts:

Judge Neil Gorsuch wasn't convinced that a teenager who made burping sounds in a classroom should be arrested, handcuffed and taken to juvenile detention in a police car. Gorsuch said the 13-year-old student from Albuquerque, New Mexico, should have been able to sue the arresting officer for excessive force. His powerful dissent in the case last year offers a glimpse of how Gorsuch — a favorite among conservatives — might be hard to pigeonhole on criminal justice issues if he is confirmed to the Supreme Court....

During a decade on the federal appeals court in Denver, Gorsuch has raised concerns about intrusive government searches and seizures that he found to violate constitutional rights.  He generally has ruled against defendants appealing their convictions and those who claim they received unfair trials.  But he also has warned in writings and speeches about the danger of having too many criminal laws on the books.

"What happens to individual freedom and equality when the criminal law comes to cover so many facets of daily life that prosecutors can almost choose their targets with impunity?" he said in a 2013 speech.  That skepticism seems to align him with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a strong believer in protecting people from overzealous police and prosecutors. Scalia at times sided with liberals in tossing out evidence that breached privacy rights and in strengthening the right to confront accusers in court.

Liberal groups are opposing Gorsuch's nomination, in part based on views that his overall record on criminal justice is too harsh.  "At a time when the abuses of our criminal justice system are becoming a national crisis, we cannot confirm a justice who does not understand the role of the Supreme Court to protect the most vulnerable among us," said a report from People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group.

When Gorsuch has said there are too many criminal laws, he has often focused on business regulations, such as requirements that mattress sellers preserve mattress tags or that lobster importers use cardboard instead of plastic....

Some of his opinions have faulted police for seizing evidence in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches.  In a case last year, Gorsuch parted from the two-judge majority in a ruling that said police had a right to walk onto a man's property to knock on the front door even though there were several "No Trespassing" signs in the yard.  Gorsuch mocked the majority's opinion, saying it gave government agents the right to "invade" a homeowner's property "whatever the homeowner may say or do about it."...

Paul Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said Gorsuch appears to have a mixed record in criminal cases and "seems to call them as he sees them."  "I think his primary area of concern for the citizen is in the privacy of your home or your private belongings," Rothstein said. "He believes there is a private area and he's pretty strong about that."

Gorsuch has been less sympathetic to defendants in other rulings.  In a 2012 case, Gorsuch dissented from a majority opinion in which his colleagues sided with an Oklahoma man seeking to overturn his murder conviction due to an ineffective lawyer.  The lawyer had advised his client to reject a plea agreement that called for a 10-year sentence. Instead, the man went to trial, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The majority said the lawyer's decision to reject the plea had "disastrous results" for his client.  But Gorsuch said the man's right to effective representation was not violated because he was later convicted in a fair trial.

A few prior related posts on Judge Gorsuch:

March 12, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

NY Times editorial makes pitch for raising the age

This New York Times editorial, headlined "Crime and the Adolescent Brain," makes the case for moving up the age for adult court treatment. Here are excerpts:

Over the last decade, seven states — Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire and South Carolina — have passed laws that channel most young offenders into juvenile courts, where they can receive counseling and support, instead of into adult courts and adult prisons, which are not equipped to deal with adolescents.

This wise approach has bypassed New York, which is one of only two states — the other being North Carolina — that automatically try 16-year-olds as adults. While New York lawmakers fear that raising the age for adult courts would make them seem “soft on crime,” some state legislatures are now considering proposals to raise the age to 21.

Connecticut’s experience is instructive. In 2007, it raised the age of adult prosecution from 16 to 18 as part of a package of criminal justice reforms. It moved most nonviolent infractions — things like shoplifting, drug possession and disorderly conduct — out of the formal court system and invested in counseling and intervention programs that allowed teenagers to avoid criminal records.

A 2016 report by the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School found that raising the age for adult prosecution produced sharp reductions in arrests, court caseloads and incarceration costs. Sixteen-year-olds who are tried as juveniles are less likely to be rearrested than those tried as adults. And arrests for people under 18 dropped by an astonishing 68 percent while the crime rate has continued to decline....

Encouraged by these results, Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut has introduced a bill that would include 18- to 20-year-olds who commit all but the most serious crimes under a new category, “young adult” offenders.... Both Massachusetts and Illinois are also considering bills that would channel most 18-, 19- and 20-year-old offenders into the juvenile system.

Setting the age for adult criminal responsibility at 16, as New York does, is inhumane.  New York’s record on this is doubly shameful because state lawmakers in 1962 settled on 16 temporarily when they could not agree on a definition of adulthood.  The Legislature promised to revisit the issue, but inertia set in.  Generations of young offenders were damaged, some irreparably, by this decision.  Surely, it’s time to correct this mistake.

March 12, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

You be the federal sentencing judge: how long a prison term for convicted "Bridgegate" defendants?

22266537-mmmainAs I have often said in this space, I find I find high-profile, white-collar sentencing cases to be among the most interesting and dynamic because they often require a judge (and others) to balance and calibrate competing punishment theories and goals.  Because most white-collar offenders are not violent and often had a successful/productive life before getting into trouble, the need for severe punishment to incapacitate or specifically deter an offender from committing future crimes is often diminished.  But because potential white-collar offenders are likely influenced by the deterrent impact emerging from the punishment of others like them, and also because white-collar offenders typically have had a relatively advantaged background, one can reasonably believe that crime control and just punishment concerns justify throwing the book at any and all serious white-collar offenders.  

Against that backdrop, I am eager to hear various perspective on the upcoming federal sentencing of the two defendants discussed in this local New Jersey article headlined "What's at stake this week when Bridgegate defendants are sentenced." Here are the basics:

On paper, they could face up to 20 years in prison. Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, once members of Gov. Chris Christie's inner circle who were convicted in November of conspiracy and fraud in connection with the Bridgegate scandal, are due to return to court Wednesday morning for sentencing.

While neither is expected to serve anywhere near the 20-year statutory maximum term under federal sentencing guidelines, the unusual nature of the charges in the case, including civil rights violations for interfering with the ability to travel, could have both looking at nearly four years in prison, say legal experts.

Baroni, 44, the Port Authority's former deputy executive director, and Kelly, also 44, a one-time deputy chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, were charged with helping orchestrate the shutdown of several local toll lanes at the George Washington Bridge in 2013 in a scheme of political retribution targeting the mayor of Fort Lee over his refusal to endorse the governor for re-election. After a seven-week trial, the two were found guilty.

Prosecutors, however, not only charged the two with conspiracy and fraud, but with violating the civil rights of those stuck in the massive traffic jams they created--which left Fort Lee frozen in gridlock for days. Those civil rights violations are now driving what could be an unusually harsh sentence, according to legal experts.

"Civil rights violations have always been treated severely by federal courts since historically they were used by the federal government to prosecute crimes that states were either unwilling or unable to prosecute," noted Robert Mintz, former deputy chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Jersey and a criminal defense attorney at McCarter & English.

The U.S. Attorney's office would not disclose the proposed sentencing range in Bridgegate case and attorneys for both Baroni and Kelly also declined comment, but the federal sentencing guidelines suggest both face upwards of 46 months, in large part due to the civil rights violations. U.S. District Judge Susan Wigenton, who presided over the Bridgegate trial, has sole discretion to set punishment.

While crimes carry statutory maximum penalties, federal judges for the most part follow set guidelines that outline a uniform sentencing policy for those convicted in the federal courts, so that individuals convicted of similar crimes generally serve the same sentence no matter where they were tried. "The guidelines are advisory only. But a lot of judges follow them very rigidly," observed Alan Ellis, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a San Francisco attorney who specializes in sentencing and post-conviction matters.

Yet sometimes judges agree to significant departures from those guidelines. At sentencing last Monday, David Samson, the former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey chairman, faced up to 24 months in prison for bribery in connection with a shakedown of United Airlines. Instead, he walked out of court with just a year of house arrest.... Samson's guilty plea earned him a downward adjustment from the sentencing guidelines for his "acceptance of responsibility." A negotiated plea deal with the U.S. Attorney's office further limited the maximum term he faced.

"These two people went to trial," said Ellis of Baroni and Kelly. Those who go to trial are said to "pay rent on the courtroom," because they receive no downward adjustment at sentencing if they are found guilty....

For Baroni and Kelly, who wrote the now-infamous "time for traffic problems" message that served as a smoking gun to prosecutors, the civil rights violations will represent the most serious violations to be addressed at sentencing. "In this case, the facts are so unique that it doesn't fit the typical pattern of these type of violations so it is hard to predict how the court will factor in that violation," said Mintz. "In the end, the sentence that these defendants receive will likely turn more on how the judge views the criminal conspiracy--whether the conduct was a calculated scheme that truly endangered the public or was merely a misguided act of political retribution that went horribly awry."

Whatever the sentence, defense attorneys have already said the plan to appeal the case.

Prior related post:

March 12, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (19)

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Why Prison?: An Economic Critique"

The title of this post is the title of this provocative new paper authored by Peter Salib now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article argues that we should not imprison people who commit crimes.  This is true despite the fact that essentially all legal scholars, attorneys, judges, and laypeople see prison as the sine qua non of a criminal justice system.  Without prison, most would argue, we could not punish past crimes, deter future crimes, or keep dangerous criminals safely separate from the rest of society. Scholars of law and economics have generally held the same view, treating prison as an indispensable tool for minimizing social harm. But the prevailing view is wrong.

Employing the tools of economic analysis, this Article demonstrates that prison imposes enormous but well-hidden societal losses.  It is therefore a deeply inefficient device for serving the utilitarian aims of the criminal law system — namely, optimally deterring bad social actors while minimizing total social costs.  The Article goes on to engage in a thought experiment, asking whether an alternative system of criminal punishment could serve those goals more efficiently.  It concludes that there exist economically superior alternatives to prison available right now.  The alternatives are practicable.  They plausibly comport with our current legal rules and more general moral principles. They could theoretically be implemented tomorrow, and, if we wished, we could bid farewell forever to our sprawling, socially-suboptimal system of imprisonment.

