Thursday, August 4, 2016
After inquiries by members of Congress, Oregon US Attorney agrees to drop federal marijuana charges against Native American teen
I reported in this post last week about the suprising federal prosecution in Oregon of Devontre Thomas, 19-years-old Native American subject earlier this year to a one-count federal misdemeanor charge for possessing "about a gram" of marijuana. The press coverage of this case prompted members of Congress from Oregon, as reported in this local piece, to inquire about this prosecution:
Three members of Oregon's congressional delegation are demanding U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams explain why his office is prosecuting a Native American teenager for allegedly possessing a gram of marijuana. In letter [sent August 4, 2016], U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, all Oregon Democrats, ask Williams to give them a full list of the marijuana crimes his office has pursued since 2014, when Oregon voters legalized recreational cannabis.
"Marijuana possession charges have declined in Oregon over the past few years, and we hope to see that trend continue," the delegation writes. "We hope that your office continues this focus on dangerous criminal activity, rather than pursuing crimes involving a substance legal in Oregon."
Now, and surely not coincidentally, this piece from Marijuanapolitics.com reports in its headline that federal prosecutors are "to Drop Charges Against Oregon Teen Devontre Thomas." Here are the latest details:
Even those that don’t support legalizing cannabis were hard pressed to support the federal government threatening Oregon teen Devontre Thomas with a year long prison term over about a gram of marijuana. Drug War reform advocates and concerned citizens across the nation were frankly appalled of such a harsh sentence facing a nonviolent teenager in a state that had legalized cannabis with over 56% of the vote in 2014.
Thomas’ attorney, Ruben Iniguez worked tirelessly for his client and he left me a message stating that the charges would be dismissed in 60 days so long as Thomas stayed out of trouble and stayed employed and/or in school, conditions he was confident the teen would fulfill. Iniguez thanked advocates for reaching out and offering to help with Thomas’ case.
"A New Era for Expungement Law Reform? Recent Developments at the State and Federal Levels"
The title of this post is the title of this notable paper authored by Brian Murray and now available via SSRN. Here is the abbstract:
In the past decade, due to heightened interest in criminal law reform, several states have enacted specific laws attempting to expand the range of expungement remedies available to individuals with publicly available criminal records. This article evaluates these efforts.
It begins with a discussion of the pervasive availability of arrest and conviction records, both publicly and privately. It then surveys the myriad collateral consequences that enmesh individuals who have made contact with the criminal justice system and details how jurisdictions have responded with somewhat unambitious expungement regimes. It notes that while these remedies were crafted with good intentions, they were often limited by skepticism of the soundness of their legal basis.
The article proceeds to evaluate a few legislative efforts at the state level that are geared towards increasing relief, discussing the texts of the laws in depth and comparing them with previously existing remedies. The article also evaluates recent federal legislative efforts and efforts in the federal courts to allow for expungement at the federal level. The piece concludes by situating these recent reforms within a broader discussion about how to alleviate the effects and collateral consequences of criminal records.
State public defender, lamenting funding issues, appoints Mizzou Gov to represent indigent defendant
As reported in this local article, headlined "Missouri's head public defender assigns case to Gov. Nixon, cites overburdened staff," Missouri's head public defender as ordered the state's Governor to put his mouth where his money isn't. Here are the details and context:
Fed up with what he says is the governor’s failure to properly fund his overwhelmed office, the state’s lead public defender ordered Gov. Jay Nixon this week to represent a poor person in Cole County this month. Michael Barrett said he was using a provision of state law that allows him in extraordinary circumstances to delegate legal representation “to any member of the state bar of Missouri.” He’s starting with the state’s highest-profile lawyer: Nixon.
Barrett says the governor has repeatedly declined to give the public defender system the money it requests and is withholding promised funding increases this year. “Providing counsel to poor people who face incarceration is the obligation of the state. It’s not fair to go after private attorneys who are trying to pay the rent when they had nothing to do with contributing to this,” Barrett said in an interview Wednesday.
Barrett never exercised this power before because he thought it was wrong to place the burden of public cases on private attorneys “who have in no way contributed to the current crisis,” he wrote in a letter to the governor dated Tuesday. “However, given the extraordinary circumstances that compel me to entertain any and all avenues for relief, it strikes me that I should begin with the one attorney in the state who not only created this problem, but is in a unique position to address it,” Barrett wrote, referring to Nixon, a Democrat who was a four-term attorney general before becoming governor.
Studies have found that the Missouri Public Defender System lacks the resources or staff to serve the state’s neediest. The system has struggled with high caseloads, high turnover, low salaries and tired, overworked attorneys for years. The Missouri constitution allows the director of the public defender system to assign cases to any lawyer in the state, regardless of whether the lawyer is a public defender, Barrett said.
Just this June, the legislature granted the public defender system a $4.5 million increase, which would’ve helped in hiring 10 more employees and some private attorneys on a contractual basis. The office currently employs more than 370 attorneys. Officials with the public defender’s office had asked for a $23.1 million boost, while Nixon recommended a $1 million increase.
Last month, Barrett and the Missouri State Public Defender Commission filed a lawsuit claiming that Nixon withheld $3.5 million of that $4.5 million increase. Barrett claims Nixon is targeting the public defender system for budget cuts while leaving more money for other programs he likes. Nixon’s office could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday night.
A 2014 study found that the state’s public defender system needs almost 270 more attorneys to meet its current case volume, which fluctuates between 70,000 and 100,000 cases every year. In 2009, Missouri’s was the second-lowest-funded public defender system in the country. Now, Barrett says that he has even fewer lawyers than when that study was done. He’s lost 30 lawyers because he doesn’t have the money to hire replacements as employees leave for private law firms. Meanwhile, the system’s caseload has gone up 12 percent over the past year to about 82,000 cases, Barrett said. Each of his lawyers has to handle 125 to more than 200 cases at a time.
The full letter that the state public defender wrote to Gov Nixon when appointing him is available at this link.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
Prez Obama commutes 214 more federal sentences
As reported here by Politico, "President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 214 people on Wednesday, bringing his total number of commutations to 562." Here is more about this latest encouraging clemency news, with some political context:
The president's biggest batch of commutations comes as Donald Trump touts a "law and order" message. But for advocates of sentencing reform, it's a sign that the administration isn't letting up on the 2014 Justice Department initiative to ease punishments for low-level drug offenders who received long sentences due to mandatory minimums. It includes 67 people who had been facing life sentences.
Obama has granted more commutations than his nine most recent predecessors combined, White House Counsel Neil Eggleston noted in a blog post on Wednesday. However, he added, “Our work is far from finished. I expect the President will continue to grant clemency in a historic and inspiring fashion.”
While criminal justice reform advocates have cheered the intention behind the initiative, they’ve complained that the pace of commutations has failed to meet expectations and that the process appears arbitrary. Eggleston promised to speed things up this spring, noting new resources for the Pardon Attorney, and in April, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote to a consortium of defense attorneys helping prisoners to submit applications, urging them to get applications in by May....
This latest batch of commutations comes at a politically sensitive time, just two weeks after Trump stressed a “law and order theme” at the Republican National Convention, with warnings of danger in the streets fueled by attacks on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.... The focus on policing issues has drawn public attention away from the broader criminal justice reform agenda. Though there is bipartisan support for changes that would reduce mass incarceration, and the House is expected to vote on sentencing reform when it returns in September, advocates acknowledge that prospects for full passage before the election look grim.
The chart reprinted above comes from the White House blog posting by Eggleston, which also includes these statements of note:
Today began like any other for 214 federal inmates across the country, but ultimately became a day I am confident they will never forget. This morning, these individuals received a message from the President: your application for clemency has been granted.
This news likely carries special weight to the 67 individuals serving life sentences – almost all for nonviolent drug crimes – who, up until today, could only imagine what it might be like to once again attend a loved one’s birthday party, walk their child to school, or simply go to the grocery store. All of the individuals receiving commutation today, incarcerated under outdated and unduly harsh sentencing laws, embody the President’s belief that “America is a nation of second chances.”...
To date, President Obama has granted 562 commutations: more commutations than the previous nine presidents combined and more commutations than any individual president in nearly a century. Of those, 197 individuals were serving life sentences. And, today’s 214 grants of commutation also represent the most grants in a single day since at least 1900.....
In each of these cases, the President examines the application on its individual merits. As a result, the relief afforded is tailored specifically to each applicant’s case. While some commutation recipients will begin to process out of federal custody immediately, others will serve more time.
For some, the President believes that the applicant’s successful re-entry will be aided with additional drug treatment, and the President has conditioned those commutations on an applicant’s seeking that treatment. For others, the President has commuted their sentences to a significantly reduced term so they are consistent with present-day sentencing policies. While these term reductions will require applicants to serve additional time, it will also allow applicants to continue their rehabilitation by completing educational and self-improvement programming and to participate in drug or other counseling services. Underlying all the President’s commutation decisions is the belief that these deserving individuals should be given the tools to succeed in their second chance.
The individual nature of the clemency process underscores both its incredible power to change a person’s life, but also its inherent shortcoming as a tool for broader sentencing reform. That is why action from Congress is so important. While we continue to work to act on as many clemency applications as possible, only legislation can bring about lasting change to the federal system. It is critical that both the House and the Senate continue to work on a bipartisan basis to get a criminal justice reform bill to the President's desk.
"It's Silicon Valley vs. law enforcement on California death penalty"
The title of this post is the title of this local press report on the alignment of various participants in the debate over the future of the death penalty in California, where voters will be considering reform initiatives this fall. Here are the details:
Two competing November ballot measures that aim to abolish or expedite California’s long-dormant death penalty each raised more than $3 million through the first half of the year, according to state campaign finance records, and largely drew their funding from a narrow group of major donors: Silicon Valley executives and law enforcement unions.
Proposition 62, which would replace capital punishment with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, led its rival campaign with nearly $4.1 million raised through June 30, filings show. Proponents argue that executions are costly, inhumane and bound to kill wrongly convicted people.
The dozen top contributors, each of whom gave at least $50,000, are nearly all affiliated with the technology industry in the Bay Area. They include Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, venture capitalist John O’Farrell, and data management company Integrated Archive Systems, which was founded by major Democratic donor Amy Rao. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Nicholas McKeown, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University who has started several technology companies, have each given $1 million to the effort so far. Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and Y Combinator CEO Paul Graham both put in $500,000.
Supporters of Proposition 66, an initiative to speed up the death penalty by putting the California Supreme Court in charge of a revised appeals process with strict time limits, raised almost $3.5 million through June 30, according to financial records. It currently can take decades for a death row inmate to exhaust their appeals, though California has not executed anyone since 2006 because of legal challenges to its lethal drug cocktail.
Nearly 80 law enforcement groups have given to the campaign, led by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association with $325,000, the Peace Officers Research Association of California with $305,000, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen with $250,000 and the Los Angeles Police Protective League with $225,000. Among the largest contributors, twenty of whom have donated more than $50,000 to the campaign, are a handful of individuals, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, Orange County businessman Henry T. Nicholas III, and A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former CEO of Univision....
California voters last weighed in on capital punishment in 2012, when another initiative to repeal the death penalty narrowly failed. A January Field Poll showed an even split, with 48 percent of respondents supporting speeding up the process and 47 percent favoring abolishing it. If both Proposition 62 and Proposition 66 pass in November, whichever has a higher number of votes will become law.
Prior related posts:
- California voters in November to have "mend it or end it" death penalty initiative options
- California initiative to reform death penalty officially qualifies for ballot (and will compete with repeal initiative)
- California DA makes the case for mending rather than ending California's capital punishment system
- "California Votes 2016: An Analysis of the Competing Death Penalty Ballot Initiatives."
Does the weather and MLB baseball impact federal sentencing outcomes more than racial factors?
The seemingly somewhat kooky question in the title of this post is prompted by this seemingly somewhat kooky empirical paper now available via SSRN and authored by a group of data researchers and titled "Events Unrelated to Crime Predict Criminal Sentence Length." Here is the paper's abstract (with a key sentence emphasized to explain my post title query):
In United States District Courts for federal criminal cases, prison sentence length guidelines are established by the severity of the crime and the criminal history of the defendant. In this paper, we investigate the sentence length determined by the trial judge, relative to this sentencing guideline. Our goal is to create a prediction model of sentencing length and include events unrelated to crime, namely weather and sports outcomes, to determine if these unrelated events are predictive of sentencing decisions and evaluate the importance weights of these unrelated events in explaining rulings.
We find that while several appropriate features predict sentence length, such as details of the crime committed, other features seemingly unrelated, including daily temperature, baseball game scores, and location of trial, are predictive as well. Unrelated events were, surprisingly, more predictive than race, which did not predict sentencing length relative to the guidelines. This is consistent with recent research on racial disparities in sentencing that highlights the role of prosecutors in making charges that influence the maximum and minimum recommended sentence. Finally, we attribute the predictive importance of date to the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, United States v. Booker, after which sentence length more frequently fell near the guideline minimum and the range of minimum and maximum sentences became more extreme.
Based on a quick scan of the paper, I came to the conclusion that one would need to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of both federal sentencing patterns and empirical methods to assess the soundness of the analysis here. Still, the paper's penultimate paragraph reinforces that this analysis led to some notable conclusions (with my emphasis again added):
A justice system reasonably aspires to be consistent in the application of law across cases and to account for the particulars of a case. Our goal was to create a prediction model of criminal sentence lengths that accounts for non-judicial factors such as weather and sports events among the feature set. The feature weights offer a natural metric to evaluate the importance of these features unrelated to crime relative to case-specific factors. Using a Random Forest, we found several expected crime related features appearing within the top 10% most important features. However, we also found defendant characteristics (unrelated to the crime), sport game outcomes, weather, and location features all predictive of sentence length as well, and these features were, surprisingly, more predictive than the defendant’s race. Further investigating this predictive ability would be of interest to those studying the criminal justice system.
Tuesday, August 2, 2016
In wake of Hurst, Delaware Supreme Court declares state's death penalty unconstitutional
The post-Hurst hydra took an especially big bite out the the death penalty in the First State this afternoon: as reported in this local article, via "a landmark decision, the Delaware Supreme Court has ruled that the state's death penalty statute is unconstitutional." Here are the basics:
A 148-page opinion released Tuesday afternoon said that the current law is a violation of the Sixth Amendment role of the jury. The decision of whether and how to reinstate the death penalty should now be left to the General Assembly, the opinion said.
The question before the top state court arose after the U.S. Supreme Court found in January that Florida's death penalty law was unconstitutional because it gave judges – not juries – the final say to impose a death sentence. Delaware and Alabama are the only other states that allow judges to override a jury's recommendation of life....
The last execution in the state was in 2012, when Shannon Johnson, 28, was killed by lethal injection. All pending capital murder trials and executions for the 14 men on death row are currently on hold while the court considered the constitutionality issue.
The full 148-page opinion in Rauf v. Delaware is available at this link. A brief per curiam summary kicks off the opinion, starting this way:
The State has charged the Defendant, Benjamin Rauf with one count of First Degree Intentional Murder, one count of First Degree Felony Murder, Possession of a Firearm During those Felonies, and First Degree Robbery. The State has expressed its intention to seek the death penalty if Rauf is convicted on either of the First Degree Murder counts. On January 12, 2016, the United States Supreme Court held in Hurst v. Florida that Florida‘s capital sentencing scheme was unconstitutional because "[t]he Sixth Amendment requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death." On January 25, 2016, the Superior Court certified five questions of law to this Court for disposition in accordance with Supreme Court Rule 41. On January 28, 2016, this Court accepted revised versions of the questions certified by the Superior Court and designated Rauf as the appellant and the State as the appellee.
In this case, we are asked to address important questions regarding the constitutionality of our state‘s death penalty statute. The Superior Court believed that Hurst reflected an evolution of the law that raised serious questions about the continuing validity of Delaware‘s death penalty statute. Specifically, Hurst prompted the question of whether our death penalty statute sufficiently respects a defendant‘s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.
Because answering the certified questions requires us to interpret not simply the Sixth Amendment itself, but the complex body of case law interpreting it, we have a diversity of views on exactly why the answers to the questions are what we have found them to be. But that diversity of views is outweighed by the majority‘s collective view that Delaware‘s current death penalty statute violates the Sixth Amendment role of the jury as set forth in Hurst. We also have a shared belief that the importance of the subject to our state and our fellow citizens, reflected in the excellent briefs and arguments of the parties, makes it useful for all the Justices to bring our various perspectives to bear on these difficult questions.
