Monday, March 23, 2015

"WBUR Poll: Most In Boston Think Tsarnaev Should Get Life In Prison Over Death Penalty"

0323_dems-copy-620x363The title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new press report on an intriguing new poll about an on-going federal capital case.  Here are the basics: 

As the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev moves ahead, a new WBUR poll (topline, crosstabs) finds most Boston residents believe the admitted Boston Marathon bomber should receive life in prison instead of the death penalty if convicted.

In a survey of 229 registered Boston voters, 62 percent said Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, while 27 percent said he should receive the death penalty. That preference held true for the broader Boston area, defined as communities inside and along Route 128 — but the margin is slimmer. Of 504 registered Boston area voters surveyed by telephone March 16-18, 49 percent think Tsarnaev should get life in prison, while 38 percent feel he should be sentenced to death....

Across different demographics, the preference for punishment varied a bit more. Men were more in favor of the death penalty in this case than life in prison, while women more strongly favored life in prison over the death penalty. Across all age groups, more people felt Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison rather than the death penalty — but the widest margin was among young people ages 18 to 29, where 55 percent chose life in prison and 32 percent chose the death penalty.

Among minorities, there was also a wide margin — 64 percent believe Tsarnaev should be sentenced to life in prison, while 25 percent think he should get the death penalty. Among whites, 46 percent chose life in prison and 41 percent chose the death penalty.

Kozcela said the findings across demographics are also in line with partisan views on the death penalty. “The groups that tend to lean more Democrat also tend to be more opposed to the death penalty,” he said.

Ultimately, Tsarnaev’s fate will be decided by a jury. But the demographics of that jury is an issue defense attorneys raised in February, in their second attempt to get the case dismissed. Tsarnaev’s lawyer’s argued that the jury — which is all white and made up of eight men and 10 women — wasn’t diverse enough. (Twelve of those jurors will determine the final verdict.) Defense attorneys took issue with the way potential jurors were reordered when the final jury pool was summoned to fill out questionnaires. The defense argued the renumbering pushed African-Americans, young people and Boston residents — groups our poll shows favor life in prison over the death penalty — down the list of potential jurors, decreasing their chances of being seated on the jury.

Judge George O’Toole Jr. denied the defense’s motion in early March. The defense also tried unsuccessfully four times to get the trial moved out of Boston, arguing they could not get a fair trial here. However, as our poll shows, most Boston residents prefer to give Tsarnaev life in prison — a position the defense hopes the jury will take....

So far in the trial, the prosecution has been laying out its case against Tsarnaev with graphic videos and photos, emotional victim testimony and evidence gathered from Watertown and the Tsarnaevs’ residences. Once the prosecution wraps up its case, the defense will present its case. The defense already admitted Tsarnaev carried out the bombing, but they are trying to save his life by convincing the jury he was influenced by his older brother.

March 23, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Why passage of Prop 47 ensures California remains a hot topic in sentencing and corrections reform

This terrific new bit of reporting at The Crime Report, headlined "Prop 47: The Stormy Aftermath," details why California remains a kind perfect storm for those interesting in studying hot topics in the debates over modern sentencing reforms and the relationship between incarceration and crime. Here are excerpts from the piece:

California’s Proposition 47, passed in a referendum last November, set in motion a dramatic reversal of the state’s approach to mass incarceration. The law changed six of California’s low-level offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, and made eligible for resentencing hundreds of thousands of individuals convicted of those crimes.

Not surprisingly, it has drawn the attention of policymakers and law enforcement authorities from across the country — some of it controversial.

“This was such a big fix — being able to go from felony to misdemeanor,” said Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice — an advocacy group that spearheaded the referendum campaign. “We’re engaging in a lot of dialogue about how to change practices, how to put a priority on public safety without relying on over-incarceration.”

But how will success or failure be measured? Four months later, the answer is still not clear — but criminal justice practitioners and advocates contacted by The Crime Report suggest that the passionate debate it fueled is only just beginning.

At a session last month at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, Anderson told criminal justice practitioners and advocates that thousands of prisoners have been resentenced and released since Proposition 47 passed with nearly 60 percent of California voters approving the measure. The move should ultimately free up police, court and prison resources to focus on more serious violent crimes, she said....

Critics of the measure, however, warned that letting people out of jail, and removing the threat of felony charges, would lead to an increase in crime and compromise public safety. Their argument appeared to receive some support when the Los Angeles Times reported on February 21 that narcotic arrests in the city declined significantly after voters approved the bill — while property crimes increased. The story also noted: “some criminal justice experts caution against drawing conclusions.”...

One criminologist who isn’t a fan of the early assessments of Proposition 47’s impact on crime is Barry Krisberg, a Senior Fellow of the Earl Warren Institute at the University of California Berkeley Law School — and an occasional contributor to The Crime Report. “This alleged increase in property crimes, I’m not believing it,” he said in an interview. “That information isn’t even officially produced yet; it’s based on police counts, which are often inaccurate.”...

Former San Diego Police Chief Bill Landsowne, who retired in March 2014, says law enforcement organizations — in particular the state’s Police Chiefs, Sheriffs' and District Attorneys associations — are responsible for orchestrating a media push to discredit Proposition 47. “As a sitting chief it would have been very difficult for me to advocate for Prop 47,” Landsowne, a proponent of the referendum, told The Crime Report. “You don’t want to be an outlier in the process, you want to be tough. But police know we need more treatment options in the system."...