This paragraph from the paper's conclusion partially summarizes the main prison alternative that the paper promotes:

Rather than being locked away to rot, bad actors could be employed productively in the workforce. The gains of that employment could be transferred to victims and governments, while simultaneously serving as a deterrent cost.  And to the extent that monetary transfers cannot achieve optimal deterrence, humankind is capable of inventing alternative nonmonetary sanctions to fill the gap.  Such alternative nonmonetary sanctions might rightly be criticized from a non-welfarist moral perspective.  But these criticisms often to apply with equal force to the current system. Where they do not, the question becomes when and whether efficiency should be sacrificed to other normative concerns.  That question is outside the ambit of this paper.  The alternative system can also be criticized on practicability grounds.  But upon close investigation, such criticisms lose much of their force.

March 10, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (10)

More interesting new Quick Facts on fraud sentencing from the US Sentencing Commission

I noted in this post earlier this week that the US Sentencing Commission had released the first of a new series of Quick Facts covering federal fraud sentencing with a focus on health care fraud cases. (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")  I have now just noticed that the USSC released a number of other fraud-focused Quick Facts this week, and here are links to them:

Hard-core federal sentencing fans might make a parlor game of trying to guess which type of fraud has the most and which has the least sentences imposed within the calculated guideline ranges.

March 10, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Collateral Consequences Resource Center provides updated 50-state accounting of judicial sealing and expungement laws

As detailed via this new post at the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, titled "Restrictions on access to criminal records: A national survey," the folks at CCRC have recently revised and brought up to date the 50-state chart comparing laws on judicial sealing and expungement." Here is more background about this important work for the CCRC posting:

This chart provides an overview of the national landscape of laws authorizing courts to restrict public access to criminal records. The chart summaries are illustrated by color-coded maps, and explained in greater detail in the state “profiles” of relief mechanisms that have been part of the Restoration of Rights Resource since that project began in 2004. We hope this research will provide a useful tool for civil and criminal practitioners, policy advocates, and government officials....

A criminal record severely restricts access to many opportunities and benefits that can be indispensable to leading a law-abiding life.  Unwarranted discrimination based on criminal record was recognized as an urgent public policy problem by President Obama when he established the National Clean Slate Clearinghouse.  In the past decade, as the collateral consequences of conviction have increased in severity, state legislatures across the country have been actively exploring ways to set reasonable limits on the use of criminal records for noncriminal justice purposes, consistent with public safety.  One of the most popular measures involves restricting public access to criminal records through measures most frequently described as “expungement” or “sealing.”  Our recent report on “second chance” legislation identified 27 states that just since 2013 have given their courts at least some authority to limit access to records.

At the same time, however, judicial authority to close the record of concluded criminal cases remains quite limited, with only a dozen states authorizing their courts to restrict public access to a substantial number of felony convictions.  The fact that nine of these 12 states have had broad sealing schemes in place for many years underscores how difficult it is to make much legislative progress in a risk-averse environment where criminal background checking has become big business.

March 10, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 9, 2017

"Shaming the Constitution: The Detrimental Results of Sexual Violent Predator Legislation"

2378_regThe title of this post is the title of this notable new book authored by Michael Perlin and Heather Ellis Cucolo which provides a fitting follow-up to prior posts in this space this week concerning problems with sex offender recidivism data and expanding use of crime registries. Via the publisher's website, here is a summary of the book's coverage:

Convicted sexually violent predators are more vilified, more subject to media misrepresentation, and more likely to be denied basic human rights than any other population. Shaming the Constitution authors Michael Perlin and Heather Cucolo question the intentions of sex offender laws, offering new approaches to this most complex (and controversial) area of law and social policy.

The authors assert that sex offender laws and policies are unconstitutional and counter-productive. The legislation largely fails to add to public safety-even ruining lives for what are, in some cases, trivial infractions. Shaming the Constitution draws on law, behavioral sciences, and other disciplines to show that many of the "solutions" to penalizing sexually violent predators are "wrong," as they create the most repressive and useless laws.

In addition to tracing the history of sex offender laws, the authors address the case of Jesse Timmendequas, whose crime begat "Megan's Law;" the media's role in creating a "moral panic;" recidivism statistics and treatments, as well as international human rights laws. Ultimately, they call attention to the flaws in the system so we can find solutions that contribute to public safety in ways that do not mock Constitutional principles.

March 9, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (21)

US Sentencing Commission releases another big recidivism report on federal offenders

The United States Sentencing Commission is continuing to publish important new data report about the recidivism rates and patterns of federal offenders.  This latest 44-page report is titled "The Past Predicts the Future: Criminal History and Recidivism of Federal Offenders."  This page on the USSC's website provides this summary and highlights:

The Past Predicts the Future: Criminal History and Recidivism of Federal Offenders examines a group of 25,431 federal offenders who were released from prison or placed on probation in calendar year 2005.  Information about the components of Chapter Four of the Guidelines Manual — including total criminal history score, criminal history category, and point assignments for types of past convictions — and their association with recidivism are contained in this report. The findings included in this report build on those in the Commission’s 2016 Recidivism Overview report.

Report Highlights

  • Consistent with its previous work in this area, the Commission found that recidivism rates are closely correlated with total criminal history points and resulting Criminal History Category classification, as offenders with lower criminal history scores have lower recidivism rates than offenders with higher criminal history scores.

  • The Commission found substantial differences in recidivism rates among Criminal History Category I offenders (which includes offenders with a criminal history score of zero or one point).  Less than one-third (30.2%) of Criminal History Category I offenders with zero points were rearrested while nearly half (46.9%) of offenders with one point were rearrested.

  • The Commission also found differences in recidivism rates among offenders with zero criminal history points. Offenders with zero points and no prior contact with the criminal justice system have a lower recidivism rate (25.7%) than offenders with zero points but some prior contact with the criminal justice system (37.4%).

  • Offenders who have less serious prior convictions (assigned one point) have a lower recidivism rate (53.4%) than offenders who have prior convictions assigned two or three points (71.3% for offenders with at least one two-point offense and 70.5% for offenders with at least one three-point offense).

March 9, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (3)

"The Effectiveness of Certificates of Relief as Collateral Consequence Relief Mechanisms: An Experimental Study"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN authored by Peter Leasure and Tia Stevens Andersen. Here is the abstract:

Obtaining employment is difficult for ex-offenders due to the stigma of having a criminal record.  In recognition of this difficulty, some state legislatures have created certificates of relief (also known as certificates of recovery), which lift occupational licensing restrictions, limit employer liability for negligent hiring claims, and aim to ensure that employment decisions about certificate holders are made on a case-by-case basis.

The current study, which examines Ohio’s program for certificates of relief, presents the results of the first empirical test of the effectiveness of such certificates.  This test indicates that having a certificate of relief increases the likelihood of receiving an interview invitation or job offer more than threefold.  Importantly, certificate holders and their counterparts with clean criminal backgrounds were nearly equally likely to receive an interview invitation or job offer.  These promising preliminary results suggest certificates of relief may be an effective avenue for lessening the stigma of a criminal record for ex-offenders seeking employment.

March 9, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Group of Senators revive idea of a National Criminal Justice Commission

Long time readers may recall that, way back in 2009, then-Senator Jim Webb introduced legislation to create a National Criminal Justice Commission.  As reported here by The Crime Report, what was old is now new again, and might this time have a chance to become a reality:

A bipartisan group of more than 20 U.S. senators is making another attempt to establish the first national commission in 50 years to study the criminal justice system and make recommendations on improving it.  Smaller groups of senators have pursued the idea in recent years, but it has failed to amass enough support to pass.

One of the lead sponsors, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), said, “Our criminal justice system is built on the pillars of fairness and equality, but too many Americans see growing challenges in our justice system ranging from overburdened courts and unsustainable incarceration costs to strained relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

Joined by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as primary sponsors, the bill would establish a 14-member, bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission that would conduct an 18-month, comprehensive review of the national criminal justice system. It would then issue recommendations for “changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws to reduce crime, increase public safety and promote confidence in the criminal justice system.”

The panel would be composed of appointees of President Trump and congressional leaders of both parties, including experts on law enforcement, criminal justice, victims’ rights, civil liberties, and social services....

Under an order from President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently set up a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, but that panel is being run by heads of federal law enforcement agencies and does not include officials and advocates outside the Justice Department.

The senators’ proposal reflects a longstanding priority of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and is also backed by the Fraternal Order of Police, which supported Trump’s election. Officials of a range of other organizations immediately backed the idea, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the National Urban League, National Sheriffs’ Association, International CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants), and the Major County Sheriffs of America.

It has already attracted support from an ideological mix of senators, ranging from Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Orrin Hatch of Utah on the right to Democrats Bill Nelson of Florida, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Kamala Harris of California on the left.

March 9, 2017 in National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

AG Sesssions issue memo directing US Attorneys focus on "drivers of violent crime" ... and indicating change to Holder's charging memos forthcoming

As reported via this official DOJ Press release, "Attorney General Jeff Sessions today directed federal prosecutors nationwide to engage in a focused effort to investigate, prosecute and deter the most violent offenders." Here is more from the release:

This builds on the announcement last week of the creation of the U.S. Department of Justice Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, which is central to the Attorney General’s commitment to combatting illegal immigration and violent crime, such as drug trafficking, gang violence and gun crimes, and to restoring public safety to all of the nation’s communities.

“Turning back our nation’s recent rise in violent crime is a top priority for the Department of Justice, and it requires decisive action from our federal prosecutors,” said Attorney General Sessions. “I’m urging each of them to continue working closely with their counterparts at all levels, and to use every tool we have to put violent offenders behind bars and keep our citizens safe.”