"The Effects of DNA Databases on the Deterrence and Detection of Offenders"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new empirical paper available via SSRN authored by Jennifer Doleac, Rasmus Landersø and Anne Sofie Tegner Anker. Here is the abstract:
Countries around the world use databases of criminal offenders' DNA profiles to match known offenders with crime scene evidence. The purpose is to ease police detection work and to increase the probability that offenders get caught if they reoffend, thereby deterring future criminal activity. However, relatively little is known about the behavioral effects of this law enforcement tool. We exploit a large expansion of Denmark's DNA database in 2005 to measure the effect of DNA profiling on criminal behavior. Individuals charged after the expansion were much more likely to be added to the DNA database than similar offenders charged just before that date.
Using a regression discontinuity strategy, we find that the average effect of the DNA database is a reduction in recidivism. By using the rich Danish register data, we further show that effects are heterogeneous across observable offender characteristics; it is mainly offenders initially charged with violent crime that are deterred from committing new crimes. We also find that DNA profiling has a positive detection effect, increasing the probability that repeat offenders get caught. Finally, we find evidence that DNA profiling changes non-criminal behavior: offenders added to the DNA database are more likely to get or remain married. This is consistent with the hypothesis that, by deterring future criminal behavior, DNA profiling changes an offender’s life course for the better.
Charleston mass murderer now making mass attack on constitutionality of federal death penalty
As reported in this BuzzFeed News piece, headlined "Dylann Roof Challenges Constitutionality Of Federal Death Penalty Law," a notorious mass murderer filed a notable motion in federal court yesterday in an effort to prevent being subject to the ultimate punishment. Here are the details:
Lawyers for Dylann Roof on Monday filed a motion challenging the federal government’s intention to seek the death penalty in his murder trial, arguing that the penalty is unconstitutional. “[T]his Court should rule that the federal death penalty constitutes a legally prohibited, arbitrary, cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by both the Fifth and Eighth Amendments,” lawyers write in defense of Roof, who is charged with murder for the shooting deaths of nine people inside a historically black South Carolina church this past summer.
In the filing, the lawyers argue that the death penalty itself is unconstitutional, as is the federal death penalty law. “[T]he [Federal Death Penalty Act] may have been designed with as much care as possible under the circumstances, the capital sentencing process that the statute provides is constitutionally inadequate in practice,” the lawyers write. “The results of jurors’ good-faith grappling with the law — arbitrary, biased, and erroneous death verdicts — are intolerable as a matter of due process and proportional punishment.”
The challenge is only being brought, the lawyers write, because the federal government is seeking the death penalty in Roof’s case after rejecting his offer to plead guilty and accept multiple life sentences without the possibility of parole....
In addition to the two broad constitutional challenges, Roof’s lawyers are also challenging the jury selection process referred to as “death qualification” — finding a jury willing to impose the death penalty. As the lawyers note, “conscientious objectors to the death penalty are systematically excluded” from such juries. “Because the practice of death qualifying a jury has no constitutional or statutory underpinnings, distorts the jury function, introduces arbitrariness into capital sentencing and increases the influence of racism and sexism on the death determination, there is no justification for maintaining it,” the lawyers write.
The lawyers are also challenging related to the use of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) in the prosecution, noting that the legislation considered including the death penalty as a punishment but ultimately rejected it. “[D]espite Congress’s deliberate decision not to provide for the death penalty in HCPA prosecutions, the government has effectively amended the statute to permit a death sentence to be imposed,” the lawyers argue.
The full 34-page filing seeking to "strike the death penalty as a possinle punishment" is available at this link.
A few prior related posts:
- Should it be the state or feds (or both!?!) that capitally prosecute racist mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof?
- Thanks to death penalty, one of worst racist mass murderers gets one of best defense lawyers
- South Carolina prosecutors begin pursuit of death penalty again Charleston church mass murderer
- Attorney for Dylann Roof, Charleston church mass murderer, suggests plea to avoid death sentence
- "Why Dylann Roof is a Terrorist Under Federal Law, and Why it Matters"
- Federal prosecutors (FINALLY!) decide to pursue death penalty for Charleston mass murderer Dylann Roof
- Intriguing capital case tussle between South Carolina and feds in Dylann Roof prosecution
Monday, August 1, 2016
Quickly responding to (nonexistant?) problem, NY Gov bars paroled sex offenders from playing Pokemon Go
As reported in this New York Daily News article, headlined "Cuomo orders Pokémon Go prohibition for sex offenders on parole," the chief executive of a state has decided he must chiefly concern himself with who plays with a new video game. Here are the details (with one seemingly important fact from the story highlighted):
For sex offenders in New York, it will be Pokémon No Go. Gov. Cuomo Sunday ordered that the state make it a condition of parole for sex offenders that they stay away from Pokémon Go and similar interactive games, the Daily News has learned.
The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is barring all registered sex offenders under supervision from downloading, accessing, or playing such Internet gaming activities, under the directive.
Roughly 3,000 predators currently on state parole will be immediately impacted, state officials said. The state will also be sending guidance to the counties around the state that supervise another 5,000 lower level convicted sex offenders urging them to adopt the new policy.
"Protecting New York's children is priority number one and, as technology evolves, we must ensure these advances don't become new avenues for dangerous predators to prey on new victims," Cuomo said. "These actions will provide safeguards for the players of these augmented reality games and help take one more tool away from those seeking to do harm to our children."
The Pokémon Go app sends players on a hunt to catch digital Pokémon characters. If a sex offender is caught playing the game in New York, it would be a violation of the terms of their parole and they could be returned to prison, a Cuomo aide said.
Cuomo also sent a letter to software developer Niantic Inc. to request assistance in keeping Pokémon Go out of the hands of sex predators. "The State has taken action to prohibit sex offenders from using this game, but we need your assistance to make certain that sex offenders will not continue to use Pokémon GO by technologically barring their use," Cuomo wrote in the letter. "Working together, we can ensure that this danger today does not escalate into a tragedy tomorrow."
The governor also directed the Department of Criminal Justice Services to provide Niantic with the most recent version of the state's sex offender registry in the hopes the company will use the list to keep people from having access to the app. The Department of Criminal Justice Services will also contact Apple and Google "to inform them of these public safety concerns and work with them to enhance user safety," Cuomo said.
The order and letter came two days after state Sens. Jeffrey Klein and Diane Savino released a report titled "Protecting Our Children: How Pokémon Go and Augmented Reality Games Expose Children To Sex Offenders." After sending staffers over a two-week period to more than 100 homes of level-2 and level-3 sex offenders in the city, the senators found that characters generated by the Pokémon Go app appeared 57% of the time. That figure rose to 73% when related items like PokeStops and Pokémon gyms are factored in, the report showed. The two senators called for passage of legislation that would keep young children and other players at least 100 feet away from a convicted sex offender's home.
Officials have also expressed concern that a feature of Pokémon Go called a "lure" can make it easier for sex predators to tempt potential victims to come to their homes. Savino on Friday said there's no evidence to any kids were sexually abused after being lured by the Pokémon app.
In light of the last line I have highlighted above, suppose New Yorkers should be grateful that state officials have been so quick to deal with the problem of "Poke Perves" even before such a problem even exists. Sigh.
Will there be fewer than 20 executions in 2016?
As I changed the month on my calendars, I thought to take a looks at the Death Penalty Information Center's list of recent executions and list of scheduled executions. These lists confirmed my sense that, after a notable number of executions a notable number of states in the first part of 2016 (a total of 14 executions in five different states through early May), there is now almost a de facto moratorium on executions throughout nearly all of the United States.
Specifically, there has been only a single execution in summer 2016 (a few weeks ago in Georgia), and Texas appears to be the only state right now with any serious execution dates scheduled for the rest of 2016. And if only a couple of the remaining 2016 scheduled Texas executions get delayed, there will be the fewest executions in the US this year in a quarter-century.
With highly symbolic votes on the death penalty's future in California and Nebraska in November, I have already begun thinking about 2016 as a possible "tipping point" year for capital punishment. But this year's execution realities highlights that, for most functional purposes, the death penalty is continuing to die a slow death throughout the United States.
Sunday, July 31, 2016
"Boot-Camp Prisons Find Their Time Running Out"
The title of this post is the headline of this new Wall Street Journal article. Here are is how it gets started:
At 5:30 on a misty morning in the Adirondacks, 180 prisoners leapt out of bed when a bugle call blasted over a loudspeaker. Fifteen minutes later, they were performing synchronized exercises while a drill instructor barked orders. “Motivated! Motivated! Motivated, sir!” the men shouted in unison between calisthenics.
These inmates are serving six-month sentences at Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, one of the last prisons in the U.S. that seek to “shock” inmates out of criminal behavior through a military-style boot camp. Inmates at the facility typically trade multiyear sentences for six-month stints.
Such programs used to be widespread, but fell out of favor in much of the country amid debate about their effectiveness. Only a handful remain and two of them are in New York, where correction officials say their brand of military-style training reduces recidivism and saves taxpayer money through shorter sentences. “It instills self-discipline,” said Boyce Rawson, a captain at Moriah. “Inmates take personal pride in themselves as well as their platoon.”
As recently as 1995, according to federal research, there were 75 state-operated boot camps nationwide for adult offenders, 30 for juveniles and 18 in local jails, including at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex. A 1994 federal crime bill allocated millions for such programs.
While the camps were popular with tough-on-crime politicians, reviews were mixed. One Justice Department analysis found the camps had a positive effect on inmates’ attitudes, behavior and safety while in prison. But that analysis and other studies found the programs had no notable impact on recidivism.
The programs gradually closed. The Federal Bureau of Prisons ended its boot camps in 2005. New York has closed two facilities in the past several years, leaving Moriah and Lakeview, in Chautauqua County, as the only ones left in the state. Other states have shifted their camps toward what they call more “evidence-based,” rehabilitative models.
Reviewing disconcerting realities when kids are put on sex offender registries
Eric Berkowitz has this notable New York Times commentary, headlined "Punishment That Doesn’t Fit the Crime," about juveniles and sex offender registries. Here are excerpts:
When Matthew Grottalio was 10 years old, he and his older brother initiated a touching “game” with their 8-year-old sister. “None of us knew what we were doing,” he said, and he soon forgot about the episode. But later that year, 1998, his sister’s teacher found out and notified the authorities. Just weeks after Matthew’s 11th birthday, police officers handcuffed him outside his fifth-grade classroom.
Matthew and his parents agreed to a guilty plea in exchange for two years of probation, which he spent in a foster home. (His brother also pleaded guilty.) When he returned to his family, they were stunned to learn that he was listed on the Texas sex offender registry website, and would be for 10 years. He was just 13 years old. Neighbors threw a Molotov cocktail at his house and shot and killed his family’s dog. Local newspapers listed him by name along with adult sex offender “monsters” in the area.
He soon “hated life, hated everybody.” Their sons’ ordeals shattered their parents’ marriage of two decades. Matthew dropped out of high school, ran away, was homeless for two years, sank into drugs and served time for burglary and parole violations. His decade on the registry had ended by 2011, but internet searches continued to show him on the list — and still do. Even worse, his parole included restrictions suitable to a serial child rapist. He was barred from any unsupervised and unapproved contacts with people under 17, and from any contact with his sister, who was by then an adult. (She says she never considered him a threat.) He also was barred from contact with the children of the woman he married in 2013. Even contact with the baby the couple had together was in limbo until he passed a sex offender evaluation....
Mr. Grottalio’s story is not unusual. In about 40 states, juveniles are listed on sex offender registries, often for their entire lives. In about 19 states, there is no minimum registration age. Prepubescent children are listed along with violent adult sex criminals. While precise data is unavailable, it appears that as many as 24,000 of the nation’s more than 800,000 registered sex offenders are juveniles, and about 16 percent of that population are younger than 12 years old. More than one-third are 12 to 14....
In her career as a criminal defense lawyer for juveniles and a researcher on juvenile sex offenders, Nicole Pittman, now a vice president at Impact Justice, defended or reviewed about 2,000 juvenile sex cases. Most involved what she called “normative” sexual behavior and “experimentation.” Nevertheless, on many sex offender websites, there are juveniles’ photos, names and addresses, and even maps to their homes....
2006, about 32 states had sex offender laws registering juveniles. That year, the federal Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act mandated, for the first time, that certain youths 14 and over be registered in the state where the violation occurred. (Once that happens, the person also goes on the national registry.) The law also said that offenses such as indecent exposure and public urination had to be included. At least six states now require juveniles to be on the register for life. Given that state and federal laws have grown into an often conflicting tangle of requirements and penalties, there can be no end to some kids’ ordeals....
The expansion of sex offender laws to include juveniles was based on the assumption that kids who sexually transgress cannot be reformed. However, research has shown this assumption to be false. Only 1 percent to 7 percent of children who commit sexual offenses will do it again — much lower than the 13 percent recidivism rates for adult sexual offenders.
The policy seems to succeed only in making life difficult for offenders, subjecting them to harassment and isolation. Of the more than 500 youth sex offenders whose cases Ms. Pittman examined, about 100 had attempted suicide.... Knowing this, prosecutors like Vicki Seidl, the senior lawyer in the juvenile division of the Kent County district attorney’s office in Michigan, now push for pleas that keep youths off registries. Other prosecutors are following suit.
But that alone will not solve the problem. Juveniles, particularly ones under 14, need to be off the registries entirely. In 2011, the Department of Justice relaxed the requirement for registering juveniles, but legislators still fear that they’ll be accused of being “soft” on sex crimes.
Saturday, July 30, 2016
"Rethinking 'Death Row': Variations in the Housing of Individuals Sentenced to Death"
The title of this post is the title of this interesting report authored by a group at Yale Law School and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In 2015, individuals sentenced to death in the United States were housed in varying degrees of isolation. Many people were kept apart from others in profoundly isolating conditions, while others were housed with each other or with the general prison population. Given the growing awareness of the debilitating effects of long-term isolation, the placement of death-sentenced prisoners on what is colloquially known as “death row” has become the subject of discussion, controversy, and litigation.
This Report, written under the auspices of the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School, examines the legal parameters of death row housing to learn whether correctional administrators have discretion in deciding how to house death-sentenced individuals and to document the choices made in three jurisdictions where death-sentenced prisoners are not kept in isolation. Part I details the statutes, regulations, and policies that govern the housing of those sentenced to death and reviews prior research on the housing conditions of death-sentenced prisoners. Part II presents an overview of decisions in three states, North Carolina, Missouri, and Colorado, where correctional administrators enable death-sentenced prisoners to have meaningful opportunities to interact with others. Given the discretion that correctional officials have over housing arrangements, these states provide models to house capital-sentenced prisoners without placing them in solitary confinement.
Judge Jack Weinstein authors mega-opinion threatening to find sentence unconstitutional if offender not placed in certain prison(!?!?)
A number of helpful reader alerted me to this notable local story describing the latest remarkable (and legally suspect?) sentencing opinion by US District Judge Jack Weinstein. The piece is (inaccurately) headlined "Brooklyn judge says no prison for convicted child molester," and here are the reported details:
A Brooklyn federal judge on Thursday urged the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to hold a convicted child molester in a medical facility and said he would find the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence unconstitutional if the bureau doesn’t comply.
The apparently unprecedented move by U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein, who said defendant “D.W.” — identified on the court docket as Darnell Washington — had mental problems and would be a suicide risk in the general prison population, reflected the judge’s long-standing criticism of mandatory minimums.
Weinstein said Washington, 27, of Brooklyn, a repeat offender convicted of both child pornography charges and sexual exploitation of a minor, had been abused as a child, raped during an earlier prison stint, identified as gay and was suicidal.
The judge said 15 years in a regular prison would make him “uniquely vulnerable” to abuse or solitary confinement, and amount to cruel and unusual punishment. He said the time should be served at the Federal Medical Center prison in Devens, Massachusetts, where sex-offender treatment is available, or another medical facility.
The Bureau of Prisons is not obligated to follow a judge’s preference, but Weinstein said if his recommendations were ignored and Washington was put in “general population of a medium or high security prison” he was “prepared” to find the sentence unconstitutional.
“The court is required . . . to impose a sentence of fifteen years in prison on this defendant,” Weinstein wrote in his 215-page ruling. “But, it has the responsibility and power to ensure that the sentence is carried out in a civilized way.”
Until I have an opportunity to review the 200+ page opinion in this case (which I cannot yet find on-line), I am not yet prepared to criticize Judge Weinstein's work here. Moreover, now that the judge has imposed the formal sentence, I am not sure he even has any proper jurisdictional basis to declare it unconstitutional if (and when?) prison official do not comply with his placement mandate.
