Thursday, May 12, 2016

An effective accounting of why "Sentencing Reform is Seriously Stuck"

The quoted portion of the title of this post is from the headline of this effective new Roll Call commentary authored by David Hawkings, and it carries this astute subheadline "Presidential politics, poison pills and attack ads threaten hopes for bipartisan accord." Here are excerpts:

For more than 18 months, a rewrite of laws governing federal criminal punishments has been touted as the exception that was going to prove the rule: An effort that had so galvanized both conservatives and liberals that it would become one of the few memorable policy achievements of the current Congress.  Well, the rule has held true about the deadlocked-by-polarization Capitol becoming only more so in the sessions before a presidential election. But the exception, by fits and starts, is growing ever less likely to be exceptional.

“Sentencing reform,” as it’s known on the Hill, is seriously stuck.  On the surface, it may not appear that way.  Just offstage, there’s a fundamental impasse that looks as if it can only be broken if one sitde caves in, thereby imperiling the highly unusual bipartisan coalition that has been the issue’s signature feature.

Complicating matters further, there are solid presidential and congressional campaign rationales for a deal, but also political arguments in opposition being at least as forcefully expressed. All this is on clearest display in the Senate, where the legislation looks to be riding a little wave of momentum but may be close to publicly coming off the rails – buffeted by anxieties about Willie Horton on the right and anger at Wall Street greed on the left....

[T]here’s a decent chance the [latest revised sentencing reform] bill will come to the floor this summer, assuming the appropriations process inevitably seizes up and there no longer is the need to devote the Senate’s time to spending bills.

Along the way, the measure is going to face one assault from powerful Republicans determined to kill it outright, and another from Republicans willing to love it to death. Ted Cruz of Texas, who returned to the Capitol this week vowing to press ahead with the combative outsider tone of his presidential campaign, and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the first senator to endorse de facto GOP nominee Donald Trump, are leading the lambasting of the bill as going way too soft on crime.

A floor debate would give Cruz an opportunity to put his scorched-earth style for opposing legislation back on C-SPAN display.  And though Trump has not taken an explicit position on the bill, his many authoritarian statements suggest he’ll take Sessions’ advice and come out emphatically against it – especially if his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, who’s become newly critical of “mass incarceration,” decides to endorse the bill. So it’s quite easy to envision law-and-order groups producing 30-second TV spots, evocative of the legendary Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign, chiding even the GOP backers of the bill as pro-drug-dealer criminal justice weaklings.

The other big obstacle, which might prove even more problematic, goes by the much nerdier label, mens rea.  That Latin phrase, which translates as “guilty mind,” is law school shorthand for the way prosecutors are sometimes required to prove a defendant’s criminal intent in order to obtain a conviction. Under federal law, many categories of behavior are crimes only when the accused know what they’re doing is wrong and do it anyway – but some actions can bring convictions and imprisonment whether or not there’s any willful criminal intent.

Many influential Republicans, urged on by their business allies and such conservative fundraising forces as the Koch brothers, are eager to apply a blanket mens rea requirement across the federal criminal code.  They say the government has too much power to convict companies and their executives without having to prove any criminal intent. And they are eyeing the sentencing overhaul bill as their best available vehicle for getting the job done.

Lawmakers and activists from the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party deride this proposal as a thinly veiled effort to deliver a permission slip for more “What, me worry?” sketchy behavior to the same sort of bad actors in the corporate and investment worlds who melted down the economy eight years ago.  These liberal forces, too, have the ability to produce punchy campaign commercials targeting those in Congress who go along.

Even if the bill gets through the Senate without having to swallow the mens rea poison pill, top Republicans in the House are insisting that sentencing legislation will only move if it’s lashed together with their efforts to expand the need to prove criminal intent. The Obama administration argues the opposite, that the only way to sign a bill on sentencing this year is to negotiate protections for unwitting white collar criminals on a separate track.

One again this campaign season, it’s the small clusters of combative voices at the edges that are likely to have more power than any collaborative majority in the middle.

Not only does this piece effectively detail all the ways in which and reasons when the revised SRCA might not make it through the legislative process over the next six month, it also hints at an intriguing and perhaps disconcerting reality that for me has now emerged: GOP Prez front-running Donald Trump is now perhaps the political power-player with the greatest opportunity to "unstick" the SRCA.

If GOP Prez candidate Trump were to make nice to certain key GOP leaders like Paul Ryan and Chuck Grassley and John Cornyn (not to mention key GOP funders like the Koch brothers) by getting seriously and vocally behind the significant sentencing reform efforts by the "establishment right" (with or without mens rea reform), then I would increase my optimism about the odds of these reforms becoming a reality. But if Trump stays mum on this front, or especially if prodded by folks like Jeff Sessions and Chris Christie to oppose any reforms, I think the 2016 campaign dynamics will come to doom reform at least until we get to the lame duck period.

A few 2016 related posts:

May 12, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Can and should Missouri, after completing its last execution for a while, send any extra execution drugs to other needy states?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this AP article about the first and likely last execution in Missouri this year.  The piece is headlined "Missouri man put to death for killing deputy, 2 others; could be last execution for some time," and here are the basics:

A man who killed two people in a drug dispute and a sheriff’s deputy in a subsequent shootout was put to death Wednesday in what could be Missouri’s last execution for some time.

Earl Forrest, 66, went to the home of Harriett Smith in December 2002 and demanded that she fulfill her promise to buy a lawn mower and mobile home for him in exchange for introducing her to a source for methamphetamine. During an argument, Forrest shot Smith and Michael Wells, who was visiting Smith’s home. Forrest later fatally shot Dent County Sheriff’s Deputy Joann Barnes after she arrived at Forrest’s home.

Missouri has executed 19 men since November 2013. But the remaining 25 death row inmates either have appeals still pending or other reasons they will not face imminent execution. Forrest’s fate was sealed hours before his punishment when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to halt the execution and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, turned down a clemency request.

According to court documents, Forrest had been drinking when he went to Smith’s home in the southern Missouri town of Salem. Wells was visiting Smith at the time. An argument ensued, and Forrest shot Wells in the face. He shot Smith six times and took a lockbox full of meth valued at $25,000. When police converged on Forrest’s home, he fatally shot Barnes and injured Dent County Sheriff Bob Wofford, according to court documents. Forrest was also injured in the exchange of gunfire, along with his girlfriend, Angela Gamblin.

Missouri has been one of the most prolific states for executions in recent years, second only to Texas. The state has executed 19 prisoners since November 2013, including six last year. Forrest’s execution was the first in 2016.

Missouri’s death row population is dwindling. Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said juries today are less likely to opt for capital punishment, in part because of greater awareness of how mental illness sometimes factors in violent crime. Just 49 people were sentenced to death nationally last year, the fewest since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty as a possible punishment in 1976. No one was sentenced to death in Missouri in 2014 or 2015, Dunham said. “As these executions take place, fewer and fewer people are being sentenced to death, so the death penalty is withering on the other end,” Dunham said.

None of the 25 other men remaining on Missouri’s death row face imminent execution.  Sixteen have yet to exhaust court appeals and aren’t likely to do so soon.  Execution is on hold for nine others.  Two were declared mentally unfit for execution. Two were granted stays because of medical conditions that could cause painful deaths from injections. Two had sentences set aside by the courts due to trial attorney errors.  One inmate was granted a stay while his innocence claim is reviewed. One case was sent back to a lower court to consider an appeal.

And in one unusual case, inmate William Boliek was granted a stay by Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan in 1997. The case wasn’t resolved before Carnahan died in a 2000 plane crash, and a court determined that only Carnahan could overturn the stay. Nixon’s office has said Boliek will not be executed.

As regular readers may recall and as Ohio capital lawyers know well, while Missouri has had the lethal injection drugs needed to carry out nearly 20 executions in the last few years, the Buckeye state has more than two dozen execution scheduled that have been persistently delayed because the state cannot seem to get its hands on any lethal injection drugs.  I do not know where Mizzou gets its lethal injection drugs or whether it has some additional drugs on hand now without any executions scheduled for the foreseeable future.  But I do know that a functioning legal system with large percentages of voters and elected officials supporting a functioning death penalty ought to be able to figure out some way for nearby states to help each other out in this arena.

I bring this up because I have long believed in the aphorism "where there's a will, there's a way."  And thus, I have also come to believe that the main reason Ohio has not been able to figure out how to secure needed execution drugs (while many other states seem to have these drugs) is because there just is not the political will to fix the state's enduring capital punishment administrative problems.

May 12, 2016 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the folks at the Prison Policy Initiative. Here are some excerpts from the start of the report:

In addition to the 1.6 million people incarcerated in federal and state prisons, there are 646,000 people locked up in more than 3,000 local jails throughout the U.S.  Seventy percent of these people in local jails are being held pretrial — meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime and are legally presumed innocent.  One reason that the unconvicted population in the U.S. is so large is because our country largely has a system of money bail, in which the constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty only really applies to the well off.  With money bail, a defendant is required to pay a certain amount of money as a pledged guarantee he will attend future court hearings. If he is unable to come up with the money either personally or through a commercial bail bondsman, he can be incarcerated from his arrest until his case is resolved or dismissed in court.

While the jail population in the U.S. has grown substantially since the 1980s, the number of convicted people in jails has been flat for the last 15 years.  Detention of the legally innocent has been consistently driving jail growth, and the criminal justice reform discussion must include a discussion of local jails and the need for pretrial detention reform. This report will focus on one driver of pretrial detention: the inability to pay what is typically $10,000 in money bail. Building off our July 2015 report on the pre-incarceration incomes of people in prison, this report provides the pre-incarceration incomes of people in local jails who were unable to post a bail bond.  This report aims to give the public and policymakers the foundation for a more informed discussion about whether requiring thousands of dollars in bail bonds makes sense given the widespread poverty of the people held in the criminal justice system and the high fiscal and social costs of incarceration.

We find that most people who are unable to meet bail fall within the poorest third of society.  Using Bureau of Justice Statistics data, we find that, in 2015 dollars, people in jail had a median annual income of $15,109 prior to their incarceration, which is less than half (48%) of the median for non-incarcerated people of similar ages.  People in jail are even poorer than people in prison and are drastically poorer than their non-incarcerated counterparts....

Because a system of money bail allows income to be the determining factor in whether someone can be released pretrial, our nation’s local jails are incarcerating too many people who are likely to show up for their court date and unlikely to be arrested for new criminal activity.  Although, on paper, it is illegal to detain people for their poverty, such detention is the reality in too many of our local jails.  Our country now has a two-track system of justice in which the cost of pretrial liberty is far higher for poor people than for the well off.

May 11, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sixth Circuit panel sends Miller litigation about Michigan juve LWOPers needs review anew after Montgomery

A Sixth Circuit panel today issues an interesting (non)opinion about the state and fate of federal litigation over the fate and future of Michigan juveniles serving LWOP sentences that are unconstitutional because imposed under a mandatory sentencing system. Here is how the opinion in Hill v. Snyder, No. 13-2661 (6th Cir. May 11, 2012) (available here), gets started:

This long-running case returns us to the difficult topic of juvenile crime and punishment. Our return, however, is to a new legal landscape, one defined by the Supreme Court’s developing jurisprudence recognizing that the unique characteristics of youth matter in determining the propriety of their punishment.  This case began when Michigan charged and tried the named plaintiffs as adults for acts they committed while under the age of 18.  Each received a conviction for first-degree murder and a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Michigan laws in place at the time rendered anyone convicted of firstdegree murder ineligible for parole, meaning that the plaintiffs in this case effectively received mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for acts they committed as children.

Plaintiffs filed suit in federal district court in 2010 challenging, among other things, the constitutionality of the Michigan statutory scheme that barred them from parole eligibility. Since that time, at least three important legal events have come to pass.  First, the Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), “that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’” Id. at 2460.  Second, Michigan amended its juvenile offender laws in light of Miller, but made some of those changes contingent upon either the Michigan Supreme Court or the United States Supreme Court announcing that Miller’s holding applied retroactively.  See Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. §§ 769.25, 769.25a (2014).  And, third, the United States Supreme Court recently held in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718 (2016), that Miller’s prohibition on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders is indeed retroactive.

The district court wisely (and presciently) reached the conclusion that Miller should apply retroactively when it ruled on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment in 2013.  That conclusion also drove the district court’s issuance of an injunctive order against defendants requiring compliance with Miller.  In light of the legal changes described above, however, and for the reasons that follow, we VACATE the challenged district court orders and REMAND for the district court to address these issues under the legal landscape established by Montgomery v. Louisiana, Miller v. Alabama, and this opinion.

May 11, 2016 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Retribution and the Limits of Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this book chapter recently posted to SSRN and authored by Michael Louis Corrado. Here is the abstract:

Those who claim that retributivism is a morally defensible position point to two things in support of that claim: retribution is said to justify the deliberate imposition of suffering as a way of controlling crime, and it is said to limit that imposition by the boundaries it sets.  First of all, assuming that what we seek from punishment is to deter wrongdoers, we still need some way to justify the heaping of pain upon past wrongdoers as a means to that end. Desert, says the retributivist, solves this problem: what justifies harming the wrongdoer is that he brought it on himself. But the second thing is that although the fact that they have committed crimes in the past means that we are entitled to punish them, retribution sets down limits.  The punishment the wrongdoer deserves is limited by his culpability and by the seriousness of his crime.  If the punishment exceeds what is deserved, it is not justified. That at least is the story that the retributivist tells.

The second part of this argument is important in its own right. There are those who would argue that whether or not retribution and desert have any foundation in fact it is important that we act as though they do, especially in connection with the criminal law, because the consequences of abandoning them are too dire to be born.  We would lose the limits that come with retribution.  Regardless, then, of whether in fact human beings actually have free will, regardless of whether they are responsible for what they do, regardless of whether anyone actually deserves to be punished, regardless of whether retribution is ever justified, it is still morally desirable to insist on desert and retribution because without them we are bereft of the principles that limit the state’s use of the coercive machinery of criminal justice.  The idea is that if we do not pretend human beings have free will and responsibility, the law will not know where to draw the line in its use of the instruments of the criminal justice system against wrongdoers.

My aim in this Chapter is to devalue retributivism as a boundary-setter and to show that even if retribution were an acceptable aim, even if some individuals did deserve punishment and even if punishment had to be limited to what those individuals deserve, that would not limit state’s use of coercive force and in particular its use of the preventive methods of quarantine in any way.

May 11, 2016 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

How many death sentences nationwide would get overturned if juror unanimity were constitutionally required for death sentences?

The question in the title of this post came to my mind after seeing this Los Angeles Times opinion piece headlined "Florida's death penalty should require unanimous jury votes." Here are excerpts from piece:

In a criminal jury trial, a conviction requires a unanimous verdict of guilt, whether the crime is a low-level drug possession charge or capital murder. But in Florida, after all 12 members of a jury have found the accused guilty, only 10 of them have to agree that the defendant should die for the crime. It’s absurd to require a lower level of agreement to send someone to death than is required to find the person guilty in the first place.

Florida Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch reached the same conclusion in a decision Monday that declared Florida’s latest death penalty law in violation of the state’s constitution. That decision followed arguments a few days earlier before the state’s Supreme Court over whether the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurst v. Florida, which found the state’s sentencing-decision process unconstitutional, meant that all 390 people on Florida’s death row should have their sentences converted to life. Yes, it does. If the sentencing process is unconstitutional, then the sentences are, too....