To criminologist Eugene O’Donnell a former New York City police officer, the mixed early statistical returns — and the debate surrounding them — is not surprising. “It’s absolutely premature, you can’t just snap your fingers and fix a complicated problem,” O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College, said. “This is going to be something that has a long-term impact; trying to make a 60-day assessment is impossible.”

March 23, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Did serial rapist, former NFL star Darren Sharper, benefit from celebrity justice in global plea deal?

The provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by the notable celebrity sentencing news breaking today and reported in this extended USA Today article headlined "Darren Sharper sentenced to nine years in first of plea deals." Here are the details:

Former NFL star Darren Sharper was sentenced to nine years in prison Monday in Arizona after pleading guilty to sexual assault and attempted sexual assault in November 2013, the Maricopa County Attorney's office confirmed to USA TODAY Sports.

Sharper, 39, entered his pleas Monday in Arizona from Los Angeles, where he was expected to appear in court later in the day and enter a guilty plea in connection with two other rape allegations from 2013 and 2014.

The pleas are part of an attempted "global" plea agreement that could resolve all nine rape charges against him in four states. In addition to the charges in California and Arizona, he faces two rape charges in Las Vegas and three in New Orleans, where is expected to enter guilty pleas within the next month.

The sentences will run concurrently in federal prison, said Jerry Cobb of the Maricopa County Attorney's office. Sharper is not eligible for early release in Arizona, but will be credited for time served in Los Angeles, where he has been in jail without bail since Feb. 27, 2014.

By agreeing to the plea deal, Sharper, 39, avoids the risk of receiving an even worse punishment in the future and expensive litigation that could drag on indefinitely in four states. If convicted, he faced life in prison in Louisiana and more than 30 years in Los Angeles. For prosecutors, the plea deal avoids the risk of going to trial, where juries might be influenced by Sharper's fame and celebrity defense attorneys.

His suspected string of serial rapes ended in January 2014, when he was arrested on a suspicion of rape in Los Angeles. At the time of his first arrest, he had 20 zolpidem pills in his possession – a sleep drug known by its brand name Ambien. Sharper obtained a prescription for the drug after suffering sleep problems he attributed to his 14-year career in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, according to a workers compensation claim form he filed in 2012.

The drug can be slipped into drinks to knock out women and rape them, and that's what authorities say Sharper did time after time, according to court records. Sharper ultimately was charged with nine rapes in four states, including three in consecutive nights in two different states in January 2014.

None of the cases went to trial or even received an evidentiary hearing except in Arizona, where a judge ruled last April there was "proof evident" Sharper raped a women there in November 2013. DNA found inside the women's body partially matched Sharper's, and a witness reported waking up and seeing Sharper naked and making thrusting movements over the woman, according to a detective's testimony at the hearing.

The detective said the woman hadn't known Sharper before that night and didn't remember what happened to her after consuming a drink Sharper made her. Zolpidem was found in the cup in subsequent tests. Though Sharper's attorney noted that none of Sharper's sperm was found on the alleged victims in Arizona, the detective said he was told that Sharper had a vasectomy, which could explain the lack of sperm. The revelation caused a stir that day in Arizona, where Sharper was charged with drugging three women and raping two of them.

In Los Angeles, he was charged with drugging and raping two women – one in October 2013 and one in January 2014. In the first one, Sharper met two women at a club in West Hollywood and later invited them to his hotel room, where he offered them a drink, according to a police report of the incident filed in court....

In New Orleans, Sharper was accused of drugging and raping two women in September 2013. He also faced federal drug charges and another rape charge from Aug. 31, 2013, all of it happening just a few years after he helped the Saints win a Super Bowl in 2010.

Though the evidence against Sharper has not, obviously, been proven in court, this press account and his global plea leads me to think he truly is guilty of nine rapes. And assuming that is true, a year in prison for each of nine rapes is a pretty sweet plea deal. Ergo the question in the title of this post.

March 23, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Three Justices lament SCOTUS failure to do death-penalty error correction in Texas case

Though the big Supreme Court sentencing news today is the cert grant in another Miller retroactivity case from Louisiana (basics here), also notable for sentencing fans is this dissent from the denial of certiorari in a Texas capital case authored by Justice Breyer (joined by Justices Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor). Here are snippets from the start and end of the opinion:

On April 28, 1984, petitioner Lester Leroy Bower was convicted in a Texas court of murdering four men. Each of the four men had been shot multiple times. Their bodies were left in an airplane hangar, and an ultralight aircraft was missing.

The State sought the death penalty. Bower introduced evidence that was, in his view, mitigating. He noted that he was 36 years old, married, employed full-time, and a father of two. He had no prior criminal record. Through the testimony of Bower’s family members and friends, the jury also heard about Bower’s religious devotion, his commitment to his family, his community service, his concern for others, his even temperament, and his lack of any previous violent (or criminal) behavior.

At the time of Bower’s sentencing, Texas law permitted the jury to consider this mitigating evidence only insofar as it was relevant to three “special issues”...

[The] Texas Court of Criminal Appeals believed that the use of the special issues proceeding in Bower’s sentencing proceeding did not constitutionally entitle him to resentencing.