In a memo to federal prosecutors in the department’s 94 United States Attorney’s Offices, the Attorney General made clear that prosecuting violent criminals is a high priority and prosecutors should work closely with their federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement partners to target the most violent offenders in each district. Working together, law enforcement at every level should determine which venue – federal or state – would best get those identified immediately off our streets and punished appropriately for their crimes.

The memo states when federal prosecution is determined appropriate, federal prosecutors should ensure the individuals driving violent crime in their district are prosecuted using the tools at their disposal, which may include firearms offenses, including possession and straw purchasing offenses; possession of a firearm during and in relation to a violent crime or drug trafficking offense; Hobbs Act robbery; carjacking; violent crime in aid of racketeering; Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act; and drug offenses under the Controlled Substances Act, among others.

The memo is available at this link, and hard-core federal sentencing fans might be most intrigued by a line that appears at the end of the memo which states that "an updated memorandum for charging in all criminal cases will be forthcoming."  That line suggests to me that pretty soon we will be seeing a formal new "Sessions Memo" that seeks to remove some of the "play in the joints" that former AG Eric Holder introduced through prior charging memorandum issued back in 2010 and 2013.

March 8, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Texas executes paid hit-man ... after Justice Breyer dissents from SCOTUS refusing to consider extended solitary death row stay

As this AP article reports, a "paid hit man was executed Tuesday night in Texas for gunning down a San Antonio woman in a life insurance scheme nearly a quarter-century ago." Here are a few more details about this latest execution:

Rolando Ruiz was given a lethal injection for fatally shooting Theresa Rodriguez, 29, outside her home in 1992 as she was getting out of a car with her husband and brother-in-law, who both orchestrated her murder. Ruiz was paid $2,000 to carry out the killing. Ruiz, strapped to the Texas death chamber gurney, looked directly at two sisters of his victim and their husbands and apologized profusely....

As the lethal dose of pentobarbital was administered, he took several deep breaths, then began snoring quietly. All movement stopped within about 30 seconds. Ruiz, 44, was pronounced dead 29 minutes later at 11:06 p.m. His execution was the third this year in Texas and the fifth nationally.

“It’s not going to bring her back, so it really doesn’t mean very much,” Susie Sanchez, whose daughter was killed in the contract murder, said Monday. Her daughters, who were among the witnesses Tuesday night, declined to comment afterward.

The execution was delayed for nearly five hours until the U.S. Supreme Court rejected three appeals attorneys had filed for Ruiz to try to stop the punishment. His lawyers argued to the high court that lower courts improperly rejected an earlier appeal that focused on whether Ruiz earlier had deficient legal help. They also contended Ruiz’s execution would be unconstitutionally cruel because he’s been on death row since 1995, had multiple execution dates and two reprieves. Attorney Lee Kovarsky blamed the long time between a San Antonio jury’s verdict and the punishment on the state’s failure to provide Ruiz with competent lawyers earlier in his appeals.

Justice Stephen Breyer said he would have stopped the execution to further examine the question of prolonged death row confinement.

Notably, as revealed here, Justice Breyer's solo dissent from the denial of a stay by SCOTUS was fairly substantive. Here is how it starts and ends:

Petitioner Rolando Ruiz has been on death row for 22 years, most of which he has spent in permanent solitary confinement. Mr. Ruiz argues that his execution “violates the Eighth Amendment” because it “follow[s] lengthy [death row] incarceration in traumatic conditions,” principally his “permanent solitary confinement.” Petition 25. I believe his claim is a strong one, and we should consider it....

Here the “human toll" that accompanies extended solitary confinement is exacerbated by the fact that execution is in the offing.  Moreover, Mr. Ruiz has developed symptoms long associated with solitary confinement, namely severe anxiety and depression, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, disorientation, memory loss, and sleep difficulty.  Further, the lower courts have recognized that Mr. Ruiz has been diligent in pursuing his claims, finding the 22-year delay attributable to the State or the lower courts.  Ruiz v. Quarterman, 504 F. 3d 523, 530 (CA5 2007) (quoting Ruiz v. Dretke, 2005 WL 2620193, *2 (WD Tex., Oct. 13, 2005)). Nor are Mr. Ruiz’s 20 years of solitary confinement attributable to any special penological problem or need. They arise simply from the fact that he is a prisoner awaiting execution. App. E to Petition 16.

If extended solitary confinement alone raises serious constitutional questions, then 20 years of solitary confinement, all the while under threat of execution, must raise similar questions, and to a rare degree, and with particular intensity.  That is why I would grant a stay of execution, allowing the Court to examine the record more fully.

March 8, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (16)

"Public Crime Registries Rarely Work, So Why Do They Continue to Grow?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Pacific Standard commentary authored by Emmanuel Felton. Here are excerpts: 

[T]he idea of making information about offenders public has proven immensely popular. A 2005 Gallup poll showed that virtually all Americans  —  94 percent  — supported public sex offender registries and about two-thirds of those surveyed said they weren’t even somewhat concerned about how the public nature of registries affected those forced to sign up. With the Internet providing states with a cheap and easy way to get information into the hands of citizens, lawmakers soon found registries to be a relatively inexpensive solution to complex problems, says Amanda Agan, a Rutgers University professor who studies the economics of crime.

“These policies were well intentioned and they sounded like they might work. And on top of that they are relatively low cost,” Agan says. “But now we have all of this evidence that they just don’t work, but the problem is it’s very difficult to start pulling back. There would be a public outcry.”

The Murderer and Violent Offender Against Youth Registry started off as a fix for a legislature-made problem. In the mid-1990s, at the height of the tough-on-crime movement, Illinois added a host of offenses against children to their sex offender rolls, including first-degree murder, kidnapping, and child abduction, regardless of whether the crime involved a sex offense. Responding to concerns that it was unfair to include those offenders  —  take, for example, the case of a 13-year-old girl who stabbed her older brother with a kitchen knife after a fight over a shower cap  —  on the sex crime list, the state created this new violent offender registry. That created a registry for people convicted of a set of violent crimes against children. That list was later expanded to include murderers like Armstrong, whose crimes didn’t involve children, when, in 2011, state lawmakers passed Andrea’s Law, named for a college student strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend.

While Illinois lawmakers may be the most zealous employers of public registries  —  the state also maintains an online list of those convicted of making methamphetamine  —  the state is far from alone. Oklahoma also has a violent crime registry similar to Illinois’ and Kansas has a meth registry like Illinois’. Indiana, Kansas, and Montana still have combined sex and violent offender registries. Florida, on the other hand, makes folks convicted of three violent felonies sign up for a public registry. Tennessee also had a meth registry, before expanding it into a much more encompassing drug offender registry. And among the more original uses, Tennessee also has an animal abuser registry and Utah recently launched a registry for people convicted of certain white-collar crimes.

While there isn’t much research about the effectiveness of newer crime registries like those for murderers, there has been a lot of research into sex offender registries. Jill Levenson, a professor of social work at Barry University, says that research has been conclusive: those registries simply haven’t reduced sex crimes. She says that’s because they obscure the real threat to children, being abused by someone close to them, and greatly overemphasize the incredibly rare occurrences of children being abducted by people they don’t know.

“Stranger abductions of children happen just 115 times a year in this country,” says Levenson, who studies the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce sexual violence. “While there’s no question that that’s 115 too many, there are 80 million children in this country. The problem with sex offender registries is they obscure the real threat — over 90 percent of children who are sexually abused are abused by people they know.”

St. Louis University Law School professor Molly Wilson says the concept of cognitive availability helps explain why threats like stranger danger remain so prominent in the making of our criminal codes. Cognitive availability describes a logical fallacy where decision-makers tend to overemphasize the importance of examples that quickly come to mind. That leads people to overestimate threats with really salacious details, Wilson says. “When you ask someone to estimate how serious a threat is, they search their minds,” says Wilson, who also holds a doctorate degree in psychology. “What they come to first is what is cognitively available, and that’s these really vivid examples that from an empirical standpoint are pretty rare. The human mind is designed to think of the sensory cases that imprint details — an image of the bicycle that a girl was riding sticking out of the bushes.”

Cognitive availability is a particularly compelling explanation for why many registries quickly expanded to murderers despite the fact that just 1 percent of murderers kill again. Similarly, just 6 percent of people convicted of rape or sexual assault repeated in the five-year follow-up period covered by a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report. That’s compared to a 13 percent same-crime recidivism rate for robbers and a 34 percent rate for those convicted of assault. Despite repeated attempts by researchers to link lower sex offender recidivism rates with the passage of registration laws, there’s been no conclusive evidence supporting that hypothesis. In fact, there is some evidence that these laws actually increase recidivism as they effectively act as anti-re-entry programs.

Arthur Lurigio, a clinical psychologist and a professor of criminal justice and psychology at Loyola University Chicago, says the rise of registries underscores a central failure of America’s criminal justice system: “ We are failing to recognize the possibility of human change.”...

Wayne Logan — whose 2009 book, Knowledge as Power: Criminal Registration and Community Notification Laws in America, charts the rise of crime registries over 75 years — says there has been some relaxing of registration rules for sex offenders in recent years. He points to California’s public registry, which no longer includes those caught soliciting prostitutes and so-called Romeo and Juliet offenses—those are the cases where there’s consensual sex between teenagers, one of whom is a minor. “You see some unwinding,” says Logan, a professor of law at Florida State University. “But the overall trend is expansion. It’s a very flexible technology, it can work for arsonists or meth makers or white-collar criminals. It’s social control on the cheap.”

March 8, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Detailing how common a very long wait on death row has become

Slate has this notable short piece on the long wait many condemned have before execution.  The piece is headlined "40 Years Awaiting Execution: For many death row inmates, the long process leading to capital punishment is itself cruel — but not unusual."  Here are excerpts:

In 1979, Arthur Lee Giles, then 19 years old, was sentenced to death in Blount County, Alabama.  Nearly 40 years later, he is still waiting to be executed.  His glacial march to execution exposes a conundrum at the heart of America’s death penalty. Condemned prisoners often spend decades on death row before being executed — if the execution ever happens at all — a fact that undermines any retributive value capital punishment might provide.