In the Hurst case, the Supreme Court affirmed that only a jury can make a finding of fact. Florida, in an effort to save its death penalty, rewrote its law to say the jury must decide whether the death penalty was appropriate. But the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t say how many jurors must make that call, and the revised state law raised the threshold to 10 of the 12 jurors.

Hirsch’s decision on Monday said that no, under the state’s constitution, a super-majority is not enough. His logic is a bit attenuated, but sound. Florida’s constitution guarantees trial by jury but doesn’t specify that a unanimous verdict must be reached. However, decades of practice, and common law, set unanimity as the standard threshold for a verdict. And since the revised law calls the jury’s finding for the death penalty a verdict, then it must be unanimous....

The least Florida can do is require unanimity by a jury before deciding to kill someone. And it should either grant fresh sentencing trials for those on death row or — and this is the preferred, more humane solution — commute the death sentences to life sentences.

Notably, two of the four states in the US with the largest death rows (Florida and Alabama) have sentenced a significant number of murderers to death without a unamimous jury recommendation to that effect. Though it is not clear that roughly all 600 persons on those states' death rows would be sure to get relief from a constitutional rule requiring jury unanimity for death recommendations, a suspect a significant number would. And even if only half of those condemned would get relief, that could cut the size of the US death row population down by more than 10 percent.

The Supreme Court's ruling in Hurst studiously avoided weighing in on this jury unaniminty issue, but I am not sure it is point to be able to avoid it for too much longer in light of what is going on in Florida and perhaps other places in the post-Hurst world.

A few prior related post:

May 11, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

New study suggests California's prison population reduction via realignment has been generally successful

This new entry at The Crime Report, headlined "California's Prison Downsizing Offers a Model for Other States, Study Says," reports on notable new research suggesting that crime has not increased dramatically after California was force in the wake of the Plata ruling to reduce its prison population.  Here is the start of the entry describing the research:

The success of California's Public Safety Realignment Act in reducing state prison populations without a corresponding increase in crime suggests that other jurisdictions around the country can enact similar reforms without endangering public safety, according to a study published in the latest issue of Criminology & Public Policy, an American Society of Criminology journal.

The study, entitled “Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous? The Effect of California’s Realignment Act on Public Safety” [available here], cites already published data showing that the 17 percent reduction in the size of California’s prison population over a 15-month period, beginning with the Act's implementation in 2011, did not have an effect on aggregate rates of violent crime or property crime.

"Moreover, 3 years after the passage of Realignment, California crime rates remain at levels comparable to what we would predict if the prison population had remained at 2010 levels," write authors Jody Sundt of Indiana University, Emily J. Salisbury of University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Mark G. Harmon of Portland State University.

The California results demonstrate that "we make a mistake...when we assume that prisons are the only meaningful or viable response to crime,” the authors add.

According to the data referenced in the study, the California Realignment Act reduced the size of the state’s prison population by 27, 527 inmates within 15 months. Many of the inmates were transferred to local jails or released into the community. Critics of the Act linked the policy to recorded increases in offenses such as auto theft. But the authors argued that the slight uptick in such offenses leveled off over time--and was not necessarily linked to realignment.

These results should serve as an object lesson for other jurisdictions, said the authors. "For the first time in decades it appears that a 'window of opportunity' for justice reform is opening to allow for a reevaluation of the effectiveness and wisdom of policies that have created the largest prison population in the world," they wrote, citing a phrase used by criminologist Michael Tonry.

May 10, 2016 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tenth Circuit finds Fifth Amendment problems in sex offender treatment program requirement as part of conditions of supervised release

A helpful reader alerted me to think interesting new Tenth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Von Behren, No. 15-1033 (1th Cir. May 10, 2016) (available here), which gets started this way:

Brian Von Behren is serving a three-year term of supervised release stemming from a 2005 conviction for distribution of child pornography.  One of the conditions of his supervised release was modified to require that he successfully complete a sex offender treatment program, including a sexual history polygraph requiring him to answer four questions regarding whether he had committed sexual crimes for which he was never charged.  The treatment program required him to sign an agreement instructing the treatment provider to report any discovered sexual crimes to appropriate authorities.  Mr. Von Behren contended that the polygraph condition violates his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The district court disagreed and held that the polygraph exam questions do not pose a danger of incrimination in the constitutional sense.  Mr. Von Behren refused to answer the sexual history questions, thereby requiring the treatment provider to expel him from the program and subjecting him to potential revocation of his supervised release for violating the condition of supervision.  The district court denied Mr. Von Behren’s request to stay further proceedings pending appeal, but this court granted a stay.  We reverse on the Fifth Amendment issue.

May 10, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Litigating from the Prison of the Mind: A Cognitive Right to Post-Conviction Counsel"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Ken Strutin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article attempts to draw a picture of the incarcerated without counsel, who are separated from justice by the inhumanity of their imprisonment, the poverty of their information resources and the detriments of their cognitive life.

Part I sets the stage by describing the conditions of confinement, the confined, and the state of pro se personhood.  Part II addresses the reality of petition or perish created by Bounds and Casey.  Part III concentrates on the necessity of a right to counsel borne from the conditions of confinement and the technological, physical and psychological barriers that burden the incarcerated.  Among the most significant barriers to be considered are: (1) legal illiteracy and inferior research media; (2) impaired learning and thinking due to stress of confinement; and (3) cognitive disadvantage engendered by the gap between print and electronic research.

May 10, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 9, 2016

Florida state judge declares unconstitutional state's post-Hurst revised death penalty procedures

As reported in this new local article, a "Miami-Dade judge has ruled that Florida’s death penalty is unconstitutional because jurors are not required to agree unanimously on execution." Here is more:

Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch on Monday issued the ruling in the case of Karon Gaiter, who is awaiting trial for first-degree murder. Hirsch wrote that Florida’s recently enacted “super majority” system – 10 of 12 juror votes are needed to impose execution as punishment for murder – goes against the long-time sanctity of unanimous verdicts in the U.S. justice system.

“A decedent cannot be more or less dead. An expectant mother cannot be more or less pregnant,” he wrote. “And a jury cannot be more or less unanimous. Every verdict in every criminal case in Florida requires the concurrence, not of some, not of most, but of all jurors – every single one of them.”...

In January, in the case of Timothy Lee Hurst, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the state’s death sentencing system unconstitutional because it gave too little power to juries. For decades, jurors only issued majority recommendations, with judges ultimately imposing the death penalty. The high court, however, did not rule on the unanimity question. Except for Alabama and Florida, all other states that have the death penalty require a unanimous jury verdict to impose the death sentence....

After the Hurst case was decided in January, Florida lawmakers were forced to fix the death-penalty sentencing scheme. Florida’s new law requires juries to unanimously vote for every reason, known as aggravating factors, that a defendant might merit a death sentence. Whether to actually impose the death sentence requires 10 of 12 jurors. “All of these changes inure to the benefit of the defendant,” Assistant State Attorney Penny Brill wrote in a motion in the Gaiter case earlier this year. “These requirements render Florida’s system constitutional under the United States Supreme Court’s precedents.”

Judge Hirsch, in his order, said the fixes don’t matter. “Arithmetically the difference between twelve and ten is slight,” Hirsch wrote. “But the question before me is not a question of arithmetic. It is a question of constitutional law. It is a question of justice.”

The full 18-page order referenced here is available at this link, and a quick scan of opinion reviews that it includes quotes from William Shakespeare, William Blackstone, Winston Churchill, Glanville Williams, the prophet Elijah, and lots of other notable sources.

May 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Former federal drug warriors assail sentencing reform efforts because "drug dealing is a violent crime"

William J. Bennett, the director of drug control policy for President George H. W. Bush, and John P. Walters, the director of drug control policy for President George W. Bush, have this notable new Washington Examiner op-ed headlined "Drug dealing is a violent crime."  Here are excerpts:

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act now before Congress is based on a lie — that drug dealing is not a violent crime.  Americans have been told this lie for years even as we witness the violence and death caused by drug dealers in our communities.  Now, this lie is propelling legislation through Congress that will destroy more lives.

As former directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, we carry a particular responsibility to speak up when so many who should know better claim that drug trafficking has been treated too harshly under federal law.

Claims by President Obama and others that federal prisons are filled with "nonviolent drug offenders" and that drug dealing is a "victimless crime" are grotesquely dishonest.  How can the drug trade be victimless when most Americans know a victim?  How can it be non-violent when we witness the carnage every night on the local news?...

In the federal prison system, 99.5 percent of those incarcerated for drug convictions are guilty of serious trafficking offenses.  And according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics study of state drug inmates, 77 percent reoffend within five years of release, with 25 percent committing violent offenses.  Most of these convicted drug dealers are career criminals with long rap sheets.  By softening punishments for these traffickers, as this legislation does, Congress would give convicted dealers shorter sentences and early release causing destruction to communities across America. Moreover, this push to release experienced traffickers is occurring at the same time our nation is enduring a 440-percent increase over the past seven years in heroin overdose deaths.

Drug dealing is inseparable from violent victimization.  Illegal drugs kill tens of thousands each year in overdose deaths.  More die in violent acts and accidents under the influence of drugs.  Still more die slowly of blood-borne diseases contracted through injection drug use and through high-risk behavior while under the influence of drugs, including prostitution to support addiction.  Street-level dealers look into the eyes of these victims daily as they take addicts' money and foster their self-destruction.  Traffickers at levels above the street know this reality and take their wealth from it, spreading death across neighborhoods and across the globe....

Considering all that America knows about drug addiction, only the dishonest or willfully blind can claim that drug trafficking is a non-violent crime.  Drug dealing depends on addiction; addicts consume the vast majority of the drug supply; the dealer cultivates users to create more addicts in a murderous cycle.

Drug dealers know drugs will eventually impair judgment and bend free will, altering personality and poisoning bonds to loved ones.  We know drug use and addiction degrade millions of lives — impairing education, employment and parenthood.  Drugs are at the root of much of the child abuse, endangerment and domestic violence perpetrated against the innocent.

But the destruction is much wider. Addiction and drug dealing ravage whole communities, urban and rural.  We need look no further than the daily reports of the heroin epidemic today, or the still-vivid memories of the meth epidemic and the crack epidemic.  Drug dealing makes whole neighborhoods war zones, places of economic blight and large-scale victimization.  There is no greater single source of actual harm to Americans today — none.  The cost of incarcerating drug dealers is small compared to the true cost of their crimes to society.

Knowing this, it is an utterly irresponsible effort to release experienced drug dealers from federal prison before they have completed their just sentences, arguing they are merely misguided business people or desperate individuals caught up in an unfair system.  The truth about drug dealing is this: It requires cruelty and willful indifference to the visible suffering inflicted on others — over and over again — harming individuals, families and whole communities.

May 9, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

"Louisiana’s Color­-Coded Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times editorial, which gets started this way:

The last time a white person in Louisiana was executed for a crime against a black person was in 1752, when a soldier named Pierre Antoine Dochenet was hanged after attempting to stab two enslaved black women to death with his bayonet.

This is just one of many grim facts in a new report describing the history of capital punishment in Louisiana and analyzing the outcome of every death sentence imposed in that state since 1976, when the Supreme Court reversed its brief moratorium on executions and allowed them to resume.

Racism has always been at the heart of the American death penalty. But the report, in the current issue of The Journal of Race, Gender, and Poverty, drives home the extent to which capital punishment, supposedly reserved for the “worst of the worst,” is governed by skin color.

In Louisiana, a black man is 30 times as likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white woman as for killing a black man. Regardless of the offender’s race, death sentences are six times as likely — and executions 14 times as likely — when the victim is white rather than black.

May 9, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Some critical reflections on Prez Obama's clemency efforts and some ideas about what could have been

Late last week, the Washington Post had this lengthy article reviewing the various problems encoutered during President Obama's clemency push over the last few years.  The piece is headlined "Lack of resources, bureaucratic tangles have bogged down Obama’s clemency efforts," and it effectively summarized many of the difficulties previously reported on this blog. Here are excerpts:

In the waning months of his presidency, Obama has made commutations for nonviolent drug offenders a centerpiece of his effort to reform the country’s criminal-justice system. But behind the scenes, the administration’s highly touted clemency initiative has been mired in conflict and held up by a bureaucratic process that has been slow to move prisoner petitions to the president’s desk.

Obama has granted 306 commutations to federal prisoners — more than the past six presidents combined. But as of Friday, 9,115 commutation petitions were pending with little time left to review them. Of these, fewer than 2,000 appear to be eligible for the president’s clemency program, according to a Justice Department official. Thousands more are still being reviewed by outside lawyers.

From the beginning, the program was beset by problems, including a lack of resources and a cumbersome, multilevel review system. The U.S. pardon attorney at the Justice Department makes recommendations that move to the deputy attorney general, who reviews the cases and sends them to the White House counsel, who considers them again before choosing which ones go to Obama.

The pardon attorney became so frustrated that she quit earlier this year and wrote a scathing resignation letter to Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. Deborah Leff said that despite her “intense efforts” to do her job, the Justice Department had “not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the president.”...

On Thursday, Obama commuted the sentences of 58 prisoners, his second round of clemencies in three months as the program has picked up steam. Administration officials say that they are addressing obstacles that have plagued the clemency initiative. The Justice Department has added lawyers to the pardon office. And White House Counsel Neil Eggleston has promised that many more petitions will be granted in the president’s final eight months.

“The President is deeply committed to the clemency initiative. That is evident not only by the historic number of commutations he’s granted to date, but by his wholesale approach to revamping the way the government approaches commutations,” White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine said in a statement. “That change helped spark a long overdue conversation about reforming our criminal justice system, which we hope will result in Congressional action so that many more deserving individuals can benefit from a second chance.”...

An attorney who worked in the pardon office at the same time as Leff said that with petitions flooding in, it was extremely difficult with so few lawyers to sort out complicated drug cases and figure out whether they met the department’s strict criteria. To get more help, Cole reached out to the private bar to set up another layer of lawyers to read applications.

Outside lawyers formed an organization called Clemency Project 2014, which includes Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. An army of about 4,000 volunteer lawyers from across the country signed up to help in what has become one of the largest pro bono efforts in the history of the American legal profession. Seventy large law firms, more than 500 small firms and solo practitioners, and 30 law schools are involved, according to Cynthia W. Roseberry, the project’s manager. But it took nearly a year for the group to get organized and recruit and train lawyers, many of whom had no experience in criminal law.

An overwhelming 36,000 inmates — about 17 percent of the federal prison population — filled out surveys asking for help from the Clemency Project. Even though the Justice Department had its own backlog, officials there privately complained that the outside Clemency Project lawyers, with their multiple levels of review, were taking too long to send more petitions. That in turn frustrated the Clemency Project attorneys, who said they were working carefully to locate old legal documents, contact prosecutors and judges, look at prison behavior records and try to get pre-sentencing reports and sentencing transcripts. At the same time, they have been weighing risks to public safety....

Some critics say the White House could have avoided many of these headaches by modeling the process after the way President Gerald Ford handled clemencies for Americans who had deserted the Army or failed to show up for the draft during the Vietnam War.  With 600 people working on a special commission to review the cases, Ford granted 14,000 clemencies in one year. Law professor Mark Osler, co-founder of New York University’s Clemency Resource Center, said the initiative also might have gone more smoothly if Obama had moved the pardon attorney’s office into the White House rather than keeping it under career prosecutors who may find it difficult to reverse other prosecutors’ decisions.

This recent Fusion piece, headlined "The bold step President Obama could take to let thousands of federal inmates go free," provides a thorough discussion of the special clemency commission that President Ford had set up to deal with a massive number of Veitnam draft dodgers and desserters and which was able to process tens of thousands of clemency cases in just a year.  Here is how it concludes:

If Obama had appointed a Ford-style clemency board, he could have cut down the bureaucracy to three or four steps: a review by the board’s staff, a review by the board, a review by the White House counsel, a review by the president.