UPDATE: A helpful reader sent me a copy of the full opinion in US v. DW for posting here: Download US v DW
Friday, July 29, 2016
Is it lack of conviction, lack of courage, or just lack of cleverness that leads Dems to be so weak on criminal justice reform advocacy?
In this post on Monday, I predicted we would hear a lot more this week about criminal justice reform from leading Democrats during the DNC than we had heard last week from leading Republicans during the RNC. I suppose that prediction was not entirely mistaken, as both Prez Obama on Wednesday and Prez candidate Clinton on Thursday each had a few lines about criminal justice reform in their speeches. For those who missed the brief mentions of criminal justice in their two+ hours of speechification, here is what was said:
From Prez Obama's speech: "We need to keep making our streets safer and our criminal justice system fairer.... If you want more justice in the justice system, then we've all got to vote, not just for a president, but for mayors and sheriffs and state's attorneys and state legislators. That's where the criminal law is made. And we've got to work with police and protesters until laws and practices are changed. That's how democracy works."
- From Prez candidate Clinton's speech: "We will reform our criminal justice system from end-to-end, and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."
I suppose I was foolish for thinking and really hoping that Democratic leaders would have much more to say than this relative pablum about criminal justice reform circa 2016. And the deliberative decision to prioritize polite CJ reform pablum over actual CJ reform advocacy prompts the (frustration-filled) question in the title of this post. Let me briefly unpack what I mean by this question, hoping to generate some serious and sober discussions on this front:
A lack of conviction?: In light of Prez Bill Clinton's "tough-on-crime" legacy and Prez Obama's milquetoast efforts to reverse course, I am growing ever more convinced that leading Democrats are perhaps just not all that troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct or a host of other persistent criminal justice problems that have nothing to do with the hot-button (dog-whistle?) topics of race or guns.
A lack of courage?: I sincerely want to believe that leading Democrats (as well as leading Republicans and independents) really are troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct and a host of other persistent criminal justice problems. But if leading Dems do want to see real reform in these arenas, why do they lack the courage to encourage serious discussion of serious reforms? Why thoughout the election season to date has (independent) Bernie Sanders been the only major candidate with the courage to keep talking forcefully about the probems of mass incarceration and to advocate for specific reforms like ending federal marijuana prohibition and the use of private prisons?
A lack of cleverness?: I am never sure if I am comforted or further depressed when thinking that leading Dems genuinely care about criminal justice reform but ultimately lack the ability to speak about these issues in clever and politically shrwed ways to build on (now bipartisan) political interest in significant reforms. For example, Prez Obama could have (and I think should have) added to his statement that he has been pleased to see many more "mayors and sheriffs and state's attorneys and state legislators" in red states as well as blue states committed to innovative justice programming seeking to reduce our nation's over-reliance on incarceration. Similarly, Prez candidate Clinton could have (and I think should have) added to her statement that she would be eager to draw on the work and wisdom of both Republican and Democratic Governors and Attorneys General to identify state-level reforms that have proved most effective at rebuilding needed "trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."
Thursday, July 28, 2016
"California Votes 2016: An Analysis of the Competing Death Penalty Ballot Initiatives."
The title of this post is the title of this lengthy report recently published by the Alarcón Advocacy Center at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles and co-authored by Professor Paula Mitchell, executive director of the Alarcón Advocacy Center, and Nancy Haydt, Board of Governors, California Attorneys for Criminal Justice. The perspective on whether to end or mend the California death penalty is somewhat predictable based on the past work of the authors, and this overview from the document itself provides a summary of its analysis:
California voters will decide the fate of the state’s death penalty this November. There is now a broad consensus that California’s death penalty system is broken. Voters will be asked to choose between two starkly different proposals to address its dysfunction and failures. Competing ballot initiatives will ask voters either to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, or to double down on the failed system by spending millions more to modify and expand it.
Voters can either support YES on Prop 62, which will replace the death penalty with life without parole and save the state $150 million per year. Or, voters can support Prop 66 to keep the death penalty system and implement multiple changes to how it operates. Each proposition would make substantial and far reaching changes to California’s criminal justice system. But only one can pass into law: if both propositions receive more than 50% of the vote, then the one with most votes will become law and the other will not.
This Report analyzes the competing initiatives. It looks at the current state of the death penalty system in California and analyzes how each initiative will work in practice. In particular it looks at whether the initiatives will achieve their stated goals, and whether there would be other, perhaps unintended, consequences to their passage into law.
This Report concludes that Prop 66’s proposed “fixes” to the current system will cost millions more than the already expensive death penalty system and will not speed up executions. In fact, Prop 66 will only make matters worse by creating more delays and further clogging the state’s over-burdened court system. Prop 66 will add layers of appeals to a system already facing an insurmountable backlog of decades of death penalty appeals waiting to be decided.
Prop 66 contains other provisions that proponents claim will speed up executions, such as keeping the lethal injection protocols secret and out of the public’s purview, exempting them from the Administrative Procedures Act. This and other key features of Prop 66 will certainly be subject to litigation challenging the provisions on constitutional and other grounds, should Prop 66 pass, adding yet more delays to death penalty cases.
The Report further finds that Prop 66 fails to make the constitutional changes required to deliver the results it promises. At the same time, its proposals are so convoluted that they are likely to create many new problems that will not only complicate the administration of the death penalty system, but will also impact and harm the rest of California’s legal system.
This Report finds that Prop 62, by contrast, is straightforward and transparent. It replaces the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, saving the state $1.5 billion in the next ten years alone. Prop 62 requires inmates to work and increases the victim compensation rate. Prop 62 ensures that the state never executes an innocent person, without jeopardizing public safety.
US Sentencing Commission releases big new report urging reform of career offender enhancements
As detailed in this official press release, the US Sentencing Commission today released a big new report (running over 100 pages!) under the title "Report to the Congress: Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements." Here is how the press release summarizes this important new release from the USSC:
The United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”) issued a Report to the Congress: Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements, analyzing career offenders’ prior criminal history, incarceration terms and recidivism rates.
Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, stated, “The Commission’s research shows that there are important differences between violent career offenders and drug trafficking career offenders. Based on these findings, Congress should amend the statutory criteria such that career offender status would not be based solely on drug trafficking offenses.”
Currently, a defendant qualifies as a career offender if he or she: 1) is convicted of an offense that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense; and 2) has at least two prior felony convictions. Career offenders face longer incarceration terms, receiving an average sentence of more than 12 years (147 months). As a result of these longer sentences, career offenders now account for more than 11 percent of the total federal prison population. Yet, career offenders are increasingly receiving sentences below the federal sentencing guideline range, often at the request of the government. The research also shows that, compared to “drug trafficking only” offenders, violent career offenders generally have a more serious and extensive criminal history, recidivate at a higher rate, and are more likely to commit another violent offense in the future. In fiscal year 2014, 45% of “drug trafficking only” offenders received sentences that were reduced at the government’s request.
In fiscal year 2014, nearly three-quarters (74.1%) of career offenders were convicted of a drug trafficking offense. Drug trafficking offenders often face higher statutory maximum penalties, including life imprisonment. These offenders were also more likely to receive a sentence below the federal sentencing guideline range.
Earlier this year, the Commission voted unanimously to amend the definition of “crime of violence” in the federal sentencing guidelines, with an effective date of August 1, 2016. Chair Saris added, “Based on the report’s findings and recommendations, Congress should adopt a new, single definition of ‘crime of violence’ that is consistent with the Commission’s revised approach.”
"The Downstream Consequences of Misdemeanor Pretrial Detention"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new empirical paper available via SSRN authored by Paul Heaton, Sandra Mayson and Megan Stevenson. Here is the abstract:
In misdemeanor cases, pretrial detention poses a particular problem because it may induce otherwise innocent defendants to plead guilty in order to exit jail, potentially creating widespread error in case adjudication. While practitioners have long recognized this possibility, empirical evidence on the downstream impacts of pretrial detention on misdemeanor defendants and their cases remains limited. This Article uses detailed data on hundreds of thousands of misdemeanor cases resolved in Harris County, Texas — the third largest county in the U.S. — to measure the effects of pretrial detention on case outcomes and future crime.
We find that detained defendants are 25% more likely than similarly situated releases to plead guilty, 43% more likely to be sentenced to jail, and receive jail sentences that are more than twice as long on average. Furthermore, those detained pretrial are more likely to commit future crime, suggesting that detention may have a criminogenic effect. These differences persist even after fully controlling for the initial bail amount as well as detailed offense, demographic, and criminal history characteristics. Use of more limited sets of controls, as in prior research, overstates the adverse impacts of detention. A quasi-experimental analysis based upon case timing confirms that these differences likely reflect the casual effect of detention. These results raise important constitutional questions, and suggest that Harris County could save millions of dollars a year, increase public safety, and reduce wrongful convictions with better pretrial release policy.
I fear that most criminal justice researchers and reform advocates (myself included) pay much less attention to misdemeanor crimes and punishments than to so many other parts of the justice system. This article (and a few others noted below in prior posts) provides a reminder that we should not overlook this important element of modern justice systems.
Some prior related research and advocacy on misdemeanors:
- "Crashing the Misdemeanor System"
- Thoughtful discussion of too-often forgotten story of misdemeanors
- New ACS issue brief urges " diverting and reclassifying misdemeanors" to save big bucks
New Fair Punishment Project report laments frequent and persistent use of juve LWOP in one Michigan county
In this post earlier this year, I noted the new initiative emerging from Harvard Law School's Charles Hamilton Houston for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute called the Fair Punishment Project (FPP). And the first big project of the FPP was this interesting report highlighting the history of Philadelphia frequently using life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers. Now, as reported via this blog posting, FPP has another notabe report on this topic focused on another region another northern state. Here are the details (and links) via the start of the blog posting:
A new report [focused on Michigan juvenile sentencing realities] highlights Wayne County’s frequent use of juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences, calling the county an “extreme outlier” in its use of the punishment. The report also criticizes D.A. Worthy’s decision, which was announced Friday, to again seek life sentences for at least one out of three individuals currently serving this sentence.
The report urges District Attorney Kym Worthy to adopt a new approach to dealing with juveniles in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which determined that the court’s prior decision barring mandatory life without parole sentences for youth must be applied retroactively, and that the punishment is only appropriate in the rarest of cases where a juvenile is determined to be “irreparably corrupt.”
The report, Juvenile Life Without Parole in Wayne County: Time to Join the Growing National Consensus?, notes that Wayne County is responsible for the highest number of juvenile life without parole sentences in the country now that Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has recently announced that he will not be seeking LWOP sentences for any of the individuals previously sentenced to JLWOP there.
Currently there are more than 150 individuals serving JLWOP in Wayne County. While Wayne County has just 18% of the statewide population, it has at least 40% of the JLWOP sentences in the state of Michigan. Most incredibly, African-Americans are 39% of Wayne County’s population, but more than 90% of the individuals serving juvenile life with parole sentences from the county are Black. D.A. Worthy’s office obtained 27 JLWOP sentences during her tenure.
How much is federal prosecution of Native American teen for a marijuana offense in Oregon going to cost taxpayers?
The question in the title of this post is my effort to focus a bit more on the fiscal realities surrounding an interesting federal misdemeanor marijuana prosecution discussed in this lengthy local article from Oregon. The article is headlined "Devontre Thomas is 19. He Could Face a Year in Prison. For a Gram of Marijuana. How could this happen in Oregon?". The details here are so interesting for so many reasons, including a recent decision by the defendant not to agree to a plea to what seems to be federal charges less serious than might have been alleged. Here are some details:
Devontre Thomas is 19 years old. In a few weeks, he goes on trial in federal court in Portland. If he loses, he could go to prison for a year. For possessing an amount of cannabis that would fill one joint....
On April 7, 2016, the U.S. attorney for Oregon filed a one-count federal misdemeanor charge against Thomas for possessing "about a gram" of marijuana, according to his public defender, Ruben Iniguez. That's barely enough cannabis to dust the bottom of a Ziploc.
"I've never seen a case like this in my entire time practicing in federal court," says Bear Wilner-Nugent, a Portland criminal defense lawyer for 12 years. "It's outlandish." It's the first time in at least three years that the feds are prosecuting a weed crime in Oregon.
Since then, Oregon voters legalized recreational marijuana. Anyone over 21 can walk into a store and buy up to a quarter ounce — 7 grams — of cannabis. In the first five months of recreational sales, the state collected $14.9 million in marijuana sales taxes. But weed isn't equally legal everywhere in Oregon.
Thomas is accused of screwing up like any other teenager. But his alleged mistake occurred at Chemawa Indian School, a boarding school in the state capital, Salem, operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, an arm of the federal government. Observers say Thomas' prosecution, first reported by KGW-TV, is a poster case for how the nation's drug laws are still stacked against minorities — especially Native Americans. "There's absolutely racial disparity in how these cases are charged," says Amy Margolis, a lawyer at Emerge Law Group, a Portland firm that specializes in cannabis cases. "[Thomas] had the bad luck of being where and who he was."...
The prosecution of Thomas raises questions about the priorities of U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams, the state's chief federal prosecutor. Among them: Why are federal prosecutors, who claim that Oregon is a den of heroin, meth and opioid trafficking, spending time and resources to go after a teenager for such a small amount of pot? After two weeks of declining requests for comment, Williams finally issued this statement to WW: "We look forward to addressing the facts of the case in an appropriate manner and, most importantly, within the judicial process."
But members of Oregon's congressional delegation say it's alarming that Williams would prosecute the case at all. "I think it's deplorable," says U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). "What are we doing? Where are our priorities? A kid? Turning his life upside down? They don't have anything better to do to protect young people or Oregonians? It's incomprehensible to me."
As bizarre as Thomas' pot case is in weed-happy Oregon, the place where his alleged offense occurred is just as much of an anachronism. Chemawa, a Native American boarding school, was founded in 1880 and is the longest continually operating boarding school for Native American youth....
Thomas arrived at Chemawa from Madras High School, where he spent his first two years before transferring. He is a member of the Warm Springs tribe, and grew up with his parents and grandparents on the tribe's reservation 105 miles southeast of Portland.... A parent of a fellow Chemawa student described the Thomases as "a good family." His friends say his childhood was that of a normal, loved boy: spending the night at friends' houses, playing basketball on the Madras High junior varsity team....
Rayvaughn Skidmore, 20, also attended Chemawa with Thomas.... Skidmore says Thomas "would always help out his peers and be a leader—showing them what's the right things to do." Skidmore says Chemawa staff members would sometimes drive kids into town to go shopping at Keizer Station Shopping Center or Lancaster Mall in Salem, and he thinks that's when some students would meet up with marijuana connections and bring the substance back to campus.
But when kids on campus were caught with marijuana in their possession, "they'd get sent home." Skidmore says those infractions never resulted in legal charges, even though he knew plenty of classmates who regularly smoked weed. "These other students who are highly abusing any type of marijuana — I don't see why those guys get sent home when they should be prosecuted," he says....
Thomas was never technically arrested for marijuana possession. On March 25, 2015, Iniguez says, a staff member at Chemawa found roughly a gram of marijuana in a student's backpack. That kid said Thomas had sold him the weed. The Marion County Sheriff's Office confirmed that it responded to a call on that date involving Thomas and a juvenile classmate for "delivery" of marijuana.
Nearly a year after a classmate ratted out Thomas, a Chemawa staff member and a police officer drove him to the federal courthouse in Portland to appear before a judge. Lawyers interviewed for this story say it's likely that Thomas is feeling outsized consequences because Chemawa Indian School is under federal jurisdiction....
Retired federal drug prosecutor John Deits says Thomas' case is probably being handled as a federal case because "it's the only jurisdiction that can respond to the charge."
"Nobody else has authority," Deits says. "Marion County doesn't have authority because it's exclusive federal authority. And Indian tribes don't have jurisdiction because it didn't happen on their land."...
The resulting prosecution of Thomas shocks national observers. "He's 19. This is going to potentially haunt him the rest of his life," says Alison Holcomb, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national Campaign for Smart Justice in Seattle. It's also a stark reminder that the War on Drugs isn't over — even in Oregon.
Observers find it bizarre that the feds have continued to pursue Thomas' case. But U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch has been vocal about her desire to keep pot illegal. Local responsibility for prosecuting Thomas falls to Williams, the U.S. attorney for Oregon.... "We are committed to just outcomes in every case," he says. "We look forward to exploring whatever the defense ask that we consider before determining what we believe is an appropriate outcome."
Other federal officials are critical of the prosecution. "The federal government hasn't prosecuted a marijuana-possession case in Oregon in five years," says U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). "Situations like this are best left to be handled by the state."