Bower now asks us to grant certiorari and to reverse the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. In my view, we should do so. Penry’s holding rested on the fact that Texas’ former special issues did not tell the jury “what ‘to do if it decided that [the defendant] . . . should not be executed’” because of his mitigating evidence. Abdul-Kabir v. Quarterman, 550 U.S. 233, 256 (2007) (quoting Penry, supra, at 324). Bower’s sentencing procedure suffered from this defect just as Penry’s did. The distinction that the Texas court drew between Penry’s and Bower’s evidence is irrelevant. Indeed, we have expressly made “clear that Penry . . . applies in cases involving evidence that is neither double edged nor purely aggravating, because in some cases a defendant’s evidence may have mitigating effect beyond its ability to negate the special issues.” 550 U.S., at 255, n. 16. The trial court and the Fifth Circuit both recognized that Bower’s Penry claim was improperly rejected on that basis.

The Constitution accordingly entitles Bower to a new sentencing proceeding.  I recognize that we do not often intervene only to correct a case-specific legal error.  But the error here is glaring, and its consequence may well be death.  After all, because Bower already filed an application for federal habeas relief raising his Penry claim, the law may bar him from filing another application raising this same issue.  See 28 U.S.C. §2254(b)(1). In these circumstances, I believe we should act and act now.  I would grant the petition and summarily reverse the judgment below.  I dissent from the Court’s decision not to do so.

March 23, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"A Commentary on Statistical Assessment of Violence Recidivism Risk"

The title of this post is the title of this timely paper by Peter Imrey and A. Philip Dawid now available via SSRN. The piece, as evidenced simply by the abstract, seems quite technical. But it seems that the piece is making an especially important technical point. Here is the abstract:

Increasing integration and availability of data on large groups of persons has been accompanied by proliferation of statistical and other algorithmic prediction tools in banking, insurance, marketing, medicine, and other fields (see e.g., Steyerberg (2009a;b)).  Controversy may ensue when such tools are introduced to fields traditionally reliant on individual clinical evaluations.  Such controversy has arisen about "actuarial" assessments of violence recidivism risk, i.e., the probability that someone found to have committed a violent act will commit another during a specified period.

Recently Hart et al. (2007a) and subsequent papers from these authors in several reputable journals have claimed to demonstrate that statistical assessments of such risks are inherently too imprecise to be useful, using arguments that would seem to apply to statistical risk prediction quite broadly.  This commentary examines these arguments from a technical statistical perspective, and finds them seriously mistaken in many particulars. They should play no role in reasoned discussions of violence recidivism risk assessment.

March 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Supreme Court takes up a replacement juve LWOP retroactivity case from Louisiana

As reported in this AP piece, the US Supreme Court this morning found a replacement for the prior resolved case (Toca) dealing with the retroactivity of its 2012 Miller decision.  Here are the basics:

The Supreme Court is adding a new case to decide whether its 3-year-old ruling throwing out mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles should apply to older cases. The court was scheduled to hear arguments in a case from Louisiana in late March, but the state released inmate George Toca after 30 years in prison.

The justices on Monday said they would consider a new Louisiana case involving a man who has been held since 1963 for killing a sheriff's deputy in Baton Rouge.  Henry Montgomery was a 17-year-old 10th grader who was playing hooky from school when he shot Deputy Charles Hurt at a park near the city's airport. The officer and his partner were looking to round up truants.

The case will be argued in the fall.... The case is Montgomery v. Louisiana, 14-280.

Some SCOTUS-related posts on the prior Toca case and Miller retroactivity:

March 23, 2015 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Might a President Ted Cruz champion "common sense" mandatory minimum sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this political news from Houston: "Ted Cruz to announce presidential bid Monday."  Here are highlights about Senator Cruz's plans:

Senior advisers say Cruz will run as an unabashed conservative eager to mobilize like-minded voters who cannot stomach the choice of the "mushy middle" that he has ridiculed on the stump over the past two months in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. "Ted is exactly where most Republican voters are," said Mike Needham, who heads the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action for America. "Most people go to Washington and get co-opted. And Ted clearly is somebody that hasn't been."

For various reasons, I am pleased that Senator Cruz is the first GOP candidate to officially throw his hat into the ring and that he will be running as a "unabashed conservative." As explained in this prior post, this unabashed conservative has stated that he believes a commitment to "fairness" and "justice" and "common sense" calls for passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act and other federal reforms which would help avoid "a world of Le Miserables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.

A few recent and older posts on the modern "conservative politics" of federal sentencing reform:

March 22, 2015 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Pope Francis categorically condemns death penalty as "inadmissible" in today's world

As reported in this piece from Vatican Radio, which describes itself the "voice of the Pope and the Church in dialogue with the World," Pope Francis spoke about capital punishment during a meeting with members of an international anti-death penalty group. Here are details:

Capital punishment is cruel, inhuman and an offense to the dignity of human life. In today's world, the death penalty is "inadmissible, however serious the crime" that has been committed. That was Pope Francis’ unequivocal message to members of the International Commission against the death penalty who met with him on Friday morning in the Vatican.

In a lengthy letter written in Spanish and addressed to the president of the International Commission against the death penalty, Pope Francis thanks those who work tirelessly for a universal moratorium, with the goal of abolishing the use of capital punishment in countries right across the globe.

Pope Francis makes clear that justice can never be done by killing another human being and he stresses there can be no humane way of carrying out a death sentence. For Christians, he says, all life is sacred because every one of us is created by God, who does not want to punish one murder with another, but rather wishes to see the murderer repent. Even murderers, he went on, do not lose their human dignity and God himself is the guarantor.

