Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Might AG Sessions resign due to tension with Prez Trump?

As I write the question in the title of this post, I already realize the answer surely is "No."  But the very fact the question arises is somewhat remarkable, and this ABC News report is the reason it does.  The report is headlined "Jeff Sessions suggested he could resign amid rising tension with President Trump," and here are excerpts:

As the White House braces for former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony Thursday, sources tell ABC News the relationship between President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has become so tense that Sessions at one point recently even suggested he could resign.

The friction between the two men stems from the attorney general's abrupt decision in March to recuse himself from anything related to the Russia investigation -- a decision the president only learned about minutes before Sessions announced it publicly. Multiple sources say the recusal is one of the top disappointments of his presidency so far and one the president has remained fixated on.

Trump’s anger over the recusal has not diminished with time. Two sources close to the president say he has lashed out repeatedly at the attorney general in private meetings, blaming the recusal for the expansion of the Russia investigation, now overseen by Special Counsel and former FBI Director Robert Mueller.

But sources say the frustration runs both ways, prompting the resignation offer from Sessions. Asked by ABC News if the attorney general had threatened or offered to resign, Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores declined to comment.

The New York Times is on this beat with these recent articles on this front:

"Trump Grows Discontented With Attorney General Jeff Sessions"

"Sessions Is Said to Have Offered to Resign"

Dare I say that perhaps AG Session has offered to resign because he is now just so sick and tired of winning?

June 6, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

A timely call for "Reorganizing the Federal Clemency Process"

Paul Larkin, who has written a number of recent notable article on clemency noted here and here, now has this new "Legal Memorandum" at The Heritage Foundation titled ""Reorganizing the Federal Clemency Process."  Here its abstract and "Key Points":

The President relies on the Department of Justice to filter out ineligible applicants and recommend from the remainder which ones should receive clemency, but the department suffers from an actual or apparent conflict of interest.  One proposed remedy would be for Congress to create an independent advisory board like the U.S. Sentencing Commission to review every clemency application and offer the President its recommendations.  A better alternative would be for the President to move the Office of the Pardon Attorney into the Executive Office of the President and use the Vice President as his principal clemency adviser.  The Vice President can offer the President several benefits in the clemency decision- making process that no one else in the government possesses.

Key Points:

Prior related posts:

June 6, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Discouraging account of the state of federal criminal justice reform come summer 2017

On the heels of big talk in summer 2013 from then-Attorney General Eric Holder about criminal justice reforms, some pundits (as noted here) were quick to suggest that momentum for major federal sentencing reform might be unstoppable. Ever the political pessimist, I was then quite hopeful but still not all that optimistic that Congress would find a way to enact some sweeping federal statutory sentencing reforms before too long.

But fast forward four years to the coming summer 2017, and there no seems to be very little reason to be hopeful or optimistic about anything getting done in this space anytime soon. This new Marshall Project feature article by Justin George highlights that this is not only a story of a new Prez and Attorney General with different criminal justice priorities, but also a story of reform voices on the left and right coming to battle each other in ways that may ensure there in no path forward. The article is headlined "Can This Marriage Be Saved?: Left and right came together on criminal justice reform. Then Trump happened." Here are a few notable excerpts:

John Malcolm [is] a legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation, the influential conservative think tank [and] a member of an unlikely alliance that hopes to end America’s status as the world’s most prolific jailer: liberals who find the criminal justice system racist, inequitable, and inhumane are joining forces with conservatives — such as Malcolm — who find it wasteful, harmful to families, and heavy-handed. Last year, reformers on both sides agreed to support a proposed law that would relax mandatory minimum sentences, giving federal judges somewhat more discretion in sentencing and helping low-level offenders avoid prison time. It was a modest proposal, compared to the size of the problem, but the bill attracted a rare amount of bipartisan support in Washington.

Despite that support, however, the measure failed to pass Congress. Some Republicans wanted the law to include a provision on “mens rea” reform, which would expand the category of crimes in which a defendant’s criminal intent is a factor in determining guilt. Democrats, convinced that such a provision would make it harder for prosecutors to go after corporate crime, resisted. The bill stalled, then died—and so did some of the spirit of common cause. Last year, as the contentious presidential election neared its conclusion, the alliance started to come undone.