In the last few months, Obama’s advisers have been making the argument that he’s granted “more [clemencies] than the previous six Presidents combined.” But that calculation is false, as it incorrectly ignores the clemencies granted through Ford’s commission. (A White House spokesperson noted that Department of Justice statistics only count the 22 non-Vietnam related clemencies that Ford granted.)

For many recent presidents, clemency has been treated more like an afterthought. Until recently, Obama announced them at the end of each year, before he jets off to Hawaii with his family — a last-minute Christmas gift to a tiny handful of prisoners.

With fewer than 10 months left in office, even if Obama had a change of heart and decided to create a clemency board today, it would almost surely be too late. But [clemency advocates Nkechi] Taifa and Osler say it’s an idea that should be picked up by the next president. “This should not end with the Obama administration,” Taifa said.

“I do not want to delay another day in resolving the dilemmas of the past, so that we may all get going on the pressing problems of the present,” Ford said when he announced his clemency board. If President Obama—or the next president—wants to resolve the past failings of our criminal justice system, then they should also take lessons from one of its rare success stories.

May 8, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Designing Plea Bargaining from the Ground Up: Accuracy and Fairness Without Trials as Backstops"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Stephanos Bibas now available via SSRN. here is the abstract:

American criminal procedure developed on the assumption that grand juries and petit jury trials were the ultimate safeguards of fair procedures and accurate outcomes.  But now that plea bargaining has all but supplanted juries, we need to think through what safeguards our plea-bargaining system should be built around.

This Symposium Article sketches out principles for redesigning our plea-bargaining system from the ground up around safeguards.  Part I explores the causes of factual, moral, and legal inaccuracies in guilty pleas.  To prevent and remedy these inaccuracies, it proposes a combination of quasi-inquisitorial safeguards, more vigorous criminal defense, and better normative evaluation of charges, pleas, and sentences.  Part II then diagnoses unfair repercussions caused by defendants’ lack of information and understanding, laymen’s lack of voice, and the public’s lack of information and participation.  To prevent and fix these sources of unfairness, it proposes ways to better inform pleas and to make plea procedures more procedurally just.

May 8, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 7, 2016

An astute accounting of one view on how the post-Hurst hydra in Florida ought to be slayed

Regular readers know that, after the US Supreme Court in Hurst declared Florida's death penalty procedures violative of the Sixth Amendment, I coined the term "post-Hurst hydra" to describe the multi-headed, snake-like capital litigation sure to develop as judges tried to make sense of what Hurst must mean for past, present and future cases.  Of particular significance in Florida, which has second largest death row in the nation and holds roughly one of every seven condemed murderers in the US, is what will become of all those sentenced to death before Hurst.

As noted in this post a few days ago, the Florida Supreme Court took up this question this past week, and some prominent Floridians argued that all those previously sentenced to death should have their sentences changed to life without parole.  But, with this is sure to be a popular view among death penalty abolitionists, death penalty supporters are not likely to readily embrace this solution.  And, very helpfully, Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences has this lengthy and thorough post providing an astute review of what existing Supreme Court retroactivity jurisprudence should mean. The post is titled "What Happens to the Florida Death Row Cases After Hurst?", and here is how it starts and ends:

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Hurst v. Florida that the Florida capital sentencing system did not comply with a series of cases beginning with Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000). Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court heard oral argument on remand in the Hurst case.  Several people have asked me what should/will happen to the cases of the murderers presently on death row in Florida. "Should" is easier to answer than "will":

1.  Cases final on direct appeal (i.e., those where the Florida Supreme Court has affirmed the judgment in the initial appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court has denied the petition to take the case up or the defendant did not file one) should not be affected by Hurst.

2.  Cases already tried and pending on appeal should be affirmed under the "harmless error" rule if it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would have unanimously found at least one aggravating circumstance if they had been asked to do so.  For example, if the jury convicted the defendant of robbery and murder and there is no question in the case that the murder was committed in the course of the robbery (an aggravating circumstance), that would be harmless error.

3.  Cases where there is a Hurst error that does not meet the standard for harmless error should be retried as to penalty under the new statutory procedure....

The Florida Legislature acted swiftly after Hurst to enact a new procedure meeting the newly minted constitutional requirements.  Why? Because it considers enforcement of the death penalty important. Why, then, would the legislature want a whole class of sentences wiped out? It would not.  Attributing such an intended result makes no sense given the purpose of the law.

Finally, there is the matter of arbitrariness. Arbitrariness necessarily works both ways. Just as people should not arbitrarily be sentenced to punishment, neither should they arbitrarily be spared a punishment they deserve.  Arbitrary sparing of some is necessarily arbitrary infliction on those not spared.

The whole point of our complex jurisprudence of capital sentencing is to make the sentence fit what the murderer deserves.  Commuting a wide swath of sentences based on an accident of timing without any regard for just deserts is arbitrary.  Absent strong evidence the legislature intended this result, it should not be attributed to them.

The new act should apply to any cases remanded for resentencing.

May 7, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Drug war and tough-on-crime legislation (and even more judicial discretion) keeping Ohio's prison population growing

My own Columbus Disptach has this article about Ohio's continued struggles to keep its prison population under control. The piece is headlined "Ohio prison population could hit record high this summer," and here are excerpts:

Ohio's prison population is rising, threatening to set a new record as soon as July, despite repeated efforts to divert inmates from state lockups. The number of inmates in Ohio prisons increased 15.1 percent from 2005 to 2016, according to a report released today by the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative prison watchdog agency. At the same time, prison overcrowding hit 132.1 percent, up from 114.8.

This is happening at a time when the overall crime rate in Ohio has gone down roughly 15 percent. Gary Mohr, director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, sounded the alarm at statewide opiates conference earlier this week. "I think it’s a pretty safe bet that by July 1 of this year we will set an all-time historic record of incarcerated Ohioans.”

The population stood at 50,899 on May 2; the all-time record is 51,273, set in Nov. 2008. “The day I started in this business, there were 291 women Ohio women locked up in the prison system in Ohio." Mohr said. "Today we’re at 4,300.”...

Mohr has said repeatedly he will not build another prison during his time as prisons director, which could end when Gov. John Kasich leaves office at the end of 2018. State officials have been vigorously trying for a decade to reduce the prison population, largely by diverting non-violent inmates to community-based correction and substance abuse treatment programs.

But the CIIC report points out those efforts have been undercut by new "tough on crime" laws, many of them dealing with sex offenders, passed by the General Assembly, as well as a 2006 Ohio Supreme Court ruling that relaxed requirements for judges to state specific reasons for meting out maximum sentences. As a result, the number of inmates sentenced to the maximum term increased dramatically, requiring an extra 6,700 prison beds.

Drug offenses make up 27 percent of all crimes, the largest single category, followed by crimes against person (24.7 percent), property offenses (12.6 percent), burglary (11.2 percent), and sex offenses (7.5 percent). While men still far outnumber women behind bars, women are coming to prison at a much faster rate, mostly for non-violent drug and property crimes, the report showed.

The (reader-friendly) report that provides the data for this new story can be accessed at this link.

May 7, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Commissioner of U.S. Commission on Civil Rights expresses concerns to Senator Grassley about efforts to reduce federal prison sentences

Kirsanow,PA helpful reader just forwarded to me a fascinating, lengthy letter authored by Peter Kirsanow, a long-serving Commissioner on the US Commission on Civil Rights, expressing concerns about federal sentencing reform efforts.  I recommend everyone following the current debats over federal statutry sentencing reforms to read the full letter, which can be downloaded below.  These extended excerpts from the start and body of the letter (with footnotes removed but emphasis preserved from the original) should help explain why I find it fascinating:

I write as one member of the eight-member U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and not on behalf of the Commission as a whole. I also write as a person who lives in a high-crime, predominantly African-American neighborhood. The purpose of this letter is to express my concerns about the Sentencing Reform Act of 2015, particularly the various provisions that reduce the length of prison sentences.

Three years ago, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a briefing on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s [EEOC] revised guidance on the use of criminal background checks in hiring. The guidance was motivated by many of the same concerns that seem to underlie the Sentencing Reform Act — primarily that minority men, particularly African-American men, are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated and have criminal records, a concern about burgeoning prison populations, and a sense that as a society we should focus on rehabilitation, not retribution.

During our briefing, witnesses testified about the difficulty ex-convicts face in obtaining employment, a very real and troubling concern. But one would have concluded from the briefing that rehabilitation was the norm for ex-offenders, stymied only by a callous society that refused to give them a second chance.  One also would have thought that ex-offenders were essentially indistinguishable from non-offenders.  Further research revealed this to be far from the truth....

The Sentencing Reform Act is predicated on the belief that rehabilitation is not only possible, but likely.  Yet scholarly literature indicates that a person who has been convicted of multiple offenses is always more likely to offend (again) than is a person who has never offended.  Indeed, even a person who has been arrested only once is always more likely to be arrested than is a never-arrested person....

We can rest assured, then, that a substantial number of released prisoners will re-offend.  Who are their victims likely to be?   It is likely, given the disproportionate presence of AfricanAmerican men in the prison population, that any relaxation of sentencing or early release will disproportionately benefit African-American men.  Indeed, the racial disparity in incarceration is widely acknowledged to be the primary motivation for sentencing reform on the Left, and perhaps in some corners of the Right as well.  Those African-American men will then return to their communities, which are more likely to be predominantly African-American.  It is therefore likely that the victims of those released early will also be disproportionately likely to be black.  This is not surprising — people tend to live in communities predominantly comprised of members of their own racial or ethnic group.  White ex-offenders are therefore likely to victimize other white people. But the drive for sentencing reform is motivated by concern over black offenders, and so it is worth noting that their future victims are also likely to be black.  If we are going to play the disparate impact card, which is much of the impetus behind sentencing reform, we should note that the disparate impact works both ways. Yes, blacks are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated.  But the lives not lost or damaged because of their incapacitation due to incarceration are also disproportionately likely to be black....

There is one other thing I would like to note. Everyone at least tacitly acknowledges that much of the political pressure behind this bill is animated by a sense of racial grievance — that African-American men are incarcerated at higher rates than their presence in the population. Yet one of the reasons why we have some of these stiff sentences is because when crime was rampant, African-Americans protested the violence visited upon their communities and asked the government to get tougher on crime.  If we relax sentencing, there is a very good chance that crime will go up, it will disproportionately go up in African-American communities, and then some of the same people who are presently supporting sentencing leniency will be demanding harsher penalties because of the increasing crime in their communities; and, if recent history is a guide, they will claim the increase is due to racially discriminatory policies.

Download Letter re Sentencing Reform Act May 5 2016

May 6, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

"Gutting Habeas Corpus: The Inside Story of How Bill Clinton Sacrificed Prisoners’ Rights for Political Gain"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Intercept piece, which gets started this way:

On the eve of the New York state primary last month, as Hillary Clinton came closer to the Democratic nomination, Vice President Joe Biden went on TV and defended her husband’s 1994 crime bill.  Asked in an interview if he felt shame for his role passing a law that has been the subject of so much recent criticism, Biden answered, “Not at all,” and boasted of its successes — among them putting “100,000 cops on the street.”  His remarks sparked a new round of debate over the legacy of the crime bill, which has haunted Clinton ever since she hit the campaign trail with a vow to “end the era of mass incarceration.”

A few days later, on April 24, a lesser-known crime law quietly turned 20. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 — or AEDPA — was signed by Bill Clinton in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.  While it has been mostly absent from the recent debates over the crime policies of the ’90s, its impact has been no less profound, particularly when it comes to a bedrock constitutional principle: habeas corpus, or the right of people in prison to challenge their detention.  For 20 years, AEDPA has shut the courthouse door on prisoners trying to prove they were wrongfully convicted.  Americans are mostly unaware of this legacy, even as we know more than ever about wrongful convictions.  Barry Scheck, co-founder and head of the Innocence Project, calls AEDPA “a disaster” and “a major roadblock since its passage.”  Many would like to see it repealed.

If the Clintons have not been forced to defend AEDPA, it’s partly because neither the law nor its shared history with the crime bill is well understood.  AEDPA’s dizzying provisions — from harsh immigration policies to toughened federal sentencing — were certainly a hasty response to terrorism.  But the law was also the product of an administration that long before the Oklahoma attack had abandoned its party’s core principles on criminal justice, deciding instead to wield crime policy as political weapon.  After the Republicans seized control of Congress in the historic 1994 midterm elections, the Clinton White House sought to double down on its law-and-order image in advance of the 1996 presidential race. In the short term, it was a winning political strategy for Clinton.  In the long term, it would help pave the way to one of the worst laws of his presidency.

May 6, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

More evidence of a failed drug war: foot soldier always high while fighting

This recent AP article, headlined "Reports: Chemist Who Worked on Drug Cases Was Usually High," provides yet another reason why I see the so-called war on drugs to be an abject failure. Here are the details:

Investigators say a former chemist who tested drugs for Massachusetts police departments was high almost every day she went to work for eight years, potentially putting thousands of criminal convictions in jeopardy.

Sonja Farak, who worked for an Amherst lab that tested drug samples for police, was high on methamphetamines, ketamine, cocaine, LSD and other drugs during most of her time there, even when she testified in court, according to a state investigative report released Tuesday. Farak worked at the lab between 2005 and 2013.

Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Maura Healey, said the information gathered about Farak "will no doubt have implications for many cases," but it is unclear just how many. She said it will be up to prosecutors, defense attorneys and the courts to determine the full scope of cases affected by Farak's misconduct. "We are deeply concerned whenever the integrity of the justice system is called into question or compromised," she said.

One defense attorney told the Boston Herald that Farak handled about 30,000 cases during her career. "This is a statewide scandal, and I think it's going to take an enormous toll on the system," attorney Luke Ryan said.

Farak's case is unrelated to the case of Annie Dookhan, who worked at a state drug lab in Boston. Dookhan was sentenced in November 2013 to at least three years in prison after pleading guilty to faking test results in criminal cases that jeopardized thousands of convictions.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said the number of criminal cases affected by Farak's misconduct could rival the approximately 40,000 cases thrown into question by Dookhan's actions. "It's now beyond doubt that the drug war in Massachusetts during the Dookhan-Farak era was built on a foundation of falsified evidence," said Matthew Segal, the ACLU's legal director.

Segal said he doesn't have an estimate of how many cases could be challenged, but said prosecutors who got convictions using drug samples she tested "have an obligation to identify and notify everyone who might have been denied due process" as a result of Farak's actions. Segal said that because Farak admitted ingesting lab "standards" — drug samples used as benchmarks to test against substances submitted by police for testing — all cases that went through the lab should be re-examined.

Last year, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ordered an investigation into the timing and scope of Farak's misconduct. Healey's office conducted the investigation. Many of the shocking details came from Farak's own grand jury testimony, including that she once smoked crack before a 2012 state police accreditation inspection of the now-closed lab. Farak also testified that she manufactured crack cocaine for her personal use in the lab.

Farak, 37, of Northampton, pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence, stealing cocaine from the lab and unlawful possession in January 2014 and was sentenced to 18 months behind bars and five years of probation. She served her sentence and has been released from prison....