Approximately 40 percent of the 2,739 people currently on death row have spent at least 20 years awaiting execution, and 1 in 3 of these prisoners are older than 50.  (This is according to data collected by the Fair Punishment Project and sourced from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and state corrections departments.)

According to a Los Angeles Times investigation, roughly two dozen men on California’s death row require walkers and wheelchairs, and one is living out his days in bed wearing diapers.  In North Carolina, nine death row prisoners have died of natural causes since 2006 — the same year the state last executed someone.  These delays suggest that executions must be sped up significantly.... 

With public support for executions at historic lows, death row delays seem likely to increase. Just 20 of the nearly 3,000 prisoners on death row nationwide were executed last year.

California is a prime example.  In 2014, a federal judge wrote that the state’s capital punishment system is actually a sentence of “life without parole with the remote possibility of death.”  The judge calculated that “just to carry out the sentences of the 748 inmates currently on Death Row, the State would have to conduct more than one execution a week for the next 14 years.”  That’s an unfathomable outcome in any state, much less in one that has not performed a single execution in more than a decade....

In an effort to combat these delays, California voters narrowly passed Proposition 66 in 2016, which promised to speed up executions by imposing more severe limitations on the death penalty appeals process. Yet Prop 66 has already faced significant constitutional challenges, and the California Supreme Court has stayed the initiative pending the outcome of a case filed by former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp and Ron Briggs, the two men who wrote the successful statewide proposition reinstating the death penalty in California 40 years ago.

March 7, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Booker Disparity and Data-Driven Sentencing"

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

Sentencing disparity among similar offenders has increased at a disconcerting rate over the last decade.  Some judges issue sentences twice as harsh as peer judges, meaning that a defendant’s sentence substantially depends on which judge is randomly assigned to a case.  The old mandatory sentencing guidelines repressed disparity but only by causing unwarranted uniformity.  The advisory guidelines swing the pendulum toward the opposite extreme, and this problem promises to grow worse as the lingering effect of the old regime continues to decrease.

This Article is the first to propose a system — data-driven appellate review — that curbs sentencing disparity without re-introducing unwarranted uniformity.  Congress should establish a rebuttable presumption that outlier sentences among similar offenders are unreasonable.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission collects data on over 70,000 criminal cases annually.  This data provides the tool for defining categories of similar offenders.  Culling outlier sentences through data-driven appellate review would increase judicial awareness of sentences issued by peer judges and would therefore curb the increase in inter-judge disparity without resorting to unwarranted uniformity.

March 7, 2017 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Reviewing the ugly backstory of SCOTUS dicta on sex offender recidivism

Today's New York Times has this intriguing new Sidebar article by SCOTUS reporter Adam Liptak under the headline "Did the Supreme Court Base a Ruling on a Myth?".  Here are excerpts:

Last week at the Supreme Court, a lawyer made what seemed like an unremarkable point about registered sex offenders. “This court has recognized that they have a high rate of recidivism and are very likely to do this again,” said the lawyer, Robert C. Montgomery, who was defending a North Carolina statute that bars sex offenders from using Facebook, Twitter and other social media services.

The Supreme Court has indeed said the risk that sex offenders will commit new crimes is “frightening and high.” That phrase, in a 2003 decision upholding Alaska’s sex offender registration law, has been exceptionally influential. It has appeared in more than 100 lower-court opinions, and it has helped justify laws that effectively banish registered sex offenders from many aspects of everyday life.

But there is vanishingly little evidence for the Supreme Court’s assertion that convicted sex offenders commit new offenses at very high rates. The story behind the notion, it turns out, starts with a throwaway line in a glossy magazine.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion in the 2003 case, Smith v. Doe, cited one of his own earlier opinions for support, and that opinion did include a startling statistic. “The rate of recidivism of untreated offenders has been estimated to be as high as 80 percent,” Justice Kennedy wrote in the earlier case, McKune v. Lile.

He cited what seemed to be a good source for the statistic: “A Practitioner’s Guide to Treating the Incarcerated Male Sex Offender,” published in 1988 by the Justice Department. The guide, a compendium of papers from outside experts, is 231 pages long, and it contains lots of statistics on sex offender recidivism rates. Many of them were in the single digits, some a little higher. Only one source claimed an 80 percent rate, and the guide itself said that number might be exaggerated.

The source of the 80 percent figure was a 1986 article in Psychology Today, a magazine written for a general audience. The article was about a counseling program run by the authors, and they made a statement that could be good for business. “Most untreated sex offenders released from prison go on to commit more offenses — indeed, as many as 80 percent do,” the article said, without evidence or elaboration.

That’s it. The basis for much of American jurisprudence and legislation about sex offenders was rooted in an offhand and unsupported statement in a mass-market magazine, not a peer-reviewed journal....

A 2014 Justice Department report found ... that sex offenders generally have low overall recidivism rates for crimes. But they are more likely to commit additional sex offenses than other criminals. In the three years after release from prison, 1.3 percent of people convicted of other kinds of crimes were arrested for sex offenses, compared to 5.3 percent of sex offenders. Those findings are broadly consistent with seven reports in various states, which found that people convicted of sex crimes committed new sex offenses at rates of 1.7 percent to 5.7 percent in time periods ranging from three to 10 years....

Lower courts generally accept what the Supreme Court says. That is true not only about the law but also about facts subject to independent verification.  Last year, though, the federal appeals court in Cincinnati gently suggested that the Supreme Court had taken a wrong turn in its 2003 decision in Smith v. Doe. Judge Alice M. Batchelder, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, described “the significant doubt cast by recent empirical studies on the pronouncement in Smith that ‘the risk of recidivism posed by sex offenders is “frightening and high.’”  The appeals court struck down a particularly strict Michigan sex-offender law as a violation of the Constitution’s ex post facto clause, saying it retroactively imposed punishment on people who had committed offenses before the law was enacted.  

The state has asked the Supreme Court to consider the case, Does v. Snyder, No. 16-768. The first paragraph of its petition says that the risk of recidivism “remains ‘frightening and high.’”  The constitutional question in the case is interesting and substantial.  And hearing the case would allow the court to consider more fully its casual assertion that sex offenders are especially dangerous.

March 7, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Monday, March 6, 2017

"Rationing Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN and authored by Richard Bierschbach and Stephanos Bibas.  Here is the abstract:

Of the many diagnoses of American criminal justice’s ills, few focus on externalities.  Yet American criminal justice systematically overpunishes in large part because few mechanisms exist to force consideration of the full social costs of criminal justice interventions.  Actors often lack good information or incentives to minimize the harms they impose. Part of the problem is structural: criminal justice is fragmented vertically among governments, horizontally among agencies, and individually among self-interested actors. Part is a matter of focus: doctrinally and pragmatically, actors overwhelmingly view each case as an isolated, short-term transaction to the exclusion of broader, long-term, and aggregate effects.

Treating punishment like other public-law problems of regulation suggests various regulatory tools as rough solutions, such as cost-benefit analysis, devolution, pricing, and caps.  As these tools highlight, scarcity often works not as a bug but as a design feature.  Criminal justice’s distinctive intangible values, politics, distributional concerns, and localism complicate the picture.  But more direct engagement with how best to ration criminal justice could help to end the correctional free lunch at the all-you-can-eat buffet and put the bloated American carceral state on the diet it needs.

March 6, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Interesting new Quick Facts on federal health care fraud sentencing from the US Sentencing Commission

The US Sentencing Commission has released this notable new Quick Facts covering federal sentencing in health care fraud cases. (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")  Here are a few of the intriguing data details from the the publication highlighting that within-guideline sentencing is actually the exception rather than the norm in these cases:

During the past three years, the rate of within range sentences for health care fraud offenders has decreased from 43.6% in fiscal year 2013 to 32.9% in fiscal year 2015.

In each of the past three years, approximately one-fifth to one-third of health care fraud offenders received a sentence below the applicable guideline range because the government sponsored the below range sentence....

In each of the past three years, approximately 34 percent of health care fraud offenders received a non-government sponsored below range sentence.

March 6, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Could and will SCOTUS Pena-Rodriguez decision create new ways attack death sentences (and even other jury sentencing outcomes)?

The question in the title of this post was the first idea that jumped into my sentencing-addled mind as I was (too) quickly reviewing the Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment work today in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado (basics here, full opinion here).  Critically, the Pena-Rodriguez decision concerns a jury's deliberation about guily, and the opinion keeps referencing a juror's "vote to convict." But, in some cases in some states, jurors also have a role in sentencing, and this is most common and most consequential in the context of capital cases. And there is lots of dicta in Pena-Rodriguez that surely could, and I would guess often will, be stressed by capital defendants trying to throw shade on a jury's capital sentencing decision-making. Consider, as just one example, these passages:

[R]acial bias, a familiar and recurring evil that, if left unaddressed, would risk systemic injury to the administration of justice.  This Court’s decisions demonstrate that racial bias implicates unique historical, constitutional, and institutional concerns. An effort to address the most grave and serious statements of racial bias is not an effort to perfect the jury but to ensure that our legal system remains capable of coming ever closer to the promise of equal treatment under the law that is so central to a functioning democracy....

A constitutional rule that racial bias in the justice system must be addressed — including, in some instances, after the verdict has been entered — is necessary to prevent a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts, a confidence that is a central premise of the Sixth Amendment trial right.

As those who follow debates over the death penalty know well, many who advocate abolition often assert that capital punishment's administration through often seemingly disparate jury verdicts reveals a certain kind of "racial bias [as] a familiar and recurring evil" that contributes to "a systemic loss of confidence in jury verdicts."  (Consider, for example, this page at the Death Penalty Information Center spotlighting racial patterns in death penalty administration.) In light of those views, as well as the obligation and zeal of defense attorneys to raise every non-frivolous argument to contest a death sentence, I have reason to think the capital defense bar could, should and will be making much of today's SCOTUS work in Pena-Rodriguez.