Liberal members of the coalition, such as Jesselyn McCurdy, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union, say that the reform bill failed because obstructionist Republicans didn’t want to give President Obama anything he could claim as a bipartisan achievement on the verge of the election. But, as Malcolm sees it, it was Democrats, confident that Hillary Clinton would be president and that the Republican grip on Congress would be loosened, who decided that they no longer needed to compromise. “People’s positions became hardened,” Malcolm said. Conservatives, he added, also bristled at the “anti-police” rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement and at the left’s emphasis on the racial disparities of the criminal justice system.... Groups from the right and left still meet regularly on criminal justice issues, including at a monthly work luncheon that Malcolm hosts, at the Heritage Foundation. But momentum has been hard to regain. “Hurt feelings are impacting meaningful discussion,” Malcolm said. “For the right, the criticism of the left is ‘Your messaging stinks, and you don’t make it easy to pass stuff, because you make this difficult for conservatives to sign on to,’ ” Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said. “And, for the left, the criticism of the right was ‘You didn't try that hard.’ ”...

But [Senator Mike] Lee, who still believes that a reform bill can get through Congress, said he is not so sure Sessions will be an impediment. “Jeff Sessions is in a different role now — he’s no longer a lawmaker,” Lee said. “I’ve had conversations with people in the White House and elsewhere in the administration in which I’ve explained to them this could be a really good bipartisan win, a nice bipartisan moment, and I’ve been working with the administration to figure out what level of comfort they have with it and what we need to do in order to move forward.” (The Department of Justice said that Sessions was not available for comment, and the White House did not respond to requests to interview Kushner for this story.)...

But the only notable criminal justice measures showing signs of life in the House so far this year would only create more opportunities to put people in prison or to hand out longer sentences, such as a measure expanding the powers of federal probation officers to arrest anyone who interferes with their work. Given this inhospitable climate, Ring, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said that perhaps the best course for reformers is to hope for “benign neglect” from the Trump administration and to focus on repairing the damage done to the alliance by the “emotional fallout” of 2016. Maybe, he said, “this is time for us to put our head down and start winning hearts and minds.”

June 6, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Kinds of Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this essay by Douglas Husak now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Contemporary states execute, imprison, fine, place on probation, conditionally discharge, caution, and do a great deal more to the persons they convict.  What general principles govern how retributivists should choose between the foregoing responses to culpable wrongdoing — or select an altogether different type of sanction?  If my subsequent reasoning is sound, it is easy to understand why retributivists have tended to neglect this issue.  They have neglected it because they have little to contribute to its resolution.  In what follows, I will support this conclusion and discuss a few of the somewhat controversial positions on which it rests.  I hope to make some headway on this topic by defending what I call the deferential view about kinds of punishment (or deferential view for short).

June 6, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 5, 2017

Gearing up for big state court argument on the state and fate of California's death penalty

The San Francisco Chronicle has this new article about the new issues the California Supreme Court is facing concerning the state's old death penalty problems. The piece is headlined "State high court ruling on death penalty could restart executions<" and here are excerpts:

The California Supreme Court hears many high-stakes cases on issues such as individual rights, taxes, and the lawmaking powers of the state and its voters. But it has seldom confronted a case with such potentially dramatic consequences as Tuesday’s hearing on the Proposition 66 death-penalty initiative.

If the court — traditionally deferential to the will of the voters — upholds the central provisions of Prop. 66, it will open the door to the resumption of executions in a state that last put a prisoner to death in January 2006. Nearly 750 condemned inmates inhabit the nation’s largest Death Row, and about 20 have run out of appeals to their conviction and sentence.

Prop. 66 also seeks to speed up future executions, in part by requiring the state’s high court to decide all death-penalty appeals within five years of sentencing — more than twice its current pace. If the court upholds that requirement, one of the most hotly contested in the case, it may have to reconfigure itself as a tribunal that gives priority to capital cases over all other types of criminal and civil law disputes in the nation’s most populous state.