Blumenauer, who as an Oregon congressman has become one of the nation's loudest voices for marijuana legalization, is enraged. "It is such a powerful symbol of a waste of resources and the inequity of the system," says Blumenauer, "because you and I can walk around in Portland, or in states where it is illegal, and find people using it. To single him out, to proceed with this, to ignore real problems that are killing people…" He pauses. "I'm sorry," he finally says. "I'm getting carried away. It's incomprehensible to me. I'm just sorry that Mr. Thomas is caught up in it."
The people surrounding Thomas in the federal courthouse in Portland on July 8 — Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Martin, U.S. District Chief Justice Michael Mosman, three functionaries and a probation officer — expected Thomas to plead guilty to drug possession and enter a six-month diversion program. But a few moments earlier, Thomas' public defender, Iniguez, hustled into the courtroom with Thomas to announce a change of plans.
"He's not going to be pleading guilty today," Iniguez said. Martin, the prosecutor, looked shocked. "We want to go to trial?" she asked, flummoxed. "If we're making a federal case out of it," said Iniguez, sneaking in a smile, "we'll make a federal case out of it."
Holcomb, of the national ACLU, speculates that Thomas' last-minute decision not to plead guilty may show a steadfastness on his part to prove that he's no different from any other Oregon teenager who messed around with pot. "Devontre's response, to me, indicates a genuinely felt sense of unfairness," Holcomb says. "That it is unfair that he's being charged in federal court for this. It's the latest in a string of dramatic examples of how deeply people are feeling about unfairness and inequality…it sounds like that bubbled up for Devontre."...
Thomas is scheduled for trial Sept.13.
Like nearly all federal prosecutions that become media stories, I sense that this press account is revealing only the tip of an iceberg backstory. For starters, though subject formally only to a federal misdemeanor possession charge, the facts described here suggest that the defendant could have (and some might even say should have?) been subject to a federal felony marijuana distrubution charge. In addition, it seems the feds were seemingly eager to resolve the case through a plea that would prevent the defendant from serving any time or having a felony record. But now it seems that the defense may be gearing up for contesting the charges factually or perhaps constitutionally (or perhaps even via jury nullification if other avenues of defense falter).
I probably could go on and on about this case, and it is certainly one I will be keeping an eye on in the coming months. But, as suggested in the title of this post, whatever else one thinks about this case, I cannot help but wonder how many federal taxpayer dollars will end up being spent on this (minor?) matter.
July 28, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
John Hinkley now to be freed from a psychiatric hospital, now 35 years after his crime and verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity
As reported in this Reuters piece, "John Hinckley Jr., who wounded U.S. President Ronald Reagan and three other people in a 1981 assassination attempt prompted by his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, can be freed from a psychiatric hospital to live with his mother, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday." Here is more about this notable ruling in perhaps the highest-profile insanity case of all time:
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said Hinckley, 61, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a 1982 trial, no longer posed a danger to himself or others. He said Hinckley could be released from St. Elizabeth's, a government psychiatric hospital in Washington, as soon as Aug. 5, subject to nearly three dozen conditions. "Since 1983, when he last attempted suicide, he has displayed no symptoms of active mental illness, exhibited no violent behavior, shown no interest in weapons, and demonstrated no suicidal ideation," Friedman said of Hinckley in a 103-page opinion.
In addition to Reagan, Hinckley's attack wounded presidential press secretary James Brady, a policeman and a Secret Service agent. It helped launch the modern gun control movement, as Brady and his wife, Sarah, founded what is now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence after he was left permanently disabled. The Bradys' support helped the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act become law in 1993, imposing federal background checks on gun purchases and a five-day waiting period.
The Hinckley verdict also led several states to rewrite their laws making it more difficult to use the insanity defense while the U.S. Secret Service tightened its protocols for presidential security.
Upon his admission to St. Elizabeth's, doctors diagnosed Hinckley with depression and psychosis - two maladies they say have been in remission for years. Friedman said Hinckley will be required to spend at least a year living with his mother, Jo Ann, 90, in Williamsburg, Virginia, about 130 miles (210 km) south of Washington, where he has been making increasingly long furlough visits for several years.
If Hinckley's treatment team approves, he may then move into his own residence by himself or with roommates, Friedman said. He also said if Hinckley's mother becomes unable to monitor him in her home, his brother or sister will be required to live there with him until the hospital determines an alternate plan. In a May story about Hinckley's life, Washingtonian magazine cited neighbors in her gated community who liked Mrs. Hinckley but did not want him living there.
Hinckley had unsuccessfully sought jobs in Williamsburg at places such as Starbucks and a Subway sandwich shop and tried to become involved in volunteer programs in the town, Washingtonian said. He eventually took a volunteer job in the library of a psychiatric facility in Williamsburg. Hinckley's behavior during his furlough visits has been unimpeachable aside from a few occasions, the judge wrote. Twice in 2011, Hinckley lied to hospital staff about where he had been.
Friedman's order imposes nearly three dozen conditions, including a requirement that Hinckley meet with his psychiatrist in Washington monthly and notify the Secret Service when he travels for the appointment. He is barred from making contact with Foster or her family, Reagan's family and relatives of the other victims, and he is required to either work or volunteer at least three days per week. He is restricted to a 50-mile radius of Williamsburg and must make information about his mobile phone, vehicle and Internet browsing history available to his treatment team and law enforcement.
The petition for release from Hinckley was supported by his doctors but opposed by U.S. prosecutors. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Hinckley lawyer Barry Levine. Hinckley was a 25-year-old college dropout with vague aspirations of a musical career when he fired at Reagan. He had become obsessed with Foster and the Martin Scorsese film "Taxi Driver" in which she played a teenage prostitute. Hinckley began to identify with the film's main character, Travis Bickle, who planned to assassinate a presidential candidate, and spent several years trying to make contact with Foster, who was a student at Yale University in Connecticut.
On March 30, 1981, Hinckley wrote Foster a letter detailing his plans to kill Reagan in an effort to win her over. Later that day, Hinckley approached Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel and opened fire. Reagan suffered a punctured lung but recovered relatively quickly. Brady's death in 2014 was attributed to his wounds but federal prosecutors said the following year they would not charge Hinckley with his murder.
Foster has refused to comment publicly on Hinckley since addressing it in 1981, and a publicist for the Academy Award-winning actress did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
The full 103-page opinion in US v. Hinckley is available at this link.
Some prior related posts:
- Three decades after shooting the President, John Hinckley's freedom still debated
- As fights over John Hinckley's fate continue three decades after his violent crime, what are enduring CJ legacies or lessons?
July 27, 2016 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)
"Give felons and prisoners the right to vote"
The title of this post is the title of this new commentary in the Washington Post authored by Gideon Yaffe. Here is how it starts and ends:
This week, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) vowed to sign individual orders restoring the voting rights of more than 200,000 convicted felons living in the state. His pledge followed the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling that the mass clemency McAuliffe issued in April overstepped his power under the commonwealth’s constitution. Republicans complained bitterly — think of all those Democratic votes from the many African Americans who stand to benefit! — and promised to scrutinize every order for errors.
But the GOP has it wrong. Not only is McAuliffe doing the right thing, but also he should push further. Prisoners, too, should be allowed to vote, no matter their crimes. While only Vermont and Maine currently grant prisoners the vote, felon disenfranchisement fundamentally undermines the democratic rationale of our criminal laws. We cannot hold citizens to account for violating our laws while denying them a say over those laws.
In a democracy, it can fairly be said that when the state does something unpleasant to you — locks you up, forces you to pay taxes, takes your property — that injury is self-inflicted. Since it’s your government, whatever it does to you is something you do to yourself. And it’s your government because you have a say over what it does: You have the vote. But when the state brings down the hammer on a disenfranchised, recidivist felon, the punishment he receives is not self-inflicted. His punishment might as well be levied by a foreign government.
Most felons — whether in prison, on probation or parole, or entirely free of state supervision — are citizens. They should not be treated like foreigners. First of all, they have no other geographic home: They cannot be deported, because citizens have a right to be here. But felons also have no other political home. Nowhere else can they live under a government whose actions are their actions. In this way, they are importantly different from immigrants, who (if they come from a place governed by the rule of law) are granted a say over the behavior of some government somewhere....
In a democracy, felon enfranchisement should not be a partisan issue. Both Republicans and Democrats ought to be held to account for their crimes by a government whose actions they can own. We should give the vote to citizens, in or out of prison, whom we wish to hold responsible for violating laws that are not just ours but also theirs.
Spotlighting the travesty of how the Eleventh Circuit is handling Johnson claims
I highlighted in this post here last week the potent opinions by a number of Eleventh Circuit judges explaining why they think the Circuit's precendents for dealing with prisoner petitions based on the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), are so very wrong and unjust. A helpful reader made sure that I did not miss this recent Bloomberg commentary on this topic authored by Noah Feldman headlined "This Is What 'Travesty of Justice' Looks Like." Here are excerpts:
Call it Scalia’s revenge. In one of the last cases that he authored before he died in February, Justice Antonin Scalia convinced his colleagues to strike down a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act because it was unconstitutionally vague. As a result, thousands of convicted felons are now asking courts to have their sentences reduced.
The legal rules for considering such post-conviction requests are tricky and technical. But in most of the country, prisoners are getting another day in court to have their ACCA convictions reviewed in the light of the new legal principle. In the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Alabama, Georgia and Florida, the process has gone badly awry [and] a judge on the circuit's court of appeals cried foul, calling for a fundamental change in how its handling these cases....
Before a prisoner can go back to the district court for what’s called a “second, successive” post-conviction petition, he or she needs special permission from a federal court of appeals. The stakes are high for the prisoners. In some cases, the difference might be between the 15-year minimum imposed on felons with three prior convictions, and a sentence of 10 years or less for fewer convictions.
Consequently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has been immersed in the time-consuming process of figuring out who should be allowed a second chance to file a petition in District Court seeking review of their sentence. It's studying presentence reports to ascertain whether any of the prior convictions should still count, and, if so, how that might change the petitioner's sentence. Yet no other court of appeals appears to be engaging in this kind of case-by-case analysis. They’ve been approving the requests automatically and allowing a federal district court to sort out the details.
Judge Beverly Martin of the Eleventh Circuit issued an unusual and stirring opinion ... declaring that the process in her court wasn’t working. Martin asserted that among the thousands of applications and hundreds of denials, her court has been making mistakes -- mistakes that, by their legal nature, can't be appealed. “A court of appeals is simply not equipped to construct a new basis for a prisoner’s old sentence in this way,” she wrote.
To make matters worse, the Eleventh Circuit gives itself 30 days to rule on each request. The presentence report can be inadequate or misleading, and there are no attorneys involved to explain what it means. And most prior convictions are under state law, which varies from place to place and have technical details that are hard for the court to determine without a lawyer’s help.
What's more, the Eleventh Circuit had rejected petitions for reconsideration before the Supreme Court said its Johnson ruling applied retroactively.
The upshot is that something very like a travesty of justice is happening in the Eleventh Circuit. And as you know if you’re still reading this, the issue is sufficiently technical that it’s hard to draw attention to the problem. But real people are spending potentially many extra years in prison on the basis of an unconstitutional law. That’s wrong. In the spirit of Justice Scalia, the Eleventh Circuit should change course and start allowing district courts to review post-Johnson ACCA petitions the way the other circuits do.
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Does Hillary Clinton really have a "bold vision" for criminal justice reform, as claimed by former AG Holder?
I predicted in this prior post that we all would likely hear at least a bit more about criminal justice reform at the DNC this week than we heard at the RNC last week. Perhaps unsurprisingly, former AG Eric Holder devoted his DNC speech to asserting Prez candidate Hillary Clinton would be committed to criminal justice reform, and these passages addressed some sentencing/prison issue (with my emphasis added):
At a time when our justice system is out of balance, when one in three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, and when black defendants in the federal system receive sentences 20 percent longer than their white peers, we need a president who will end this policy of over-incarceration. As Attorney General, I launched sweeping reforms of our federal criminal justice system and reduced its reliance on draconian mandatory minimum sentences. As a result, we cut the federal prison population and the crime rate — together — for the first time in more than 40 years.
That's right: despite the fiction and fearmongering you've heard from the other party's nominee, violent crime has gone down since President Obama took office.
As President, Hillary will go even further. She fought, as a Senator, against sentencing disparities and racial profiling. She used her first major speech, as a candidate, to lay out a bold vision for criminal justice reform. As a presidential candidate she has talked about systemic racism in a way that no one else has. And she will help our nation summon the courage to confront racial injustice — and face down the legacies of our darkest past.
I recall blogging about Clinton's big criminal justice speech back in April 2015, and I do not remember that it included any dramatic statements about criminal justice reform, let alone a "bold vision." Then again, I suppose it is in some sense "bold" for a Clinton to talk about criminal justice reform at all, so maybe I am being too tough on Holder for his account of what Clinton has said about reform.
Prior related posts:
- Candidate Hillary Clinton to call for criminal justice reforms that would “end the era of mass incarceration”
- Candidate Clinton laments mass incarceration, but proposes only a "national debate" to address it
District Court explains reasons for disallowing penile plethysmograph and visual response testing for child pornography offender
A helpful reader altered me to a notable sentencing opinion handed down last week by District Judge John Kane in US v. Cheever, No. 15-cr-00031-JLK (D Colo July 18, 2016) (available here). The first part of the opinion provides a thoughtful account of the sentencing judge's accounting of application of the 3553(a) sentencing factors to defendant Shawn Cheever after his plea to a single count of possession of child pornography, but an "addendum" to the opinion is what makes it truly blog-worthy. In the addendum, Judge Kane explains why he is refusing to "authorize a treatment provider to require polygraph, plethysmograph (PPG) and visual reaction time measurements." His lengthy explanation merits reading in full, and here are a few of many interesting passages therein:
Proponents of using the penile plethysmograph correlate arousal data to deviant sexual behavior by assuming that individuals with a history of sexual offenses who respond to illicit sexual stimuli are likely to react in furtherance of their responses. There is no scientifically accepted data presented to justify this assumption, nor does it have any logical basis. Rather, just as with the polygraph (lie detector) machine, it is used as a tool of coercion by both law enforcement personnel and treatment providers. The plethysmograph is used to obtain inculpatory admissions, the reliability of which is at best equivocal. The patient or suspect may believe he can manipulate the results — and with a modicum of sophistication or psychopathy, he may well be able to do so. Or, the suspect or patient may succumb to the threat, overt or implied, that his refusal to submit to testing has negative implications that can result in further incarceration, withholding of privileges or being held back in the treatment or incarceration processes and therefore lie about his interests or past behavior. Moreover, it is not fanciful speculation that false test results can be conveyed to the individual in order to reduce resistance and gain inculpatory admissions....
[A]dministering a penile plethysmograph test necessitates the person administering the test to be engaged in the possession, use and distribution of child pornography. There is no exception in the statute to exclude therapeutic purposes or intent from culpability. The violation is per se. It is paradoxical that the government would mandate individuals subject to supervised release to join an administrator of the test in conduct so vile that it landed him in prison in the first place. The statute criminalizing the possession, use and distribution of child pornography has no exceptions. Both the administrator and the subject are violating the statute. Moreover, the well-established continuing damage inflicted on the child victims portrayed in the pornography derives from the fact that they are seen repeatedly by viewers and it makes not one shred of difference to the victims that the viewer is a pervert or a therapist....
Prohibiting courts, probation and parole officers and treatment facilitators and providers from using devices that fail tests of scientific validity is necessary, but a further comment about the line Judge Noonan describes so eloquently will perhaps provide a resolution to the underlying debility. Judge Noonan evokes the task of Orwell's "Thought Police" — and using what is "discovered" as a basis for further punishment or superficial rehabilitation. Justice Cardozo in Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 326-27 (1937) stated: "freedom of thought. . . is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom. With rare aberrations a pervasive recognition of that truth can be traced in our history, political and legal."...
The established traditions of our law embrace the ancient common law principle that liberty should not be impinged or threatened for what a person thinks, but only for what a person does. The maxim cogitationis poenam nemo patitur (no one is punishable solely for his thoughts) was written long before the invention of the plethysmograph or other machines intended to probe the recesses of the mind....