Capital punishment, Pope Francis says, is the opposite of divine mercy, which should be the model for our man-made legal systems. Death sentences, he insists, imply cruel and degrading treatment, as well as the torturous anguish of a lengthy waiting period before the execution, which often leads to sickness or insanity.

The Pope ... makes quite clear that the use of capital punishment signifies “a failure” on the part of any State. However serious the crime, he says, an execution “does not bring justice to the victims, but rather encourages revenge” and denies any hope of repentence or reparation for the crime that has been committed.

March 22, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Sentencing Enhancement and the Crime Victim's Brain"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article now available via SSRN authored by Francis X. Shen. Here is the abstract:

Criminal offenders who inflict serious bodily injury to another in the course of criminal conduct are typically sentenced more harshly than those who do not cause such injuries. But what if the harm caused is “mental” or “psychological” and not “physical”?  Should the sentencing enhancement still apply? Federal and state courts are already wrestling with this issue, and modern neuroscience offers new challenges to courts’ analyses.  This Article thus tackles the question: In light of current neuroscientific knowledge, when and how should sentencing enhancements for bodily injury include mental injuries?

The Article argues that classification of “mental” as wholly distinct from “physical” is problematic in light of modern neuroscientific understanding of the relationship between mind and brain.  There is no successful justification for treating mental injuries as categorically distinct from other physical injuries.  There is, however, good reason for law to treat mental injuries as a unique type of physical injury.  Enhancement of criminal penalties for mental injuries must pay special care to the causal connection between the offender’s act and the victim’s injury.  Moreover, it is law, not science, that must be the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a sufficiently bad mental harm to justify a harsher criminal sentence, and of what evidence is sufficient to prove the mental injury.

March 21, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Prez Obama promising to exercise "pardon power and clemency power more aggressively"

This new Huffington Post article reports on an interview with President Barack Obama in which his clemency efforts past and present were discussed. Here are highlights:

President Barack Obama plans to grant clemency to federal offenders "more aggressively" during the remainder of his presidency, he said in a sit-down interview with The Huffington Post on Friday.

Obama has faced criticism for rarely using his power to grant pardons and commutations. In December, he commuted the sentences of eight federal drug offenders, including four who had been sentenced to life. That brought his total number of commutations to 18.

Obama said he had granted clemency so infrequently because of problems in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney. The former head of that office, who was appointed during the George W. Bush administration, resigned in April amid criticism from criminal justice advocates. "I noticed that what I was getting was mostly small-time crimes from very long ago," Obama said. "It'd be a 65-year-old who wanted a pardon to get his gun rights back. Most of them were legitimate, but they didn't address the broader issues that we face, particularly around nonviolent drug offenses. So we've revamped now the DOJ office. We're now getting much more representative applicants."

Many of those new applications came from what's known as the Clemency Project 2014, announced when the Office of the Pardon Attorney head resigned. That project, which operates independently of the government, is intended to help DOJ sort through a huge number of applicants to figure out who meets specific criteria laid out by the administration.  But the process has been slow, and some criminal justice advocates are growing frustrated. Since the project was announced, more than 35,000 inmates -- roughly 16 percent of the total federal prison population -- have submitted applications....

Obama said Friday that the public could see the results of the project soon. "I think what you'll see is not only me exercising that pardon power and clemency power more aggressively for people who meet the criteria -- nonviolent crimes, have served already a long period of time, have shown that they're rehabilitated -- but also we're working with Democrats and Republicans around criminal justice reform issues," Obama said.

The president said it was "encouraging" to see criminal justice reform and support for the elimination of some mandatory minimum sentences as a "rare area where we're actually seeing significant bipartisan interest," with some libertarians and conservatives concerned about costs joining with Democrats. "If we can get some action done at the federal level, that will make a difference in terms of how, I think, more and more states recognize it doesn't make sense for us to treat nonviolent drug offenses the way we do," Obama said.

As I have said many times before, the Obama Administration has generally be much better at talking the talk than at walking the walk on these sorts of sentencing matters. Nevertheless, I view these comments as additional reason to believe there will be many more clemency grants by President Obama in the coming year or two than in the previous five or six.

March 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Effective discussion of nitrogen gas as execution method alternative

Images (1)This new Atlantic article, headlined "Can Executions Be More Humane?: A law professor suggests an untested procedure as an alternative to lethal injection," provides an interesting account of the person and story behind a novel execution method proposal.  Here are excerpts:

Michael Copeland has a unique resume: former Assistant Attorney General of the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau, professor of criminal justice at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma — and now, the proponent of a new execution method he claims would be more humane than lethal injection.

Copeland is one of the brains behind House Bill 1879 proposed by Oklahoma State Representative Mike Christian.  The bill, passed by the Oklahoma House last week, would make “nitrogen hypoxia” a secondary method to lethal injection.  Oklahoma State Senator Anthony Sykes will be introducing it to the senate shortly.

Copeland explained the execution method last September to the Oklahoma House Judiciary Committee at Christian’s invitation.  Copeland says that Christian had been suggesting the firing squad, but Copeland thought there might be a better way.  Along with two other professors from East Central University, Christine C. Pappas and Thomas M. Parr, he is drafting a white paper about the benefits of nitrogen-induced hypoxia over lethal injection....

Hypoxia occurs when a person lacks an adequate supply of oxygen.  “Normally, the air we breathe is 79 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen,” Copeland explains. Nitrogen hypoxia during an execution “would be induced by having the offender breathing a gas mixture of pure nitrogen.” Copeland points out that “nitrogen is an inert gas, and therefore doesn’t actually cause the death.  It is the lack of oxygen that causes death.”