Gov. Charlie Baker said the state will likely have to allocate more money to deal with the Farak scandal. In the Dookhan case, the state Legislature authorized up to $30 million to cover costs incurred by the court system, prosecutors, public defenders and other state agencies. "We certainly believe we are going to have a big responsibility to work with the courts and with others to make sure that people who are affected by this have the appropriate opportunity to engage in that conversation," Baker said. "And we fully expect we will be doing that for the next several months."

May 6, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

First they came for the sex offenders, then for the abortion providers...

This new Mother Jones article, headlined "Alabama Passes a Bill to Regulate Abortion Clinics Like Sex Offenders," reports on how a common legislative restiction on sex offenders has inspired a restriction on abortion providers in Alabama. Here is how the article starts: 

Alabama lawmakers passed two bills in the waning hours of their legislative session on Wednesday that could close two of the state's five abortion clinics and make it harder for women to receive abortions in their second trimester.

One of the bills prohibits abortion clinics from operating within 2,000 feet of an elementary or middle school—the same restriction that applies to sex offenders. If Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signs the bill, it may force two of the state's five abortion clinics to close, including a clinic in Huntsville which is the only one providing abortion care in the northern half of Alabama. The clinic just moved to its current location, across the street from a school, in 2014, in order to comply with other abortion restrictions passed in Alabama in 2013.

The sponsor of the bill, Alabama state Sen. Paul Sanford, likened the restrictions to those imposed on sex offenders. "We can put a restriction on whether a liquor store opens up across the street and make sure pedophiles stay away from schools," he told the Times Daily in February. "I just think having an abortion clinic that close to elementary-age school children that actually have to walk on the sidewalk past it is not the best thing."

May 6, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, May 5, 2016

"The only way to get rid of racial bias in death penalty cases is to get rid of the death penalty"

The title of this post is the subheadline of this notable new Slate commentary authored by Robert J. Smith, which carries the main headline "There’s No Separating the Death Penalty and Race."  Here are some excerpts:

The mix of prosecutorial impropriety and the exclusion of black jurors has always been a potent combination for injecting racial bias into death penalty cases and racial cynicism into the electorate. It undermines not only the legitimacy of the death penalty, but also the legitimacy of the government as an entity capable of rendering impartial justice. It robs people of the right to participate in their government, and it makes whole swaths of people cynical about the government itself and their role in it. Yet, even if the Foster case [now before SCOTUS] provides another rebuke of the illegal practice of striking jurors because of their race, 30 years of experience suggests that the court’s case-by-case reversals will not eradicate racial discrimination in jury selection. It still happens all over the country and continues to taint our broken death penalty system....

An optimist might hold out hope that although racial bias infects these older cases, the ties between race and the death penalty have loosened in more recent cases as the nation continues to make racial progress. Unfortunately, though, while the death penalty has become increasingly rare in practice, many of the remaining cases are still intertwined with the nation’s long legacy of racism. And, even in the cases with explicit, unconscionable racial bias ... current elected prosecutors, governors, and state and federal courts have failed repeatedly to intervene or object.

May 5, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Prez Obama commutes 58 more federal drug sentences

As detailed via this terse White House press release, "On May 5, 2016, President Barack Obama granted commutation of sentence to 58 individuals." The release lists the 58 new recepients of executive clemency, and a quick scan reveals that all appear to be drug defendants and most involving cocaine and/or crack.

This press release from NACDL adds these notable particulars: "In his second set of clemency grants in under six weeks, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 58 prisoners today, 28 of whom were applicants whose petitions were supported by Clemency Project 2014."

UPDATE:  I just saw that Prez Obama now has this new Medium entry headlined "A Nation of Second Chances." Here are excerpts:

Earlier this spring, I met with a group of individuals whose sentences were commuted either by President Bush, President Clinton, or myself. They were all at different stages of a new chapter in their lives, but each of their stories was extraordinary.

Take Phillip Emmert. When he was 27, Phillip made a mistake. He was arrested and convicted for distributing methamphetamines and received a 27-year sentence. So, by the time he was released, he’d have spent half his life behind bars. Unfortunately, while in prison, his wife was paralyzed in an accident. So while he was in prison, Phil learned everything he could about fixing heating and air conditioning systems — so he could support his wife when he got out. And after his sentence was commuted by President Bush, he was able to do just that. Today, he’s gainfully employed. He’s a caregiver for his wife, an active father, and a leader in his community.

Like so many nonviolent offenders serving unduly harsh sentences, Phillip is not a hardened criminal. He’s taken responsibility for his mistakes. And he’s worked hard to earn a second chance.

Today, I commuted the sentences of an additional 58 individuals just as deserving as Phillip — individuals who can look to him as inspiration for what is possible in their lives.

As President, I’ve been working to bring about a more effective approach to our criminal justice system, particularly when it comes to drug crimes. Part of that effort has been to reinvigorate our commutations process, and highlight the individuals like Philip who are doing extraordinary things with their second chances. To date, I will have commuted 306 individual sentences, which is more than the previous six presidents combined....

As a country, we have to make sure that those who take responsibility for their mistakes are able to transition back to their communities. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. And it’s something I will keep working to do as long as I hold this office.

May 5, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23)

Lots of new and notable recent state marijuana reform developments

Regular readers know they should be regularly checking out my (not-so) regular postings at my other active blog Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform for updates on marijuana reform stories.  This week there have been particularly notable reform developments in notable states from coast to coast that I thought merited highlighting here: 

Even for those folks only interested in marijuana reform as a small piece of broader criminal justice reform policies and politics, I think developments in big state California and swing state Ohio are especially important to watch.  In particular, if there were to be big marijuana reform wins at the ballot in November (e.g., if voters were to approve reforms by 60% or more) in both states --- and also, say, in at least one other big swing state like Arizona or Florida ---  I think it would thereafter prove close to impossible for the next President not to make some kind of federal marijuana reform a priority in 2017.

May 5, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Congress Should Follow the Red States’ Lead on Criminal-Justice Reform"

DownloadThe title of this post is the headline of this notable National Review commentary authored by prominent conservatives Adam Brandon, Timothy Head, Marc Levin and Grover Norquist. Here are excerpts:

Nearly ten years ago, in 2007, Texas faced $527 million in immediate prison-construction costs, and $2 billion in additional costs by 2012. Even for a large and wealthy state, the sticker shock was staggering. Texas had seen its prison population rise dramatically.  Between 1990 and 2010, the number of inmates jumped from around 50,000 to more than 155,000 — incarcerating so many inmates began to crowd out other vital areas of the budget.

Texas House Corrections Committee chairman Jerry Madden approached House speaker Tom Craddick and asked what he should do to address the rising costs. “Don’t build new prisons,” Craddick said. “They cost too much.” Madden, a Republican, got to work and, along with his colleagues from both sides of the aisle, devised a plan to tackle the state’s growing prison population.  With an investment of $241 million, lawmakers created drug courts to divert low-level, nonviolent offenders into treatment programs as an alternative to incarceration and funded rehabilitation programs to reduce prisoners’ risk of recidivism when they reentered society.

The results of the Texas model are difficult to ignore: The state’s prison population declined by 14 percent and, even more importantly, crime rates dropped by 29 percent.  One might argue that crime rates were dropping all over the country at the time — which is true — but if one were to listen to those in rabid opposition to justice reform, wouldn’t the reverse have happened?  Instead, Texas now has its lowest crime rate since 1968 and recidivism is 9 percent less than before Texas’s 2007 reforms.

The results were so encouraging that other states sought to replicate Texas’s success.  Most of the states that have moved on substantive justice reform are traditionally conservative ones.  More than two dozen states — including Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina — have passed justice-reform packages.

Interestingly, it wasn’t until multiple Republican-controlled states moved on the issue that traditionally blue states felt that they could: They all waited for red states to move first. Hawaii, Oregon, and Rhode Island, three of the most progressive states in the country, followed the lead of conservative states. Since then, even more red states — including Alabama, Oklahoma, and Utah — have passed justice reform.  Red states, and Texas in particular, provided a blueprint for other states to follow while Barack Obama was still the junior senator from Illinois....

Now is the time to bring these conservative reforms to the federal level. The federal prison population grew by nearly 800 percent between 1980 and 2013, and the Bureau of Prisons’ budget increased by almost 600 percent, from $970 million to $6.7 billion.  Opponents of justice reform point to the high recidivism rate of federal prisoners as one of the reasons Congress shouldn’t act, but this is exactly why we, like so many conservative states, should act to get smarter on crime.

Moreover, there is also another angle that congressional Republicans may not have considered: There are no guarantees this fall.  Conservatives could be facing four or eight more years of a Democrat in the White House, Democratic control of the Senate, and, quite possibly, the House could swing back to left-wing control. While there is more bipartisanship on criminal justice than any other issue, conservatives understand we cannot reduce the prison population without also strengthening alternatives like probation and drug courts. So, for example, there should be swift and certain sanctions — such as a weekend in jail — when someone blows off their probation officer.  Some on the far left simply don’t recognize the “stick” part of the carrot-and-stick approach and want to divert savings on prisons to welfare programs rather than following Texas’s proven record by reinvesting the savings in supervision strategies that can help continue crime declines.

It’s time for congressional conservatives to reclaim the narrative that’s rightfully theirs. Justice reform is our issue. They would never admit it, but Democrats are following conservatives’ lead.

May 5, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Extended commentary assails prosecutorial power enabled by federal mandatory minimums

Amos Irwin, who serves as Chief of Staff at the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (CJPF), has this lengthy new Huffington Post commentary headlined "The Laws that Betrayed Their Makers: Why Mandatory Minimums Still Exist."  Here are excerpts that highlight some of its main themes:

[R]ather than serving Congress’s purpose, federal mandatory minimum drug laws actually function as a prosecutor’s tool of interrogation. Since the same prosecutors who select the charges are also trying to extract information, they threaten defendants with wildly disproportionate mandatory minimums in order to force them to cooperate. They are open about this practice. The President of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys protested in July that if Congress reduces mandatory minimums, “prosecutors would lose a tool to extract information.”

They omit the fact that mandatory minimums are primarily useful for extracting information from the low-level offenders.... There are two problems with threatening long sentences to extract cooperation from low-level drug offenders.  First, this strategy is ineffective in impacting the drug trade. Second, it inflicts immense collateral damage on innocent people and low-level offenders, while letting the guiltiest offenders off more easily — the opposite of what Congress intended...

Federal appeals courts have explicitly approved of prosecutors threatening defendants’ wives with charges that are rarely prosecuted, solely to force the defendants to cooperate. Federal appeals courts have explicitly approved of prosecutors threatening defendants’ wives with charges that are rarely prosecuted, solely to force the defendants to cooperate.  Why would federal prosecutors threaten family members, knowing that they might have to follow through on those threats?  Prosecutors see that the War on Drugs is not working, and many conclude that they need to fight the enemy more aggressively.

May 4, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Ninth Circuit explains why disappearing does not get one out of a plea agreement or a mandatory minimum sentence

A little criminal decision handed down by the Ninth Circuit today brought to my mind the Woody Allen quote that half of life is just showing up.  Specifically, US v. Ornelas, No. 14-50533 (9th Cir. May 4, 2016) (available here), reveals that if you do not show up after signing a plea agreement, you still will get sentenced and be stuck with 100% of the terms of agreement. Here is how the opinion for gets started:

Federal law gives defendants the right to be present at their trials and sentencings unless they voluntarily waive this right. In this case, after signing a plea agreement admitting to drug distribution, but before sentencing, Israel Ornelas disappeared and lost contact with his lawyer.  The district court proceeded with sentencing in absentia and imposed a prison term of 120 months — the mandatory minimum for the charged crimes.

Ornelas was subsequently arrested and now claims the district court’s sentencing without his presence violated both the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and the Due Process Clause to the Constitution.  Because we find the district court did not abuse its discretion or violate Ornelas’s constitutional rights by sentencing him in absentia, we enforce the appeal waiver and DISMISS this appeal.

May 4, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Should His PTSD Keep Him From Death Row?"

The question in the title of this post is from the second part of the headline of this Mother Jones article.  The first part of the headline explains "An Ex-Marine Killed Two People in Cold Blood," and here is how the piece starts:

At 12:44 p.m. on March 6, 2009, John Thuesen called 911. "120 Walcourt Loop," he told the dispatcher, breathing hard. "Gunshot victims." The dispatcher in College Station, Texas, asked what had happened. "I got mad at my girlfriend and I shot her," he said. "She has sucking chest wounds…"

He'd not only shot Rachel Joiner, 21, but also her older brother Travis.  Thuesen had broken into the house after midnight, not sure what he'd do but wanting to see his estranged girlfriend.  She was out with her ex-boyfriend, but when she returned later that morning, things "got out of hand."  Thuesen, a 25-year-old former Marine reservist, called 911 and almost immediately expressed remorse.  When he was arrested, he repeatedly asked the police about the victims and tried to explain why he'd kept shooting Rachel and her brother: "I felt like I was in like a mode…like training or a game or something."

The prosecution in the case gave its opening statement on May 10, 2010. With DNA evidence and no other suspects, it only took prosecutors three days to make their case.  Over the next week, the defense team touched on the facts that Thuesen suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his service in Iraq, but pleaded for leniency in his sentence. None of that swayed the jury: On May 28, 2010, he was sentenced to death.

While on death row, Thuesen was given new lawyers, death penalty experts from the state's Office of Capital and Forensic Writs.  In Texas, there are often two trials, one to determine guilt or innocence and the second to determine sentencing.  Lawyers argued in their 2012 petition to have both the death penalty and the conviction vacated, and for a new sentencing trial, arguing that if his lawyers had served him adequately, "John Thuesen would not be on death row today, awaiting an execution date." In July 2015, Judge Travis Bryan III — the same judge who had presided over the criminal trial — agreed, and ruled that Thuesen's lawyers hadn't adequately explained the significance of his PTSD to jurors, and how it had factored into his actions on the day of the murders.  Bryan also ruled that Thuesen's PTSD wasn't properly treated by the Veterans Health Administration.  He recommended that Thuesen be granted a new punishment-phase trial.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals could rule on Bryan's recommendation at any time.

The ruling on his case has implications for a question that has concerned the military, veterans' groups, and death penalty experts: Should service-related PTSD exclude veterans from the death penalty?  An answer to this question could affect some of the estimated 300 veterans who now sit on death rows across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.  But it's unclear how many of them suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, given how uneven the screening for these disorders has been.

Experts are divided about whether veterans with PTSD who commit capital crimes deserve what is known as a "categorical exemption" or "exclusion."  Juveniles receive such treatment, as do those with mental disabilities.  In 2009, Anthony Giardino, a lawyer and Iraq War veteran, argued in favor of this in the Fordham Law Review, writing that courts "should consider the more fundamental question of whether the government should be in the business of putting to death the volunteers they have trained, sent to war, and broken in the process" who likely would not be in that position "but for their military service."  In a 2015 Veterans Day USA Today op-ed, three retired military officials argued that in criminal cases, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges often don't consider veterans' PTSD with proper due diligence.  "Veterans with PTSD…deserve a complete investigation and presentation of their mental state by the best experts in the field," they wrote.

That idea is utterly unacceptable to Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a California-based victims-of-crime advocacy group, who contends a process already exists for veterans' defense attorneys to present mitigating evidence.  To him, a categorical exclusion would be an "extreme step" that would mean "one factor — always, in every case — necessarily outweighs the aggravating factors of the case, no matter how cold, premeditated, sadistic, or just plain evil the defendant's actions may have been."

