Thursday, July 17, 2014

Huge reduced drug guideline retroactivity decision expected from US Sentencing Commission on 7/18

As this official public notice reports, on July 18, 2014 at 1pm EDT, the US Sentencing the Commission will hold a public meeting at which "the Commissioners will vote on whether or not to retroactively apply, in whole or in part, [its recent guideline] amendment reducing the drug quantity table by two levels." At the risk of overstating the importance of this vote, I am inclined to assert that it may be the most practically consequential USSC decision in nearly a decade. The (slightly misleading) headlines of these two media discussions of the coming vote helps to highlight why:

It is likely hard for anyone who has not followed federal sentencing very closely for decades to fully appreciate all the dynamic challenges that this vote presents for the US Sentencing Commission (as well as for the US Department of Justice and for all those who work day-to-day the federal sentencing system).  Helpfully, this extended BuzzFeed article by Evan McMorris-Santoro provide a primer on some of the issues swirling around this important USSC vote.  The article's headline highlights its themes: "Despite Rhetoric, Obama Administration Pushes To Keep Thousands Of Felons In Jail Under Old Rules: The Justice Department announced major changes to the way federal drug crimes are punished this year. But the rules for existing convicts might be different — and many White House allies are angry."

Some recent related posts on reduced drug guideline retroactivity:

July 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Lots of notable discussion of yesterday's notable decision striking down California's death penalty

As reported in this prior post, yesterday in a significant ruling in Jones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available here), U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney declared all of California's death penalty system unconstitutional.  Not surprisingly, this important ruling has already generated considerable traditional media attention, and How Appealing collects some of the major stories here and here.

The heart of the remarkable ruling in Jones v. Chappell turns on (1) the (not disputable) fact that "California’s death penalty system is so plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay that the death sentence is actually carried out against only a trivial few of those sentenced to death," and (2) the (very disputable) conclusion that allowing any one murderer to "executed in such a system, where so many are sentenced to death but only a random few are actually executed, would offend the most fundamental of constitutional protections — that the government shall not be permitted to arbitrarily inflict the ultimate punishment of death."  I have lots of thoughts about both fact (1) and conclusion (2) that I hope to find time to share in future posts (or future amicus briefs), but for now I figured I would link to some of the early analysis of the opinion I have so far seen elsewhere in the blogosphere:

  • From Dan Markel here at PrawfBlawg, "What's an acceptable error rate in death penalty distributions? And some other thoughts on the Jones decision"

  • From Bill Otis here at Crime & Consequesnces, "A Miranda-type Prophylaxis for the Death Penalty"

  • From Ruthann Robson here at Constitutional Law Prof Blog, "California Federal Judge Declares Death Penalty Violates Eighth Amendment"

  • From Kent Scheidegger here at Crime & Consequesnces, "The Lackey Claim" Again

July 17, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Divided en banc Third Circuit announces new approach to preserving procedural sentencing error claims

Yesterday the Third Circuit issued a relatively short en banc ruling in US v. Flores-Mejia, No. 12-3149 (3d Cir. July 16, 2014) (available here), which reverses its previously-articulated approach to how objections to claimed procedural sentencing error must be preserved.  Here is how the majority opinion, per Judge Roth, gets started:

Jose Luis Flores-Mejia appeals the sentence imposed on him for his conviction of the offense of reentry after deportation. His appeal raises the issue of what a defendant must do in order to preserve a challenge to the procedural reasonableness of a sentence.  At the sentencing hearing,  Flores-Mejia made a mitigation argument, based on his cooperation with the government.  Flores-Mejia contends that his initial presentation of this argument is sufficient, without more, to preserve his claim that the District Court committed procedural error by failing, when it pronounced sentence, to give meaningful consideration to this argument.  The government counters that Flores-Mejia’s failure to object, at a time when the District Court could have promptly addressed it, did not preserve the issue for appeal and leaves his claim subject to plain error review.

We have decided that, to assist the district courts in sentencing, we will develop a new rule which is applicable in those situations in which a party has an objection based upon a procedural error in sentencing but, after that error has become evident, has not stated that objection on the record.  We now hold that in such a situation, when a party wishes to take an appeal based on a procedural error at sentencing — such as the court’s failure to meaningfully consider that party’s arguments or to explain one or more aspects of the sentence imposed — that party must object to the procedural error complained of after sentence is imposed in order to avoid plain error review on appeal. Our panel holding in United States v. Sevilla, 541 F.3d 226 (3d Cir. 2008), differs from our holding today and is superseded. 

A group of five Third Circuit judges signed on to a spirited dissent authored by Judge Greenaway, and here is how it gets started:

In our system of jurisprudence, we examine our principle, consider the facts and the law and make decisions.  The venerable principle of stare decisis requires reexamination not when we come up with a better mouse trap but when there is a principled basis for change.  See Arizona v. Rumsey, 467 U.S. 203, 212 (1984) (“[A]ny departure from the doctrine of stare decisis demands special justification.”); Planned Parenthood of Se. Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 854 (1992) (“The obligation to follow precedent begins with necessity, and a contrary necessity marks its outer limit. . . . At the other extreme, a different necessity would make itself felt if a prior judicial ruling should come to be seen so clearly as error that its enforcement was for that very reason doomed.”). Indeed, “the very point of stare decisis is to forbid us from revisiting a debate every time there are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides.”  Morrow v. Balaski, 719 F.3d 160, 181 (3d Cir. 2013) (Smith, J., concurring).  