According to Copeland, death from nitrogen hypoxia is painless. “In industrial accidents, it often happens because the victim does not know they are in a hypoxic environment,” he said.  “That suffocating feeling of anxiety and discomfort is not associated with hypoxic deaths.”  He says nitrogen-induced hypoxia is well-researched, although the ideal delivery system for an execution has not yet been established.  Two ideas include a medical-grade oxygen tent around the head or a facemask similar to those used by firefighters.

The condemned person might not even know when the “the switch to pure nitrogen occurs, instead he would simply lose consciousness about fifteen seconds after the switch was made,” he added.  “Approximately thirty seconds later, he would stop producing brain waves, and the heart would stop beating about two to three minutes after that.”...

Copeland says that conditions for lethal-injection executions will only get worse.  States are scrambling to find the drugs and the health professionals to use them, and both are required for lethal injection to take place.  “You have anti-death penalty zealots around the globe that protest, that bring attention to the manufacturers of these drugs,” Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt told a local chamber of commerce last summer. Pruitt said that as long as activists pressure manufacturers, there will be supply issues....

From its first use in the execution of Gee Jon in Nevada in 1924 to its link to Nazi gas chambers, lethal gas as method of execution has a problematic history.  American lethal-gas executions typically used hydrogen cyanide as the mechanism of death.  Inmates were strapped to chairs in gas chambers and the ensuing chemical reaction would cause visible signs of pain and discomfort: skin discoloration, drooling, and writhing.

But nitrogen hypoxia would likely not produce the gruesome deaths that resulted from cyanide gas executions. Copeland says that “you don’t have to worry about someone reacting differently.” The condemned person would feel slightly intoxicated before losing consciousness and ultimately dying.

Other death-penalty experts are more skeptical.  “It’s only been partially vetted, superficially researched, and has never been tried,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.  “Using it would be an experiment on human subjects.” State death rows would be strapping someone down without any idea what would happen next, he feared.  “We’d need testimony from the best experts on this,” Dieter says. “Right now, this is sailing through a legislature and not a peer-review process. I’m no doctor, but let’s hear from them.  I don’t completely dismiss the idea that this could become approved or that it’s as good as they say because lethal injection is in a bind.”

If the bill becomes law and Oklahoma successfully executes someone using this method, it could spread from to state very quickly, Dieter says.  Older methods like firing squads are a little too brutal for the American public, but something new could be accepted. If so, he says, “it could lead to an awkward spurt of executions.”  Copeland says he is not a death penalty absolutist. “I think the state has a unique obligation for justice — it’s the state’s obligation,” he explains.  “But I don’t think the death penalty is a deterrent compared to life without parole.”  If we must have the death penalty, he argues, it should be humane.

Copeland thinks that it is death penalty abolitionists who have made executions inhumane by restricting access to drugs.  It will only get worse.  Some corrections officials at the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections agree.  On February 18, they submitted a report to the state House of Representatives proposing the use of nitrogen-induced hypoxia and cited Copeland’s forthcoming paper.

Copeland says that it’s a logical and humane next step. “Nitrogen is ubiquitous. The process is humane, it doesn’t require expertise, and it’s cheap,” he explained. “I think of it as a harm-reduction thing — like you’d rather people not use heroin, but if they do, you want them to use clean needles.”

A few recent and older related posts:

March 21, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Should SCOTUS Justices (and lots of other federal and state judges) regularly visit prisons?

The question of the title of this post is prompted by this interesting local article from Michigan, headlined "Justice goes to prison to weigh Mich. sentencing system."  Here are excerpts from this lengthy story:

On an early March tour of Michigan's prison intake center, new Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein learned that corrections officials want more guidance from judges about their expectations for the lawbreakers sent here.

New prisoners and rearrested parole absconders are processed at the three-building complex before being assigned to correctional facilities around the state. Inmates arrive with sentencing orders and other paperwork but nothing to indicate why a judge prescribed a certain prison term or what the goal of it is, Michigan Corrections Director Dan Heyns said.

"It would be helpful for judges to tell us the intent of their sentences," Heyns told Bernstein, the nation's first blind state Supreme Court justice. "If it's strictly to provide public safety, we know how to do that. But if the intent is to get at the root cause of their criminality, tell us that."

Bernstein's unusual visit — prison officials couldn't recall a previous visit from a sitting Supreme Court justice — came as lawmakers attempt to revive failed 2014 legislation calling for reforms of 1998 sentencing guidelines and parole policies. The changes were recommended last May by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which noted 1 in 5 state dollars is spent on corrections....

Bernstein's visit lasted four hours. He was keen to get a feel for what prison is like and learn how he and the state's highest court might improve coordination between judges who dispense justice and incarceration officials who administer it. Corrections chief Heyns provided examples of the way judges' decisions and state sentencing policies impact costs. For the crime of burglary, for example, the recidivism rate — chance of a repeat offense — is no lower after a five-year sentence than a three-year sentence, Heyns said. "There's no return on our investment for the other two years," he added.

The 41-year-old justice was elected last year to an eight-year term after working at his family's well-known Farmington Hills law firm, which specializes in personal injury litigation, not criminal law.  He handled a number of disability rights cases the firm litigated. "They said I have no experience with the criminal justice system," he said referring to critics of his November campaign for the Supreme Court. "That's a legitimate criticism."