Penile plethysmograph tests rely on the heavy assumption that stimuli arousal is strongly related to the potential for recidivism. Inferences by the courts about a person's potential for sexual offense based on his innermost sexual desires fail to acknowledge that arousal data is not an ineluctable precursor to deviant behavior. This observation, a fortiori, illustrates the dangerous conflation of thought with behavior. Before administering the penile plethysmograph without questioning its obvious scientific shortcomings (not to mention its ethical implications), it is crucial that the courts, probation and parole officers and PPG evaluators recognize 1) the power of refrain; and 2) the difference between thought and action. The presuppositionless assumption is that any "arousal level" occasioned by the exposure to child pornography stimuli is deviant because convicted sex offenders are unable to resist or subdue their impulses. Urges, however, are not always overwhelming. Otherwise, there would be no opportunity for moral decisions or even so-called enlightened self-interest decisions to be made in the crucible of an experience.
UPDATE: Another helpful reader altered me that there is now this Denver Post article about the opinion in Cheever, which is headlined "Judge criticizes federal sentencing guidelines in pornography case: Kane said he would have given sex offender lesser sentence if permitted by law."
"The Death Penalty and the Fifth Amendment"
The title of this post is the title of this essay authored by Joseph Blocker and just published online by the Northwestern Law Review. Here is part of the introduction:
Can the Supreme Court find unconstitutional something that the text of the Constitution “contemplates”? If the Bill of Rights mentions a punishment, does that make it a “permissible legislative choice” immune to independent constitutional challenges?
The dueling opinions in Glossip v. Gross have brought renewed attention to the constitutionality of the death penalty. In a dissent joined by Justice Ginsburg, Justice Breyer identified “three fundamental constitutional defects” with the death penalty.... Justice Breyer’s dissent marked the first time that two members of the current Court have announced a belief that the death penalty is likely unconstitutional “in and of itself,” and the opinion has justifiably been treated as a significant development.
In a blistering concurrence, Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Thomas) wrote that the dissent was full of “gobbledy-gook,” and that “not once in the history of the American Republic has this Court ever suggested the death penalty is categorically impermissible.” Justice Scalia argued that the Fifth Amendment afforded a textual basis for the capital punishment’s continued constitutionality.... Announcing his concurrence from the bench, Justice Scalia made the point even more strongly, saying that “the death penalty is approved by the Constitution.” He and many others have made some version of this point...
The Fifth Amendment contains prohibitions, not powers, and there is no reason to suppose that it somehow nullifies other constitutional prohibitions — most importantly, the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The real target of the Fifth Amendment Argument can only be the Court’s longstanding Eighth Amendment doctrine, which is not limited to the punishments considered cruel and unusual at the time of the Constitution’s framing. Unless and until that doctrine changes, the Argument itself carries no weight.
To be clear, the inverse argument would be equally faulty. The weakness of the Fifth Amendment Argument does not mean that the death penalty is unconstitutional, let alone “categorically” so, only that the “constitutional defects” Justice Breyer identifies cannot be dismissed out of hand. Glossip, along with other developments in law and practice, have made the continuing constitutionality of capital punishment a pressing question. That question should be answered without the distraction of the Fifth Amendment.
Looking at juvenile justice in a worldly way
Recenlty posted to SSNR are these two chapters from a recenly published book of essays titled "Juvenile Justice in Global Perspective":
One Theme or Many? The Search for a Deep Structure in Global Juvenile Justice by Franklin Zimring and Maximo Langer
Myths and Realities of Juvenile Justice in Latin America by Maximo Langer and Mary Beloff
Here is the abstract for the first of these chapters which serves as an introduction to the book:
This chapter uses the global portrait of juvenile justice found in the rest of this volume — that includes chapters on juvenile justice in China, Europe, India, Latin America, Muslim-majority states, Poland, Scandinavia, South Africa, and South Korea and Japan — to discuss possible explanations for the almost ubiquitous existence of separate juvenile courts around the world. After briefly analyzing the role that power, emulation, and structural factors have played in the global diffusion of the juvenile court, we discuss what theory of juvenile courts may underlie their actual practices. We argue that the main function that juvenile courts have performed has been letting juvenile offenders grow up out of crime and that such a function also provides the best justification for the continuing existence of these courts.
Monday, July 25, 2016
Increases in murders reported in many major cities from police chiefs
This new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Murders Rise in 29 of Largest U.S. Cities in First Half of 2016: Homicides in Chicago and Orlando, Fla., contribute to much of the increase," reports on the latest bad news about homicide totals for the start of 2016. Here are the details:
The number of murders in 29 of the nation’s largest cities rose during the first six months of the year, according to the results of a survey released by the Major Cities Chiefs Association on Monday.
Overall, homicides jumped 15% in the 51 large cities that submitted crime data, compared with the same year-ago period. But over half that increase was driven by spikes in two cities: Chicago, which has struggled with rising gang violence, and Orlando, where Omar Mateen fatally shot 49 people at a nightclub in June.
A continuing increase in some cities worries city officials who had been hoping last year’s surge was an aberration in the decades-long decline in the country’s murder rate. After peaking in the 1990s, violent crime rates in the U.S. have in recent years been at their lowest levels in four decades, according to FBI data.
Donald Trump seized on the murder rise in his speech at last week’s Republican National Convention, saying that “decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.”
But Darrel Stephens, executive director of Major Cities Chiefs Association, said it’s still too early to say if the numbers signal real change. “It’s going to take a bit more to say this trend of 20 years is being reversed,” said Mr. Stephens, adding that there may be a rise in a few cities, “but not on a national basis.”
Homicides in the first six months also declined in 22 cities, including some that saw big jumps in 2015, such as Milwaukee, where killings dropped 26%, according to the survey. In addition, New York City, which has seen a decline in homicides this year, and some other large cities weren’t included because they hadn’t yet submitted their data, Mr. Stephens said.
Increased gang violence is playing a role in places like Chicago, which saw 316 homicides in the first half of 2016, compared with 211 in the first half of 2015....
The rise in homicides in some large cities last year set off considerable debate between police officials and criminologists over what was behind the increase. Some have attributed increases to the “Ferguson effect,” a theory that increases in crime can be attributed to the reluctance of police to engage in confrontation in the face of protests around the U.S. since the 2014 killing of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer....
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, wrote in a Justice Department-funded study released in June that the Ferguson effect was a “plausible” explanation for the sudden jump in killings in 2015.
Mr. Rosenfeld also put forth a second version of the Ferguson effect, writing that the police killings in Ferguson and elsewhere “activated longstanding grievances” in minority communities about police and the criminal-justice system that led to a “legitimacy crisis” and a rise in crime. “Both may have contributed,” said Mr. Rosenfeld, who cautioned that more research and data is needed.
How much (and what kind of) criminal justice reform talk can we expect to hear at the DNC?
I am going to be off-line much of today, and thus I am genuinely interested in having folks spend the day discussion what I see as the most interesting criminal justice reform question for this work-week. I was not too surprised that we heard relatively little criminal justice reform discussion at the RNC last week, although arguably the emphasis by GOP Prez nominee Donald Trump on being the "law and order" candidate was an indication that the new GOP leader is inclined to get Republicans back to "tough-and-tougher" rhetoric and realities.
Meanwhile, Democratic Prez nominee Hillary Clinton seems likely to be eager to reach out (and motivate) voters interesting in significant sentencing (and police and marijuana) reforms, and these topics even were addressed this past weekend when she officially announced her VP pick Tim Kaine. Consequently, I am expecting to hear a lot more express and significant reform talk at the DNC than at the RNC. But how much, and what will be the main focus and more-frequent "talking points"?
In addition to hoping many folks will respond to this post with predictions about what we will hear at the DNC, I would also love to see folks explain just what they are hoping to hear. So if you could, for example, script two of three sentences that would be in the speech to be given by Clinton or Kaine or others, what would they be?
A few recent related posts:
- "Two Parties, Two Platforms on Criminal Justice: The Republicans nod to reforms, then take a sharp right turn."
- Why Donald Trump's "law and order" vision and voice is so important to advocates of sentencing reform (and marijuana reform)
"Does 'Ban the Box' Help or Hurt Low-Skilled Workers? Statistical Discrimination and Employment Outcomes When Criminal Histories Are Hidden"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Jennifer Doleac and Benjamin Hansen now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Jurisdictions across the United States have adopted “ban the box” (BTB) policies preventing employers from conducting criminal background checks until late in the job application process. Their goal is to improve employment outcomes for those with criminal records, with a secondary goal of reducing racial disparities in employment. However, removing information about job applicants’ criminal histories could lead employers who don’t want to hire ex-offenders to try to guess who the ex-offenders are, and avoid interviewing them. In particular, employers might avoid interviewing young, low-skilled, black and Hispanic men when criminal records are not observable. This would worsen employment outcomes for these already-disadvantaged groups.
In this paper, we use variation in the details and timing of state and local BTB policies to test BTB’s effects on employment for various demographic groups. We find that BTB policies decrease the probability of being employed by 3.4 percentage points (5.1%) for young, low-skilled black men, and by 2.3 percentage points (2.9%) for young, low-skilled Hispanic men. These findings support the hypothesis that when an applicant’s criminal history is unavailable, employers statistically discriminate against demographic groups that are likely to have a criminal record.
Sunday, July 24, 2016
Covering VP candidate Tim Kaine's history on crime and punishment issues (especially the death penalty)
The folks at FAMM now have this very helpful and timely webpage reviewing some recent and prior statements by Tim Kaine, the former Viginia Gov and current US Senator whom Hillary Clinton has now picked as her running mate. That page also provides this interesting accounting of "Kaine’s record on criminal justice issues"
- 1999: As Mayor of Richmond, Kaine was a supporter of Project Exile, a program launched in Virginia’s capital city as a response to rising crime rates that moved gun offenses involving drugs and convicted felons out of state courts and into the federal system, where gun offenders would face mandatory minimum sentences. Kaine claimed the program was restoring hope to the city, telling the New York Times, “In Richmond, there has been an intense need for people to become believers in their own community. High crime has been our psychological downer. But Project Exile is driving the crime rate down, and that is starting to make Richmonders believers again.”
- 2005: During his gubernatorial campaign, Kaine’s website highlighted the role of Project Exile in making Virginia’s capital safer: “Richmond’s success in reducing violent crime was built in part on Project Exile. Project Exile is based on a strong working relationship among federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to maximize the punishment of criminals who commit crimes with guns.”
- 2007: As Governor, Kaine blocked death penalty expansion bills that would allow capital charges to be brought against accomplices and those indirectly involved in first degree murders.
- 2012: During his senatorial campaign, Kaine said he would “continue Senator Jim Webb’s effort to focus attention on the overuse of incarceration in this nation, especially as applied to African-American males.”
- 2014: Senator Kaine supported the Smarter Sentencing Act, saying it “would reduce mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders and give judges greater authority to determine the right sentence for the crime – saving billions in taxpayer dollars and putting faith back into our criminal justice system.”
- 2015: Senator Kaine supported the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, the most recent major bipartisan attempt at criminal justice reform. He said the country has “an embarrassingly high number of people in prison compared to other countries” and that he believed reform could “reduce the costs of incarceration and promote fairness within our criminal justice system without compromising public safety.”
In addition, a number of mainstream and new media sources have now run a number of articles about Kaine's criminal justice history (most of which, notably, are focused on the death penalty). Here are headlines and links:
From BuzzFeed News here, "Tim Kaine Has A Long, Complicated History With The Death Penalty"
From the Huffington Post here, "As Governor, Tim Kaine Stepped In To Halt The Execution Of A Mentally Incompetent Man"
From the New York Times here, "On Death Penalty Cases, Tim Kaine Revealed Inner Conflict"
From Reuters here, "Kaine's crime-busting past may hurt Clinton's outreach to blacks"
Two new US Sentencing Commission "Quick Facts" on federal gun sentencing
The US Sentencing Commission late last week released two new Quick Facts publications, which are designed to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format." Here are links to the latest publications and their summary description from the USSC:
In fiscal year 2015, there were 2,119 offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) accounting for 3.0% of all offenders sentenced under the guidelines. The number of offenders convicted of multiple counts of section 924(c) has decreased from 174 offenders in fiscal year 2011 (7.5% of all section 924(c) offenders) to 119 in fiscal year 2015 (5.6% of all section 924(c) offenders).
In fiscal year 2015, there were 4,984 offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) accounting for 7.0% of all offenders sentenced under the guidelines. The number of offenders sentenced under this statute has steadily decreased over the last five years from 5,761 in fiscal year 2011 to 4,984 offenders in fiscal year 2015.
Saturday, July 23, 2016
Split Virginia Supreme Court deems unconstitutional mass effort by Gov to restore felon voting rights
As reported in this local article, the "Supreme Court of Virginia on Friday struck down Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to 206,000 felons, dealing a severe blow to what the governor has touted as one of his proudest achievements in office." Here is more about the ruling:
In a 4-3 ruling, the court declared McAuliffe’s order unconstitutional, saying it amounts to a unilateral rewrite and suspension of the state’s policy of lifetime disenfranchisement for felons. The court ordered the Virginia Department of Elections to “cancel the registration of all felons who have been invalidly registered” under McAuliffe’s April 22 executive order and subsequent orders.
As of this week, 11,662 felons had registered to vote under McAuliffe’s orders. The court gave a cancellation deadline of Aug. 25.
McAuliffe, a Democrat, took the sweeping action in April, saying he was doing away with an unusually restrictive voting policy that has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans. In a legal challenge, Republican leaders argued McAuliffe overstepped his power by issuing a blanket restoration order for violent and nonviolent felons with no case-by-case review.
The court majority found that McAuliffe did indeed overstep his authority. “Never before have any of the prior 71 Virginia governors issued a clemency order of any kind — including pardons, reprieves, commutations, and restoration orders — to a class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request,” Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons wrote in the majority opinion. “To be sure, no governor of this commonwealth, until now, has even suggested that such a power exists. And the only governors who have seriously considered the question concluded that no such power exists.”
In response, McAuliffe said he will “expeditiously” sign roughly 13,000 individual rights restoration orders for people who have already registered to vote. He said he’ll continue until rights are restored for all 200,000 people affected by the original order.
“Once again, the Virginia Supreme Court has placed Virginia as an outlier in the struggle for civil and human rights,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “It is a disgrace that the Republican leadership of Virginia would file a lawsuit to deny more than 200,000 of their own citizens the right to vote. And I cannot accept that this overtly political action could succeed in suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women who had rejoiced with their families earlier this year when their rights were restored.”...
Republicans have attacked the order as a political power grab, accusing McAuliffe of trying to help his friend and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton win a swing state by adding thousands of Democratic-leaning voters to the polls. GOP leaders called the court’s ruling a victory for the rule of law. “He spent 90 days bragging about this being the high point of his governorship,” said Del. Robert B. Bell, R-Albemarle, who’s running for attorney general in 2017. “And the court made it very clear that he acted unconstitutionally.”
In a joint statement, House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, and Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, said: “Our nation was founded on the principles of limited government and separation of powers. Those principles have once again withstood assault from the executive branch. This opinion is a sweeping rebuke of the governor’s unprecedented assertion of executive authority.” Howell and Norment were two of the plaintiffs behind the legal challenge. They argued that their future election bids could be tainted by participation of invalid voters.
Justices Cleo E. Powell and S. Bernard Goodwyn — the court’s two African-Americans — dissented from the ruling, arguing the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case. Justice William C. Mims also dissented over the issue of standing, saying the court lacked sufficient evidence — most notably the governor’s list of the 206,000 felons affected — to fully consider the order’s impact....
Republicans argued McAuliffe lacks the authority to issue blanket restorations, but Attorney General Mark R. Herring and top constitutional scholar A.E. Dick Howard said McAuliffe was on firm legal ground. “The majority’s opinion is terribly disappointing, especially for the thousands of Virginians who will be thrown off the voter rolls after experiencing the joy, excitement, and fulfillment of getting back their voice and their vote,” Herring said in an emailed statement.
McAuliffe’s Democratic allies blasted Republicans for celebrating a legal victory that will block thousands of Virginians from voting. “It’s a sad and disappointing day when the Virginia Supreme Court bows to political pressure from right-wing ideologues who would rather bar citizens from the polls than compete for every vote,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia. Scholl said the “deciding vote” was Justice Stephen R. McCullough, whom Republicans elected to the Supreme Court this year after refusing to approve McAuliffe’s interim pick, former Justice Jane Marum Roush, for a full term. McCullough sided with the majority....
The legal rebuke comes at an awkward time for McAuliffe, who is scheduled to speak at next week’s Democratic National Convention celebrating Clinton and her newly selected running mate, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. Clinton praised McAuliffe after the order in April. When he was Virginia’s governor, Kaine declined to issue a blanket rights restoration order like the one pursued by McAuliffe, despite pressure from activists. The Supreme Court ruling referenced Kaine’s position, saying Kaine “correctly understood” he did not have blanket restoration power.