Our Court, in a unanimous precedential opinion, adopted a procedure for district courts to follow at sentencing a scant six years ago.  See United States v. Sevilla, 541 F.3d 226, 230 (3d Cir. 2008).  Now, without intervening Supreme Court precedent and without a majority of our sister courts, we not only reexamine but indeed create a new procedure that flies in the face of Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 51, with no compulsion or mandate to do so.

In its attempt to promote judicial economy, the majority ignores the plain language of Rule 51, misreads the state of the law of our sister circuits, and invokes a fundamental change to our sentencing procedures that is both unwarranted and difficult to square with the Supreme Court’s post-Booker jurisprudence.  For this reason, I respectfully dissent.

July 17, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Newt Gingrich saying again that "backing sensible and proven reforms to the U.S. criminal-justice system is a valuable conservative cause"

I have long stressed my belief that many federal sentencing reform efforts can and should be viewed as a cause that ought to attract politicians and people with true conservative principles.  This recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, headlined "An Opening for Bipartisanship on Prison Reform," authored by Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan echoes this point. Here are excerpts:

Several states have passed meaningful reforms, including expanding drug courts to order mandatory drug treatment programs, increasing funding for drug and mental-health treatment, and limiting costly prison beds to violent and serious repeat offenders. These state reforms passed in part thanks to conservative support.

Right on Crime, a national organization founded in 2010 that we both belong to, is helping spread the word that backing sensible and proven reforms to the U.S. criminal-justice system is a valuable conservative cause.

On a panel at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in March in National Harbor, Md., Texas Gov. Rick Perry explained how reform worked in his state. In 2007, Texas scrapped plans to build more prisons, putting much of the savings into drug courts and treatment. The results have been impressive: Crime in Texas is at the lowest rate since 1968. The number of inmates has fallen by 3%, enabling the state to close three prisons, saving $3 billion so far. What inspired the reform, Gov. Perry said, was this: "Being able to give people a second chance is really important. That should be our goal. The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, never give them a chance at redemption is not what America is about."

In 2010, South Carolina followed Texas' example, toughening penalties for violent criminals while creating alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. These included providing community drug treatment and mental health services for lower-level lawbreakers—mostly drug and property offenders—who made up half of the state's prison population. South Carolina also increased funding for more agents to supervise offenders in the community. Three years later, the prison population has decreased by 8%, and violent offenders now account for 63% of the inmate population. South Carolina's recidivism rates also are much improved and the state has closed one prison.

Other states—Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Mississippi—have adopted similar reforms. As is so often the case, the states are showing the way. Congress should apply these common-sense reforms to the federal prison system.

The reforms have developed in the states, as conservatives tend to prefer. But now that there is proof that prison reform can work, the debate has gone from an ideological discussion to evidence-based changes that can be applied to the federal system.

Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who have seen the benefits firsthand in Texas, have been joined by Republican Senate colleagues such as Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Jeff Flake and Ron Johnson in backing one or more prison-reform bills. Two bills, the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act (S. 1675) and the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410) have already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and await action by the full Senate.

In the House, Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Raúl Labrador, Trey Gowdy and others are backing similar legislation. This push for reforming the federal prison system has support on the other side of the aisle as well. Such liberal stalwarts as Sens. Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Reps. John Conyers, Bobby Scott and Jerrold Nadler have signaled their backing.

July 17, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Recalibrating Justice: A Review of 2013 State Sentencing and Corrections Trends"

The title of this post is the title of a notable new report from the Vera Institute of Justice. The report, available via this link, checks in at less than 50 pages and provides a terrific accounting of state-level reforms nationwide. This one-page summary provides these highlights:

In 2013, 35 states passed at least 85 bills that largely eschew the tough-on-crime policies of the past.  Lawmakers exhibited a willingness to pursue change consistent with the growing body of research that demonstrates carefully implemented and well-targeted community-based programs and practices can produce better outcomes at less cost than incarceration.  In particular, states enacted legislation to:

> Reduce prison populations and costs.  States repealed or narrowed mandatory sentencing schemes, reclassified offenses, or altered sentencing presumptions. States also sought to expand access to early release mechanisms — such as good time credits —designed to accelerate sentence completion.

> Expand or strengthen community-based sanctions.  States introduced or strengthened community corrections programs proven to reduce recidivism.  Some states expanded eligibility for diversion programs — a sentencing alternative through which charges will be dismissed or expunged if a defendant completes a community-based program or stays out of trouble for a specified period.  States also expanded community-based sentencing options, including the use of problem-solving courts.

> Implement risk and needs assessments. Several states focused on the use of validated risk and needs assessments as the basis for implementing individualized offender case plans.  These states passed laws requiring assessments of an offender’s risk of recidivism as well as his or her criminogenic needs — characteristics, such as drug addiction and mental illness — that when addressed can reduce that risk.  States incorporated these assessments at different points in the criminal justice process — at the pre-trial stage, at the pre-sentencing stage, or to inform supervision and programming, whether in prison or in the community.