California has long been what one expert calls a "symbolic death penalty state," one of 12 that has capital punishment on the books but has not executed anyone in more than a decade. Prodded by voters and lawsuits, the nation's most populous state may now roll back toward allowing executions, though observers are split on how quickly they will resume, if at all.

The justices could reject the deadlines while upholding other Prop. 66 provisions aimed at shortening the death-penalty process, such as limiting prisoners’ appeals and requiring more lawyers to accept capital cases. But opponents say the proposed timetables for court action are the heart of an initiative that seeks to hamstring judicial authority over state law.

Neither lawmakers nor voters can “force the courts to prioritize a certain type of case at the expense of all other types of cases,” said Christina Von der Ahe Rayburn, a lawyer in the suit to overturn Prop. 66. The requirement to move death cases to the front of the line, she said, would “impair the court’s inherent function of giving fair and equal treatment to (all) litigants.”

Not so, said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation and an author of Prop. 66. He said the measure would actually relieve the state Supreme Court of some of its current death-penalty workload by transferring some hearings to trial courts. It sets a five-year deadline that he says the court could meet if it eliminated needless delays. “If our side wins, we can get back to having a death penalty that actually works and really see some executions being carried out,” probably before the end of this year, said Scheidegger, who will argue in defense of the measure along with Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office at the hearing in Los Angeles.

Rayburn said an unrelated federal court case would probably delay any executions in California by at least six months, even if Prop. 66 were upheld. If the court overturns most or all of the initiative, executions will remain on hold for a year or longer as challenges to proposed new lethal-injection procedures work their way through state and federal courts....

Prop. 66 passed with 51 percent of the vote on the same November ballot in which a rival measure to repeal the death penalty in California was rejected by about seven percentage points, nearly twice the margin of defeat for a similar measure in 2012. While the votes were close, the message seemed clear: Californians want the death-penalty law enforced.  But the far-reaching provisions of Prop. 66, which received little attention during the campaign, have evidently raised concerns among the justices, who put the measure on hold while they consider a lawsuit seeking to overturn it....

Another provision of the measure seeks to expand the pool of defense lawyers by requiring attorneys to take capital cases if they already accept court appointments to represent defendants in other criminal cases.  Supporters say the change would ease the shortage of available lawyers, one of the chief reasons appeals take so long.  Opponents say it would put condemned inmates’ fates in the hands of unqualified lawyers and prompt many lawyers to refuse future assignments.

Prop. 66 would also speed up the state’s switch from three-drug executions, in use from 1996 to 2006, to lethal injections of a single barbiturate. Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration proposed procedures for one-drug executions last year in settlement of a lawsuit by relatives of murder victims.  Prison officials are still reviewing those procedures under a long-standing law that requires them to consider public comments.  The commenters have included organizations that say the proposed drugs are untested in executions and the procedures are unreliable....

Two of the court’s seven justices, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Ming Chin, have removed themselves from the case because they are members of the state’s Judicial Council....  Their replacements are two randomly selected appeals court justices, Andrea Hoch of the Sacramento court, an appointee of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Raymond Ikola, appointed to the court in Santa Ana by Gov. Gray Davis.

June 5, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Deputy AG Rosenstein suggests rising crime justifies prosecutorial shift from Holder Memo to Sessions Memo

I just saw this AP article from late last week reporting on an interesting interview with the second in charge at the US Department of Justice.  Here are the details:

The Justice Department’s new policy urging harsher punishments for most criminals is meant to target the worst gang members and drug traffickers, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Friday in an effort to mollify critics who fear a revival of drug war policies. “We’re not about filling prisons,” Rosenstein told The Associated Press in his first interview since becoming the Justice Department’s No. 2 official. “The mission is to reduce violent crime and drug abuse, and this helps us do that.”

Rosenstein emphasized the department’s plan to fight violent crime that includes prosecutors’ ability to decide whether to level charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences — a carrots-and-sticks approach for gaining cooperation. He acknowledged that federal prosecutors will sometimes charge lower-level criminals to take down entire gangs but “that’s the exception not the rule.”...