The full opinion from the split Virginia Supreme Court is available at this link.
Michigan prosecutor wants 71-year-old "juve lifer" to still have no chance of parole
This local AP article, headlined "Prosecutor: No sentencing break for Michigan's oldest juvenile lifer," reports on the disinclination of a Michigan prosecutor to be open to considering even the possibility of parole for an elderly prisoner given LWOP more than a half-century ago. Here are the details:
Oakland County prosecutor Jessica Cooper said Friday she'll seek another no-parole sentence for a 71-year-old man who is the oldest so-called juvenile lifer in the Michigan prison system. Sheldry Topp has been in prison for nearly 54 years. He was 17 in 1962 when he ran away from a state hospital, broke into an Oakland County home and fatally stabbed the owner.
Life sentences with no chance for parole are no longer automatic for anyone under 18. Juvenile lifers have a right to new hearings as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision. Judges now have discretion and can consider an offender's childhood, education and a variety of other factors.
Prosecutors across Michigan are filing their sentencing proposals this week in more than 350 cases.
The prosecutor said she'll seek no-parole sentences again for 44 people who are in prison, including Topp. She declined to explain her position in Topp's case during an interview with The Associated Press, referring a reporter to a court filing, which wasn't available after business hours.
"When we talk about doing due diligence, we did an incredible amount of due diligence in these cases," said Cooper, a former judge. "The cases that we've been reviewing are not the kids who were at the wrong place at the wrong time. We're talking about stabbings, shootings and strangulations. ... I'm shocked."
Topp, who turns 72 in September, is in a prison in Muskegon. In a recent court filing, attorney Deborah LaBelle said he was in a hospital with heart problems. She couldn't be reached for comment Friday. In 1987 and 2007, the state parole board recommended that Topp's sentence be reduced, but governors declined.
Meanwhile, in Wayne County — the state's largest — prosecutor Kym Worthy said she would seek no-parole sentences again for at least 60 prisoners who were convicted of murder as teens.
Worthy said she'll ask that 81 people be given a certain number of years in prison instead of a no-parole sentence. That could lead to freedom for some who already have been locked up for decades.
Friday, July 22, 2016
"Possession, Child Pornography and Proportionality: Criminal Liability for Aggregate Harm Offenses"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new article authored by Anthony Dillof and now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Federal prosecution of individuals for possessing child pornography has risen steadily and dramatically over the last twenty years. As the number of prosecutions has increased, so have the penalties. Today a typical defendant charged with possessing child pornography can expect a seven-year prison sentence. The article considers whether such sentences are just, fair and proportionate. To answer this question, the article adopts a retributivist perspective on punishment. Retributivism, in turn, requires evaluating the wrongfulness of the conduct to be punished.
The article argues that while the possession of child pornography by a large group of persons in aggregate creates significant social harm — for example, a robust market for the production of child pornography — individual acts of possession, considered at the margin, have only a trivial impact. This raises a serious problem of disproportionality in punishment for retributivists. The article attempts to solve this problem by developing a theory of aggregate harm offenses. According to this theory, even acts that have little marginal impact may constitute serious moral wrongs insofar as they violate the principle of rule consequentialism. Rule consequentialism requires acting pursuant to a rule with desirable social consequences. The article develops a rationale for rule consequentialism and explores how rule consequentialist norms may be used to justify and explain not only child pornography possession laws, but also a broad group of superficially unrelated criminal offenses.
Thursday, July 21, 2016
California DA makes the case for mending rather than ending California's capital punishment system
The District Attorney of Sacramento County has this new commentary urging citizens of her state to vote for reform rather than repeal of the death penalty. The piece is headlined "California’s broken death penalty system can be fixed," and here are excerpts:
In 1978, California enacted today’s California death penalty statute, the so-called Briggs Initiative. Now, Ron Briggs supports repealing the statute his “family wrote,” but his argument reads more like a surrender to death penalty abolitionists (“Death penalty is destructive to California”; Forum, July 10). Instead of waving a white flag, Briggs should endorse Proposition 66, the Death Penalty Reform and Savings Act of 2016, as a worthy successor to his family’s work. This initiative deals with the concerns Briggs raises about California’s death penalty system.
The reason that no executions have occurred in California for 10 years is the state’s delay in drafting regulations for a method of execution. Otherwise, there could have been at least 15 sentences carried out during the past decade. It’s outrageous that victims’ families were forced to sue the state to draft these regulations. Proposition 66 will prevent biased and unsympathetic politicians and government bureaucrats from interfering with this process.
Proposition 66 also addresses concerns about how death row inmates occupy their time, requiring them to work or lose their privileges. If they owe restitution, it will come out of their wages. The proposal makes other significant reforms as well. It addresses the backlog of cases at the state level by expanding the pool of qualified counsel for death row inmates. The initiative expedites review of prisoners’ complaints by returning their cases to the original trial court and prompts the Judicial Council to develop standards for the completion of appeals in state court in five years. Victims’ families will have the right to sue to force them to meet deadlines.
Briggs believes abolition will benefit victims’ survivors by closing cases and sparing them further “wounds.” That is offensive and presumptuous. In our experience, most survivors want “justice” for the murderers of their family members. Repealing the death penalty will not heal these peoples’ wounds; it keeps them permanently open.
Briggs naively touts life without parole as a sufficient alternative to the death penalty. He forgets that the last murderer executed in California, Clarence Ray Allen, was sentenced to death for the murder of three people, which he planned while already serving a life sentence for murder. Life imprisonment was not enough to protect the public from Allen....
Finally, Briggs is dead wrong to assert that the death penalty has been conclusively shown not to deter crime. Experience and common sense confirm a deterrent effect. Briggs risks lives on the unproven idea that the death penalty does not deter murder and that life sentences will protect public safety. Rather than capitulating to abolitionist arguments, he should support his families’ legacy and endorse Proposition 66.
Prior related posts:
- California voters in November to have "mend it or end it" death penalty initiative options
- California initiative to reform death penalty in state qualifies for ballot (and will compete with repeal initiative)
Guest posting from Prof Mark Osler with advice to US Sentencing Commission on revising drug sentencing guidelines
Earlier this month, federal sentencing reform guru Mark Osler informed me that he put together some suggestions for the US Sentencing Commission in response to its request for public comment about proposed priorities. In turn, I urged Mark to put together a guest-post for this space to ensure his insights can be seen outside the Beltway. Here is what he sent my way:
Each year, the United States Sentencing Commission goes through a seasonal cycle; it starts and ends in May, when the Commission publishes proposed amendments (closing out one cycle) while setting out proposed priorities and inviting public comments to begin the next cycle. This year the public comment period lasts until July 25. You can get more complete information at www.ussc.gov.
The proposed priorities for this year are strikingly broad and encouraging for reform advocates. They include some specific items, including “consideration of expanding the “safety valve” at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), and elimination of the mandatory “stacking” of penalties under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c),” but also some fascinating broader priorities. The line that really caught my attention was this one: “the Commission intends to study possible approaches to (A) simplify the operation of the guidelines, promote proportionality, and reduce sentencing disparities; and (B) appropriately account for the defendant’s role, culpability, and relevant conduct.”
For those fascinated by federal sentencing, could there be a more enticing invitation?
I have submitted my own comment, which Doug has kindly linked here [down below]. It grows out of the response I got to a New York Times op-ed I wrote in 2014, suggesting that the weight of narcotics used in a conspiracy is a lousy proxy for the culpability of any one conspirator, and that it would be much better to instead simply enhance sentences for those individuals who make the most money from a narcotics operation. After that piece ran, I was surprised at the group I heard from the most: sentencing judges. A few pointed out (correctly) that they had proposed this decades ago, while others simply affirmed the problem with weight of narcotics as the central metric for a drug sentence. And, of course, they had depressing stories to share of sentences they had been forced to give out (pre-Booker) to low-level players in large narcotics organizations.
Here is how my comment begins:
Currently, because of the structure and importance of the Drug Quantity Table at Guideline §2D1.1(c), the primary input of sentence computation in narcotics cases is the weight of the drugs at issue, either by an individual or conspiracy. However, weight of narcotics is not a good proxy for culpability because it unfairly punishes the actions of too many low-level traffickers. If a true kingpin imports 150 kilograms of cocaine into the country and pays a trucker $1,000 to haul it, both of them fall under Guideline §2D1.1(c)(2), which provides for a base offense level of 36. While guideline sections §3B1.1 & 1.2 (distinguishing roles in the offense) provide some level of differentiation, that differentiation will likely be at most a swing of six offense levels.
We all know that the one-off trucker is not nearly as culpable as the kingpin, but the guidelines don’t reflect that because weight-driven sentences are mandated by Guideline §2D1.1(c). Sentencing judges have chafed at the resulting failure of proportionality ever since the beginning of the guideline era.
The false proxy of narcotics weight creates problems with proportionality and disparities because it too often obscures actual role and culpability. Moreover, it imposes a complexity to the guidelines that is unnecessary.
After discussing the benefits and challenges of making such a change, I suggest three alternate ways to amend the guidelines and accomplish this goal.
Perhaps you agree with me, maybe you don’t, or it could be that you think there is a much cleaner route to simplicity, proportionality, and the reduction of disparities. I urge you not only to read the rest of my comment, but to submit your own while the window is still open.
"An Overlooked Key to Reversing Mass Incarceration: Reforming the Law to Reduce Prosecutorial Power in Plea Bargaining"
The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Cynthia Alkon. Here is the abstract:
The need to “do something” about mass incarceration is now widely recognized. When President Obama announced plans to reform federal criminal legislation, he focused on the need to change how we handle non-violent drug offenders and parole violators. Previously, former Attorney General Eric Holder announced policies to make federal prosecutors “smart on crime.” These changes reflect, as President Obama noted, the increasing bipartisan consensus on the need for reform and the need to reduce our incarceration rates. However, proposals about what to reform, such as President Obama’s, tend to focus on some parts of criminal sentencing and on prosecutorial behavior as stand-alone issues. These reform suggestions do not consider the fact that ninety-four to ninety-seven percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea bargains and how the use of this process influences incarceration rates. Prosecutors hold extraordinary power in the criminal justice system. They not only decide what cases get filed, they also decide what charges and enhancements are added, and whether there will be a plea offer. The structure of our criminal justice system, at both the state and federal level, strengthens prosecutorial power and create a plea bargaining environment with extreme power imbalances. Prosecutors use this power to put pressure on defendants to accept plea deals, which contribute to the high incarceration rates in the United States. Therefore, any reform intended to make a meaningful reduction in incarceration rates should recognize the power that prosecutors hold and include reform aimed at changing this underlying structure.
As is well documented, the United States has high incarceration rates and imprisons more people than any nation in the world. African American and Latino communities suffer even higher incarceration rates. Our incarceration rates increased dramatically in the 1980s and into the 1990s. Some commentators identify the “war on drugs” as a major contributor to increasing incarceration rates during this period. Others suggest that the increase is due to a number of factors including changes in criminal codes that increased potential penalties for crimes across the board, not only for drug crimes. One scholar, John F. Pfaff, concludes that the single biggest reason for increased incarceration rates since 1990 is not an increase in arrests, or harsher sentencing, or the drug war, but instead is an increase in the percentage of felony filings per arrest. Pfaff concludes that the reason there are more filings is because prosecutors are filing a higher percentage of cases and therefore prosecutors are the predominate reason for mass incarceration.
This article will begin by briefly describing how plea bargaining works and the often coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining that contributes to mass incarceration. This article will then discuss Pfaff’s conclusions, based on his empirical studies, that prosecutors are the key reason for mass incarceration. Building on Pfaff’s conclusions on the key role prosecutors play in mass incarceration, this article will discuss how the current structure of both state and federal codes reinforce prosecutorial power, particularly in the plea bargaining process. This article will then discuss two proposals for legislative reform that could decrease the coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining. First, this article will recommend revising how crimes are defined, reducing the number of crimes that can be charged as both misdemeanors and felonies and reducing some felonies to misdemeanors. Second, this article will recommend reducing potential punishment ranges by eliminating mandatory minimums for most crimes and for enhancements. Legislative change alone will not reverse mass incarceration, but targeted legislative reform could help to change the overly coercive atmosphere of plea bargaining. This effort can help to change the prosecutorial culture that surrounds plea bargaining and contribute to reducing incarceration rates.
Should we all share Senator Grassley's optimism about federal statutory sentencing reform's prospects?
Long time readers know my hopefulness about significant federal sentencing reform moving through the current Congress has waxed and waned, especially as key leaders and members of both houses of Congress have expressed more or less optimism about the prospects for draft legislation getting full votes. And, as this post a few weeks ago revealed, I have lately been gespecially pessimistic about the prospects for Congress to summon the spirit or find the time to get any reform bill to President Obama's desk.
But this new local article from Iowa, headlined "U.S. Sens. Grassley, Scott optimistic on sentencing reform," prompts me to become a bit more hopeful again. Here are excerpts:
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, joined by a fellow Republican lawmaker from South Carolina, is expressing optimism about the prospects for passing federal criminal sentencing reform legislation.
The senior Iowa senator spoke at a news conference Wednesday at the Des Moines International Airport with U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, who gave a powerful speech on the Senate floor last week in which he described being targeted by police because of he is black. Scott was stopped by law enforcement seven times in one year while he was an elected official, sometimes for speeding, but other times simply because he was driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or other insignificant reasons, he said.
Scott saluted Grassley's work Wednesday on justice reform issues, saying the proposed legislation has attracted a broad coalition from the far left to the far right. "This is an unusual time when we seem to have the stars aligning," he added. He described the legislation as serving the best interests of communities as well as individuals.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is authored by Grassley and co-authored by Scott. The package would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and would expand prison programs intended to reduce the likelihood that inmates will re-offend. It would also reduce sentences for inmates who successfully complete those programs. In addition, the bill would make changes to the federal justice system, such as allowing people convicted of certain crimes as juveniles to expunge their criminal records if they turn their lives around.
The bill has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Grassley, and is awaiting action by the full Senate. Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has announced the House will consider several separate pieces of legislation to address criminal justice reform. Grassley said the House proposals include addressing such issues as asset forfeiture, but he expressed confidence any differences can be ironed out in a House-Senate conference committee.
Grassley said the legislation responds to Iowans who have expressed concerns about a rising federal prison population, costs of housing them and the possibility that some people with relatively minor criminal backgrounds are receiving lengthy sentences intended for hardcore criminals. "Successfully addressing the different perspectives has not been an easy task, especially if we want to ensure that career criminals and the most violent offenders are not allowed to wreak havoc once again in their communities," Grassley said. "The work that we started more than a year ago has been a thoughtful, bipartisan deliberation that will promote opportunities to reduce recidivism while protecting our communities from violent career criminals."
My prior post expressed fear that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act was essentially dead in Congress, but I am certain Senator Grassley knows a lot more than I do about whether it may still have some legislative life left in it. I sure hope so.
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
"How Judges Think about Racial Disparities: Situational Decision-Making in the Criminal Justice System"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new article authored by Matthew Clair and Alix Winter from the jounral Criminology and available at this link. Here is the abstract:
Researchers have theorized how judges’ decision-making may result in the disproportionate presence of Blacks and Latinos in the criminal justice system. Yet, we have little evidence about how judges make sense of these disparities and what, if anything, they do to address them. By drawing on 59 interviews with state judges in a Northeastern state, we describe, and trace the implications of, judges’ understandings of racial disparities at arraignment, plea hearings, jury selection, and sentencing.
Most judges in our sample attribute disparities, in part, to differential treatment by themselves and/or other criminal justice officials, whereas some judges attribute disparities only to the disparate impact of poverty and differences in offending rates. To address disparities, judges report employing two categories of strategies: noninterventionist and interventionist. Noninterventionist strategies concern only a judge’s own differential treatment, whereas interventionist strategies concern other actors’ possible differential treatment, as well as the disparate impact of poverty and facially neutral laws.
We reveal how the use of noninterventionist strategies by most judges unintentionally reproduces disparities. Through our examination of judges’ understandings of racial disparities throughout the court process, we enhance understandings of American racial inequality and theorize a situational approach to decision-making in organizational contexts.
Why Donald Trump's "law and order" vision and voice is so important to advocates of sentencing reform (and marijuana reform)
Two new commentaries about current politics together help explain why I continue to view GOP Prez candidate Donald Trump as the most important (and also most opaque) national figure with respect to the future direction of a lot of on-going criminal justice reform movements. The full headlines of the commentaries provides a window into my thinking:
From the New Republic here, "The GOP Will Be the Party of Trump for a Long Time: He's not the outsider anymore, but the most important voice in his party."