Bernstein said the legal briefs for criminal cases that come before the Supreme Court are "academic" in nature and don't convey the harsh realities of prison life and rehabilitation. At the Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center, Bernstein encountered stark facilities where 9,000 men are processed annually. They live for two weeks to a month in barred cells stacked in tiers with yellow-railed gangways....

"I wanted to know what it feels like to come here, I want to know the consequences of our decisions," Bernstein said in the midst of it.  "You learn about how every facet of your life is controlled.  A free person does not think about that."...

At the end, the justice pressed for feedback about how to make the system work better. Half of the job of Supreme Court justices, he said, is to administer Michigan's court system through rules governing their proceedings.  Heyns suggested perhaps something as simple as a statement outlining the expectations in each judge's sentencing order would be a great help to prison officials. Bernstein said he wants to work at it but said any change "won't happen overnight."

Nearly two-thirds of the inmates now feeding into the system through Egeler are first-timers and half of them will be released within two years, according to Heyns.  "We don't have a whole lot of time to do a lot of correction," Heyns told Bernstein. "It calls into question, what are we really accomplishing with these people? It's a huge cost."

I think it is fantastic that this new Michigan Supreme Court Justice took the time to check out one part of his state's prison system. I think all judges with a significant part of their dockets comprised of criminal justice cases ought to consider doing the same. (I would guess that only a very small percentage of federal or state appellate judges have spent any real time inside a prison facility.)

March 20, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

"Victim's wife: Keep me out of death penalty fight"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article out of Philadelphia which highlights how victims often can and will get victimized again by the political debates over the death penalty.  Here is how the piece starts:

Since Gov. Wolf declared his moratorium on the death penalty last month, proponents of capital punishment have rallied around one case to push their cause - the scuttled execution of Terrance Williams, a Philadelphia man sentenced to die in 1986 for the beating death of a Germantown church volunteer.

But on Thursday, the widow of Williams' victim had a message for critics of the governor's action: Leave me out of it. In a publicly circulated letter, Mamie Norwood, whose husband, Amos, was killed by Williams in 1984, accused State Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams of using her husband's slaying for political gain.

"You have never spoken to me and do not speak for me," Norwood wrote, adding that she had forgiven Terrance Williams long ago and did not want to see him put to death. She added: "Please don't use me . . . to get your name in the news. You should be truly ashamed of yourselves."

Norwood's letter was distributed by a group of Terrance Williams' supporters who run the website www.terrywilliamsclemency.com.

Norwood's letter is available at this link.

March 20, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Sentencing judgment days this week in federal court for two pols behaving very badly

Two prominent politician faced federal sentencing for two distinct crimes this week.  Here are headlines reflecting the outcome for each on judgment day along with links to stories providing the details:

March 19, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"Beyond the Right to Counsel: Increasing Notice of Collateral Consequences"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Brian M. Murray. Here is the abstract:

In recent years, the increased collateral consequences of a criminal conviction have led to crippling effects on individuals and communities.  In response to the problem of defendants pleading guilty without awareness of these indirect, albeit severe penalties, many commentators have called for an expansion of the right to counsel.  These efforts, which are a step in the right direction, remain practically difficult to institute given current Supreme Court jurisprudence, legislative will, and resource deficiencies in the system. Expansion of the right to counsel also would keep the hefty burden of navigating the labyrinth of collateral consequences almost entirely on the defendant and defense attorneys, who are often overwhelmed and unable to account for the myriad consequences in a particular jurisdiction.

This Article conceptualizes the issue of collateral consequences as a systemic literacy problem that requires an institutional solution that extends beyond the duties of defense counsel.  It argues that because the criminal justice system is primarily one of pleas rather than trials, alternative solutions that involve active participation by other actors involved in the plea process are necessary.  Judicial participation in the notice process, informed by the guarantees of the Fifth Amendment, should be from beginning to end, starting with arraignment and ending with the guilty plea colloquy presented to the court.  This solution comports with the spirit of Missouri v. Frye and Padilla v. Kentucky, which recognize the significance of notice as essential to combating the root of the problem, albeit in the Sixth Amendment context. Likewise, prosecutors must become more mindful of the how convictions affect individuals and should contribute to improving awareness through disclosure obligations at the time of a plea offer.  These efforts will cumulatively heighten legal literacy over time – amongst all players within the system – and allow for an equitable distribution of burdens when addressing this issue.

March 19, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Florida Supreme Court decides unanimously that Miller applies retroactively to all mandatory juve LWOP sentences

As reported in this local piece, the "Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that all of the state’s juvenile killers who received automatic sentences of life in prison must be resentenced under a law passed in 2014." Here is more: 

The long-awaited ruling answers the question of whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, which effectively banned automatic life sentences for juvenile killers, applies retroactively. An estimated 250 state prisoners, 17 of them from Lee and Collier counties, are serving life sentences for murders committed before they turned 18.

Under Florida’s 2014 law, passed to conform with the U.S. Supreme Court decision, only juveniles who committed homicides after July 2014 were subject to a revised sentencing structure, which required a judge to consider several factors before determining a prison term. For about 20 years before the law’s passage, Florida mandated a life sentence for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.

Since the state’s law was passed, Florida trial and appeal courts have grappled with whether juveniles who killed before July 2014 and received automatic life sentences should also receive the same consideration. After the state’s five appeals courts gave conflicting opinions, the Florida Supreme Court weighed in Thursday.