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directive last month urges federal prosecutors to seek the steepest penalties for most crime suspects, a reversal of Obama-era policies that aimed to reduce the federal prison population and show more leniency to lower-level drug offenders. Sessions’ Democratic predecessor, Eric Holder, told prosecutors they could, in some cases, leave drug quantities out of documents to avoid charging suspects with crimes that trigger years-long mandatory minimum punishments.

Some prosecutors have said they felt constrained by the Holder directive. Under that old rule, they worried about a loss of plea-bargaining leverage — and a key inducement for cooperation — without the ability to more freely pursue charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

Advocates for changes to the criminal justice system assailed the reversal as a return to drug-war era policies that helped ravage minority communities and put even nonviolent drug offenders in prison for long terms. Among the sharpest critics was Holder, who called it an “ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”

Rosenstein said he dutifully implemented Holder’s policy when it was issued in 2013 but believes recent spikes in violence in some cities necessitate a new approach. Supporters of Holder’s policy “felt like there were too many people in prison and crime rates were falling, and they were hopeful that they could reduce enforcement and keep crime rates low,” he said. “We’re in a different position now.”

Officials will be continually tracking crime statistics in cities that have seen recent spikes in violence. But any change won’t be immediate, Rosenstein said. Sessions’ directive gives prosecutors leeway to veer from the policy and levy less-serious charges when warranted. And federal prosecutors rarely take cases against “minor offenders,” focusing their attention instead on larger criminal organizations, Rosenstein said. “We think it’s important in this circumstance in 2017 to restore to our federal prosecutors the authority to use the penalties Congress has given them in cases they think it’s important,” Rosenstein said. “We’re not micromanaging from Washington.”

I find it quite interesting that DAG Rosenstein here repeated a line used by AG Sessions last month when discussing his new charging/sentencing memo that the new policy is "not micromanaging from Washington." This leads me to think that at least some local US Attorneys expressed concern about being "micromanaged" by the Holder Memos, and it leads me to wonder if these US Attorneys will really feel more free from micromanaging under the Sessions Memo.

Prior recent related posts: 

June 5, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Supreme Court unanimously limits reach of federal drug-offense forfeiture statute

The US Supreme Court this morning handed down a unanimous opinion in Honeycutt v. United States, No. 16-142 (S. Ct. June 5, 2017) (available here), a case concerning the reach of the federal criminal forfeiture statute. The opinion for the Court was authored by Justice Sotomayor, and it starts and ends this way:

A federal statute — 21 U.S.C. § 853 — mandates forfeiture of “any property constituting, or derived from, any proceeds the person obtained, directly or indirectly, as the result of” certain drug crimes.  This case concerns how § 853 operates when two or more defendants act as part of a conspiracy. Specifically, the issue is whether, under § 853, a defendant may be held jointly and severally liable for property that his co-conspirator derived from the crime but that the defendant himself did not acquire. The Court holds that such liability is inconsistent with the statute’s text and structure....

Forfeiture pursuant to § 853(a)(1) is limited to property the defendant himself actually acquired as the result of the crime.  In this case, the Government has conceded that Terry Honeycutt had no ownership interest in his brother’s store and did not personally benefit from the Polar Pure sales.  App. to Pet. for Cert. 60a.  The District Court agreed. Id., at 40a.  Because Honeycutt never obtained tainted property as a result of the crime, § 853 does not require any forfeiture.

The opinion's first footnote indicates that a majority of circuit courts embraced a broader view of the federal forfeiture statute, which in turns further reinforces my long-standing view that SCOTUS these days is generally more pro-defendant on a wide range of sentencing issues than most lower federal courts.

June 5, 2017 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Supreme Court grants cert on whether Fourth Amendment limits collections of historical cell phone records

In this order list this morning, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari in Carpenter v. United States which asks, in the words of the cert petition, "whether the warrantless seizure and search of historical cell phone records revealing the location and movements of a cell phone user over the course of 127 days is permitted by the Fourth Amendment."