From the Atlantic here, "The Precarious New Republican Orthodoxy on Crime: Steve Teles explains the genesis of the conservative movement for criminal-justice reform — and how the rise of Donald Trump might bring about its end."
Here are a few passages from these pieces, respectively:
From Jeet Heer: "With the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Trump’s approach to politics has become squarely mainstream in his party. The Trumpification of the GOP is not likely to go away soon. It’s rooted in some fundamental demographic facts that the party has been struggling with for decades: that it’s increasingly a party of old white people in a nation that is becoming more diverse. Even if Trump loses by a blowout in November, the party is likely to become even more Trumpified because the #NeverTrump people will have left the party — or at least become inactive — while the politicians and activists who are most responsive to his message will have stayed on. That’s how Barry Goldwater conservatism continued to be a force after his epic defeat of 1964, and it’s likely to replicate itself with Trumpism. Like it or not, the GOP will be the Party of Trump for many years to come."
From Steve Teles: Trump [i]s like a throwback to New York in the 1980s.... The Right on Crime movement depends upon, in some important ways, the transformation of the Republican Party into a more consistently anti-statist party in the wake of the Tea Party, combined with the role that evangelical leaders have played in encouraging an emphasis on second chances and forgiveness. Neither of those changes in conservatism is characteristic of the conservatism of Trump. I could imagine him going all-in on a back-to-the-80s, Charles Bronson-ish approach to crime, and if he’s able to rebrand the Republican Party in that way, that would be very troublesome [for those supportive of criminal-justice reform].
Tuesday, July 19, 2016
Federal judge refuses to accept plea of LA County Sheriff Lee Baca for obstruction because of inadequacy of maximum sentence of six months in
As reported in this lengthy Los Angeles Times piece, headlined "Judge throws out ex-L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca's plea deal, saying six months in prison not enough," a federal judge decided that a high-profile federal defendant had cut too sweet a plea deal to resolve charges of obstruction of justice. Here are the interesting details concerning a rare (but not unprecedented) district court decision:
A federal judge on Monday threw out a plea agreement that would have given former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca a maximum of six months in prison, saying the sentence was too lenient considering Baca’s role in obstructing an FBI investigation into the county jails. Addressing a downtown courtroom packed with Baca’s supporters, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson said the deal “would trivialize the seriousness of the offenses … the need for a just punishment [and] the need to deter others.”
Baca, 74, had pleaded guilty in February to a single charge of lying to federal investigators. But the former sheriff’s involvement in trying to derail the investigation reached further than that, Anderson said. At stake was what the investigators were trying to expose, Anderson said: an “us-versus-them” culture in which deputies covered up for one another and responded to inmates with enough violence to send them to the hospital.
Six months in prison for the man who ran the Sheriff’s Department “would not address the gross abuse of the public’s trust … including the need to restore the public’s trust in law enforcement and the criminal justice system,” Anderson said.
The judge said he would allow Baca to withdraw his guilty plea, setting a new hearing date for Aug. 1. The maximum sentence for the false statement charge is five years -- the same amount of time that Baca’s former No. 2, Paul Tanaka, received last month after going to trial in a related obstruction-of-justice case. Seven lower-ranking sheriff’s officials who have been convicted and sentenced in the obstruction case received a year and a half to more than three years in prison.
Baca’s plea agreement had called for a sentence ranging from probation to six months in prison. Prosecutors have said they agreed to the deal in part because of Baca’s willingness to plead guilty. Baca’s attorney, Michael Zweiback, argued that the former sheriff should not serve any prison time because he is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
Baca must now choose among several unappealing options. He could go ahead with the sentencing and accept whatever punishment Anderson has in mind. He could withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial, taking his chances with whatever charges the government might decide to bring. He could negotiate a new deal with federal prosecutors for a longer sentence that the judge would find more acceptable.
After Monday’s hearing, Zweiback said he was disappointed with the judge’s decision but hoped to resume talks with prosecutors. He said that if he cannot reach an agreement that includes a specific sentence, rather than an open-ended guilty plea, he will not leave his client’s fate in Anderson's hands. “At that point, we might as well take our chances at trial,” Zweiback said.
Baca’s Alzheimer’s could be a factor if the case heads to trial and his ability to understand the proceedings deteriorates. The trial could be put on hold if he is declared mentally incompetent. “If the government believes it’s two years in ... getting to trial and sentencing him, that could leave Mr. Baca in very bad shape,” Zweiback said....
Legal experts said Anderson's move was unusual but not unexpected, considering his law-and-order reputation and comments he has made during sentencing in the related cases. “We already knew the defendant was facing a federal judge who believed these kinds of acts were as serious as they come,” said Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who was the executive director of a county commission that investigated brutality by jail deputies and who served as a top aide to Baca’s successor, Jim McDonnell, during his first year in office....
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor, said Anderson was not likely to be “swayed by sympathy or the emotional aspects of the case.” She said he was likely to be especially unforgiving of law enforcement officials who did not fulfill their duties. “He views this type of abuse of trust more seriously, notwithstanding Baca’s health concerns,” Levenson said.
Federal sentencing law provides that people who are higher up in an organization -- mob bosses, for example — are more culpable than lower-level members, said Joseph Akrotirianakis, another former federal prosecutor now in private practice. “Today’s events are not entirely surprising in light of the sentence that Mr. Tanaka received,” Akrotirianakis said. “That was not a fact known to the government at the time that Baca entered into his plea.”...
Brian Moriguchi, head of the union that represents Sheriff’s Department supervisors, said Baca is responsible for the actions of his subordinates, especially Tanaka, and should receive more than six months considering the sentences the others will serve.
Many sheriff's deputies have been closely watching the criminal prosecutions to see if the punishments for former bosses would approach those of lower-ranking employees following their orders. “It’s not only widespread in the department, it’s widespread in society — the feeling that those who have power seem to be exempt from the same rules as everyone else,” Moriguchi said.
Perhaps previewing coming SCOTUS work in Beckles, four Eleventh Circuit judges make case against circuit's refusal to apply Johnson to guidelines
In this post after the US Supreme Court ruled that a key clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act violated "the Constitution’s prohibition of vague criminal laws" in Johnson v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) (available here), I flagged the question of how Johnson would impact application of the (now older, pre-reform version) career offender guideline of the US Sentencing Guidelines. Notably, the Justice Department has consistently conceded Johnson-based constitutional problems with that career offender guideline, which in turn has led to most circuit courts finding Johnson-based constitutional problems with sentences based on that guideline.
But, as noted in this post last September, an Eleventh Circuit panel in US v. Matchett, 802 F.3d 1185 (11th Cir. 2015) (available here), squarely addressed this issue and ruled that Johnson and its vagueness problem just do not apply to advisory sentencing guidelines. I considered this ruling suspect, but an amicus brief I helped put together urging en banc review in Matchett did not led to its reconsideration. As blogged here last month, though, we know have the ultimate judicial authority on this issue poised to weigh in: the final Supreme Court order list of last Term included a grant of certiorari in Beckles v. United States, No. 15-8544, which will explore whether Johnson's constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in the older, pre-reform version of the career offender guideline.
For a variety of reasons, I am expecting that SCOTUS will ultimately agree with the majority of circuits that Johnson's holding applies to the career offender guidelines and thereby reject the Eleventh Circuit's Matchett precedent. What I did not expect was that a number of Eleventh Circuit judges would set forth, in essence, some amicus briefing to SCOTUS in order to explain in detail why they think their own circuit's work in Matchett was wrong. But that is what I see via a series of recent concurring opinions in In Re: William Hunt and In re: Charles Therion Clayton, cases in which a panel felt duty-bound to reject habeas applications due to the Matchett precedent but then followed up with separate opinions by Circuit Judges Wilson and (Jill) Pryor and Rosenbaum and Martin all explaining why they think Matchett is so wrong and so troublesome as we await a SCOTUS ruling in Beckles.
If you have read this far into this post, you probably have some interest in the application of Johnson and its impact on the career offender guidelines, which in turns means you ought to find the time to read all the judicial thoughts shared in Hunt and Therion. I know that is my plan for this evening, and to whet everyone's appetite I will close this post by quoting the closing paragraph authored by Judge Pryor in these cases:
If the Supreme Court decides in Beckles that the residual clause in the career offender guideline is void for vagueness, there may be new hope for the scores of inmates who have tried to obtain relief since Johnson, only to be turned away by this Court based upon Matchett. I hope next time around we will avoid the mistakes I have identified. And I hope that, rather than being behind the march of justice, we, as our nation’s designated guardians, will be at the front.
Has the drug war really "made policing more violent"?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Democracy commentary authored by Jonathan Blanks that carries this full headline: "The War on Drugs Has Made Policing More Violent: What can be done to curb the excessive and, sometimes, predatory policing that has emerged from the Drug War?". Here are excerpts from the piece:
American policing today has become increasingly aggressive and, at times, even predatory. Policies and tactics have evolved to make police contact more confrontational. In so doing, they have increased the chances of violence and fatal uses of force. This has been particularly true of efforts aimed at fighting the Drug War. Police are incentivized to initiate unnecessary contact with pedestrians and motorists, and they do so most often against ethnic and racial minorities. Such over-policing engenders resentment among minority communities and jeopardizes public safety.
Some of the Drug War’s most disturbing images involve police officers in SWAT gear, kicking down doors, ransacking homes and endangering the lives of everyone inside during pre-dawn raids. Officers rummaging through a car for drug contraband while the driver sits helplessly on the sidewalk as onlookers drive by may be less violent, but is just as invasive and degrading. This experience can be humiliating under any circumstance, and any perception of race as playing a role in the stop piles resentment on top of humiliation.
The “pretextual” or “investigatory” stop is a common police tactic to investigate potential criminal activity — particularly drug possession and trafficking — in situations where there is no legal reason to suspect a crime is occurring. There is not a large amount of data on how often these stops produce contraband seizures, but what data there is suggests that the overwhelming majority of people who are stopped are guilty of no crime. Much like the pedestrian stops during the heyday of New York City’s “Stop and Frisk” program, most of the motorists stopped for investigatory purposes are black or Hispanic. Those who are stopped are often pressured to give consent to a search the officer has no legal right to demand.
There is evidence that some police departments, particularly state police and drug task forces in the American interior, target motorists with out-of-state plates in the hopes of finding drug proceeds and other unexplained cash. Cash-driven interdiction is the result of asset forfeiture laws that allow police departments to keep the proceeds of assets seized in connection with suspected crimes. This “policing for profit” puts budgetary concerns above public safety.
Officers are also trained to prepare for the possibility of violence in every encounter. Anti-police attacks such as the recent tragedies in Dallas and Baton Rouge heighten the fear and trepidation some officers feel in the field. While fewer police officers are feloniously killed in the line of duty per year than at almost any time in American history, officers who find themselves in stressful situations may be more likely to resort to the use of force, including deadly force, in order to maintain their sense of control during such encounters.
In short, the laws and tactics employed to fight the Drug War have transformed police officers from those who protect and serve to a force that, too often, actively searches the innocent and seizes for profit. Aggressive and antagonistic policing also increases the likelihood of disagreement, thereby increasing the possibility of escalation and the use of force that could lead to the injury or death of an innocent person. But the effects of aggressive policing extend beyond the outcome of any given police stop.
Although a majority of Americans express a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police, the same is not true across all racial and ethnic lines. Less than one-third of black respondents to a Gallup poll expressed a large amount of confidence in the police. And while a majority of Hispanics still have a lot of confidence in the police, just over 40 percent of other nonwhites do. Research by Charles Epp and others at the University of Kansas shows that support for police declines when individuals and the people they know have negative police experiences, particularly through investigatory stops.
This lack of confidence in the police can endanger communities. As Jill Leovy documented in her book Ghettoside, the poor relationships officers have with black Los Angelenos hinders homicide clearance rates and prosecutions. At the same time, the “broken windows” policing strategy that focuses on heavy enforcement of petty crimes has been shown to have no effect on the felony crime rate, the premise on which the strategy is based. Together, these create a tragic contradiction in which black communities are over-policed for drugs and petty crimes, but under-policed for homicides and other violent crimes.
I would generally agree with the suggestion that the drug war has contributed to the over-policing of many communities, particularly poorer communities, and I also fear that the drug war has contributed to strained relationships between police forces and certain communities. But I am not sure I would assert that the drug war has itself "made policing more violent": rather, based in part on experiences during alcohol Prohibition a century ago, I would be more inclined to assert that efforts to treat drug use and abuse through blanket prohibitions and criminal justice interventions creates the conditions for a society that has less respect for criminal laws and for police efforts to enforce order, and that in turn makes everyone involved in this part of the criminal justice system more prone to look to violence rather than to law as a means for securing order.
Some prior related posts:
- Senator Rand Paul blames ugliness of Ferguson on the ugliness of big CJ government
- Is an end to the modern drug war the only real way to prevent future Fergusons?
- Senator Rand Paul links Ferguson tragedy to harms of the modern drug war
- After Ferguson, can and should marijuana legalization and drug war reform become a unifying civil rights movement?
Nearly four years(!?!) in federal prison for MLB scout who hacked into rival team's research and notes
As reported in this local article, headlined "Former Cardinals scouting director sentenced to 46 months for hacking Astros database," a notable defendant got a significant federal prison sentence for some illegal corportate espionage. Here are some of the details:
The former St. Louis Cardinals scouting director who admitted he hacked accounts of the Houston Astros to gain insight into their operations was sentenced Monday afternoon to 46 months in prison.
Chris Correa pleaded guilty in January to five counts of unauthorized access to a protected computer. As part of his plea, Correa admitted to using the accounts of three Astros employees to view scouting reports, amateur player evaluations, notes on trade discussions and proposed bonuses for draft picks. The information he accessed was given an estimated value of $1.7 million by the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Correa, 36, also admitted taking measures to conceal his identity. The sentence includes two years of supervised release and restitution payment of $279,038.65. He will remain free until he is to report to prison, in two to six weeks....
During his guilty plea six months ago, Correa contended he hacked into the Astros accounts to see if former Cardinals employees had taken proprietary data or statistical models to use in their new positions with the Astros. Correa told prosecutors he found evidence that it did occur, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson told the Post-Dispatch at that time....
Giles Kibbe, general counsel for the Astros, said after the sentencing that Correa accessed the Houston team’s database 60 times on 35 different days. “I don’t know what he saw or thought he saw,” Kibbe said, adding that what was clear from listening to U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes during the sentencing is this: “The Astros were victims in this case.”...
Houston and its general manager, Jeff Luhnow, who began his baseball career with the Cardinals more than a decade ago, have repeatedly denied that Luhnow or any other former Cardinals employees brought information to the Astros. “The Astros refute Mr. Correa’s statement that our database contained any information that was proprietary to the St. Louis Cardinals,” the team said in a statement in January. Along with the U.S. attorney’s investigation, in which no other member of the Cardinals’ organizations was charged, the team completed an internal investigation; its outcome was Correa’s dismissal a year ago....
Correa read a four-minute statement to the judge before Hughes handed down his sentence. “I behaved shamefully,” Correa said, in apologizing to the Astros. “The whole episode represents the worst thing I’ve ever done by far.”
As he continued reading, offering an apology to his family with the promise to “regain your trust,” Hughes stopped Correa, asking him to turn around and speak directly to family members attending the hearing. Correa did so, his voice breaking as he repeated his apology. Correa said that because of his actions, he lost his career and his house, and he will work with his wife to rebuild “a quiet life of integrity.”
Hughes chastised Correa several times for his actions, comparing them to middle-school behavior. The judge used as an example a teacher asking Correa if he threw the eraser to which Correa would justify the action by saying: “Bobby did, too!”
“I hope it didn’t work then. It’s not going to work now,” Hughes said. The judge likened Correa’s hacking actions to altering a check by adding extra zeroes “and wiping out someone’s bank account.” Hughes also disclosed in court that Correa had been using prescription drugs without a prescription since the hacking charges, and that he could also have been prosecuted for that crime.
Hughes noted that Correa had taken college classes in ethics, asking: “At any time did you think hacking the Astros’ computers and using other people’s passwords was ethical?”
“No, your honor,” Correa said. Correa left the courthouse without comment, climbing into the passenger seat of a white SUV that was quickly driven away....
As part of his plea in January, Correa admitted to illicitly accessing Houston’s database through three accounts from at least March 2013 to the end of June 2014. He began by accessing the email account of one Astros employee who used to work for the Cardinals, referred to in the documents as “Victim A.” Although never mentioned by name in the documents, two of the former employees being described are believed to be Luhnow and Sig Mejdal. Both were key architects in the early days of the Cardinals’ analytic departments, and both are now baseball operations execs in Houston.