March 6, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Formalism (and floodgate/functionality fears?) prevail over functional analysis in Beckles

I was involved in preparing an amicus brief in the Beckles case decided by the Supreme Court this morning (basics here, full opinion here), and that brief argued (unsuccessfully) that the advisory federal sentencing guidelines should be subject to vagueness challenges.  The argument was, in its essence, a functional one highlighting the significant impact that guideline calculations still have on sentencing outcomes even though they are advisory.  Justice Sotomayor's separate opinion in Beckles, though concurring on narrow grounds, wholly embraced this functional argument to make the case that the guidelines should be subject to vagueness challenges.  Here are some passages from her extended decision that capture her functional perspective (with cites omitted, but key emphasis from original):

In most cases, it is the range set by the Guidelines, not the minimum or maximum term of imprisonment set by statute, that specifies the number of years a defendant will spend in prison. District courts impose a sentence within the Guidelines (or below the Guidelines based on a Government motion) over 80% of the time.  And when Guidelines ranges change — because the Guidelines themselves change, or because the court is informed of an error it made in applying them — sentences change, too. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the Guidelines are, in a real sense, the basis for the sentence imposed by the district court....

As set out above, although the Guidelines do not bind a district court as a formal matter, as a functional matter they anchor both the district court’s discretion and the appellate review process....

Absent that Guideline, Beckles would have been sentenced to between 33 and 98 fewer months in prison. The District Court admitted as much, explaining that had the Guideline not applied, she “would not have imprisoned Beckles to 360 months” in prison. Years of Beckles’ life thus turned solely on whether the career-offender Guideline applied. There is no meaningful way in which the Guideline exerted less effect on Beckles’ sentence than did the statute setting his minimum and maximum terms of imprisonment; indeed, it was the Guidelines, not just the statute, that fixed Beckles’ sentence in every meaningful way. Nothing of substance, in other words, distinguishes the Guidelines from the kind of laws we held susceptible to vagueness challenges in Johnson; both law and Guideline alike operate to extend the time a person spends in prison. The Due Process Clause should apply equally to each.

Notably, as Justice Sotomayor highlights in various ways in her opinion, this kind of functional concern with the continued importance of advisory guideline calculations drove the majority opinions in prior recent cases like Peugh dealing with application of the Ex Post Facto clause and Molina-Martinez dealing with plain error review. But this time around, a more formalistic approach carried the day.

As my post title here suggests, I think the formalistic approach to application of the vagueness doctrine at sentencing prevail because a number of key Justices, particularly perhaps the Chief and Justice Kennedy, may have been especially concerned about what a "vagueness at sentencing" doctrine could end up looking like and how often it might arise. Notably, Justice Kennedy authored an intriguing little concurrence in Beckles that suggests he is concerned about arbitrary sentencing, but was here even more concerned about application of traditional vagueness doctrine to sentencing. Here is what Justice Kennedy had to say:

As sentencing laws and standards continue to evolve, cases may arise in which the formulation of a sentencing provision leads to a sentence, or a pattern of sentencing, challenged as so arbitrary that it implicates constitutional concerns. In that instance, a litigant might use the word vague in a general sense — that is to say, imprecise or unclear — in trying to establish that the sentencing decision was flawed. That something is vague as a general matter, however, does not necessarily mean that it is vague within the well-established legal meaning of that term. And it seems most unlikely that the definitional structure used to explain vagueness in the context of fair warning to a transgressor, or of preventing arbitrary enforcement, is, by automatic transference, applicable to the subject of sentencing where judicial discretion is involved as distinct from a statutory command. See Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___ (2015).

The existing principles for defining vagueness cannot be transported uncritically to the realm of judicial discretion in sentencing. Some other explication of the constitutional limitations likely would be required.

Though I find intriguing the suggestion by Justice Kennedy that there could and sould be "some other explication of the constitutional limitations" on the realm of judicial discretion in sentencing, the ruling in Beckles may itself ensure that such an explication never gets developed in the context of the Due Process Clause.  (Whether Justice Kennedy and others might explicate such limits in non-capital sentencing as they have in capital sentencing through the Eighth Amendment might still be ripe with possibilities.)

March 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

SCOTUS rules in Pena-Rodriguez that Sixth Amendment creates exception to jury impeachment rule when racial animus revealed

A split Supreme Court weighed in on the intersection of racial bias and jury decision-making via a notable Sixth Amendment ruling in Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, No. 15–606 (S. Ct. March 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how Justice Kennedy's opinion for the Court gets started and concludes:

The jury is a central foundation of our justice system and our democracy. Whatever its imperfections in a particular case, the jury is a necessary check on governmental power. The jury, over the centuries, has been an inspired, trusted, and effective instrument for resolving factual disputes and determining ultimate questions of guilt or innocence in criminal cases. Over the long course its judgments find acceptance in the community, an acceptance essential to respect for the rule of law. The jury is a tangible implementation of the principle that the law comes from the people.

In the era of our Nation’s founding, the right to a jury trial already had existed and evolved for centuries, through and alongside the common law. The jury was considered a fundamental safeguard of individual liberty.  See The Federalist No. 83, p. 451 (B. Warner ed. 1818) (A. Hamilton).  The right to a jury trial in criminal cases was part of the Constitution as first drawn, and it was restated in the Sixth Amendment. Art. III, §2, cl. 3; Amdt. 6.  By operation of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is applicable to the States. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 149–150 (1968).

Like all human institutions, the jury system has its flaws, yet experience shows that fair and impartial verdicts can be reached if the jury follows the court’s instructions and undertakes deliberations that are honest, candid, robust, and based on common sense.  A general rule has evolved to give substantial protection to verdict finality and to assure jurors that, once their verdict has been entered, it will not later be called into question based on the comments or conclusions they expressed during deliberations.  This principle, itself centuries old, is often referred to as the no-impeachment rule. The instant case presents the question whether there is an exception to the no-impeachment rule when, after the jury is discharged, a juror comes forward with compelling evidence that another juror made clear and explicit statements indicating that racial animus was a significant motivating factor in his or her vote to convict....

The Nation must continue to make strides to overcome race-based discrimination. The progress that has already been made underlies the Court’s insistence that blatant racial prejudice is antithetical to the functioning of the jury system and must be confronted in egregious cases like this one despite the general bar of the no-impeachment rule. It is the mark of a maturing legal system that it seeks to understand and to implement the lessons of history. The Court now seeks to strengthen the broader principle that society can and must move forward by achieving the thoughtful, rational dialogue at the foundation of both the jury system and the free society that sustains our Constitution.

The start of the dissenting opinion by Justice Thomas explains his concerns and the core concerns of the other dissenters (which are expressed via an opinion by Justice Alito joined by the Chief and Justice Thomas):

The Court today holds that the Sixth Amendment requires the States to provide a criminal defendant the opportunity to impeach a jury’s guilty verdict with juror testimony about a juror’s alleged racial bias, notwithstanding a state procedural rule forbidding such testimony. I agree with JUSTICE ALITO that the Court’s decision is incompatible with the text of the Amendment it purports to interpret and with our precedents. I write separately to explain that the Court’s holding also cannot be squared with the original understanding of the Sixth or Fourteenth Amendments.

March 6, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (33)

SCOTUS rules in Beckles that federal advisory guidelines are not subject to Due Process vagueness challenges

The Supreme Court this morning issued a big opinion concerning the operation of and challenges to the federal sentencing guidelines in Beckles v. United States, No. No. 15–8544 (S. Ct. March 6, 2017) (available here). Here is how the opinion authored by Justice Thomas gets started: 

At the time of petitioner’s sentencing, the advisory Sentencing Guidelines included a residual clause defining a “crime of violence” as an offense that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual §4B1.2(a)(2) (Nov. 2006) (USSG).   This Court held in Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___ (2015), that the identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(B), was unconstitutionally vague. Petitioner contends that the Guidelines’ residual clause is also void for vagueness.  Because we hold that the advisory Guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, we reject petitioner’s argument.

After the oral argument tone in this case, I am not surprised to see this result. But I expect I may have more to say about the particulars of this Beckles ruling in the coming hours and days.  To begin, I think the sentiments in the closing section of the opinion of the Court best accounts for the Beckles outcome:

In addition to directing sentencing courts to consider the Guidelines, see §3553(a)(4)(A), Congress has directed them to consider a number of other factors in exercising their sentencing discretion, see §§3553(a)(1)–(3), (5)–(7). The Government concedes that “American judges have long made th[e] sorts of judgments” called for by the §3553(a) factors “in indeterminate-sentencing schemes, and this Court has never understood such discretionary determinations to raise vagueness concerns.” Brief for United States 42. Because the §3553 factors — like the Guidelines — do not mandate any specific sentences, but rather guide the exercise of a district court’s discretion within the applicable statutory range, our holding today casts no doubt on their validity.

Holding that the Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, however, would cast serious doubt on their validity. Many of these other factors appear at least as unclear as §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause. For example, courts must assess “the need for the sentence imposed” to achieve certain goals — such as to “reflect the seriousness of the offense,” “promote respect for the law,” “provide just punishment for the offense,” “afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct,” and “provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training . . . in the most effective manner.” §3553(a)(2). If petitioner were correct that §4B1.2(a)’s residual clause were subject to a vagueness challenge, we would be hard pressed to find these factors sufficiently definite to provide adequate notice and prevent arbitrary enforcement.

The Government tries to have it both ways, arguing that the individualized sentencing required by the other §3553(a) factors is different in kind from that required by the Guidelines. “An inscrutably vague advisory guideline,” it contends, “injects arbitrariness into the sentencing process that is not found in the exercise of unguided discretion in a traditional sentencing system.” Reply Brief for United States 10–11. But it is far from obvious that the residual clause implicates the twin concerns of vagueness any more than the statutory command that sentencing courts impose a sentence tailored, for example, “to promote respect for the law.” §3553(a)(2)(A). And neither the Guidelines nor the other §3553 factors implicate those concerns more than the absence of any guidance at all, which the Government concedes is constitutional.