Though obviously not a sentencing case, I suspect lots of criminal justice fan (and others) will be keeping an eye on Carpenter in the months ahead.  In addition, this case would seem to present the first big opportunity for the newest Justice, Justice Neil Gorsuch, to reveal his take on the Fourth Amendment in particular and privacy issues more generally.

June 5, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Some recent highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

I has been some time since I have done a round-up of posts of note from blogging over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.  So:

June 4, 2017 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal District Judge Mark "Bennett says 80% of the mandatory sentences he hands down are unjust"

The quote in the title of this post's headline is just one of a number of notable lines from this extended CNN article headlined "The judge who says he's part of the gravest injustice in America." Here is some of the context and particulars from the article:

[U.S. District Court Judge Mark] Bennett seems exasperated, exhausted almost, as he explains he must sentence [Susan] Rice to a full five years -- the mandatory minimum required by law. It is a sentence he deems unjust, too much for a low-level addict, just for being caught with a certain weight of drugs.  

Bennett makes sure the record reflects he felt strongly enough to request that Iowa's US Attorney consider waiving the mandatory minimum. He accepts the defense mitigation that Rice had never been in trouble before she was in her 50s, when she began drinking heavily after a bad divorce and was introduced to meth. She met a mid-level dealer who offered her a mattress in his basement and free meth if she would drive him around. A willing drug mule to feed her addiction? Yes. But not the drug trafficker or conspirator whom the charges and mandatory minimum sentences were designed to target, the judge believed.

His plea fell on deaf ears.  He was told there was no option for Rice to be treated as an exception to the law. "I strongly disagree with that decision," the judge says firmly from the bench.  It is not the first time he has felt this way. Bennett says 80% of the mandatory sentences he hands down are unjust -- but that he is handcuffed by the law, which leaves no room for judicial discretion to consider a sentence based on individual circumstances of the defendant. 

Too often, Bennett says, low-level nonviolent drug addicts dealing to feed their habit end up being sentenced like drug kingpins.  Bennett says if he had the power, he would jail Rice for perhaps a year, or 18 months.  Across the street in a state courthouse, she would have been put on probation, he says.  "I think it's a miscarriage of justice," Bennett says. "But you know people are entitled to their own sense of what justice is."

Bennett hoped the tide was turning after members of both parties began pushing for sentencing reform on both state and federal levels, arguing it had been a huge mistake.  Now Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's attorney general, has instructed that the law governing mandatory minimums be enforced with renewed vigor. "If you are a drug trafficker," Sessions said after issuing his memo to prosecutors, "we will not look the other way. We will not be willfully blind to your misconduct."

Bennett thinks this approach is unjust. "I basically couldn't live with myself if I didn't speak out," he says, standing in the center of his courtroom only hours after sentencing Rice. "I'm compelled to talk about it because I think it's one of the gravest injustices in the history of America."  Year after year, giving out those sentences, is wearing on him.  "The burden of having given so many unjust sentences is a very heavy thing for me to carry around," Bennett says beginning to choke up. "I do not consider myself soft on crime, but I consider myself opposed to mandatory minimums for low level non-violent drug dealers who are basically addicts," he says....

The National Association of Assistant US Attorneys, made up of those who prosecute federal cases, supports Sessions' push to charge the most serious crime that is provable.  "It's an effective way of protecting the public and it has served us well for an awful long time," the group's president Larry Leiser says.  "People who were eligible for mandatory minimums are truly people who are involved in significant quantities of these very dangerous substances."  He rejects recent efforts to relax sentencing laws.  And he rejects the view the law unfairly catches non-violent addicts who are simply feeding their addiction by selling drugs.  And he hails the provision that lets offenders help themselves to lower sentences if they in turn help the authorities take serious criminals off the streets.

June 4, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, June 3, 2017

"Is the death penalty dying in Dallas County?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this local article which documents a trend that leads me to think that the death penalty is never again likely to be a significant part of American criminal justice systems (if it every really was in the recent past).  Here are excerpts:

The crimes were heinous but Dallas County jurors couldn't condemn the convicted killers. A college student killed three people at a drug house in a premeditated robbery. A former special education teacher and U.S. Army veteran killed his girlfriend, her teenage daughter, his estranged wife, her adult daughter and severely wounded four children in a two-city rampage.