> Support the reentry of offenders into the community.  States passed laws to mitigate the “collateral consequences” of criminal convictions — such as restrictions on housing and social benefits and exclusion from employment.  In some states, legislators sought to clarify, expand, or create ways to seal or expunge criminal records from the public record. Others focused on helping offenders transition from prison or jail back into the community by increasing in-prison and post-release support.

> Make better informed criminal justice policy.  A number of states sought a deliberate discussion about the purpose and impact of proposed sentencing and corrections legislation and looked to external groups to debate proposals, collect and analyze data, and formulate policy recommendations. Some states even passed legislation requiring fiscal or social impact statements in order to help legislators consider the ramifications of proposed criminal justice reforms.

July 16, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Federal district judge declares California's death penalty unconstitutional under Eighth Amendment

An notable new opinion by a (Republican-appointed) federal district judge in California is sure to be the talk of the death penalty community for the forseeable future and is also sure to be the basis for a intriguing coming appeal to the Ninth Circuit (and perhaps the Supreme Court). The opinion in Jones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available for download below), is authored by a GWB-appointee Cormac Carney, and it is described by the judge as an "ORDER DECLARING CALIFORNIA’S DEATH PENALTY SYSTEM UNCONSTITUTIONAL AND VACATING PETITIONER’S DEATH SENTENCE." Here is how the 29-page opinion start and ends:

On April 7, 1995, Petitioner Ernest Dewayne Jones was condemned to death by the State of California.  Nearly two decades later, Mr. Jones remains on California’s Death Row, awaiting his execution, but with complete uncertainty as to when, or even whether, it will ever come. Mr. Jones is not alone. Since 1978, when the current death penalty system was adopted by California voters, over 900 people have been sentenced to death for their crimes. Of them, only 13 have been executed. For the rest, the dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution. Indeed, for most, systemic delay has made their execution so unlikely that the death sentence carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death. As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.

That is the reality of the death penalty in California today and the system that has been created to administer it to Mr. Jones and the hundreds of other individuals currently on Death Row. Allowing this system to continue to threaten Mr. Jones with the slight possibility of death, almost a generation after he was first sentenced, violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment....

When an individual is condemned to death in California, the sentence carries with it an implicit promise from the State that it will actually be carried out. That promise is made to the citizens of the State, who are investing significant resources in furtherance of a punishment that they believe is necessary to achieving justice. It is made to jurors who, in exercise of their civic responsibility, are asked to hear about and see evidence of undeniably horrific crimes, and then participate in the agonizing deliberations over whether the perpetrators of those horrific crimes should be put to death. It is made to victims and their loved ones, for whom just punishment might provide some semblance of moral and emotional closure from an otherwise unimaginable loss. And it is made to the hundreds of individuals on Death Row, as a statement their crimes are so heinous they have forfeited their right to life.

But for too long now, the promise has been an empty one. Inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State. It has resulted in a system in which arbitrary factors, rather than legitimate ones like the nature of the crime or the date of the death sentence, determine whether an individual will actually be executed. And it has resulted in a system that serves no penological purpose. Such a system is unconstitutional. Accordingly, the Court hereby VACATES Mr. Jones’s death sentence.

Full opinion:  Download Jones Cal DP opinion

July 16, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)

"Volunteers for Execution: Directions for Further Research into Grief, Culpability, and Legal Structures"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper I just came across via SSRN authored by Meredith Martin Rountree.  Here is the abstract:

About 11% of those executed in the United States are death-sentenced prisoners who sought their own execution.  These prisoners are commonly called “volunteers,” and they succeed in hastening execution by waiving their right to appeal their conviction and sentence. Certain interpretations dominate.  Those who oppose a condemned prisoner’s request for execution often cite the prisoner’s history of mental instability and frame the prisoner’s decision as a product of suicidal depression.  Related to this narrative is one that links death row conditions to the prisoner’s decision to hasten death.  Conditions, in this account, contribute to the decision to abandon appeals by wearing the prisoner down to the point that he loses the will to live, or by contributing to “death row syndrome,” an evolving (and controversial) psychiatric diagnosis describing a mental condition that some prisoners develop as a result of living under a death sentence in highly socially isolating and stark conditions of confinement.  Other narratives focus on ideas of rational choice and personal autonomy.  This account emphasizes prisoners’ desire to control their own destiny and the civic virtue of respecting autonomy and choice, even for the least among us.

The empirical support for these explanations is sparse, and this article emerges from a larger effort to test the hypothesis that prisoners who seek execution resemble those who take their own lives in prison.  The prison suicide literature has identified certain characteristics — such as race, sex, age, mental illness, and prison conditions — as increasing the risk of suicide behind bars.  My research on Texas volunteers generally suggests many, but not all, of those traits characterize that volunteer population as well. This article focuses on findings that point to areas for future research not only on volunteers but also on larger questions of processes of hopelessness and culpability among criminal offenders, and how the criminal justice system may influence life-ending decisions. 