May 4, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

US Sentencing Commission working on impressive looking new website

I am excited and intrigued to see a new item on the US Sentencing Commission's (old) website titled "Commission Launches Redesigned Beta Website."  Here is the explanation:

We are pleased to invite you to explore an in-progress (beta) version of the Commission’s redesigned website [available here].  We have more work to do, styling content and fixing bugs but by using the site, you’ll help show us what works, and what doesn’t. E-mail comments to: PubAffairs@ussc.gov (link sends e-mail).

I spent a few minutes poking around this new USSC site, and I find it very pretty but not so easy to navigate (though this may be due to its unfamiliarity).

May 3, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Prominent Floridians call for state Supreme Court to reverse all past Florida death sentences

As reported in this AP piece, now with "the fate of hundreds of Florida death row inmates in limbo, a group of former top judges and legal officials called on the state Supreme Court to impose life sentences on nearly 400 people now awaiting execution." Here is more about a notable amicus filing:

The group, which includes three former state Supreme Court justices and two former presidents of the American Bar Association, filed a legal brief Tuesday in a case that could determine the fate of Florida's death penalty.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declared Florida's death sentencing law unconstitutional in January, the state's high court halted two executions and state legislators overhauled the way convicted killers can be sentenced to death.  But the Florida Supreme Court still hasn't decided what should happen to the 389 people on death row under the previous sentencing scheme.  The court is taking the highly unusual step of this week of holding a second hearing before issuing a ruling — a sign that the seven-member court could be deeply divided.

The court said it wanted to hear from attorneys representing death row inmate Timothy Lee Hurst and the state on what affect the new sentencing law will have on his case....  In March, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a new sentencing process for those convicted of murder.  The new law requires at least 10 out of 12 jurors recommend execution for it to be carried out.  Florida previously required that a majority of jurors recommend the death sentence. It remains one of only a handful of states that does not require a unanimous jury decision.  The new law also requires prosecutors to spell out, before a murder trial begins, the reasons why a death sentence should be imposed, and requires the jury to decide unanimously if there is at least one reason, or aggravating factor, that justifies it.

The decision to hold a second hearing in Hurst's case prompted three former state justices — Harry Lee Anstead, Gerald Kogan and former U.S. District Judge Rosemary Barkett — to join with two former heads of the bar association and an organization representing defense attorneys to argue that an existing state law requires those now on death row to have their sentences reduced to life in prison.

The state has objected and argued the U.S. Supreme Court ruling is not retroactive.

The full amicus brief referenced in this piece is available at this link, and here is its key heading:

Because the United States Supreme Court held Florida’s death penalty unconstitutional in Hurst v. Florida, section 775.082(2) of the Florida statutes requires that all persons previously sentenced to death for a capital felony be resentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

May 3, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Eighth Circuit panel (sort of) finds severe erroneous career-offender sentence substantively unreasonable

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable Eighth Circuit panel ruling today in US v. Martinez, No 15-1004 (8th Cir. May 3, 2016) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion gets started and a few notable substantive statements:

Fernando Martinez pled guilty to possession of fifty grams or more of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. The district court found Martinez to be a career offender based in part on the residual clause of § 4B1.2(a)(2) of the United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) and sentenced him to 262 months' imprisonment.  It indicated, alternatively, it would sentence Martinez as a career offender even if he was not a career offender.  Martinez appeals, arguing he is not a career offender and his sentence is substantively unreasonable.

The government concedes Martinez is no longer a career offender under the guidelines following the United States Supreme Court's decision in Johnson v. United States, __ U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 2551, 2557 (2015), but asserts no remand is necessary because the district court imposed a reasonable alternative sentence that renders any error harmless. Because we conclude otherwise — that the district court's alternative sentence is substantively unreasonable — we reverse and remand for resentencing....

We infer from [a sentencing] statement that the district court believed the escape conviction was a crime of violence — and Martinez was a career offender — whether the guidelines classified it as a crime of violence or not.  In other words, the district court sentenced Martinez to an additional nine years because, as a nineteen-year-old, Martinez threw an elbow at a police officer without striking the officer and ran from police for a short distance.  This severe variance is unreasonable.

The district court's other justifications do not support the degree of the upward variance either.  First, Martinez's convictions do not warrant such a severe upward variance.  Martinez's two convictions undoubtedly demonstrate serious, violent behavior, but the guideline range already accounted for these prior convictions, each of which received three criminal history points....

Second, the evidence the government presented relating to Martinez's gang ties does not justify a nine-year upward variance either.  The government presented evidence Martinez appeared in music videos along with other members of the East Side Locos prior to his incarceration.  He also appeared with other East Side Locos gang members in photographs.  While these photos and videosshow Martinez's gang ties, they do not depict Martinez actively engaging in any violent behavior.  And, more importantly, they do not depict such egregious, violent behavior that they warrant the substantial upward variance the district court imposed.

May 3, 2016 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Former New York Assembly speaker gets lengthy (way-below guideline) federal sentence for corruption

This Wall Street Journal article reports on today's notable sentencing of a notable crooked New York politician under the headline "Sheldon Silver Sentenced to 12 Years: The former New York state Assembly Speaker also was ordered to pay a $1.75 million fine." Here are the details on this sentencing (and related others to come):

Sheldon Silver was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Tuesday, making the former New York Assembly speaker one of the most powerful politicians in the state to be given time behind bars. U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni, who also ordered Mr. Silver to pay a fine of $1.75 million and forfeit about $5.3 million he reaped from the criminal schemes of which he was convicted, said she hoped the punishment would serve as a deterrent.

“I hope the sentence I impose on you will make other politicians think twice, until their better angels take over,” said Judge Caproni. “Or, if there are no better angels, perhaps the fear of living out ones golden years in an orange jumpsuit will keep them on the straight and narrow.”

In a brief statement before the sentence was announced, Mr. Silver, 72 years old, said he had let down his family, colleagues and constituents. “I’m truly, truly sorry for that,” said Mr. Silver, who was found guilty in November of honest-services fraud, extortion, and money laundering.

Prosecutors had asked Judge Caproni for a sentence greater than any previously imposed on a New York legislator convicted of public corruption, a term that court filings suggest was 14 years. Federal sentencing guidelines suggested a range from about 22 to 27 years. Judge Caproni said Tuesday that imposing such a sentence in this case would be “draconian and unjust” given Mr. Silver’s age.

Prosecutors said Mr. Silver used his public position and power to obtain millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes. Mr. Silver’s schemes were “multifaceted and nefarious,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Cohen said before the sentence was announced Tuesday. Ms. Cohen said Mr. Silver needed a significant prison term that reflects the public toll of his crimes and the need to deter similar conduct in Albany. “His conviction caused unparalleled damage: to our political systems, to the public’s belief in our state government,” she said.

Attorneys for Mr. Silver questioned the benefit of sending him to prison, and described their client as a committed public servant who already had suffered an extraordinary fall from grace. “He is already crushed,” attorney Joel Cohen said Tuesday. “He’s been devastated by everything that occurred over the last year and a half.”...

The conviction of Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who served as speaker for more than two decades, was a significant victory for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who has aggressively pursued public-corruption cases. “His crimes struck at the core of democratic governance — a man with unparalleled power over the affairs of New York State was secretly on the take, abusing all that power to enrich himself and prevent anyone from learning about his corrupt schemes,” prosecutors from Mr. Bharara’s office wrote in sentencing documents. “Today’s stiff sentence is a just and fitting end to Sheldon Silver’s long career of corruption,” Mr. Bharara said in a statement.

Two of Mr. Silver’s former Albany colleagues are expected to be sentenced later this month. Former state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, who in December was found guilty of public-corruption charges including conspiracy, bribery and extortion, is scheduled to be sentenced on May 12. Former state Sen. John Sampson, who was found guilty in July of obstruction of justice and making false statements to investigators, is scheduled to be sentenced in Brooklyn federal court on May 19.

Prior related post:

May 3, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Some Dostoevsky-inspired insights on the death penalty delay canard

It is sometimes hard to find an academic eager to lambast death penalty abolitionists for even their weaker arguments, so I was somewhat surprised to see this new commentary by Noah Feldman titled "Delaying Execution Isn't Cruel and Unusual." Here are excerpts:

Following a view he has held since the 1990s, [Justice] Breyer argued that the death penalty is unconstitutional because it takes too long for condemned inmates to be put to death.  The claim that death delayed is worse than death itself is a particularly shocking one because it's the converse of arguing that taking a human life before its natural endpoint is fundamentally immoral.  Instead, the view asserts that death must be administered quickly after sentencing to avoid the convicted person living on many years in prison -- even if that person wants to live as long as possible.

Make no mistake: in every case where an inmate has been on death row for many years, it’s by choice. In the case considered Monday, the defendant had been on death row for 32 years.  That’s the result of numerous appeals by his lawyers, and numerous delays in hearing those appeals by state and federal courts.  A defendant who wants to die can skip the appeals, like Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who waived his appeals and was executed expeditiously.

The judges who hear capital appeals understand all this perfectly well.  They could put death penalty cases on the top of the docket.  But they don’t, at least in part because they know that every day of delay is another day of life for the defendant.  It’s one of the persistent facts about the death penalty that almost every person who is sentenced to die chooses to fight the sentence.

In theory, it's easy to say you’d rather be executed than spend your life in prison.  That sentiment is a stock line in television and film.  And I confess that I share it – or at least I think I do.  But no matter how powerful the thought, the empirical evidence suggests that, when push comes to shove, the human instinct to live another day is overwhelming. That’s why so-called “volunteers” such as McVeigh are vanishingly rare in our legal system....

So in what sense could it be cruel and unusual not to execute someone over a long period of time while his appeals are pending?  The answer has to be that the long-term prospect of death is itself a kind of torture, worse than the experience of contemplating your own execution in the immediate future.

That insight seems to follow from our imagined scene of the prisoner in his cell awaiting execution, like a character out of Dostoevsky.  The trauma and psychological pain of contemplating one’s imminent mortality seem bad enough. Imagine if that same trauma and pain were repeated for 32 years. In these terms, the delay could be seen as an unconscionable form of quasi-permanent torture.

But the reality must surely be otherwise.  A prisoner on death row doesn’t actually expect to be executed every day that he is there. Yes, courts often set execution dates.  But they do so in the full knowledge that those dates will probably be deferred.

From the perspective of the prisoner, the mere setting of the date is no doubt terribly upsetting.  But over time, even the most sensitive prisoner would surely get used to the repetitive structure of sentencing date followed by delay.  To cite Dostoevsky again, if imprecisely: “Man can get used to anything -- the brute!”

It emerges, I think, that the so-called Lackey claim to which Breyer is still devoted is psychologically unconvincing.  To live every day in the knowledge that eventually one will die is in fact the universal human condition.  Many of us will die in the next 32 years.  And none of us knows exactly on what day that will occur.

Those who oppose the death penalty on moral grounds have plenty of strong arguments on their side.  They don’t need this one, which in fact undercuts their claims about the inherent value of every day of human life.  The remedy for death delayed, after all, can only be death itself.

Prior recent related post:

May 3, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Do Public Defenders Spend Less Time on Black Clients?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this interesting new Marshall Project piece.  Here are excerpts (with a couple of key links highlighted):

[There is a] rising awareness among public defenders that they may harbor the same hidden biases about race and ethnicity that are frequently attributed to police and prosecutors.

A growing body of research has attempted to draw links between “implicit bias” — beliefs that unconsciously drive decisions and behavior — and the racial disparities that cut across every stage of the criminal justice system, from arrest to charge to incarceration to release.  One study found that black defendants in Connecticut had bail amounts 25 percent higher than comparable white defendants, and another found black defendants drew sentences 12 percent longer in federal courts.

Much of that research is focused on prosecutors, jurors, and judges, the triad that puts people away. But scholars are beginning to discuss how it also affects the work of public defenders, to the surprise of many. “I figured: we understand racism, we know our clients, we get it,” says Jeff Adachi, the elected public defender of San Francisco. But now Adachi is one of the converted, running twice-yearly all-day sessions for his staff in which they discuss how unconscious prejudices can sneak into their work. “It’s like waking up from a dream,” Jacobs recalled. Discovering research that correlated skin tone with the harshness of sentences “just made me sick.”  He remembered times in the past when he defended immigrants. “I’d think, well this case isn’t as important as that of an American kid. It was a feeling of, they’re just going to plead guilty so why should I bother?”

“[Bias] might manifest in whether the defender believes in the guilt or innocence of the person they’re representing,” says Phoebe Haddon, the chancellor of Rutgers University-Camden. “Or their assessment of their fellow counsel, the credibility of witnesses, whether to take a plea bargain.”

Haddon and the American Bar Association are developing videos to push judges, prosecutors, and defenders to discuss bias, and the first features a string of judges in a rare show of penitence.  William Missouri, a black retired circuit court judge from Maryland, says he studied his own sentencing patterns and found “I was biased against my own people.”  He looks stricken.  “Being accused of bias is like a knife slicing your skin; the cut may be shallow, but the hurt is deep.”

It goes beyond race: Cheryl Cesario, a former Chicago judge, admits that being Catholic meant that when a Catholic defendant came before her, “I would expect more from them.”

Data is scant, since multiple factors create sentencing disparities, but many defenders believe one of the main consequences of “implicit bias” is how much time they spend on cases. Their offices tend to be poorly funded and inundated with far more cases than they have time to handle. “They may expend more effort on cases in which they believe their client is factually innocent,” professors Song Richardson and Philip Atiba Goff wrote in a 2013 article for the Yale Law Journal [available here].

If they are interpreting “ambiguous evidence,” a “judgment of guilt may be cognitively easier to make because of the strong implicit association between blacks and crime.”  The surrender to implicit bias is exacerbated by stress, exhaustion, and speed — “exactly the context in which public defenders find themselves.”

The research is still mostly theoretical, and the concrete suggestions tend to be vague. The video for judges suggests that they try to be more humble, slow down their work, and do more self-examination. Videos and other materials for public defenders and prosecutors will be released by the American Bar Association later this year. The association encourages all lawyers to take the Implicit Association Test, an online tool developed at Harvard University [available here]. 

I have long considered implicit bias to be a huge issue in he operation of the criminal justice system, but I also think there are lots and lots of (not-quite-so-controversial) biases that impact the work of defense attorneys (both public and private). In particular, based on my own experiences and watching a lot of defense attorneys at work, I often see and surmise that the involvement of passionate family members and/or firends can have a potentially huge impact on how much time a defense attorney will spend on efforts to secure a better plea deal and/or develop more mitigation arguments at sentencing. For most overworked lawyers, squeaky-wheel clients will often get more grease; but criminal defense attorneys can grow a bit numb to their clients' squeaks. But I suspect when the squeaks are coming from a defendant's family and friends, especially if those "squeaks" are respectful and help identify sound mitigating matters, it can really impact defense efforts.

May 3, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

An (unhelpful?) exploration of how a troubled young man gets 50 years in Mississippi prison for first felony convictions

Rorschach-test_00411577The Clarion-Ledger is starting a series of articles titled "Blinded Justice" that will "examine how justice and punishment are dispensed across Mississippi in wildly varying ways."   This first piece, headlined "50 years for first-time felon? Tyler Moore's story," tells an interesting tale of a troubled youngster seemingly getting slammed on felony burglary charges because local prosecutors seemingly got tired of his many (misdemeanor-level?) crimes.  But the article does not really explore just why prosecutors ultimately were so eager to throw the book at this particular offender.  Here are excerpts from the lengthy piece which, for me, raises more state sentencing questions than answers:

Tyler Moore is serving 50 years in prison.  It was the first felony conviction for the 24-year-old man, struggling to beat a drug addiction and his bipolar disorder.  According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections, his tentative release date is 2061.  “I’ll be dead and gone by then,” said his mother, Lisa.  So how does a first-time offender who pleaded guilty to burglary get 50 years in prison? This is his story....