But neither killer received the death penalty, a punishment reserved for the "worst of the worst." Statewide, juries have declined death sentences in nearly half of the cases presented to them in the past two years.

So, what does it take to win a death penalty sentence? "You gotta be perfect probably these days," said Edwin King, a special prosecutor in one of the Dallas County cases.

Jurors couldn't agree to the death sentence in the two recent capital murder trials. They were the first Dallas County cases in which the state sought the death penalty since 2014.

The decision to seek the death penalty is based on the the severity of the crime, criminal background and what the victim's family wants, said Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson. "Our office only seeks the death penalty in the most heinous and serious of crimes," Johnson said....

"Even in Texas, the death penalty is dying," said Jason Redick of the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty. In the 15 death penalty cases tried in Texas since 2015, jurors have sent only eight men to death row. Death sentences peaked in the 1990s. Between 2007 and 2013, Dallas County led the state in defendants sent to death row. During that time, the county sentenced 12 people to death. Executions in Texas are also declining because of legal reforms that give prisoners more chances to have their sentences reviewed.

Jurors are only selected after they agree that they can give the ultimate punishment. Even so, they appear to be split on the issue in recent years. "We know these aren't folks who are anti-death penalty folks," Redick said. "At one point, they said they could hand out a death sentence."

June 3, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

NPR covers debate over federal sentencing and mandatory minimums in three parts

This past week, National Public Radio ran a notable three-part series with conversations about modern federal sentencing realities on its Morning Edition program.  Here are the links, headings and brief descriptions of who what talking about what:

Mass Incarceration Is A Major U.S. Issue, Georgetown Law Professor Says

Rachel Martin talks to Georgetown University Law professor Paul Butler about the ongoing and new challenges facing the nation regarding the criminal justice system.

Former Prosecutor On Why He Supports Mandatory Minimums

Attorney General Sessions told federal prosecutors to seek the harshest penalties possible against defendants.  Former federal prosecutor Bill Otis tells Rachel Martin why he supports the guidelines.

A Federal Judge Says Mandatory Minimum Sentences Often Don't Fit The Crime

NPR's Rachel Martin speaks to federal Judge Mark Bennett of Iowa, who opposes mandatory minimum charging and sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenses.

June 3, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 2, 2017

Former Penn State administrators get a few months in jail for failing to report Sandusky sex crimes leading to child endangerment convictions

As reported in this USA Today article, "former Penn State officials Tim Curley, Gary Schultz and Graham Spanier were all sentenced to jail time Friday for failing to alert authorities to the allegations against ex-football coach Jerry Sandusky, allowing the now-convicted serial predator to continue molesting boys for years." Here is more:

All three were convicted of child endangerment. Schultz, the former university vice president, could serve a minimum of two months in jail and a maximum of 23 months. Curley, the former university athletic director, could serve a minimum of three months in jail and maximum of 23 months. And Spanier, the former university president, could serve a minimum of two months and a maximum of 12 months. All three are also poised to have house arrest after the jail time.

Prosecutors in the case argued that the ex-Penn State staffers failed as leaders and cared more about themselves and the school’s image than protecting the children. Judge John Boccabella in the case called it a “Shakespearean tragedy” and was befuddled by the former administrators lack of action. “These men are good people who made a terrible mistake,” the judge said. “Why no one made a phone call to police … is beyond me. All three ignored the opportunity to put an end to (Sandusky’s) crimes when they had a chance to do so."

“I deeply regret I didn’t intervene more forcefully,” Spanier said, expressing remorse, in reference to Sandusky’s victims. Spanier will appeal a misdemeanor of child endangerment charge that both Schultz and Curley pleaded guilty on.

Curley and Schultz also told the court they were sorry they didn’t do more. “I am very remorseful I did not comprehend the severity of the situation. I sincerely apologize to the victims and to all who were impacted because of my mistake,” Curley said. Said Schultz: “It really sickens me to think I might have played a part in children being hurt. I’m sorry that I didn’t do more, and I apologize to the victims.”