The seven justices found that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ban “constitutes a development of fundamental significance,” the standard used to determine whether changes to Florida law apply retroactively. “The patent unfairness of depriving indistinguishable juvenile offenders of their liberty for the rest of their lives, based solely on when their cases were decided, weighs heavily in favor of applying the (U.S.) Supreme Court’s decision in Miller retroactively,” Justice Barbara J. Pariente wrote in the opinion....

Under Florida’s new law, juveniles can still receive life behind bars. That sentence, however, must be made after a judge considers several factors, including the juvenile’s personal background, maturity and criminal history. At a minimum, a juvenile convicted of first-degree murder who committed the homicide must receive 40 years in prison.

The full ruling in Falcon v. Florida, No. SC13-865 (Fla. March 19, 2015), is available at this link.

March 19, 2015 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Making the effective case for graduated reentry to reduce incarceration and recidivism

This notable new commentary at Vox, headlined "We don’t need to keep criminals in prison to punish them" and authored by Mark A.R. Kleiman, Angela Hawken and Ross Halperin, is a must-read for would-be criminal justice reformers. Th piece is lengthy (with lots of helpful links), and here are excerpts to whet the appetite:

While it lasts, prison is horrible for the prisoner and expensive for the state. And things often don't get better when it ends: of the people released from prison today, about 60 percent will be back inside within three years.

The transition from prison to the "free world" can be very tough, both for the offender and for the neighborhood he returns to. In the month after getting out, a person released from prison has about a dozen times the mortality rate of people of the same age, race, and sex in the same neighborhood, with the leading causes of death among former inmates being drug overdose, cardiovascular disease, homicide, and suicide.

This shouldn't be a surprise. Consider someone whose conduct earned him (much more rarely "her") a prison cell. Typically, that person went into prison with poor impulse control, weak if any attachment to the legal labor market, few marketable skills, and subpar work habits. More often than not, he's returning to a high-crime neighborhood. Many of his friends on the outside are also criminally active. Maybe, if he's lucky and has been diligent, he's learned something useful in prison. Perhaps he's even picked up a GED. But he hasn't learned much about how to manage himself in freedom because he hasn't had any freedom in the recent past. And he hasn't learned to provide for himself because he's been fed, clothed, and housed at public expense.

Now let him out with $40 in his pocket, sketchy if any identification documents, and no enrollment for basic income support, housing, or health insurance. Even if he has family or friends who can tide him over during the immediate transition, his chances of finding legitimate work in a hurry aren't very good. If he's not working, he has lots of free time to get into trouble and no legal way of supporting himself....

For the transition from prison to life outside to be successful, it needs to be gradual. If someone needed to be locked up yesterday, he shouldn't be completely at liberty today. And he shouldn't be asked to go from utter dependency to total self-sufficiency in one flying leap. He needs both more control and more support. Neither alone is likely to do the job.

Of course, both control and support cost money. But so does prison. The trick is to start the re-entry process before what would otherwise have been the release date, so the money you spend in the community is balanced by the money you're not spending on a cell. The average cost of holding a prisoner comes to about $2,600 per month. At the same time, even very intrusive supervision leaves a released offender freer than he would have been on the inside. So even a program that looks expensive and intrusive compared with ordinary re-entry or parole is cheap and liberating compared with a cellblock....

There's no way to guess in advance how many prisoners would succeed in making the transition: for all the statistical work on risk assessment, looking into the soul remains hard, and looking into the future impossible. It's not even obvious whether the success rate would be higher with men or with women, with younger or older offenders, with those convicted of nonviolent crimes or of violent ones. But there's good reason to think the success rate would be higher for graduated release than for the current approach, and that the costs of the program could be more than recouped from the savings in reduced incarceration, now and in the future. But budget savings aren't the main goal: the greatest benefits would flow to the offenders, to their families, to their neighborhoods, and to those who otherwise would have been the victims of their future crimes.

Can we really get back to a civilized level of incarceration while continuing to push crime rates down? We can't know until we try. Graduated re-entry might work. That's more than can be said for any other proposal now on the table. If we find a version of it that works somewhere, expand it there and try it elsewhere. If not, go back to the drawing board. But sticking with the existing system, and accepting its disastrous results, is not a reasonable choice.

March 19, 2015 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Effective review of the import and impact of new reentry certificates for former offenders

The Marshall Project has this interesting new piece of original reporting on an important new component of reentry effort.  The piece is headlined "Forgiving vs. Forgetting: For offenders seeking a new life, a new redemption tool," and here is an excerpt:

[T]he granting of so-called Certificates of Rehabilitation has become an increasingly popular compromise version of full expungement in courts around the country. Between 2009 and 2014, nine states and Washington, D.C. began issuing the documents, also called certificates of relief, recovery, achievement, or employability.

“These certificates are a remarkably dynamic new option,” says Kari Hamel, a civil legal aid attorney in North Carolina who is working to make the certificates — available in that state since 2011 — more accessible to more people with criminal records. “It’s a way of showing employers that the crime someone committed probably wasn’t committed yesterday. It makes what has happened since the crime a fully official part of that person’s record, for all employers to see.”

“That’s the key,” she adds. “Rehabilitation is absolutely a part of a person’s history of trouble with the law, it’s just the second part, the positive part.”