July 16, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Latest polling shows rich, white, midwestern guys aged 30-44 most likely to favor pot legalization

As this press release details, the "latest research from YouGov shows that most Americans (51%) support legalizing marijuana, while 37% oppose it."  And, as the title of this post highlights, I find especially interesting the demographics of which groups of persons are most in favor of legalization as reflected in these detailed breakdowns:

Male: 54% to 36%

Age 30-44: 60% to 28%

Democrat: 62% to 27%

White: 52% to 37%

Income $100+: 57% to 32%

Midwest: 55% to 31%

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

July 16, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Intriguing sparring over victims' rights in Colorado massacre capital case

This local article from Colorado, headlined "James Holmes case: Death penalty foe Bob Autobee's letter to victims stirs controversy," reports on a notable fight which has broken out concerning victims and victims' rights in high-profile capital cases.  Here are excerpts:

Does the father of a victim in one death-penalty case have the right to contact family members in another capital case?  And, under Colorado law, do prosecutors have any obligation to facilitate that conversation — even if the discussion isn't going to help their cause? The questions are key to a new controversy in the case of accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes.

The current subject of raging debate in local criminal justice circles is DIVO — not the pioneering weird-rock band, but an acronym for Defense Initiated Victim Outreach, a program that's assuming a growing role in high-stakes cases.   As Melanie Asmar recently reported, the defense team representing Holmes has accused prosecutors of impeding their attempts to contact victims of the 2012 Aurora theater shootings, while prosecutors have claimed that the defense is improperly using the DIVO process to try to sway victims to oppose the death penalty.

But what hasn't been publicly disclosed — thanks largely to Judge Carlos Samour's insistence on redacting the blank out of public pleadings in the Holmes case — is that one of the people seeking to reach out to victims is Bob Autobee, whose own views on the death penalty underwent a dramatic reversal as the effort to execute his son's killer dragged through the courts for almost twelve years.

In 2002, Autobee's son Eric, a 23-year-old correctional officer, was fatally attacked in the kitchen of the Limon prison by inmate Edward Montour Jr., who was already serving a life sentence for killing his eleven-week-old daughter.  Montour pleaded guilty to murder, but the Colorado Supreme Court threw out his death sentence in 2007 because it hadn't been imposed by a jury.  Bob Autobee, initially a strong supporter of the death penalty, gradually became disheartened by the numerous delays in the case and began to push for a life sentence instead.

After meeting with Montour in a restorative justice session, Autobee began picketing the Douglas County courthouse to protest Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler's insistence on pursuing Montour's execution; Brauchler's office even filed a motion in the case seeking to prevent Autobee from addressing the jury at trial.  But the case never got that far.  Last March, just as the trial was starting, startling new evidence suggested that Montour may have been wrongly convicted in the infant death that put him in prison in the first place.  Shortly thereafter, prosecutors agreed to let Montour plead guilty to first-degree murder and receive a life sentence.

A few weeks ago, Montour attorney David Lane, an outspoken opponent of the death penalty, forwarded a letter from Autobee to one of the victims in the Holmes case, urging the victim to distribute it to others.  In the letter, Autobee invites victims to meet with him so he can "offer my insights into this emotional roller coaster in hopes that it may help you to both understand the process you are going through with the prosecution and trial of James Holmes, and to share with you how I finally came to a place of peace and tranquility after fighting the pain and torment I was undergoing for ten years." See the letter below.

Lane says the first victim he contacted evidently decided not to distribute the letter.  A second contact sent the letter to a victim's advocate in the DA's office, "who never distributed it to anyone," Lane says. And that, the attorney suggests, is part of a deliberate effort by prosecutors to squelch DIVO efforts in the Holmes case.

"There's a statute in Colorado that says victims must be informed of their right to participate in restorative justice processes," Lane notes.  "The DAs never tell victims that they have that right or explain what the process is. They're doing everything in their power not to expose any of the [theater shooting] victims to DIVO — because they saw what happened in the Montour case. When Bob Autobee was exposed to DIVO, he did a complete turnaround on the death penalty."

July 15, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Careful examination of California's "mixed" record with realignment

14069-prisons_petersiliaEvery serious criminal law and criminology researcher knows and respects (or should know and respect) the work of Joan Petersilia.  Consequently, what she has to say about California's prison realignment realities necessarily garners my attention, and it is set forth in this Sanford Report headlined "California's prison realignment plan needs adjustments, Stanford law professor says."  Here are excerpts:

When California embarked on a sweeping prison realignment plan in 2011, The Economist described it as one of the "great experiments in American incarceration policy." The challenge was to shift inmates from overcrowded state prisons to jails in California's 58 counties.

At this point, the results are mixed and the "devil will be in the details" as tweaks to the original legislation are urged, according to new research by a Stanford law professor.

"Only time will tell whether California's realignment experiment will fundamentally serve as a springboard to change the nation's overreliance on prisons," wrote Stanford Law School Professor Joan Petersilia, a leading expert on prison realignment, in her article in the Harvard Law and Policy Review. "It is an experiment the whole nation is watching."...