[In] 2010 ..., [after a charge of] misdemeanor possession of marijuana paraphernalia, Brandon police knocked on the door one morning about 5 and took him to jail on a hit-and-run charge.  The charge against him arose from a party where a young man claimed Moore had run his car into him.  Moore denied the claim, saying the young man jumped on his hood.

On April 1, 2011, the judge reduced the charge to leaving the scene of an accident, and Moore was fined.  While walking out of the courtroom that day, he muttered to someone, “You lying sack of s---.” The judge sentenced him to 10 days in jail.

The misdemeanors kept coming — contributing to the delinquency of a minor and then shoplifting when he walked out of Belk’s with a pair of sunglasses.  Moore apologized to the judge and admitted he had a drug problem.  He spent two days in jail, and the judge ordered drug tests for the next six months.

In August 2011, Moore’s family opted for a change in scenery, moving to Branson, Missouri....  He passed all the court-ordered drug tests. What his family didn’t know was his drug addiction now included spice, which couldn’t be detected by the tests....

As months passed, Moore grew homesick, and an old girlfriend wanted to see him.  He made it back to Mississippi before Christmas.  “I return and have like no money, so what do I do?” he wrote in a sworn statement. “I decide to steal out of some cars to get some money.”  In a Reservoir neighborhood, he went from car to car, stealing University of Alabama floor mats, an iPod, a University of Florida gator decal and other items.  

On Feb. 2, 2012, the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department arrested him and charged him with breaking into six cars....  After two weeks in jail, the judge released him on bond with the understanding he would go to a drug rehabilitation center, where he stayed 30 days.  He admitted using crack cocaine, marijuana and alcohol.

A day after his release in April 2012, deputies responded to a call, where they questioned Moore about a mother saying he had sex with her 15-year-old girl.  They arrested him, and he sat in jail for two weeks on a statutory rape charge. He insisted on his innocence, but he failed his polygraph test.  Once again, the judge sent him for 30 days to drug rehab.

After his release, his mother witnessed an improvement. He got a job at a car dealership... [but] when his employer learned of his burglary arrest, he was fired.  Devastated, he sank into depression.  A psychiatrist diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and prescribed medication. His mother said her son continued to struggle and began hanging out with the wrong crowd....

On a Thursday morning, Jan. 10, 2013, Moore discovered he had 21 missed calls on his cell phone.  When he talked with his mother, she told him deputies were looking for him. “They say you’ve been breaking into houses.”...  That evening, deputies showed up a second time, jailing his mother, father and 14-year-old brother on accessory after the fact charges after learning he was in Louisiana.

Moore’s grandmother decided to turn him in to the Rankin County jail on Sunday, a day before his court appearance.  When they arrived in Brandon, he bolted.  Deputies pursued him and caught him in a Reservoir subdivision, charging him with five counts of house burglary.  With his family behind bars, he confessed to the burglaries.

In a March 4, 2013, memo, the district attorney’s office gave Moore two options: He could plead guilty to auto and home burglaries and receive 50 years, or he could plead guilty to the burglaries and statutory rape, and receive 30 years.  Moore refused to plead guilty to statutory rape.

Ten days later, his new defense lawyer, John Colette of Jackson, proposed to prosecutors an alternative of 25 years in prison, with 25 suspended....  In response to the 50-year offer from prosecutors, Colette told them in a July 26, 2013, email, “Nobody was killed.”

The district attorney’s office didn’t budge.  Moore faced a new charge, this time of escape, after his bunkmate tried to pry open a window in the Rankin County jail.  Colette spoke with the sheriff and prosecutors, who agreed to dismiss the charge.

On Aug. 5, 2013, Moore pleaded guilty to five counts of auto burglary and one count of house burglary. “I just wanted to tell everyone I hurt I’m sorry, and my family,” he told the judge. “I’m not a bad guy. I’ve made some mistakes and I’m on drugs and I ran with the wrong crowd.”...  He confessed, “I don’t understand anything anymore, and I need help.”....

In keeping with the plea bargain, the judge sentenced him to 60 years in prison, suspending 10 of those years, with each sentence running consecutively. Circuit Judge John Emfinger dismissed the other burglary charges and the statutory rape charge. Because authorities recovered nearly all of the items, the judge ordered less than $300 in restitution.

Moore thought his sentences would run concurrently. “It did not seem real,” he wrote, “and to this day, it does not seem real.”... When Moore arrived at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, a correctional officer thought the 50 years of time were a mistake and double-checked with Rankin County Circuit Court to make sure the burglary sentences were indeed consecutive, not concurrent....

Moore's new lawyer, veteran defense attorney Tom Fortner, said the 50 years “seems like an awfully harsh sentence for a young person without a prior felony. There are a lot of people convicted for worse crimes who aren’t getting 50 years in prison.”  Fortner asked Judge Emfinger to reconsider his client’s case, saying his then-defense lawyer, Colette, failed to make clear to Moore how soon he would be eligible for parole.  Moore initially believed he would be eligible for parole as early as 2017, but it turned out he won’t be eligible until at least 2025. His tentative release date is 2061.

I find this case so very interesting and blogworthy because it strikes me as a a kind of Rorschach test for assessing the state and problems with modern sentencing systems. Though the article focuses on the severe sentence Moore got at the end of this story, one could reasonably complain about all the sentencing leniency he received for his considerable prior low-level offending. Similarly, though the article suggests it was peculiar and worrisome the local DA pushed for a 50-year sentence in a plea deal, one could reasonably wonder why a sentencing judge did not seem troubled by imposing this sentence. And while a 50-year prison term seems quite extreme for just a series of (minor?) burglary offenses, one could argue that this case was sentence just right if Moore can work hard to improve himself while incarcerated so as to earn parole after serving only 12 years.

May 3, 2016 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, May 2, 2016

"Prosecutorial Analytics"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting-looking new article by Jason Kreag now avaible via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The institution of the prosecutor has more power than any other in the criminal justice system. What is more, prosecutorial power is often unreviewable as a result of limited constitutional regulation and the fact that it is increasingly exercised in private and semi-private settings as the system has become more administrative and less adversarial. Despite this vast, unreviewable power, prosecutors often rely on crude performance measures focused on conviction rates.  The focus on conviction rates fails to capture and adequately evaluate the breadth of prosecutorial decision-making.

We can do better by fully implementing analytics as a tool to evaluate the prosecutorial function.  This tool has revolutionized crime-fighting.  Yet, it has been conspicuously absent as a tool to improve other aspects of the criminal justice system.  This Article demonstrates the promise of prosecutorial analytics to improve oversight and to promote systemic interests in justice, fairness, and transparency. It offers concrete examples of how analytics can 1) help eliminate race-based jury selection practices; 2) minimize prosecutorial misconduct; 3) uncover whether undesirable arbitrary factors shape prosecutorial discretion; and 4) provide better metrics for the judiciary, practitioners, and the public to evaluate prosecutorial performance.

May 2, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Digging deeply into Virginia's crowded prisons and parole paractices

A local public radio station in Virginia now has available at this link a detailed look as corrections practices in the state.  The umbrella title for all the coverage is "Crowded Prisons, Rare Parole: A Five Part Series," and here are the subheadings and introductions for each part of the series:

May 2, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Would prosecutors be less aggressive if significantly more monies were devoted to indigent criminal defense?

The question in the title of this post is the big question that lingers for me after review of this important New York Times op-ed authored by John Pfaff over the weekend.  The piece provides data to back up John's frequent Twitter lament that problems with indigent defense funding do not get enough attention nor play a sufficient role in analyses of problems with modern criminal justice systems.  The commentary, headlined "A Mockery of Justice for the Poor," merits a full read and here are a few key excertps:

In the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court held in 1963 that the state or local government had to provide a lawyer to any defendant facing prison time who could not afford his or her own.  This was no minor decision.  Approximately 80 percent of all state criminal defendants in the United States qualify for a government­provided lawyer.

Yet despite this constitutional guarantee, state and county spending on lawyers for the poor amounts to only $2.3 billion — barely 1 percent of the more than $200 billion governments spend annually on criminal justice.  Worse, since 1995, real spending on indigent defense has fallen, by 2 percent, even as the number of felony cases has risen by approximately 40 percent.

Not surprisingly, public defense finds itself starved of resources while facing impossible caseloads that mock the idea of justice for the poor.  In Fresno, Calif., for instance, public defenders have caseloads that are four times the recommended maximum of around 150. In Minnesota, one public defender followed by a reporter estimated that he had about 12 minutes to devote to each client that day.  There is no way these lawyers can manage the cases being thrown at them.

In New Orleans, caseloads are so high that the parish’s public defender office has started to refuse to take cases, including murder cases.  Public defender offices in other states, including Florida, Missouri, New York and Pennsylvania, have taken similar steps when caseloads have grown too heavy.  To make things worse, 43 states now require indigent defendants to pay at least a portion of their lawyers’ fees, even though these defendants are by definition indisputably poor....

There is, however, a way out of this, one that the presidential candidates of both parties should embrace, one that should have broad bipartisan appeal. And it is an approach that no one is talking about.

The federal government, which now provides just a few million dollars per year to prop up local indigent defense services, could make an annual grant of $4 billion to state and local governments for indigent defense.  This is a mere 0.3 percent of the federal government’s approximately $1.2 trillion discretionary budget.  This money would triple spending on indigent defense, especially if the grant was tied to pre­existing spending by local governments so they couldn’t just cut their own spending one­-for-­one with the grant.

For Democrats, this plan would target a major cost of poverty and inequality and, because of the correlation between wealth and race, it would tackle at least some of the racial imbalances that permeate the criminal justice system.  For Republicans, who worry about state overreach and the government’s ability to oppress its citizens, meaningful public defense ensures that the poor, too, are able to check the state when it is acting in its most powerful capacity.

Funding indigent defense would also help scale back mass incarceration, a goal both parties share.  My research has shown that the primary source of prison growth in the 1990s and 2000s has been prosecutors’ filing of felony charges against more and more arrestees, many of whom in the past would have faced misdemeanor charges or no charges at all. Ensuring that prosecutors’ opponents are able to do their jobs competently would dampen prosecutorial aggressiveness.

Tellingly, as public defender caseloads have soared amid shrinking budgets, prosecutor caseloads appear to have held relatively steady, as funding and hiring of prosecutors generally rose over roughly the last 20 years.  Public defenders find themselves at an increasing disadvantage, surely contributing to our nation’s inability to really rein in prison population growth.  If defendants had well-­funded, effective representation, our adversarial system would do what it is intended to do.  What we have right now, however, simply is not adversarial: relatively well-­funded, well-­staffed prosecutor offices square off against public defenders whose caseloads defy imagination.

Funding public defense would ensure that poor people’s constitutional rights are protected, would advance a commitment to justice shared by liberals and conservatives alike, and would help roll back our staggering prison population.  It is also feasible, cheap by federal standards, and would have powerful, long­lasting effects.

I agree 100% with John's call for much greater funding of public defense — although I would much prefer a federal law that urged states to link criminal defense funding/spending to criminal prosecution funding/spending. I am not keen to have federal taxpayers provide an expensive "justice bailout" for all states disinclined to tax their own citizens to pay for constitutionally-required services for those they seek to (over)prosecute. (Indeed, I fear that at least some states now doing significant sentencing reform because of prison bills coming due might use clever accounting to afford more prison beds for more offenders if they get a massive yearly influx of federal cash to cover defense services.)

But I really question the notion that greater funding of public defense "would dampen prosecutorial aggressiveness" based on what I see in the operation of the federal criminal justice system. Though certainly not perfectly funded, federal public defenders seem to me to be among the best funded (and certainly the most consistently dedicated and capable and knowledgeable and experienced) of all defense phalanxes that I have seen. And yet I have seen precious little evidence that federal prosecutors are less aggressive because they are frequently facing these defense attorneys in federal criminal cases. (And, of course, we the very largest increase in any jurisdiction's prison population and the lengthy of sentences served over the last 30 years has been at the federal level.)

Moreover, in a few cases in which I have served as an expert witness or amicus at sentencing, I have sometimes perceived that certain federal prosecutors get even more aggressive when they realize that a particular defendant has the resources and personnel needed to put up an especially vigorous defense. (Indeed, I expressly warn some defense attorneys when they seek my formal assistance in a low-profile case that they should consider whether my involvement may risk doing more harm than good due to possible prosecutorial reaction to my involvement.) I do not mean to assert that federal prosecutors are distinctly unfair or uniquely aggressive when going after well-defended defendants, but I do mean to question whether it is really likely that prosecutors will be generally less likely to "strike hard blows" if they know the other side has more ability to defend against those blows.

That said, I do think better funding of state criminal defense is likely to better deter (or later identify) prosecutorial misconduct, and it also could and should have salutory effects on other aspects of state criminal justice systems --- e.g., better funded indigent defense services should be better able to focus on parole systems and expungement efforts and other back-end services for indigent defendants, and perhaps they also would bring more needed strategic constitutional litigation to assail particularly troublesome practices in some state systems. But, to wrap up, I think the only sure-fire way to "dampen prosecutorial aggressiveness," other than to reduce the number of prosecutors, is to dramatically reduce the number of crimes on the books and make sure (through mens rea and jury reforms) that prosecutors have a little more fear of losing when they first think about filing felony charges.

May 2, 2016 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

At SCOTUS, "age-old principes of conspiracy law" produces brand new division of Justices

More than six months after oral argument, the Supreme Court this morning finally released its opinion in Ocasio v. United States, No. 14-361 (S. Ct. May 2, 2016) (available here), which concerns the application of a federal conspiracy law surrounding extortion. Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, and here is how it gets started:

Petitioner Samuel Ocasio, a former officer in the Baltimore Police Department, participated in a kickback scheme with the owners of a local auto repair shop.  When petitioner and other Baltimore officers reported to the scene of an auto accident, they persuaded the owners of damaged cars to have their vehicles towed to the repair shop, and in exchange for this service the officers received payments from the shopowners.  Petitioner was convicted of obtaining money from the shopowners under color of official right, in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U. S. C. §1951, and of conspiring to violate the Hobbs Act, in violation of 18 U. S. C. §371. He now challenges his conspiracy conviction, contending that, as a matter of law, he cannot be convicted of conspiring with the shopowners to obtain money from them under color of official right. We reject this argument because it is contrary to age-old principles of conspiracy law.

Few should be surprised that Justice Alito in Ocasio was not moved by a criminal defendant's effort to make more challenging pursuit of a conspiracy charge (a type of crime Judge Learned Hand famously describes as the "darling of the modern prosecutor's nursery").  But I was certainly surprised with how the votes of the other seven Justices broke down:

ALITO, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed a concurring opinion. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., joined.

Because I do not spend all that much time thinking about either extortion or conspiracy, I doubt I will have much more to say about Ocasio. But I would be grateful to hear from readers in the comments as to whether they think this opinion was worth the wait and/or whether the unusual divides of the Justices has a possible significance beyond this one case.