The Government also suggests that the Guidelines are not like the other §3553(a) factors “because they require a court to decide whether the facts of the case satisfy a legal standard in order to derive a specific numerical range.” Id., at 22. But that does not distinguish the other sentencing factors, which require courts to do the same thing. Section 3553(a) states that district courts “shall impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth in [§3553(a)(2)].” In fact, the Guidelines generally offer more concrete advice in imposing a particular sentence and make it easier to review whether a court has abused its substantial discretion. There is no sound reason to conclude that the Guidelines — but not §3553(a)’s other sentencing factors — are amenable to vagueness review.

March 6, 2017 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

No grants, but latest SCOTUS order list still has lots of intrigue for criminal justice fans (especially those concerned with risk-assessment sentencing)

The Supreme Court this morning released this order list, and it is extended because there is a summary per curiam GVR in a Nevada capital case (available here) and a trio of extended statements concerning the denial of cert (two of which were authored by Justice Thomas and one of which comes from Justice Sotomayor).  I would comment at length about these matters, but SCOTUS has provided bigger sentencing fish to fry by also deciding the Beckles vagueness case today (discussed here).

For hard-core sentencing fans, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the order list is this item:

16-6387 LOOMIS, ERIC L. V. WISCONSIN

The Acting Solicitor General is invited to file a brief in this case expressing the views of the United States.  

As some may recall from some prior postings, Loomis concerns a due process challenge to the use of risk-assessment instruments at sentencing. It will be very interesting to see what the Trump Administration decides to say in this case and to see if SCOTUS ultimately takes up this timley and consequential issue. 

Prior related posts on Loomis case:

March 6, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Continuing efforts to unwind felon disenfranchisement in some states

The Wall Street Journal has this notable new article headlined "States Ease Restrictions on Voting by Felons: Florida proposal to lift its lifetime ban would add to a nationwide trend." Here are excerpts:

Mr. Meade is among an estimated 6.1 million felons who have served their time and lost their right to vote, of whom about 1.7 million live in Florida. Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa are the only other states with lifetime voting bans, which can be lifted only through the clemency process. Other states impose waiting periods or require felons to complete parole or probation requirements.

Mr. Meade plans to be in the courtroom Monday when the Florida Supreme Court reviews a proposed constitutional amendment to allow felons, except for murderers and sex offenders, to vote after they finish their sentences, parole and probation. The court will decide whether the measure meets standards to go before voters, provided it gets enough signatures; Mr. Meade, as head of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, is leading the petition drive to put the amendment on the 2018 ballot.

“To be shut out of the democratic process is like a perpetual punishment and slap in the face saying you’re never going to be a citizen,” said Mr. Meade, a 49-year-old father of five. “I paid my debt to society and served my time. Now I should have the opportunity to have my voice heard.”

Since 1997, 23 states have made it easier for people with felony convictions to vote again, according to the Sentencing Project, which advocates an overhaul of crime laws. This year, Nebraska is considering a bill that would eliminate a two-year waiting period.

Critics of automatic restoration of voting rights argue that voting is a responsibility, not a right, and that felons should have to take steps to earn that right after leaving prison. President Donald Trump attacked Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe for using executive orders to restore voting rights to felons after release from prison. “He’s letting criminals cancel out the votes of law-abiding citizens,” Mr. Trump told a rally in Leesburg, Va., the day before his election.

The efforts in Florida and Virginia reflect a nationwide push by criminal-justice activists to alleviate what they call “collateral consequences” of incarceration. In many states, felons released from prison are barred from getting certain occupational licenses, public housing, food stamps and other government assistance. That makes it harder for ex-inmates to get back on their feet, some criminal-justice experts say....

In 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, and his cabinet, relaxed the rules to make it easier for felons to vote after leaving prison. During the former Republican’s one term, more than 155,000 felons regained their voting rights. Mr. Crist is now a Democratic member of Congress.

Beginning in 2011, under current Gov. Rick Scott, with support from state Attorney General Pam Bondi, felons had to wait at least five law-abiding years before applying to a clemency board. Applications for clemency plunged after the board, which includes Mr. Scott and Ms. Bondi, implemented the new wait time. Since Mr. Scott’s election in 2010, 2,487 people with felony convictions have regained access to the polls....

In Kentucky and Iowa, efforts by Democratic governors to make it easier for felons to vote were reversed by their Republican successors.  Many Republicans see restoration of voting rights as a strategy by Democrats to add more African-Americans, who make up a disproportionate share of the prison population, to the voting rolls; Democrats see GOP opposition as tantamount to suppressing the black vote.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R., Fla.), one of the only GOP officials to sign the petition supporting the constitutional amendment, said the issue should transcend partisanship.  After the court decides whether it qualifies for the ballot, the amendment would need roughly 750,000 signatures; to take effect, it needs approval from 60% of voters. “If you can’t give people a way to get back on their feet and become fully active citizens once they’ve served their time, then it’s only a matter of time before they end up back behind bars,” Mr. Curbelo said.

March 5, 2017 in Collateral consequences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Five years after his SCOTUS victory, Evan Miller scheduled to be resentenced

This local article, headlined "Re-sentencing of Evan Miller ordered by US Supreme Court set for March 13," reports on the upcoming resentencing of a defendant's whose surname now represents a big part of modern "kids-are-different" Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  Here are some of the particulars from the article, which prompts some questions for me:

A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for March 13 in Lawrence County for Evan Miller, whose original sentence on a capital murder conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and led to sentencing laws being changed for juveniles nationwide.

The Supreme Court in 2012 ordered that Miller be re-sentenced because the state’s only sentencing option for a juvenile convicted of capital murder was life in prison without the chance of parole.  A state law adopted last year now gives a judge the option of sentencing a juvenile convicted of capital murder to life in prison with the chance of parole after serving at least 30 years in prison.

Miller, now 28, was convicted of capital murder in 2006 for the 2003 killing of Cole C. Cannon in Cannon’s home in a Five Points mobile home park. Miller, who was 14 when the beating death occurred, is an inmate at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville.

Cannon’s daughter, Cindy Cheatham, said she thinks next month’s sentence hearing before a jury will be the the last court proceeding for the Cannon family in the case. “Even though there is anticipation, it makes me sort of edgy and emotional,” Cheatham said. “I’m ready for it to be over.  But it will never really be over.”...

When Miller was sentenced in 2006, Circuit Court Judge Philip Reich, who is now retired, sentenced Miller to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  The only sentences allowed by state law at the time for capital murder were the death penalty or life in prison without parole.  Reich could not sentence Miller to death because the Supreme Court in 2005 declared the death penalty for defendants younger than age 18 to be unconstitutional.

The Equal Justice Initiative appealed Miller’s sentence to the Supreme Court, which voted 5-4 that the state must have another sentencing option available for juveniles in a capital case other than life without parole.  The court sent the case back to Lawrence County for re-sentencing.  The new state law that a juvenile can be eligible for parole after 30 years does not preclude a judge from sentencing a juvenile capital murder defendant to life in prison without parole.

My first question after reading this article concerned why it took nearly five years for Evan Miller to have a resentencing, but this local article from last year suggests that resentencing was delayed until the Alabama legislature created a "Miller fix" in its sentencing law.  That "fix" now gives an Alabama judge, as detailed above and more fully in this local article, in this kind of case the discretion to impose LWOP or life with a chance at parole after 30 years.

But when remains unclear to me is why Evan Miller is apparently scheduled to appear before a jury at resentencing.  I suspect this may be because technically he is being resentenced on a capital conviction, but some have suggested in this juve sentencing setting that the Supreme Court's work in  Miller and the follow-up case Montgomery, combined with the Apprendi line of cases, now requires a jury finding of "irreparable corruption" to permit  giving a juve an LWOP sentence.  I would be grateful to hear from anyone in the know about Alabama sentencing procedures about why this article talks about Miller's upcoming sentence hearing being "before a jury."

March 5, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Women in Prison: Should they be treated differently from men?"

The title of this post is the title of a lengthy new examination of the incarceration rates of women in recent years just published here by the CQ Researcher, which seeks to provide "in-depth reporting on issues in the news." The full report requires a subscription, but here is the preview via the CQ Researcher website:

The number of women in state and federal prisons has surged since 1978 by nearly 800 percent — twice the growth rate for men.  Mandatory sentences for drug offenses enacted during the 1980s and 1990s have hit women particularly hard, many experts say.  But some prosecutors and Republicans dispute the claim that the so-called war on drugs has disproportionately hurt women.  They say mandatory sentencing has reduced crime, helped break up drug rings and ended sentencing disparities.

Reformers hope states' recent efforts to reduce prison populations and spend more on drug treatment will help women. But they say women still remain an afterthought in the penal system.  For example, reformers say courts and prisons rarely recognize women's responsibility as mothers or the factors underlying their participation in crime, such as domestic abuse.  The justice system, women's advocates say, needs to think creatively about how to help female prisoners.  Meanwhile, in the juvenile system, girls often receive harsher punishments than boys who commit similar offenses.

March 5, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Deep dive into litigation over Chicago “Stash House Stings”

Because the President of the United States has often expressed concerning about crime in Chicago and has tweeted about sending in the feds, I hope the Prez and his advisers find time to check out this recent lengthy Chicago Tribune article about some of the work of the feds in this city in the recent past.  The article, headlined "ATF sting operation accused of using racial bias in finding targets, with majority being minorities," merits a full read, and here is an extended taste:

For four years, Mayfield had been struggling to turn his life around after more than a decade in prison. To escape the street life, he moved to Naperville with his fiancee's family and managed to find a full-time job at a suburban electronics facility that paid 12 bucks an hour. It was there that a co-worker lured him into the robbery after weeks of effort, promising a big score.

Now, inside the police vehicle, the sounds of flash-bang grenades still ringing in his ears, Mayfield started to piece it all together. There was no stash house, no cartel drugs or associates to rob. It was a crime dreamed up by federal authorities and carried out with the help of Mayfield's co-worker to reel him in when he was at his most vulnerable.