"If it works, California … will have shown that it can downsize prisons safely by transferring lower-level offenders from state prisons to county systems. … If it does not work, counties will have simply been overwhelmed with inmates, unable to fund and/or operate the programs those felons needed, resulting in rising crime, continued criminality and jail overcrowding," wrote Petersilia, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

In an interview, she noted that the 2008 economic crisis prompted state and local governments to cut costs and find efficiencies in their prison and jail systems. Plus, people are now thinking differently about punishment. "The public no longer believes that prisons are the answer for lower-level offenses [drug crimes, minor thefts], and also is more aware of the hugely damaging effects [inability to get a job] of imposing prison terms on those who really aren't dangerous," said Petersilia, who also has forthcoming research on prison policy.

Petersilia's research for the Harvard Law and Policy Review article consisted of interviews with 125 people in law enforcement, courts, probation departments, victim service agencies and offenders themselves. These sessions were conducted in the second year of the realignment. Subjects were asked how realignment was working and what fixes were needed. "The findings illustrate that realignment gets mixed results so far," wrote Petersilia, who described counties as struggling heroically to carry out an initiative seemingly imposed on them overnight.

Probation officials were the most optimistic about realignment, the interviews revealed. They believed that mental health agencies and the courts could reduce recidivism, but that it will take time to coordinate and implement rehabilitation programs that do not compromise public safety.

Though most participants agreed that realignment is spurring greater collaboration and innovation on how to efficiently incarcerate criminals, problems exist, according to the research. For example, counties are now dealing with more sophisticated criminals, lack of space and concern that the state's problem of overcrowding could become local problems as well. Finally, some prosecutors were disappointed in the "deep jail discounts" — reduced time behind bars — given to arrestees due to the crowded jails, she said....

Petersilia urges legislative revisions to California's realignment plan (some are now under discussion in the legislature). Suggestions include:

  • Requiring that all felony sentences served in county jail be split between time behind bars and time under supervised release (probation), unless a judge deems otherwise
  • Allowing an offender's entire criminal background to be reviewed when deciding whether the county or state should supervise them
  • Capping county jail sentences at a maximum of three years
  • Allowing for certain violations, such as those involving domestic restraining orders or sex offenses, to be punished with state prison sentences
  • Creating a statewide tracking system for all offenders
  • Collecting data at the county and local level on what is and is not working in realignment

    "These recommendations should reduce the burden realignment has placed on counties," wrote Petersilia. She said several counties are taking advantage of split sentencing with promising results. Still, only 5 percent of felons in Los Angeles County have their sentences split. She called this type of flexibility "extraordinarily important" to realignment, as it would lessen space and cost burdens for counties. "Most county officials believe realignment can work – if the state will work with them to tweak the flaws in the original legislation," she wrote.

The full Harvard Law and Policy Review article, which is titled "California Prison Downsizing and Its Impact on Local Criminal Justice Systems," is available via this link.

July 15, 2014 in Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Moneyball Sentencing"

The title of this post is the great title of this interesting-looking new article by Dawinder Sidhu now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Sentencing is a backward- and forward-looking enterprise. That is, sentencing is informed by an individual’s past conduct as well as by the criminal justice system’s prediction of the individual’s future criminal conduct.  Increasingly, the criminal justice system is making these predictions on an actuarial basis, computing the individual’s risk of recidivism according to the rates of recidivism for people possessing the same group characteristics (e.g., race, sex, socio-economic status, education).  The sentencing community is drawn to this statistical technique because it purportedly distinguishes with greater accuracy the high-risk from the low-risk, and thereby allows for a more efficient allocation of sentencing resources, reserving incarceration for the truly dangerous and saving the low-risk from needless penal attention.

Despite these asserted benefits, risk-assessment tools are exogenous to the theories of punishment, the very foundation for sentencing in Anglo-American jurisprudence.  This Article reviews the legality and propriety of actuarial predictive instruments, using these theories and governing constitutional and statutory law as the touchstone for this analysis.  This Article then applies these normative and legal principles to seventeen major characteristics that may comprise an offender’s composite risk profile.  It argues that risk-assessment instruments are problematic for three reasons: they include characteristics that are prohibited by constitutional and statutory law; subject the individual to punishment for characteristics over which the individual has no meaningful control; and presume that the individual is a static entity predisposed, if not predetermined, to recidivate, thereby undermining individual agency and betting against the individual’s ability to beat the odds.

July 14, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Fourth Circuit to reconsider en banc its Whiteside ruling concerning reconsideration of guideline errors in 2255

As noted in this prior post, titled "Fourth Circuit deepens (via dramatic split opinion) circuit split over fixing sentencing problems via 2255 motions," a split panel of the Fourth Circuit back in April allowed a federal inmate to use a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to challenge a sentence that was based on the career offender enhancement under the United States Sentencing Guidelines when subsequent case law revealed the enhancement was inapplicable to him.  The ruling in Whiteside v. US, No. 13-7152 (4th Cir. Apr. 8, 2014) (available here), included both a spirited marority and dissenting opinion.   