Paul Biebel, the presiding judge for Chicago's criminal court, agrees that the certificates are a promising new option. "Only over the last few years have we seen more of these coming through the court," he says of the certificates, "but I feel very strongly that they are an additional tool in a judge's toolbox to evaluate people.  We judges are prepared to send people to prison.  But now, if the evidence proves rehabilitation, we also have a tool for redeeming people."

March 19, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Does the new Coalition for Public Safety really have "political oopmh" needed to "fix justice in America"?

Coalition_for_public_safetyThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Politico magazine commentary authored by Laura Arnold and John Arnold. The Arnolds are the co-founders of the new Coalition for Public Safety, and their commentary is titled "Fixing Justice in America: Here’s why our new left-right coalition has the political oomph to do it." Here are excerpts:

Not every policy debate has to be a fight, even in Washington. Some problems have solutions that Democrats, Republicans and everyone in between can wholeheartedly support. One such example is criminal justice reform. There’s an emerging bipartisan consensus, both in Washington and in the states, that we must reform a system where there is too little justice, too much cost and too many needlessly ruined lives. But getting from general agreement to action requires a concerted effort to change minds and change policy. That’s why we recently helped launch the Coalition for Public Safety, an unprecedented national bipartisan coalition of funders and advocacy partners that will work for smart, fair and just criminal justice reform.

The coalition will work at the local, state and federal level to fix the flawed policies that have conspired to create this problem. The coalition plans a multimillion-dollar campaign in connection with emerging proposals to reduce prison populations, overhaul sentencing, reduce recidivism and address critical structural flaws in our system.

We’re odd bedfellows, but that’s what can make the Coalition such a powerful force. The Coalition will be funded by us, Koch Industries, the Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It will also include partners ranging from the ACLU and the Center for American Progress on the left to FreedomWorks and Americans for Tax Reform on the right. If a group this diverse, with disagreements in so many other areas, can coalesce around criminal justice reform, then there is no reason our political leaders can’t do the same.

Criminal justice reform is a passion of ours and a priority of our Foundation. We work to attack the root causes of pressing social problems, and America’s dysfunctional criminal justice system is at the root of a number of issues. It contributes to poverty, broken families and broken budgets. And like many dysfunctional systems, our criminal justice system has been sustained by a mix of inertia, structural inefficiencies and vested interests that are resistant to change. But the creation of this Coalition is yet another promising sign that the tide is turning in favor of reformers....

Americans should be just as alarmed about the mundane, day-to-day realities of how criminal justice is administered. America imprisons a higher percentage of our citizens than any nation in the world and the numbers are not even close, as our incarceration rate is an indefensible ten times or more that of many other developed countries. And of the over two million people incarcerated in the United States, over 60 percent are imprisoned for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession.

Every citizen is paying a heavy price to support this bloated and ineffective correctional system, which costs taxpayers $80 billion per year. The costs are particularly acute for state governments (86 percent of all prisoners are in state facilities), where spending on incarceration is growing faster than spending on almost everything else including education and transportation.

Some might conclude that the price of mass incarceration is worth paying if it significantly reduces crime by keeping criminals off the street. But it does not. Although the rate of violent crimes in our country has been cut roughly in half since 1990, a number of studies have determined that America’s recent jailing binge had little to do with it. Simply put, we’re pouring tens of billions of dollars into a criminal justice system that doesn’t work at the expense of the crucial public services that our communities need.

The Coalition has two key virtues that no single organization has on its own. The first is critical mass, as it will be well-funded and well-resourced with experienced partners who have fought and won contentious political battles at every level of government. In the months ahead, the Coalition will educate and advocate for federal, state, and local reforms that can reduce our jail and prison populations and associated costs; end the systemic problem of over-criminalization; ensure swift and fair outcomes for both the accused and the victims; and reduce recidivism by breaking down barriers faced by those returning home after detention or incarceration.

The second virtue of the Coalition is the support it can provide political leaders who want to tackle these issues. It’s much harder for criminal justice reform opponents to dismiss a politician as a tool of the left or the right when leading voices on the left and right are in agreement that the politician is doing the right thing. The time is ripe for action. Many states and localities have recently passed ambitious reforms. There are several bipartisan criminal justice bills pending in the House and Senate. And in his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama called for bipartisan criminal justice reform in Congress.

It’s time to stop wasting money and ruining lives. It’s time for both parties to come together to build a criminal justice system that is smart, fair and just.

March 18, 2015 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Death penalty symbolism and Robert Durst

Everyone interested in pop culture criminal law is now busy talking about the seeming confession of infamous real estate figure Robert Durst during the final episode of the HBO documentary series "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst." Though I find interesting the debate over the potential meaning and use of Durst's statement that he "killed them all," as a sentencing fan I find even more notable this headline about these headlines about case:

Because Durst is aged 71 and California has not executed anyone in nearly a decade, the odds that Durst would be sentenced to death and executed before he dies of natural causes are about the same as the odds that a 16 seed will win the NCAA basketball tournament. But, as in true in so many cases, here a death penalty penalty charge is not really about seeks a true punishment but rather about symbolically sending a message that Durst is among the worst of the worst criminals.

I am always ambivalent about the value of state actors spending lots of time, money and energy on seeking a form of punishment that will never actually be carried out. But the Durst case serves as a great example of why the death penalty (and sometimes other punishments like Bernie Madoff getting 150 years in prison) is often much more about criminal justice symbolism than punishment reality.

March 18, 2015 in Celebrity sentencings, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)