Eight years later, Mayfield, 48, and dozens of others are at the center of a brewing legal battle in Chicago's federal court over whether the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' signature sting operation used racial bias in finding its many targets.

A team of lawyers led by the University of Chicago Law School is seeking to dismiss charges against more than 40 defendants in Chicago. The undercover probes, a staple of the ATF since the mid-1990s, have ensnared hundreds of defendants across the country. A recently unsealed study by a nationally renowned expert concluded that ATF showed a clear pattern of racial bias in picking its targets for the drug stings. The disparity between minority and white defendants was so large that there was "a zero percent likelihood" it happened by chance, the study found.

The vast majority of those swept up in the stings in Chicago were minorities, and a close examination of the criminal backgrounds of some of those targeted raises questions about whether they were truly the most dangerous gun offenders whom ATF was aiming to remove from the street.

Some had trouble even coming up with guns to do the job — including one crew that after months of preparation managed to find only one World War I-era pistol with a broken handle that could barely fire a round. Others had no history of carrying out high-risk armed robberies — a key provision in the ATF playbook designed to make sure targets were legitimate, defense lawyers argued in recent court filings....

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed a lengthy motion vehemently disputing that minorities were unfairly targeted in the stash house cases, saying the expert report filed by the defense was "riddled with false assumptions that were designed to manufacture a racial disparity where none exists." The dispute sets up what could be an unprecedented hearing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in the coming months involving a panel of district judges hearing the multiple criminal cases at once.

"It's almost like a criminal class action," said Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, which represents most of the defendants in the dozen cases they are seeking to be dismissed. "Judges are seeing this as a coordinated litigation. It's a very unusual situation."...

According to the ATF, stash house stings are a key part of the agency's national effort to target people who "show a propensity of doing harm to the public through violent behavior." Launched in Miami during the cocaine-war days of the early 1990s, the stings have been honed over the years and are run by experienced agents who use a tightly controlled playbook.

They typically begin when an informant provides the ATF information about a potential target who has expressed interest in taking part in a robbery. The informant then introduces the target to an undercover agent who poses as a disgruntled courier for a drug cartel and offers an opportunity to steal large quantities of drugs from a stash house guarded by men with guns.

In a series of conversations captured on undercover wire, the target is told if he is interested he must assemble an armed team to commit the robbery. The target and his crew are arrested after they show up on the day of the supposed crime. "At the time of arrest, the home invasion defendants are poised, at any moment, to invade a stash house, steal kilograms of cocaine guarded by armed cartel members, and in the process, kill or be killed," prosecutors wrote in their recent court filing.

In order to avoid arguments of entrapment in court, the stings are supposed to target only established robbery groups. ATF criteria also require that at least two of the participants have violent backgrounds and that all must be criminally active at the time the investigation is launched. Not only were the operations a boon for the ATF but the resulting prosecutions also netted eye-popping sentences — sometimes up to life in prison — in part because defendants were criminally liable for the amount of imaginary drugs they believed they were stealing. It didn't matter that the robbery was fake or that no drugs actually existed....

The lengthy sentences were just one pattern that raised red flags for the criminal defense bar. In case after case, the ATF stings seemed to be targeting only minorities. In early 2013, a handful of private attorneys and assistant federal defenders, all veterans at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, were so troubled by a stash house case they were defending that they asked the U.S. attorney's office for a complete list of all the defendants in similar cases sorted by race. Prosecutors rebuffed this admittedly unorthodox request. "ATF does not maintain statistics on the nature in question at either the local or national level," Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Fluhr wrote in response, court records show.

The defense lawyers then asked the judge overseeing the case to order prosecutors to turn over detailed information on how the stash house stings are run and the race of the defendants who had been charged so far. They included their own research showing more minorities were targeted. Prosecutors strenuously objected. But a few months later, U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo allowed the discovery to go forward. "History has shown a continuing difficult intersection between the issue of race and the enforcement of our nation's criminal laws," wrote Castillo, concluding that the defense team had "made a strong showing of potential bias."

Similar motions in other stash house cases soon followed, but the effort to prove racial bias was being made case-by-case with no coordination. Then in 2014, the University of Chicago's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic agreed to focus all its efforts on the 12 stash house cases and their 43 defendants. This allowed the defense attorneys to address the alleged racial bias in a coordinated effort, a critical undertaking given the government's massive resources, the attorneys said....

As the movement to fight the stash house cases gathered steam among defense attorneys, the judiciary also weighed in with some key decisions. In November 2014, the full 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals granted Mayfield a new trial in a rare decision that concluded Potts had "targeted Mayfield at a moment of acute financial need and against a backdrop of prolonged difficulty finding permanent, family-supporting work."

In a 2012 dissenting opinion as the case was winding through the court, appellate Judge Richard Posner had put an even finer point on it, referring to the stings as a "disreputable tactic" that used government informants to target people at a vulnerable time in their lives. Meanwhile, another ruling in July 2015 by the appellate court in Chicago resulted in the government turning over more data on the stash house stings sought by the defense. The ruling allowed the defendants to move ahead with what is believed to be the most thorough analysis of the stings anywhere in the country....

The debate is now potentially headed for a court hearing involving all defendants. The outcome could set precedent for judges in other states. "Courts tend to give law enforcement a lot of leeway," said University of California-Irvine law professor Katharine Tinto, a criminal law expert who has written extensively about the stash house stings. "… The fact that an expert is saying a federal law enforcement agency is discriminating on the basis of race is something everybody should be watching."

March 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 3, 2017

Making the case for fixing private prisons in the Trump era

Lauren-Brooke Eisen has this notable new commentary in Fortune headlined "How President Trump and Jeff Sessions Can Fix America’s Private Prisons." Here are excerpts:

Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ... issued a memo reversing the Obama administration’s decision to phase out its use of private prisons at the federal level.  This memo followed the release of a U.S. Justice Department report in August concluding that privately-operated prisons experienced more safety and security incidents than facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons did.

Since Sessions appears determined to move forward regardless, now is the right time to evaluate how to improve upon how the Justice Department contracts with private corporations to run some of its prisons.  With a businessman in charge of the White House, this provides an opportunity to change private prisons for the better.  A good first step would be to restructure contracts to make private facilities more accountable, effective, and strategic in their use of resources....

Although the new attorney general’s shift in policy only affects a little more than 21,000 inmates out of 126,300 inmates housed in state and federally contracted private prison facilities across the country, it points to the Trump administration’s likely reliance on the private prison industry over the next few years.  Currently, the federal government primarily uses private prisons to house non-citizens convicted of crimes, and most face deportation upon release. The president’s recent executive actions cracking down on unauthorized immigration will likely swell the private prison rolls even more, further expanding the industry....

With an expansion of for-profit prisons on the horizon, it is more important than ever that the government restructure contracts with the private prison industry to boost performance and change incentives.  Conducting field research for my upcoming book, I found that it is rare for contracts with private prison companies to demand fresh thinking, recidivism reduction, and outcomes that outperform the public sector.  Most contracts require the private operator to simply replicate the government prison system’s procedures.

Rather than repeat this approach, both the federal government and state governments should write contracts to ensure that economic incentives focus on reducing recidivism and improving outcomes for the nation’s inmates, not just warehousing as many people as possible....

In 2013, former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration announced it would cancel all the state’s Department of Corrections contracts with private community corrections companies and rebid them on a performance basis. Providers were then evaluated on and paid according to their success at reducing the recidivism levels of those who had just been released from prison.  The state could cancel a contract if the recidivism rate increased over two consecutive year-long periods.  After these contracts were implemented, the recidivism rate for private facilities fell 11.3 percent in just the first year.

Restructuring contracts around the nation’s public policy goals would ensure that private operators provide more educational programming, job training classes, and work with their inmates to ensure they are set up for optimal success once they are eventually released.  Providing incentives to private firms to exceed baselines — such as improved recidivism rates — is an effective carrot, versus creating penalties for basic contract breaches like failing to receive basic accreditation or meet minimum standards.

Reimagining how private prisons operate and are held accountable does not need to be an academic exercise.  Building the proper incentives into their contracts has the power to move the for-profit prison industry away from focusing on cost-cutting and filling its beds to make an extra dollar.  Imagine a world where private prison operators earned bonuses if their inmates received top-tier educational programming and vocational skills classes instead of guaranteed bed occupancies.  It’s possible that private prisons could begin marketing themselves to directors of corrections as leaders in recidivism reduction and reentry preparation.

Private prisons are here to stay under the new administration.  Let’s at least make them work better.

March 3, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"The Return of the Firing Squad"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new US News & World Report article, which carries this subheadline: "The execution method is making a comeback — but some argue that means the end of capital punishment is near." Here are excerpts:

An ongoing shortage of lethal injection drugs — coupled with the grisly spectacle of botched executions and a number of legal challenges to the use of less-effective substitute drugs — has several states, and at least one inmate, calling for the return of the firing squad.

In 2015, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, signed a bill that established firing squads as an execution option, reversing an 11-year ban....  In Mississippi, a bill authorizing firing squads cleared the state House in early February before the state Senate shot it down. Firing squads are on the books in Oklahoma, and lawmakers in other Southern states are said to be considering similar legislation.

Meanwhile, in late February, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the request by Thomas Arthur, an Alabama death-row prisoner who wanted the state to fatally shoot him rather than subject him to the likelihood of a painful death from secret, experimental lethal-injection drugs.

But Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor excoriated her colleagues for tacitly endorsing execution methods that could reasonably be considered as cruel or inhumane — and she pointed to firing squads as the way to go.  "Some might find this choice regressive, but the available evidence suggests that a competently performed shooting may cause nearly instant death," Sotomayor wrote in a blistering dissent.  "In addition to being near instant, death by shooting may also be comparatively painless.  And historically, the firing squad has yielded significantly fewer botched executions."