Sandusky is serving a 30 to 60-year prison term after being convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys.

June 2, 2017 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (8)

Considering the unique housing challenges for aging sex offenders

This new Atlantic article explores the questions that now attend an ever-growing and ever-aging sex offender population.  The piece is headlined "The Puzzle of Housing Aging Sex Offenders: States are grappling with how to care for a growing population of registered offenders in long-term care facilities."  Here are excerpts:

When state officials finally released William Cubbage from the Iowa Mental Health Institute in 2010, they predicted he was too sick to hurt anyone again. But the octogenarian only became an even more notorious sex offender....

And while Cubbage’s case is extreme, he’s symptomatic of a larger puzzle in America’s long-term care facilities that no one’s managed to solve.  As lawmakers in Oklahoma and Ohio have found, isolating aging sex offenders is easier planned than achieved.

“The problem is that you’re talking about a project that’s uniquely difficult when it comes to structural needs and safety,” says Amy McCoy, a public-information officer with the Iowa Department of Human Services. “You’re talking about things like hallways without corners. You’re also talking about building a place that isn’t a prison. It’s something entirely different from a traditional care facility. You want people in the least restrictive setting, but you also want to be able to respond if something does happen.”

Local lawmakers have been sounding alarms for at least a decade whenever sex offenders strike.  With no federal regulations dictating how long-term care centers should handle offenders, solutions vary state to state. In 2012, Iowa’s Governor pushed a bill requiring nursing homes to notify residents if an offender moved in, but it died in the legislature.  California’s Department of Corrections notifies nursing homes if anyone on the sex-offender registry applies for residency, and the nursing homes are required to notify residents and employees.  Illinois facilities forbid offenders from having roommates and tests them for any special care needs before sending the results to local police and the Department of Public Health. (Requests to interview multiple nursing homes in Iowa, Ohio, and Illinois for this story went unanswered.)

Just as Iowa’s now considering, Oklahoma passed law in 2008 to create a specialized nursing home for offenders.  But not a single bid to construct the property was submitted.  A contractor’s reluctance to be involved with such a property could be due to its specialized requirements, but in the view of the sex-offender advocate Derek Logue, it’s just as likely another case of people not wanting any connection to the registry. Logue is the founder of Once Fallen, which calls itself the “leading reference & resource site for Registered Citizens.” A Cincinnati resident, Logue himself is registered in Ohio for a 2001 conviction of First Degree Sexual Abuse against an underage girl. At age 40, he calls himself “one of the younger guys”; most offenders who call for help finding a place to live or a job are in their 50s or 60s.

“If you look at the nursing homes that do take registered citizens, they tend to have below-average grades,” Logue says. “It’s the same issue [offenders] face when they’re trying to find a place to live.  You’ll never be anywhere decent, you always end up with some landlord who doesn’t care about the property.  We don’t exactly get quality service.”

Logue knows you won’t cry over his failure to score a luxury penthouse, but he counters that he’s served his time.  And it’s his tribe’s pariah statues, he says, that makes registered offenders likely to need extra medical attention in their declining years.  Beyond the Gordian knot that is the ongoing argument over the sex-offender registry’s effectiveness, constitutionality, and methods of inclusion, offenders are less likely to be employed, more likely to live in poverty if they do have full-time work, and subsequently less likely to have access to preventive care.

It’s also hard to gauge exactly how much of a danger they pose as seniors. Sexual assaults are already underreported crimes, and recidivism rates among all ages vary from study by study. Karl Hanson and Kelly Morton-Bourgon, a pair of sex-crimes researchers who work for the Canadian government, estimate that the average rate is likely around 13.7 percent. Meanwhile, multiple recent studies suggest recidivism rates seem to decline among the elderly....

Another blind spot is that almost no one is counting how many sex offenders require end-of-life care. Back in 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office counted 700 registered sex offenders living in nursing homes or intermediate care facilities. More recent numbers among the nation’s 15,600 long-term care facilities and their 1.4 million residents are hard to come by.