May 2, 2016 in Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Justice Breyer dissents alone(!) in California capital case concerning long delays before execution

At the end of this morning's Supreme Court order list, Justice Breyer has a brief two-page dissent from the Court's decision to deny certiorari review in a capital case in which "Richard Boyer [who] was initially sentenced to death 32 years ago" requested that the Justices "consider whether the Eighth Amendment allows a State to keep a prisoner incarcerated under threat of execution for so long."  Here is part of what Justice Breyer has to say:

These delays are the result of a system that the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice (Commission), an arm of the State of California, see Cal. S. Res. 44 (2004), has labeled “dysfunctional.” Report and Recommendations on the Administration of the Death Penalty in California 6 (2008)....  It noted that many prisoners had died of natural causes before their sentences were carried out, and more California death row inmates had committed suicide than had been executed by the State.  Indeed, only a small, apparently random set of death row inmates had been executed. See ibid. A vast and growing majority remained incarcerated, like Boyer, on death row under a threat of execution for ever longer periods of time....

Put simply, California’s costly “administration of the death penalty” likely embodies “three fundamental defects” about which I have previously written: “(1) serious unreliability, (2) arbitrariness in application, and (3) unconscionably long delays that undermine the death penalty’s penological purpose.”  Glossip v. Gross, 576 U. S. ___, ___ (2015) (BREYER, J., dissenting) (slip op., at 2); see Lackey v. Texas, 514 U. S. 1045 (1995) (memorandum of Stevens, J., respecting denial of certiorari); see also Valle v. Florida, 564 U. S. 1067 (2011) (BREYER, J., dissenting from denial of stay); Knight v. Florida, 528 U. S. 990, 993 (1999) (BREYER, J., dissenting from denial of certiorari). 

Notably, not a single other Justice joined this dissent, not even Justice Ginsburg who was along for ride a little less than a year ago when Justice Breyer wrote his anti-death penalty magnum opus dissent in Glossip.  That reality reinforces my belief that death penalty abolitionists should not be especially hopeful that a majority of Justices will find capital punishment per se unconstitutional anytime soon.

May 2, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Reviewing the type of federal drug case that the SRCA should most impact

Mandatory_minimums_1abe826ceaaedee05283c916fe4b2585.nbcnews-ux-600-480This lengthy new NBC news piece, headlined "As Drug Sentencing Debate Rages, 'Ridiculous' Sentences Persist," focuses on one notable federal drug defendant subject to a notable federal drug mandatory minimum that could be impacted by federal statutory sentencing reform. Here are excerpts:

When he was an addict and petty criminal, Leo Guthmiller knew little, and cared less, about the federal government's harsh drug sentencing laws. The worst he'd endured was 90 days at the county lockup in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Then, last April, nearly two years after he'd stopped popping painkillers and smoking methamphetamine, Guthmiller was arrested by two federal agents as he headed for a drug counseling session. He later learned why: a junkie and his girlfriend, facing stiff prison sentences, had told investigators that Guthmiller had introduced them to his meth dealer around the time he was getting sober. That made him the middleman in a street-level drug distribution scheme.

Because this was a federal case, and the amount of meth exceeded 500 grams, or 1.1 pounds, Guthmiller was suddenly facing at least 10 years behind bars as a co-conspirator.... The charge thrust him, unwittingly, into a raging debate over a pillar of America's war on drugs: mandatory-minimum sentences. Intended to sideline high-level traffickers, the laws have been used to sweep thousands of nonviolent, small-time offenders into epic prison terms....

Guthmiller didn't dispute the couple's accusation. But he bristled at the government's portrayal of him as a scheming operative. Besides, he was a changed man: sober, working, studying for his GED, leading AA meetings, completing a drug court program, newly married. Still, he pleaded guilty, unwilling to risk a trial that could end in an even longer prison term. "I'm not an innocent person, but at the same time this is all a bit much, I feel," Guthmiller told NBC News.

At his sentencing in mid-February, U.S. District Court Judge John Gerrard agreed. He praised Guthmiller's turnaround, but said federal drug statutes gave him no choice. He called the case "Exhibit A" on why Congress needed to pass The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would give judges more flexibility. "A 10-year mandatory minimum sentence in a case like this is absolutely ridiculous," Gerrard said from the bench. "And the only reason I am imposing the sentence that I am imposing today is because I have to."...

The judge's remarks caught the attention of the Washington, D.C., advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. As he prepared to spend the next decade behind bars, Guthmiller found himself cast as a case study in America's unforgiving drug laws. "The whole idea is these 10-year sentences were written by Congress to go after serious drug offenders, and they're being applied to a guy who is home and is going to drive himself to prison," said Kevin Ring, the group's vice president. "He obviously isn't this major criminal that everyone should be so scared of."

This is a key point in the drug-law reform effort, which has inspired an unlikely alliance among Democrats and Republicans, many of whom gathered at the White House last week to discuss their campaign. Mandatory minimum sentences, toughened during 1980s crime panics, established criteria under which judges had to impose lengthy prison terms for drug trafficking. The penalties depended on the type of drug, the amount of it, the offender's criminal history and the nature of the crime — including whether the offense involved violence, weapons or children. The new laws triggered an explosion in the U.S. prison population, contributing to a dramatic decline in crime rates but also costing taxpayers millions.

That cost-benefit balance has since tipped. Researchers now say that mass incarceration's impact on the crime rate has ebbed. Studies show that the likelihood of punishment, rather than the length of a prison sentence, is more likely to deter criminals. And there are now millions of nonviolent ex-offenders — a disproportionate number of whom are black — unable to contribute to the economy, including many who return to crime. Reformers argue that the money America spends on prisons would be better used for cops, schools and alternatives to jail, such as probation and drug courts.

In a 2011 report to Congress, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that mandatory minimums focused too heavily on the amount of drugs and not enough on the offender's role in the trafficking operation. The commission has since loosened some of its guidelines retroactively, allowing thousands of nonviolent, low-level drug offenders to leave prison early. President Barack Obama joined the effort by granting clemency to many others.

Those moves are considered Band-Aids compared to the larger fix offered by the Sentencing Reform Act, legislation that would allow judges to impose shorter prison terms for bit players. But the bipartisan bill is bogged down by election-year politics. The Justice Department, meanwhile, has tried to change the system from within, ordering federal prosecutors to focus on high-level dealers. It appears to be working: the number of mandatory-minimum cases has dropped to 45 percent of all federal drug cases, down from 66.8 percent in 2007.

John Higgins, chief of the narcotics unit at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Nebraska, said in a statement that his prosecutors followed the Justice Department's advice, seeking mandatory minimums "only in those cases that warrant it." That included Guthmiller's, he said. He declined to go into detail, but pointed to court hearings in which prosecutors alleged that Guthmiller's 2013 matchmaking between the dealer and the couple led to the sale of 15-pounds of meth. "Methamphetamine is the number one drug threat in Nebraska," Higgins said.

May 2, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Another prominent elderly corrupt politician presenting dynamic federal sentencing issues

NY-DK527_NYCHAR_11U_20150122183914This lengthy Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Sheldon Silver Set to Be Sentenced: Judge has wide leeway as prosecution asks for long prison term, and defense seeks leniency for the former Assembly speaker," reports on issues surrounding a high-profile politician's federal sentencing scheduled for tomorrow in New York. Here are excerpts:

A federal judge is expected to decide Tuesday whether former New York state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver deserves a long prison sentence for years of corruption, or leniency because he is ill and says he is sorry.

Leading up to the decision, lawyers for Mr. Silver have filed letters of support from ex-colleagues, constituents, family members and even a former employee at a Chinese restaurant he frequented. “I know that Sheldon Silver has been convicted, but please consider his kind personality and his support to the community,” wrote Fei Chen, who was a cook at Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

The endorsement is part of a trove of materials from both the prosecution and defense that reflect the range of factors judges are supposed to consider in public-corruption cases and the latitude they have in deciding on punishment. Judges in cases like Mr. Silver’s grapple with how to account for breaking the public trust, and to what extent a sentence should serve as a deterrent to future crime.

Mr. Silver, a Manhattan Democrat who served as Assembly speaker for more than two decades, was convicted of honest-services fraud, extortion and money laundering. Prosecutors said Mr. Silver, 72 years old, netted about $4 million in kickbacks from schemes involving a real-estate company and an oncologist. Attorneys for Mr. Silver have said they would appeal.

Prosecutors have asked U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni for a prison sentence greater than any previously imposed on legislators convicted of public corruption in the state. Court filings suggest the longest sentence for such an official was 14 years. “Silver exploited the vast political power entrusted in him by the public to serve himself,” prosecutors wrote.

Defense lawyers have asked for leniency, suggesting “rigorous community service.” The former legislator also wrote an apology letter to the judge. “I failed the people of New York,” Mr. Silver’s letter said.

U.S. law says judges should decide sentences based not only on the offense, but also the defendant’s “history and characteristics.” Also relevant, the law says, are deterrence, public protection and the needs of the defendant, including medical care. In court filings, Mr. Silver’s lawyers have highlighted his prostate cancer, bile-duct obstruction and knee problems.

For judges, sentencing in public-corruption cases presents a particular quandary: While the convicted official usually isn’t considered a threat to public safety, or capable of committing the same crimes in the future, the government has an incentive to punish such officials harshly to deter others from similar offenses.

“The difficulty you have in high-profile cases is that there is a philosophical argument that general deterrence sometimes trumps all other factors,” said Benjamin Brafman, a defense attorney not connected to the Silver case who represented Carl Kruger, a former state senator who was convicted on public-corruption charges and sentenced to seven years.

In the case of Mr. Silver, Judge Caproni can also consider prosecutors’ evidence that Mr. Silver used his position to help two women with whom he had extramarital affairs because, like the letters, it speaks to his character. In legal filings, attorneys for Mr. Silver said the allegations were unproven.

In recent years, public-corruption cases have garnered more attention, particularly because prosecutors have become increasingly vocal when bringing charges, said Deborah Gramiccioni, executive director of NYU’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law. “The public’s indignation perhaps seems more pronounced,” said Ms. Gramiccioni, a former federal prosecutor who worked on public-corruption cases. But such indignation doesn’t necessarily influence judges’ decisions, she said....

Data show that New York judges often diverge from the federal guidelines when awarding prison sentences. Of 3,301 cases sentenced in federal court in New York in fiscal 2015, judges awarded sentences within the guideline range in 29.5% of cases, compared with 47.3% nationwide, according to federal statistics. Of 544 fraud cases in New York, 28.5% of sentences fell within the guidelines. Just five people received sentences above the guideline range.

In Mr. Silver’s case, sentencing guidelines suggest a range from about 22 to 27 years. In sentencing filings, both prosecution and defense attorneys cite many of the same public-corruption cases, including that of Mr. Kruger, the former state senator. Attorneys for Mr. Silver note that Mr. Kruger was sentenced to well below the federal recommendations. But prosecutors note that Mr. Kruger pleaded guilty, which they view as a crucial difference. “Unlike Kruger, here Sheldon Silver has accepted no responsibility and shown no remorse for his crimes,” they said.

May 2, 2016 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Why Vague Sentencing Guidelines Violate the Due Process Clause"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Kelsey Heilman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The United States Sentencing Guidelines are the mandatory starting point and the lodestone for the sentences of 75,000 federal defendants each year.  Though advisory after the 2005 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Booker, the Guidelines continue to exert tremendous influence over federal sentencing practice.  Last term, in Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutionally vague a sentencing provision of the Armed Career Criminals Act.  In the ensuing year, a circuit split developed regarding whether that decision dooms a textually identical provision of the Guidelines, with some courts holding advisory sentencing guidelines are completely immune from due process challenges.  In this Article, I argue the Guidelines violate the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution if they are so vague they deny fair notice to defendants and invite arbitrary enforcement by judges.

April 30, 2016 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (3)

Emerging news about two new notable gun control and gun safety efforts

These two recent stories about gun control and gun safety efforts from the folks in California and from the federal government have caught my eye lately:

Long-time readers ikely know I have long thought both governments and others ought to be investing in smart gun technologies to try to cut down on gun violence and related harms. At the very least, I think modern guns ought to have some kind of built in technology that could provide, though could/GPS technology, some kind of digital trace whenever used by someone other than their licensed owner (I have in mind a kind of Lojack system that would only report when the licensed owner is not the user).

April 30, 2016 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Georgia continuing to lead and innovate state sentencing reform with new focus on mass probation

The most astute observers of criminal justice systems realize that tackling mass incarceration will always be an uphill battle if we do not also look closely at the realities of (even more massive) modern probation and other laws and rules that place many persons under significant criminal justice supervision.  Consequently, I am encourage to see that the folks in Georgia, who have already been at the forefront of state-level sentencing reforms, are now turning to this issue. This local article, headlined "Nathan Deal aims to cut ‘extraordinarily high’ number of Georgia offenders on probation," tells the basic story:

Fresh off another round of changes to Georgia’s criminal justice system, Gov. Nathan Deal said he’ll urge lawmakers next year to tackle the stubborn problem of the “extraordinarily high” number of offenders on probation in Georgia. He wants to target the rise of “split sentencing” in Georgia – a practice in which a defendant serves part of the sentence behind bars, and then often a greater time outside prison. He called it an “unusual phenomenon, and we don’t know why it’s happening.”

“We have a significantly high number of people who are under probation supervision – an extraordinarily high number compared with most other states,” he said. “You’re going to see the general area of probation being a focus point.” Georgia led the nation in placing its citizens on probation in 2015 and topped the charts for its probation rate, which critics said reflected an overuse of the system.

The state moved to reform the misdemeanor probation system after an AJC investigation showed courts contract with private probation companies to “supervise” and collect payments from people who can’t afford to pay off expensive traffic tickets and other misdemeanor fines on the day they go to court. Deal’s Council on Criminal Justice Reform has recommended that lawmakers consider taking another step in 2017 by decriminalizing most traffic violations and rethinking the length of probation terms.

April 30, 2016 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 29, 2016

"Louisiana Death Sentenced Cases and Their Reversals, 1976-2015"

The title of htis post is the title of this new reseach paper by Frank Baumgartner and Tim Lyman now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Since 1976, Louisiana’s experience with capital punishment has been deeply dysfunctional, with a significantly higher case reversal rate than the national average, and marked disparities in sentencing, reversals, and executions depending on the race and gender of the victim and accused.  Our comprehensive analysis of each of 241 death-sentence cases in the post-Gregg period suggests that the “modern” death penalty has not resolved the issues of arbitrariness and bias that concerned the US Supreme Court in the 1972 Furman decision, which invalidated previous death penalty statutes throughout the country.

Among 155 resolved death-sentence cases, there have been 127 reversals (of which nine were exonerations) and 28 executions.  Since 2000, Louisiana has seen 50 reversals of previous death sentences, including seven exonerations, and only two executions.

Not only are these reversal rates extremely high, but the racial discrepancies are shocking as well.  Death sentences are imposed in 0.52% of cases with black male offenders and black male victims, but in 15.56% of cases with black male offenders and white female victims — 30 times more likely.  No matter the race of the offender, killers of whites are more than six times more likely to receive a death penalty than killers of blacks, and 14 times more likely to be executed.  The racial disparities even extend into the appeals process, where cases of killers of whites are clearly less likely to be reversed.  No white person has been executed in Louisiana for a crime against a black victim since 1752.

April 29, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

With nine months left in Obama Administration, apparently it is time for a clemency last call

Regular readers know I am a long-time critic of how modern presidents have (failed to) use their historic clemency powers and that I am not an especially big fan of how the Obama Administration and others have approached trying to do things better of late.  Another frustrating piece of this story is captured by this new Politico piece headlined "Obama team making last-ditch push on commutations: Top Justice official says non-violent drug offenders are running out of time to apply for reduced sentences."  Here are excerpts:

The Obama Administration is pressing hard to keep the clock from running out on thousands of federal drug convicts hoping to get their prison sentences shortened by President Barack Obama before he leaves office in January.  Earlier this week, the No. 2 official at the Justice Department pleaded with volunteer lawyers working on those cases to get the commutation applications filed right away.