Now, thanks to a helpful reader and this unpublished order, I have learned that the full Fourth Circuit has decided to rehear this matter en banc.  I am not to surprised by this news, though I am perhaps a bit disappointed that it does not seem as though the Fourth Circuit has invited amicus invovement at this stage.  As regular readers know, I think sentencing finality concerns raise distinct issues and I have written at length on this subject recently.  Perhaps I should be grateful that the Fourth Circuit has not solicited amicus briefs in Whiteside, as it is much easier and much more efficient for me to share some of my perspective at this stage just to linking to my series of recent prior posts about sentence finality here:

July 14, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Former Rep. (and former felon) Duke Cunningham now says "my Democrat colleagues were right and I was wrong on some issues as far as criminal justice"

The old criminal justice saw says that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged and a liberal is a conservative who has been indicted.  The latest evidence of how personal experiences can change one's perspective on criminal justice issues comes from this recent Huffington Post piece headlined "It Took This Former Congressman Years Behind Bars To See The Need For Drug War Reform."  Here are excerpts:

A former Republican member of Congress is ready to join the fight for sentencing reform and rolling back harsh mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Only this one has a bit more experience with the federal prison system than a typical politician does.

Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), 72, is now a free man after a federal judge ended his supervised release early following seven years in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons on corruption charges. He had served in Congress from 1991 to 2005. In a letter he sent to the media when he was still behind bars in 2011, Cunningham said he planned to dedicate his life to prison reform and Justice Department reform....

Cunningham told The Huffington Post in a phone interview from his home in Arkansas' Hot Springs Village -- which is believed to be the largest gated community in the U.S. -- that he's made time to push his criminal justice reform ideas on his former colleagues back in Washington, D.C. "I'm not going to give you their names, but I've already called some Republican and Democrat friends of mine and told them that I would make myself available to testify..." Cunningham told HuffPost....

"Unfortunately, some of my Democrat colleagues were right and I was wrong on some issues as far as criminal justice," Cunningham said, specifically regretting votes for mandatory minimums for drug crimes that take discretion away from federal judges and give federal prosecutors a tremendous amount of leverage over defendants. "We have taken out of the judge's hands the ability to be merciful in some reasons or to do the right thing," Cunningham said. "I've heard case after case where the judges have said, 'I wish I could help you, but my hands are tied.' I want to untie the hands of our judges."

"I saw kids in there who are 19 to 30. They go into prison, they maybe got caught with cocaine or rock or something like that, and they give them 10 years minimum. What do they do when they get out?" Cunningham said. "There's a lot of very nice guys that got caught up."

Cunningham's new outlook on criminal justice after a prison term puts him in the same camp as former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who has also advocated for reform after his own stint in federal prison. Even outside of those serving for drug crimes, Cunningham said, he met plenty of people behind bars who didn't deserve to be there....

Cunningham said he's still catching up on the details of some of the sentencing reform proposals floating around on the hill, and also thinks the medical care for federal prisoners needs an overhaul. "Prison medical is worse than Obamacare, and I'm not a fan of Obamacare," Cunningham said. He said three people he knew died behind bars, including a man named Felix who was only given aspirin for a pain in his side. He was later found to have pancreatic cancer, was taken out and died two weeks later.

Cunningham said he's done a "180 turn" on criminal justice, and wishes he could take back many of the votes he made back when he was a member of Congress. "My Democrat colleagues would support the lawyers. We'd support the prosecutors," he said. "I think I'd vote more with my Democrat colleagues today."

July 14, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Third Circuit approves forcible medication to enable federal sentencing

While I was on the road last week, the Third Circuit issued an interesting opinion in US v. Cruz, No. 13-4378 (3d Cir. July 10, 2014) (available here), which affirmed a district court's decision to forcible medicate a defendant in order to facilitate his federal sentencing. This opening paragraph and another section from the heart of the opinion provides highlights of the unanimous panel ruling:

We here confront an issue of first impression: whether the Government, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Sell, 539 U.S. 166 (2003), can have a sufficiently important interest in forcibly medicating a defendant to restore his mental competency and render him fit to proceed with sentencing.  Under the facts presented in this case, we answer that question in the affirmative and we will affirm....

[I]n Booker the Supreme Court highlighted governmental interests that are inherent in sentencing proceedings.  It repeatedly emphasized that the sentencing scheme put in place by the Sentencing Act and Sentencing Guidelines “diminishes sentencing disparity” and “move[s] the sentencing system in the direction of increased uniformity.” Booker, 543 U.S. at 250, 253.  It also repeatedly emphasized that sentencing uniformity depends in critical part on the relationship between punishment and “the real conduct that underlies the crime of conviction.” Id. at 250; see id. at 251 (“Judges have long looked to real conduct when sentencing,” and often rely on “a presentence report, prepared by a probation officer, for information (often unavailable until after the trial) relevant to the manner in which the convicted offender committed the crime of conviction.”); id. at 253-54 (“[I]ncreased uniformity . . . does not consist simply of similar sentences for those convicted of violations of the same statute . . . . It consists, more importantly, of similar relationships between sentences and real conduct, relationships that Congress’ [sic] sentencing statues helped to advance[.]”).

The Government cannot achieve the sort of uniformity contemplated in Booker without formal sentencing proceedings.  A criminal defendant enjoys the right to allocute at sentencing, and he also enjoys the right to object to the PSR, to argue for favorable sentencing variances and downward departures from the Sentencing Guidelines, and to oppose any arguments favoring upward variances or departures from the Guidelines. Those rights, which to a great degree reflect the defendant’s “real conduct,” id. at 250, necessarily require the defendant to both actively participate in sentencing proceedings and inform his attorney’s actions.  Because an incompetent defendant is presumed unable to take those actions, the Government maintains an important interest in restoring his mental competency and enabling him to do so.