Correa took advantage of the fact that “Victim A” had used a password for his Astros email that was similar to the one he used with the Cardinals. He had gained the password when “Victim A” turned in his Cardinals laptop before leaving the team. Correa was able to access the accounts of two other Houston employees and through them see information in a database nicknamed “Ground Control.” On March 24, 2013, Correa viewed an Excel file of every amateur player eligible for the draft as well as the Astros’ internal evaluations and the scouts’ proposed bonuses to offer the players. He also looked at the Astros’ evaluations of Cardinals’ prospects.
That June, during the draft, Correa entered Ground Control and filtered the Astros’ information on players not yet drafted. He also looked at specific pages for two players, neither of whom the Cardinals drafted.
During that visit he looked at Houston’s scouting information for three of the eight players the Cardinals’ selected the previous day in rounds three through 10. At baseball’s trade deadline, July 31, Correa peered into Houston’s notes on trade discussions. In March 2014, he again entered the database and looked at 118 pages of what court documents called “confidential information.”
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak and other team officials have stated they did not know about the breaches until investigators alerted them in early 2015.
I have reprinted the details of this "hacker's crime" because I am struggling to see what aggravating factors justified a nearly four-year prison sentence for a white-collar offenders who would appear to present no obvious risk to public safety and who has admitted his misdeeds and seems to show genuine remorse for his computer crimes. I sumrise from the press description here that the the defendant's federal sentencing guidelines range was driven up significantly by the U.S. Attorney's determination that the "estimated value" of corporate information accessed here was $1.7 million. But the fact that the defendant was ordered to pay less than $300K in restitution suggest that the actual harm to the Cardinals was far less than the economic number that appears to have driven the defendant's sentence up so much under the applicable sentencing guidelines.
Because I have not done a careful study of lots of recent computer crime cases, I am not sufficiently informed about whether this particular defendant's crime was distinctly bad or whether his sentence is distinctly severe. But I do know that modern problems in the US with mass incarceration is aggravated when we now have persons who pose no threat to public safety and who commit crimes that seem to have a relatively small impact on a huge rich company getting sent away to federal prison for a really long period of time.
July 19, 2016 in Examples of "over-punishment", Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (30)
"Two Parties, Two Platforms on Criminal Justice: The Republicans nod to reforms, then take a sharp right turn."
The title of this post is the title of this timely new piece by Maurice Chammah, which includes a blow-by-blow accounting of how the party platforms have changed on criminal justice issues since 2012. Here is how the piece sets up the comparative look at how time changes platforms:
The 2016 Republican and Democratic party platforms — the GOP’s approved Monday night, the Democrats’ still in draft form — swing hard to the right and left, with Republicans amplifying their traditional positions against gay marriage, abortion, transgender rights, and immigration, and Democrats calling for expanded public healthcare and higher education, and a $15 minimum wage. Platforms are not binding on candidates, but they distill a consensus of the forces within the party at this point in history. That’s particularly clear this year on the subjects of crime and punishment.
In the new Democratic party platform, the fingerprints of the Black Lives Matter movement and Bernie Sanders are apparent, in calls for independent investigations of police-involved shootings, more body cameras, and training in de-escalation. There is a declaration that “states that want to decriminalize marijuana should be able to do so.” There is also a call for the end of the death penalty, something President Obama and Hillary Clinton have not endorsed. Parts of the Democratic draft platform clearly repudiate the tough language their party embraced a generation ago, when their current candidate’s husband was president. The mother of Sandra Bland, who died at a Texas jail last year and became a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement, is scheduled to speak at their convention next week in Philadelphia.
The Republican document reflects recent tensions in conservative circles. It includes the language of conservatives who call for reducing incarceration — influential Republican patrons like the Koch brothers, politicians like Rick Perry, Rand Paul and Newt Gingrich — but it also includes plenty of traditional invocations of law and order. An ambitious bipartisan sentencing reform effort in Congress, which Sen. Ted Cruz supported and then abandoned, has been whittled down and allowed to languish. And it was opponents of that bill including Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke (who regularly attacks the "myths" of justice reform) who were in the lineup Monday night in Cleveland, where the evening’s theme was “Make America Safe Again.” It was those figures who dominated the party’s televised presentation.
To feel the tension, consider the 2016 passage on mandatory minimum sentences, which says such sentences served a good purpose and should only be rolled back sparingly: "In the past, judicial discretion about sentences led to serious mistakes concerning dangerous criminals. Mandatory minimum sentencing became an important tool for keeping them off the streets. Modifications to it should be targeted toward particular categories, especially nonviolent offenders and persons with drug, alcohol, or mental health issues, and should require disclosure by the courts of any judicial departure from the State’s sentencing requirements."
Conservative criminal justice reformers, who have gathered under the banner of “Right on Crime,” had gotten brief nods to rehabilitation and non-prison sentences for drug crimes into their 2008 and 2012 platforms. An April 2016 resolution they promoted, which was adopted by the Republican National Committee, points out that despite a massive growth in incarceration, many who are released from prison commit new crimes, meaning prisons might not be the best investment in public safety. They added language acknowledging the success of conservative lawmakers in traditionally red states to reduce incarceration and save money. “90% of the prisoners in this country are not federal,” says Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, “so it’s meaningful to talk about the experimentation and successes in the states.”
The rift in conservative circles was apparent when the 112 members of the full platform committee edited the document last week in Cleveland. At one point, April Newland, a delegate from the Virgin Islands, proposed adding a line supporting a national registry of child murderers, which had been in the 2012 platform. She described how her brother’s three and five year-old children were murdered by a man who went on to be released from prison, moved near a school, and molested more victims. Other delegates pushed back. “A federal mandate doesn’t work,” Maryland delegate JoeyLynn Hough said. “So, I’m sorry about your family, but I don’t think this is the answer.”
The committee also added support for “mens rea” reform, an effort to force prosecutors to prove a defendant intended to commit a crime, as well as strong language supporting drug treatment programs, particularly for first-time offenders. In other areas, the new platform’s language took a different tack, condemning the Supreme Court for limiting use of the death penalty, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch for her “present campaign of harassment against police forces around the country.”
At one of the hearings, delegate Giovanni Cicione, an attorney from Rhode Island, proposed language encouraging lawmakers to “fairly assess the social and economic costs of the failure of drug prohibition, and recognize that our states are sending a clear signal that a new approach is long overdue.”
“We have created with drug prohibition a multi-billion dollar underground economy, and a generation of Al Capones,” Cicione told the other delegates. “And if you want to respond to the Black Lives Matter protesters, if you want to respond to the families of those police officers who died in Dallas, if you want to respond to the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile... we can’t answer these questions without explaining how we demean and weaken law enforcement by forcing them to enforce unworkable laws.”
He admits he may have gone overboard in bringing up Black Lives Matter, and his suggestion failed. North Carolina delegate Ron Rabin worried his state “could be regionally surrounded by states where the use of drugs is legal and they come into our state to harass.” Cicione didn’t expect to win, but he did notice that the the average ages of the yes and no votes were “separated by 40 years,” which to him signalled that reformers will eventually get their way. “Those of us who grew up in a more tolerant environment about drugs are less afraid of them,” he said.
Monday, July 18, 2016
Detailing the steady growth in registered sex offenders in Texas
Last week, the Austin American-Statesman had this lengthy and effective article highlighting the history and modern realities of the sex offender registry in Texas. The piece is headlined "Program to corral ballooning sex offender registry failing," and here are excerpts:
Texas started its sex offender registry 20 years ago as a way for the public and police to monitor a group of criminals believed to be virtually incapable of rehabilitation and thus likely to commit additional sex crimes. Since then, however, many studies have concluded that it is uncommon for sex offenders — particularly those who ... are designated as low-risk — to commit new offenses.
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, more than 90 percent of the state’s registered sex offenders are not considered to be at high risk of re-offending.
Yet the registry is like a cemetery: Because many offenders are placed on it for a lifetime, or at least decades, it only expands in size. Over the past five years, Texas has added new names to the list at a rate of nearly a dozen every day.
In 2011, Texas began a so-called deregistration process. The intent was to remove those who were unlikely to re-offend from the list and, in so doing, save taxpayers money. By focusing police attention on truly dangerous offenders, it would also improve public safety.
By that measure, however, the program has been a bust. In the 5 1/2 years it has been in existence, only 58 sex offenders have been permitted to deregister from the Texas list — less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the current registry....
[T]he calculated risk offenders pose to the public typically has little to do with their appearance on the registry. While a handful of states meaningfully separate low- from high-risk offenders — Massachusetts excludes its lowest-risk offenders from the public list — many, like Texas, do not.
So-called Romeo offenders, convicted of sex with an underage girlfriend or boyfriend, exist side by side with rapists. There is no consideration as to whether a molestation occurred within a family — and thus, experts say, is statistically unlikely to reoccur outside it — or was committed by a predator snatching an unknown child off the street.
Surveys show the public believes public registries make neighborhoods safer, because sex criminals demand the extraordinary supervision and exposure. Yet research also indicates residents rarely consult the public lists.
And while some criminologists still suggest the registries improve crime rates, a growing number of studies have concluded they have had no meaningful impact on sex offenses by predicting or preventing them. “The abundance of evidence does not point to the effectiveness of registration systems in reliably classifying offenders, reducing recidivism, or preventing sex crimes,” Jill Levenson, a national expert in registry studies, concluded in a research roundup published earlier this year.
Practitioners say an offender’s appearance on the list can even have the opposite of its intended effect. Employment and housing restrictions that accompany registration — most state-regulated occupations in Texas prohibit sex offenders from holding licenses, and at least 86 cities limit where offenders can live — can drive registrants back into illegal behavior, said Pierce, who has worked with sex offenders for more than two decades.
Despite their low utility, the registries continue to balloon in size. As of June 1, Texas’ stood at 87,686 — 35 percent higher than five years ago. Maintaining the growing lists is increasingly expensive. In 2006, the Texas Department of Public Safety assigned 10 staffers and spent $343,000 to manage the registry. By last year, it required 21 employees and nearly four times the money.
Local law enforcement agencies, where offenders must periodically check in, bear the bulk of the costs. The Houston Police Department, which monitors more than 5,000 registered sex offenders, employs 14 people — 10 of them officers — who do nothing else.
"Disabled Behind Bars: The Mass Incarceration of People With Disabilities in America’s Jails and Prisons"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Center for American Progress. Here is an excerpt from the report's introduction:
America’s four-decade-long experiment with mass incarceration and overcriminalization is widely recognized as a failure. We lock up a greater share of our citizens than any other developed nation, destroying lives and separating families at an annual cost of more than $80 billion. In addition, we do little to prepare individuals behind bars for their eventual release, yet are surprised when some two-thirds return to our jails and prisons.
The crushing impact of the criminal justice system’s failure is felt acutely in communities across the United States. Significant and growing research shows how certain populations — including communities of color; residents of high-poverty neighborhoods; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, individuals — have been particularly hard hit. But rarely discussed is the impact of the criminal justice system on Americans with disabilities.
The past six decades have seen widespread closure of state mental hospitals and other institutional facilities that serve people with disabilities — a shift often referred to as deinstitutionalization. The number of Americans residing in such institutions dropped sharply from nearly 560,000 in 1955 to only about 70,000 in 1994. While widely regarded as a positive development, deinstitutionalization was not accompanied by the public investment necessary to ensure that community-based alternatives were made available. As a result, while people with disabilities — and particularly those with mental health conditions — were no longer living in large numbers in institutions, many began to be swept up into the criminal justice system, often due to minor infractions such as sleeping on the sidewalk. Indeed, federal and state jails and prisons are now home to three times as many people with mental health conditions as state mental hospitals.
People with disabilities are thus dramatically overrepresented in the nation’s prisons and jails today. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, people behind bars in state and federal prisons are nearly three times as likely to report having a disability as the nonincarcerated population, those in jails are more than four times as likely. Cognitive disabilities — such as Down syndrome, autism, dementia, intellectual disabilities, and learning disorders — are among the most commonly reported: Prison inmates are four times as likely and jail inmates more than six times as likely to report a cognitive disability than the general population. People with mental health conditions comprise a large proportion of those behind bars, as well. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that fully 1 in 5 prison inmates have a serious mental illness.
Mass incarceration of people with disabilities is unjust, unethical, and cruel. But it is also penny-wise and pound-foolish, as community-based treatment and prevention services cost far less than housing an individual behind bars. According to a 2014 study of Los Angeles County, the average cost of jailing an individual with serious mental illness exceeds $48,500 per year. By comparison, the price tag for providing Assertive Community Treatment, or ACT, and supportive housing — one of the most intensive, comprehensive, and successful intervention models in use today — amounts to less than $20,500 annually, just two-fifths the cost of jail.
Sunday, July 17, 2016
Defense builds case for unconstitutionality of death penalty in federal court in Vermont
Those who follow the federal death penalty closely surely have heard of the long-running case from Vermont involving Donald Fell. Fell was involved in the murder of three persons way back in 2000, and the feds have been trying to secure and preserve a death sentence for the last dozen years. After an original death sentence reversed on appeal, Fell is getting a new opportunity to build a record in the District Court concerning his claims that the death penalty is unconstitutional. This recent local article, headlined "Fell's defense: The federal death penalty is 'irrational'," reports on these recent developments. Here are excerpts:
The final witness for the defense in the Donald Fell death penalty hearing in Rutland testified on the results of more than 20 years of research he’s gathered for the Federal Death Penalty Resource Council Project.
Based on that data, Kevin McNally, the project’s director and an attorney in Kentucky, said that the “federal death penalty is driven by irrational or illegal considerations,” including race, gender, geography, or luck. “It’s akin to being struck by lightning,” McNally said.
McNally cited the Donald Fell case as a prime example of the role luck and timing can play in capital cases and the authorization of the death penalty....
Fell was convicted in the brutal killing of Terry King, a North Clarendon grandmother, and sentenced to death in 2005. The verdict was overturned due to juror misconduct and a retrial is scheduled for early next year. The two-week long hearings in Rutland could lead to a historic Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of the death penalty....
The lack of a uniform standard for seeking the death penalty is one of many factors that has eroded public trust in capital punishment, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who also testified on Friday. Although a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, Dieter said, growing numbers have expressed concern about the way it is applied....
Counsel for the U.S. government questioned whether the Death Penalty Information Center was a neutral source of information as Dieter characterized it. Attorney Sonia Jimenez read the titles of several reports published by the center: “Struck by Lightning: The Continuing Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty”; “The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All”; and “A Crisis of Confidence: Americans’ Doubts About the Death Penalty.”
Asked if he was opposed to the death penalty, Dieter said he took a fact-based approach. “It’s not a philosophical issue for me,” he said. “It’s not a moral issue.”
“The present system is broken,” he continued. “Can it be fixed? Maybe it can’t be fixed.”
The government will present its case next week in Rutland District Court.
In this post over at PrawfsBlawg, Michael J.Z. Mannheimer provides some additional context and highlights his distinct interest in the case:
The defense filed the usual battery of motions for a capital case, arguing among other things that the death penalty has become cruel and unusual punishment. Curiously, the court issued an order this past February calling for a hearing on the issue. Citing Justice Breyer’s dissenting opinion in Glossip v. Gross, 135 S. Ct. 2726, 2755 (2015) (Breyer, J., dissenting), the court expressed an interest in the suggestion there that the risk of wrongful execution, the geographic disparities in the implementation of the death penalty, the long delays before execution, and the purported arbitrariness in meting out the death penalty all added up to its unconstitutionality. However, the court seemed unsatisfied with deciding these issues without a factual record complete with testifying experts, and wrote that the purpose of a hearing “is to develop the fullest possible expression of both sides' factual and empirical arguments.” In particular, while capital defendants typically repeat the same empirical assertions in their briefs, a hearing would provide the Government the opportunity to “cross-examine the sources of social and statistical information cited by the defense” and “offer its own empirical evidence in response.”...
Irrespective of how the court rules, it appears that the court is attempting to get as complete a factual record as possible in order to tee the unconstitutionality issue up for appeal. My interest in this particular case stems from the fact that this is a federal capital prosecution for crimes occurring in a non-death penalty State (well, here, two separate non-death penalty States). I have appeared in the case as an amicus and have filed an amicus brief on my own behalf making the argument, based on my prior scholarship, that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause forbids the imposition of the federal death penalty under these circumstances. Presumably, the court will ultimately address that issue as well, unless it is mooted by a broader ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional full stop.