"Time is of the essence and the inmates who raised their hands for your assistance still need your help," Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote in the unusual letter, dated Monday and obtained by POLITICO. In the message to attorneys working through a consortium known as Clemency Project 2014, Yates noted that the group has set internal deadlines for most cases as soon as Monday of next week and for other cases in mid-May.  "I cannot stress how important it is [to] meet those deadlines," Yates wrote. "If those deadlines cannot be met, we need to ensure that inmates have sufficient time to file pro se petitions, and that the Department of Justice has enough time to process and review them."

Obama launched his so-called "Clemency Initiative" in early 2014, seeking to identify thousands who have served long drug-crime sentences that would likely have been shorter under current law. The effort was aimed at granting commutations to those who met certain criteria, such as being non-violent, low-level offenders. The announcement triggered a flood of clemency requests from close to 30,000 inmates — more than 10 percent of the federal prison population. The level of interest swamped the handful of lawyers in the office of the Justice Department's Pardon Attorney and overwhelmed the newly-created Clemency Project.

While the group has said nearly 4,000 attorneys were recruited to prepare applications, the process has been a tough slog, slowed by bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining paperwork and the reliance on lawyers who usually have no prior experience seeking clemency. Yates' letter to the Clemency Project lawyers says they have submitted "more than 850 petitions" thus far. That's a dramatic increase from the roughly 30 the group's lawyers had handed in about a year ago, but still far short of the number likely to yield the thousands of commutations some Obama administration officials expected at the outset.

The applications are also backlogged at the Justice Department, which had more than 11,000 commutation requests of all types pending at the end of March, according to Justice's website. In January, the Justice Department official who'd overseen the effort since the spring of 2014 resigned, complaining of a lack of resources and that her recommendations were not always being relayed to the White House. "The Department has not fulfilled its commitment to provide the resources necessary for my office to make timely and thoughtful recommendations on clemency to the president," Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff wrote in her resignation letter, obtained by USA Today through a Freedom of Information Act request.

White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said at a POLITICO Playbook Breakfast earlier this month that the Pardon Attorney's office has gotten a boost in resources and that some of the concerns Leff raised have been addressed. "The pardon attorney's office has a little more resources, which is good, and I have regular dealings with the pardon attorney directly, so to the extent that Ms. Leff was complaining about that, that was solved. Actually, it was solved before she left,” Eggleston said. “And so I think that we're moving forward in a pretty good way here."...

Last year, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) questioned whether the Justice Department had essentially outsourced its role in the process to the Clemency Project 2014 lawyers. A Justice Department official rejected that idea at the time, saying that the volunteer project — backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and others — was "completely separate" from Justice.

However, Yates' letter this week highlights the Clemency Project's internal deadlines and thanks the group for having "screened out ... 20,000 ineligible applicants."  Critics, noting that Obama has granted commutations to some applications who did not appear to meet all the criteria, have expressed concern that some of those prisoners may have compelling cases for commutations but will be dissuaded from applying by having been screened out.  In addition, in a less-noticed portion of Leff's letter, she said she had "been instructed to set aside thousands of petitions for pardon and traditional commutation."

I have got tired of being tired of hearing these stories of too many clemency applicants and too little ability to procees them all. But I will continue to note (and lament) all this, and continue to hope that Prez Obama will vindicate all the energies and excitement advocates devoted to these matters by granting at least a few hundred more commutations and some significant number of pardons before he passes on the keys to the Oval Office next January.

April 29, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Senator Jeff Sessions (and thus Donald Trump?) comes out swinging against revised SRCA

Yh_3216_aAlabama's US Senator Jeff Sessions, whom I believe was the first notabe elected federal official to endorse Prez candidate Donald Trump, has wasted no time condemning, in intricate detail, the just-released revised version of the Senate's Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (noted here).   This press release, which runs over 1500 words and has too many criticisms to readily summarize, includes these passages:

The changes made to the criminal sentencing bill fail to fix the bill and leave us with legislation that still would release thousands of violent felons and endanger millions of Americans whose safety is increasingly threatened by rising crime rates.  While visiting concern on prisoners is an important and valuable act, we must understand a core responsibility of the government is safety of the public.  The wise approach is to slow down and evaluate the trends before accelerating prison population decline. 

Since 2011, the federal prison population has decreased by over 20,000 (over 9 percent), bringing it to its lowest level since 2006. It will continue to decline by another 10,000 over the next year, bringing it to its lowest level since 2004.  Drug prosecutions have dropped 21 percent since 2011.  The Sentencing Commission recently ordered the release of 46,276 federal drug trafficking felons from federal prison, including those who carried semi-automatic weapons, participated in international heroin smuggling rings, and have violent criminal histories.  And just last year, the Obama Administration released 90,000 criminal illegal aliens from custody.

Meanwhile, homicides in the 50 largest U.S. cities rose nearly 17 percent in 2015 — the largest single-year increase since at least 1960.  In medium-sized cities, violent crime increased 5.3 percent.  The country is in the midst of a historic heroin epidemic where 120 people die each day from overdoses. 

Federal drug and sentencing laws have already been considerably relaxed.  Congress must examine the potential far-reaching consequences of what has occurred before going any further.  It is counterintuitive to further weaken penalties for drug traffickers, especially heroin traffickers, and to enable the release of several thousand more incarcerated drug and gun felons, particularly at this time....

According to Gallup, Americans are more concerned about crime than they have been in 15 years.  If ever there was a time to release more violent felons into our communities, it most certainly is not now.  Passing this legislation would not only be unwise, it would be unsafe....

Despite assurances otherwise, the revised bill still shortens mandatory minimums for repeat drug traffickers, including those who carried a gun, and would allow for early release of those currently in federal prison.... Moreover, this proposal would provide for leniency for illegal alien drug traffickers....  

The revised bill adds a provision to shorten mandatory minimums for drug traffickers who smuggle drugs into the U.S. by boat or submarine.  These criminals have never been eligible for such leniency and are rarely if ever U.S. citizens.  This provision has already been tagged as the “Scarface” provision.  Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that other than the Southern border, the majority of drugs come into the U.S. by maritime routes....

Before, the bill had a pro-law enforcement provision described by the sponsors as expanding the reach of the enhanced mandatory minimum for firearms offenses to those with prior state firearms offenses.  That provision was removed entirely.

The revised bill further expands the statutory “safety valve” to major drug traffickers, including those with multiple prior criminal convictions....  The bill still provides leniency for illegal alien drug traffickers.

I am not sure if this criticism will keep the revised SRCA from being brought up for a vote, but I do think the connection between Senator Sessions and presumptive GOP Prez candidate Trump provides yet another significant impediment to this bill becoming law.

Prior related post:

April 28, 2016 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14)

"Senators Announce New Provisions & Cosponsors to Bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act"

The title of this post is the title of a US Senate Judiciary Committee press conference that took place this afternoon and can be watched at this link (though you need for fast-forward to about the 11:45 mark of the recorded video).  This Reuters article provides these highlights:

A revised criminal justice reform bill moved closer to a full U.S. Senate vote on Thursday when it gained support from more Republicans after being stalled for months in Congress.

In a legacy-shaping issue for President Barack Obama, the measure's sponsors announced four new Republican co-sponsor senators and a new version of the bill at a press conference in the Senate. The measure now has 37 co-sponsors, according to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley. Grassley said he had been waiting for the bill to be finalized before asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it up for a full Senate vote, but that "it is time for those discussions to start right now."

As revised, it still lowers mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent federal drug offenders, but it no longer applies to anyone convicted of a serious violent felony. That change was a response to conservative critics of the bill, which is central to Obama's efforts to overhaul the country's federal criminal justice system and reduce prison overcrowding. That effort has been a rare example of Republican and Democratic agreement in the polarized Congress.

The bill's advocates have said they hope the revisions and new co-sponsors, such as Republican senators Mark Kirk of Illinois and Steve Daines of Montana, will convince McConnell to bring up the bill for a Senate vote.  Daines and Kirk lent their support after adding minor requirements, including a provision that savings from it go toward purposes such as fighting gangs of national significance.

After a group of conservative Republican senators led by Tom Cotton of Arkansas claimed in January the reforms would release violent felons, the bill’s authors began excising parts of the proposal that eased the sentences of violent criminals. The bill now includes a new mandatory minimum sentence for crimes involving the opiate fentanyl, mirroring parallel sentencing reforms that await a floor vote in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The House legislation is likely to contain changes to "mens rea" laws that govern criminal intent, said Senator John Cornyn, a sponsor of the Senate bill, at Thursday's press conference. Mens rea reform was excluded from the Senate measure because its authors were divided on the issue. Democratic lawmakers generally oppose strengthening mens rea requirements on the grounds it would enable more corporate malfeasance as it is difficult to prove the "intent" of a corporation.

To exclude violent criminals from the Senate bill, the authors removed a section that lowered minimum sentences for unlawful gun owners with three prior convictions for violent felonies or serious drug offenses, known as “armed career criminals.” Such criminals represent nearly a fifth of the 12,908 current inmates who would have been eligible for resentencing under the old bill, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The folks at FAMM have this press release responding to this news, headlined "Strengthen, Don’t Weaken, Sentencing Reforms," which includes this quote from FAMM leader Julie Stewart:

“It’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of having a tenacious group of bipartisan Senators seek sentencing reform. However, this bill was very modest to begin with, and Congress should be strengthening it, not weakening it. In the last several days, Oklahoma, Maryland, and Iowa lawmakers have passed bold reforms that reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences. Congress should be following that example, capitalizing on public support for sentencing reform and passing significant reform that will seriously impact who goes to prison and for how long."

The folks at the Brennan Center have this press release headlined "Senate Should Swiftly Pass Revised Sentencing Bill."

These developments make me somewhat more optimistic that a big sentencing reform bill will get to Prez Obama's desk in the next few months, but I am still not quite ready to say enactment of such reforms are now probable.

A few 2016 related posts:

April 28, 2016 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Candidate Clinton promises to "institute gender-responsive policies in the federal prison system and encourage states to do the same"

Ap_clinton_lb_151013_12x5_1600Yesterday in this post I sought readers' perspectives on whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would likely end up being a "better" sentencing President. Perhaps realizing I am not the only wondering on this front, today CNN published this notable new commentary authored by Hillary Clinton under the headline "Women and prison -- the cost in money and lives." Here are some extended excerpts (with one sentence emphasized):

Mass incarceration has torn families apart, impoverished communities, and kept too many Americans from living up to their God-given potential.  But mass incarceration's impact on women and their families has been particularly acute — and it doesn't get the attention it deserves....

The United States' prison and jail population includes 215,000 women — nearly one-third of all female prisoners worldwide, and 800% more women than were in prison four decades ago.  African-American women are more than twice as likely to be in prison than white women.

But women aren't the only ones affected when they are sent to prison.  The high number of women in prison — and the long lengths of their sentences — destabilizes families and communities, especially their children.  Since 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled. Mothers in prison are five times more likely than fathers in prison to have to put their children in foster care while they serve their sentences.

We can't go on like this. It is time we reform our broken criminal justice system.  First, we need to reform policing practices, end racial profiling, and eradicate racial disparities in sentencing.  Second, we need to promote alternatives to incarceration, particularly for nonviolent and first-time offenders, so families aren't broken up.  We need to improve access to high-quality treatment for substance abuse, inside and outside the prison system, because drug and alcohol addiction is a disease, not a crime — and we need to treat it as such.

And third, we need to be deliberate about understanding the different paths that can land women in prison, be more attentive to women's unique needs while they are incarcerated, and do more to support women and their families once they are released.  I will institute gender-responsive policies in the federal prison system and encourage states to do the same — because women follow different paths to crime than men, and face different risks and challenges both inside and outside the prison walls, and every part of the justice system, from sentencing to the conditions of confinement to re-entry services, should reflect women's unique needs. 

Research shows that women's relationships ... are often a significant risk factor for becoming involved with the justice system. Most women in prison are there because of nonviolent drug or property crimes.  Over 60% of them report drug dependence or abuse in the year before they went to prison. Many of them grew up in abusive households ... and they are more likely than men in prison to have experienced sexual abuse or trauma in their life before prison.

And too often, a woman and her children continue to live with the consequences even after she has served her time and paid her debt to society.  Because formerly incarcerated people face limited job opportunities, an entire family is effectively punished by a woman's time in prison.  "Banning the box" — preventing an employer from asking about criminal history at the initial application stage, so that individuals have a chance to compete for jobs on a fair basis — is a necessary and important step, but it isn't enough.  In addition to job training and interview coaching, women returning to their communities after years behind bars need safe housing for themselves and their children, continuity of health care, and above all a supportive community....

Women and the families they support are being crushed by a criminal justice system that costs far too much — in state and federal budgets, and in lives derailed and economic opportunity lost — without making us safer.  Too often, people are prejudiced against the formerly incarcerated — in employment, in housing, in everyday interactions.  We say we are a nation of second chances — and it's time that we act like it.

I am, generally speaking, quite supportive of "gender-responsive policies" in our criminal justice systems, particularly because there are lots of evidence-based reasons for viewing (and sentencing) most female offenders as much lesser threats to public safety than most male offenders.  That said, I am not entirely sure what specific sentencing laws and prison policies need to be changed dramatically in federal and state systems in order to make them more "gender-responsive."  Should (and legally could) a Prez Clinton institute an executive order providing that federal resources earmarked for prison treatment and post-prison reentry programs must be used first for all female federal offenders before any male offenders have access to these programs?

April 28, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Oklahoma joins long list of "red states" enacting significant sentencing reforms

As reported in this local article, headlined "Criminal justice reform bills signed into law by Oklahoma governor," another state known for its conservative politics should now also be known as another state that has enacted significant reforms intended to soften its sentencing system and reduce its prison population. Here are the details:

Four criminal justice reform measures were signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin on Wednesday. The action comes at a time when the state’s prison system is operating at 122 percent of capacity.

“We want to be tough on crime, but we want to be smart on crime,” Fallin said.

The criminal justice reform bills she signed Wednesday are:

  • House Bill 2472, which gives prosecutors discretion to file charges for crimes that are not subject to the 85 percent rule as misdemeanors instead of felonies. The 85 percent rule requires that those convicted of certain crimes, including rape and murder, serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be considered for release.
  • HB 2479, which reduces the mandatory minimum sentence for drug offenders charged only with possession.
  • HB 2751, which raises the threshold for property crimes classified as felonies to $1,000 from $500.
  • HB 2753, which would broaden defendants’ eligibility for drug courts and community sentencing. The measures are designed to curb the growing prison population.

“These measures are just the beginning,” said Rep. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, the House author of the bills. Fallin said it costs just under $20,000 a year to incarcerate an offender and about $5,000 a year for one defendant in drug court.

House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, said the state still has a crisis in corrections and incarceration. “This is not the end of the mission,” he said, adding that other criminal justice reform bills are working their way through the legislative process.

Former Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris attended the bill signing in the Blue Room at the Capitol. The measures give the state more options to prevent Oklahomans from becoming convicted felons and help them get the treatment they need, Harris said. “It is not soft on crime,” he said. “It holds criminals accountable without breaking the bank. It is cost neutral to the taxpayer right now.”

Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said the state needs to take steps to move mental health and substance abuse treatment to the front end. “With measures like this, I do believe that ultimately we will see a decrease in the prison population while not increasing violent crime, and actually this will have a positive impact, I believe ultimately, on public safety,” Prater said.

April 28, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)