July 14, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Are federal drug sentences for mules now too short?

Drugs and dogsThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable and fascinating new article in the New York Times headlined "Second Thoughts on Lighter Sentences for Drug Smugglers." Here are excerpts:

For years, a steady parade of drug smugglers have tried all sorts of ways to ferry contraband into the United States through Kennedy International Airport in Queens, posing a challenge not only to Customs and Border Protection officers, but also to federal prosecutors.

To avoid clogging up the court, the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn has embraced a strategic approach that allows couriers to plead guilty and offer information in return for lighter sentences.  The policy reflected a view among many prosecutors that the mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses — which require prison terms of five years and higher in these smuggling cases — were too harsh on defendants who were typically nonviolent and disadvantaged.

But in recent months, changes in drug sentencing have served to further lower punishments for these couriers.  A year ago, drug couriers regularly faced three years in prison; now they might face guidelines starting at only a few months, or no prison time at all.

The changes are raising questions of whether the pendulum has swung too far.  Some prosecutors say that couriers have little to no incentive to cooperate anymore.  Border patrol officials grumble that they are working to catch smugglers, only to have them face little punishment.  And judges who once denounced the harsh sentencing guidelines are now having second thoughts....

The debate over what constitutes a fair sentence for drug crimes has persisted for decades.  Critics — many of them judges in this court — have said that sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum punishments had become hugely problematic. Nonviolent drug offenders, like couriers or people selling marijuana on the street, could face longer guideline sentences than an underground gun dealer.  And until recently, possession of five grams of crack warranted a minimum five-year sentence.  To get the same sentence for powdered cocaine possession, 500 grams would be required.

Various reforms have been instituted to address the inequities in sentencing.  In 1994, a “safety valve” provision allowed nonviolent first offenders on drugs — which describes most couriers — to avoid mandatory minimums if they admitted to all prior criminal conduct.  And in 2010, Congress passed legislation toward balancing the crack versus cocaine disparity....

In August, the United States attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., ordered prosecutors nationwide to charge couriers and other low-level drug offenders who met certain criteria in a way that did not result in mandatory-minimum sentences.  (Guideline sentences must still be considered, but they are not mandatory.)

Then, in April, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to reduce sentencing guidelines for drug crimes by two points, or several months.  The reduced guidelines go into effect in November, pending congressional approval, but prosecutors in many districts have agreed to apply them now.

The changes made things more difficult in Brooklyn, where prosecutors still wanted to give low-level couriers an incentive to avoid trials and to assist in prosecutions against larger drug distributors. Believing they had to further sweeten the deal, prosecutors agreed to give an additional four points off those reduced sentences for couriers who agreed to cooperate.

As a result, drug-courier defendants can now face sentencing guidelines that suggest no prison time.

My first reaction to this piece is to suggest that it's a nice change of pace for federal judges to now view at least some federal sentencing guidelines to be too lenient and that any problems this creates can and should be addressed through judicial discretion to sentence above the guidelines, case-by-case, as needed and appropriate.  But I imagine this viewpoint is not very satisfying for federal prosecutors and investigators who depend on the threat of severe sentences to get mules to cooperate to their satisfaction.

For additional intriguing and diverse reactions to these intriguing new drug sentencing realities, check out these posts from other informed bloggers:

  • From Simple Justice here, "The Pendulum and the Mule"

  • From Hercules and the Umpire here, "Should Interstate 80 be treated like JFK airport in New York?"

July 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

USSC Chair reiterates Commission's sentencing reform message to House Judiciary Committee

This past Friday, US Sentencing Commission Chair, Chief Judge Patti Saris, testified at this hearing of Over-Criminalization Task Force of the Committee on the Judiciary of the US House of Representatives.  Her lengthy written testimony is available at this link, and here is a summary paragraph from the Chair's discussion of recommended mandatory minimum reforms:

Based on [our] analysis, the Commission continues to recommend unanimously that Congress consider a number of statutory changes. The Commission recommends that Congress reduce the current statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking. We further recommend that the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which Congress passed to reduce the disparity in treatment of crack and powder cocaine, be made retroactive. Finally, we recommend that Congress consider expanding the so-called “safety valve,” allowing sentences below mandatory minimum penalties for non-violent low-level drug offenders, to offenders with slightly greater criminal histories than currently permitted.

Republican and Democratic members of this Task Force and others in Congress have proposed legislation to reform certain mandatory minimum penalty provisions. The Commission strongly supports these efforts to reform this important area of the law.

Notably, as this official press release highlights, Judge Irene Keeley, chair of the Judicial Conference Criminal Law Committee, echoed similar messages in he testimony to the House Task Force:

A representative of the Judicial Conference today told a House Judiciary Task Force that policy initiatives curbing over-federalization of criminal law, reforming mandatory minimum sentences and amending the Sentencing Guidelines have the support of the Judicial Conference, but that the Judiciary currently lacks the resources to shoulder resulting increased workload.