Death penalty opponents, however, say firing squads aren't fail-safe, the condemned don't always die immediately and the procedure smacks of tin-horn dictatorships, undermining America's global standing as a champion of human rights. That states are looking to salvage the practice, they say, is yet another sign that capital punishment is on its way out.

"I think that the death penalty is in big trouble in the United States," says Austin Sarat, an associate dean and law and political science professor at Amherst College. "The legitimacy of capital punishment has been sustained in part by the belief that we could find a way of execution that would be safe, reliable and sane," says Sarat, the author of "Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty."  He notes the same arguments officials are making for the firing squad — it's quick, it's humane, it's reliable — were the same ones proponents used for lethal injections as its more clinical, civilized replacement. "It's a back-to-the-future [method] that was replaced for a reason," Sarat says....

"The elusive search in the modern era for humane methods of execution was a reaction to the perceived barbarity of death by methods like the firing squad," Phyllis Goldfarb, a George Washington University law professor, writes in an email. "Death by firing squad is not pain- and botch-free," Goldfarb writes, noting some marksmen have missed the heart target and hit other parts of the body, while others have fired prematurely. "The condemned dies from blood loss and loses consciousness when blood supplied to the brain drops precipitously. Even when the people in the firing squad hit their target as intended, it may take at least a couple of minutes for the condemned to die and sometimes much longer."

To that point, firing-squad proponents have a quick retort: So what? "How could a civilized society place a man before a firing squad, [opponents] ask," writes Joseph R. Murray II, a guest columnist for the Jackson, Miss., Clarion Ledger, commenting on the debate over the state's proposal to have inmates die by the bullet.

"To these folks, that's third-world justice. But isn't a firing squad the most humane way to execute a criminal? Isn't death instantaneous?" Murray asks. "Where lethal injection could go awry, causing prolonged pain, and electrocution could not work effectively, there is no doubt multiple bullets do the job quickly and safely."

Goldfarb says if authorities want to be absolutely certain that an inmate dies instantly without pain or suffering, they can choose another target on the body.  "Firing a gun at point blank range into the head" is 100 percent effective, and "would cause a near-instantaneous death.  But it would be exceedingly violent and destructive," Goldfarb writes. "But could we ask someone to inflict that kind of violence on another as part of their job as a state employee?  If the state were to authorize such a gruesome spectacle in the name of law, how could we maintain our standing in the world as a protector of human rights?"

Still, she predicts the firing squad debate could go far in the current law-and-order climate ushered in with President Donald Trump's inauguration. "I see the present moment as one in which fair debate based on factual evidence is being threatened and 'fear of the other' who would use violence to harm 'us' is being fanned for political gain," she writes. "These are the emotional conditions that have allowed the death penalty to persist in America — providing a simple answer to a complex problem."

Still, "there may be pockets of renewed death penalty support, using whatever methods are permitted," writes Goldfarb. "But I don't think that approach will become widespread again, as it degrades us as a society and depends on rhetoric that is divisive, cynical, extremely racialized, and ultimately corrosive to America."

March 3, 2017 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Washington Supreme Court rules Eighth Amendment precludes applying mandatory minimum adult sentencing scheme to juvenile offenders

The Supreme Court of Washington issued a very significant new ruling expanding the reach of the Eighth Amendment as adumbrated by the Supreme Court in Graham and Miller. The extended ruling in Washington v. Houston-Sconiers, No. 92605-1 (Wash. March 2, 2016) (available here), gets started this way:

"[C]hildren are different." Miller v. Alabama,_ U.S. _, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2470, 183 L. Ed. 2d 407 (2012). That difference has constitutional ramifications: "An offender's age is relevant to the Eighth Amendment, and [so] criminal procedure laws that fail to take defendants' youthfulness into account at all would be flawed." Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 76, 130 S. Ct. 2011, 176 L. Ed. 2d 825 (2010); U.S. CONST. amend. VIII.  The defendants in this case -- Zyion Houston-Sconiers and Treson Roberts -- are children. On Halloween night in 2012, they were 17 and 16 years old, respectively.  They robbed mainly other groups of children, and they netted mainly candy.

But they faced very adult consequences.  They were charged with crimes that brought them automatically into adult (rather than juvenile) court, without any opportunity for a judge to exercise discretion about the appropriateness of such transfers.  They had lengthy adult sentencing ranges calculated under adult Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 (SRA), chapter 9.94A RCW, rules.  And they received lengthy adult firearm sentence enhancements, with their mandatory, consecutive, flat-time consequences, without any opportunity for a judge to exercise discretion about the appropriateness of that sentence increase, either.

As a result, Houston-Sconiers faced a sentencing range of 501-543 months (41.75-45.25 years) in prison.  Clerk's Papers (Houston-Sconiers) (CPHS) at 227.  Of that, 3 72 months (31 years) was attributable to the firearm sentence enhancements and would be served as '"flat time,"' meaning "in total confinement" without possibility of early release. Id.; RCW 9.94A.533(3)(e).  Roberts faced a sentencing range of 441-483 months (36.75-40.25 years) in prison. Clerk's Papers (Roberts) (CPR) at 154.  Of that, 312 months (26 years) would be "'flat time"' attributable to the firearm sentence enhancements. Id.

To their credit, all participants in the system balked at this result. But they felt their hands were tied by our state statutes.

We now hold that the sentencing judge's hands are not tied.  Because "children are different" under the Eighth Amendment and hence "criminal procedure laws" must take the defendants' youthfulness into account, sentencing courts must have absolute discretion to depart as far as they want below otherwise applicable SRA ranges and/or sentencing enhancements when sentencing juveniles in adult court, regardless of how the juvenile got there.  We affirm all convictions but remand both cases for resentencing.

March 2, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (10)

"The externalities problem is acute in criminal justice for two reasons."

The title of this post is a line from this interesting new essay by Richard Bierschbach, over at online publication Regblog produced by the University of Pennsylvania Law School.  This essay is actually part of a fifteen(!)-part series on "Regulating Police Use of Force," but Richard makes some sentencing-specific points in his essay.  Here are excerpts, with links from the original:

The externalities problem is acute in criminal justice for two reasons. First, we think of criminal justice as individual justice.  Actors thus tend to view each case as an isolated transaction to the exclusion of broader, long-term, and aggregate effects. Second, criminal justice, especially American criminal justice, is fragmented vertically among governments, horizontally among agencies, and individually among self-interested actors. No one player has the responsibility, incentives, or information to take systemic harms into account. And given the politics of criminal justice, democratic processes do little to correct this dynamic.

Police and other law enforcement systematically overuse force in part because few mechanisms require them to consider the full social costs of doing so. The costs of arrests, for instance, are substantial: arrests are frightening and humiliating, use valuable resources, and burden arrestees with lost income, arrest records, and other harms. Yet few of these costs fall on the police.  So, too, for other coercive measures. Prosecutors and judges do not shoulder the full costs of pretrial detention, such as overcrowded jails, difficulties in mounting a defense, and personal and family trauma. Similarly, states pay for prisons, but local prosecutors’ decisions fill them. That “correctional free lunch” gives prosecutors little incentive to use prison judiciously, which helps explain why some counties dramatically overconsume it....

Cost-benefit analysis for sentencing and arrests. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and other agencies have long had to defend their regulations in cost-justified terms. Why not hold sentencing and arrest guidelines to the same standard? The great virtue of cost-benefit analysis is that, if done rigorously, honestly, and transparently, it can surface and force consideration of all harms and gains—short- and long-term, concentrated and diffuse, and monetary and non-monetary (such as dignitary and distributive harms)—that a given policy option implicates. It is not hard to imagine how some draconian provisions of the federal sentencing guidelines or New York City’s stop-and-frisk policies might have come out differently, and wrought less social damage, if policymakers had subjected them to methodical cost-benefit testing that was open to robust public scrutiny and debate.

Such procedures help policymakers confront tough tradeoffs and encourage them to make more welfare enhancing decisions. As experience in states like Washington and Minnesota has shown, cost-benefit and other impact assessment procedures also provide politicians with a degree of political cover when making criminal justice policies. The broad consideration of costs also acts as a proxy for values and voices that get little traction in state legislative halls, helping to make criminal justice policies more representative of the entire population they serve....

Capping (and trading?) prison beds. Related to pricing are caps, which can also bring incentives back in line. In a number of contexts, such as arrests, caps might not be appropriate. But in other contexts, like prison, they could make sense. Just as a capping scheme limits the amount of clean air a coal plant can use in generating profits, so too could it limit the number of prison beds that local prosecutors can use in generating personal, political, and social gains.

A trio of criminal justice professors, Cheryl Jonson, John Eck, and Francis Cullen, have proposed how it might work.  States could set a cap on the number of people who could be sentenced to prison each year. They could then allocate prison beds to each county or locality based on some metric — population size, violent crime rates, or something else.  Localities could use those beds however they pleased, but once they hit their cap, they would have to pay the state for further imprisonments. The cap could be hard-and-fast, or it could be coupled with a trading system under which counties that do not use all of their beds could sell them to other counties, sell them back to the state, or roll them over for later use. Either way, the system would enhance accountability for criminal justice dollars and encourage cautious use of prison in ways the “correctional free lunch” does not.

Now, these sketches are just that. As University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Stephanos Bibas and I discuss in a forthcoming article, serious issues would exist with each of these and related strategies. Even so, in states and localities across the country, variations on these themes — like cost-benefit analysis of sanctions in Washington, California’s Public Safety Realignment, or sentencing cost disclosures in Missouri — are increasingly appearing as policymakers confront the enormous toll of the carceral state. In this era of unprecedented openness to criminal justice experimentation, the time is ripe to move beyond our old transactional, fragmented, business-as-usual approach to criminal justice, and to see it for what it largely is: a morally laden and complex regulatory system, subject to many of the same failures and limitations that afflict other areas of regulation. That means we must think hard not only about how to do justice, but also about how to structure justice to administer it in the most socially-regarding way possible.

March 2, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)