“Policy-makers must not create a new public safety crisis in our communities by simply transferring the risks and costs from the prisons to the caseloads of already strained probation officers and the full dockets of the courts,” said Judge Irene Keeley, chair of the Judicial Conference Criminal Law Committee. “Lasting and meaningful solutions can be attained only if the branches work together to ensure that the correct cases are brought into the federal system, just sentences are imposed, and offenders are appropriately placed in prison or under supervision in the community.”

July 13, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"An NTSB for Capital Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay by Adam Gershowitz now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

When a fatal traffic accident happens, we expect the local police and prosecutors to handle the investigation and criminal charges. When a fatal airplane crash occurs however, we turn instead to the National Transportation Safety Board.  The reason is that air crashes are complicated and the NTSB has vast expertise.  Without that expertise, investigations falter. We need look no further than the mess made by Malaysian authorities in the search for Flight 370 to see the importance of expertise in handling complicated investigations and processes.

It is easy to point to a similar series of mistakes by local prosecutors and defense attorneys in many death-penalty cases around the country.  If we are to continue utilizing capital punishment in the United States, the death-penalty system should follow air crash model, not the car crash model.  Capital cases should be handled by an elite nationwide unit of prosecutors and investigators who travel to capital murder sites the way the NTSB travels to airplane and other catastrophic crashes.  As the number of death sentences dwindles each year, states have incentive to enter into an NTSB model that allows them to continue using capital punishment without having to handle the complicated cases themselves.  This symposium essay argues that capital punishment as currently conducted at the local level is failure, but that the death penalty can be justified if carried out by an elite, national team of lawyers and investigators. 

July 12, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"4 Reasons Conservatives Are Embracing Prison Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary piece by Christian Piatt appearing in Time which includes a religious perspective as well as a political one. Much of the discussion will be familiar to regular readers, but here are a few excerpts of not: 

Criminal sentencing certainly has been one of those divisive social issues among Christians, with many progressives calling for more leniency on nonviolent crimes, and conservatives embracing a “zero tolerance” ethos....

Only recently have the number of incarcerated people within our borders begun to decline, and it’s in part due to a shift in the way those who have championed a hard-nosed approach to sentencing are reframing their thinking. In some respects, the reasons are logistical and economic; for others, the change of heart is informed particularly by their understanding of scripture and the mandates of the Gospel....

[H]ere are four ideas around which Christians – and non-Christians – from both the left and right are coming together.

Reform makes good financial sense. ...

Reform reduces government’s role in our lives. ...

Second Chances are Biblical. ...

Thinking on “paying our debt to society” is shifting....

Warehousing nonviolent offenders is still big business in the United States, which means that people with significant influence are intent on keeping things more or less as they already are. And certainly not all on the political and religious right agree with the points above. But enough conservatives are breaking rank to begin to form coalitions with the center and left, so that real reform becomes an increasing possibility.

July 12, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Some more informed legal buzz about marijuana reform via MLP&R

The mainstream media is buzzing plenty about marijuana law and policy again now that Washington state has now officially started legal recreational sales under its state legalization initiative.  But, as demonstrated by this round-up of recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, there is a lot much for lawyers and law reform observers to be thinking about these days:

July 11, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Second Circuit finds unreasonable probation sentence based on "cost of incarceration"

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss while on the road an interesting Second Circuit opinion in US v. Park, No. 13‐4142 (2d Cir. July 9, 2014) (available here), concerning reasonableness review and a sentenced reduced based on the cost of imprisonment.  Here is the heart of one part of the per curiam panel decision:

After a review of the record, we conclude that the District Court committed procedural error in imposing a term of probation in lieu of imprisonment for two reasons.  First, the only sentencing factor the District Court deemed relevant was the cost of incarceration to the government and the economic problems allegedly caused by the government shut‐down.  As the Court clearly announced, “I am not going to put him in jail only because of the economic plight that we are facing today.” After emphasizing that its sentencing decision was based solely upon this consideration, the Court then rebuffed defense counsel’s suggestion to “supplement the record,” asserting, “[i]f we have to resentence him, we will later.”  The Court also stated that if the Court of Appeals were to reverse, it would “consider all of these factors” at resentencing, clearly indicating that it did not consider the relevant factors in the first instance.  The Court therefore committed procedural error by refusing to consider the § 3553(a) factors in deciding what is an appropriate sentence.

Second, and equally problematic, is that the cost of incarceration to the government—the Court’s sole justification for imposing a term of probation rather than incarceration — is not a relevant sentencing factor under the applicable statutes.  We agree with the Eighth Circuit that, based on the plain language of § 3553(a), no sentencing factor can reasonably be read to encompass the cost of incarceration.  Nor does the statute permit the sentencing court to balance the cost of incarceration against the sentencing goals enumerated in § 3553(a).

Park is a must-read for post-Booker sentencing fans because it includes lots of important phrases about both procedural and substantive reasonableness review.  The Park opinion also talks up the importance of deterrence in one white-collar sentencing, noting "general  deterrence  occupies  an  especially  important role in criminal tax offenses, as criminal tax prosecutions  are relatively rare."

July 11, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)