June 2, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

"From Grace to Grids: Rethinking Due Process Protection for Parole"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper available via SSRN authored by Kimberly Thomas and Paul Reingold. Here is the abstract:

Current due process law gives little protection to prisoners at the point of parole, even though the parole decision, like sentencing, determines whether or not a person will serve more time or will go free.  The doctrine regarding parole, which developed mostly in the late 1970s, was based on a judicial understanding of parole as an experimental, subjective, and largely standardless art — rooted in assessing the individual “character” of the potential parolee.

In this Article we examine the foundations of the doctrine, and conclude that the due process inquiry at the point of parole should take into account the stark changes in sentencing and parole practice over the years.  Since the development of the parole due process doctrine in the 1970s, two seismic shifts have occurred.  First, the constitutional protections provided at the initial sentencing have vastly increased.  Second, the parole process itself has been transformed by the move to evidence-based parole guidelines and the use of actuarial risk-assessment instruments as the norm in parole decision-making.

In this Article we document the changes in this under-scrutinized area and assert that the liberty interest in parole should more closely match the present-day legal account of the liberty interest that courts afford defendants at sentencing. 

June 2, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tracking state work on criminal justice and drug policy through Stateline

The Pew Charitable Trusts Stateline site does a great job tracking state-level developments on an array of criminal justice and drug policy issues. Here are some examples from recent weeks that caught my eye:

 

June 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Can football stars help get Ohio criminal justice reform over the goal line?

I am fond of stressing to students in my sentencing classes that a wide array of actors are involved in the development and application of sentencing law and policy.  And now this new local article, which prompts the question in the title of this post, will allow me to highlight in future classes that even famous football players can sometimes get in on the sentencing action.  Here are the basic details (with links from the original):

Three former Ohio State football players and one Cleveland Browns player are among those imploring the Ohio Senate to embrace a plan that will keep low-level offenders out of prison.  Former Buckeyes Malcolm Jenkins, Raekwon McMillan and Chris "Beanie" Wells have signed a letter to Ohio senators in support of the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison plan.  So, too, has Ibraheim Campbell, a defensive back at Northwestern University who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL draft.

"As NFL players who have personal connections to our broken justice system and have seen its impact on our own neighborhoods, we support justice reforms that strengthen families and restore communities," begins the letter.

The TCAP reforms, which are included in Gov. John Kasich's budget proposal, include eliminating mandatory prison sentences for minor parole violations and transferring low-level, non-violent to local jails or to drug treatment programs or other community-based alternatives.  A House of Representatives version of the budget includes significantly less money than what Kasich wants for TCAP reforms, said Holly Harris, executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network....

She said the football players who signed the letter are not being paid. "They simply care about their communities," Harris said.

Campbell said during an interview with cleveland.com that he's had family members who have been subjected to injustices in the legal system and that reform is "something that I'm passionate about."

The governor's plan would mean an estimated 3,400 offenders a year would be jailed or supervised locally instead of being sent to prison. The House version would divert only 2,100 offenders, Harris said.

Not everyone supports the plan. John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said the plan would limit sentencing options. The County Commissioners Association of Ohio believes the plan has merit, but is concerned about the cost to counties and the timeline for the change.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections has instituted pilot TCAP programs in eight counties - Clinton, Ross,, Medina, Lucas, Defiance, Henry, Williams and Fulton counties.

June 1, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

“Using Time to Reduce Crime: Federal Prisoner Survey Results Show Ways to Reduce Recidivism”

Prison-Report_Website-BannerThe title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the folks at Families Against Mandatory Minimums. This FAMM press release provides this overview of the report and its key findings:

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) today released the findings of the first-ever independent survey of federal prisoners, which focused on the type and quality of educational and vocational training programs, as well as substance abuse and mental health treatment, currently available in America’s federal prisons. “Using Time to Reduce Crime: Federal Prisoner Survey Results Show Ways to Reduce Recidivism” offers unique insights from inside federal prisons and includes 13 recommendations for reform.

“Roughly 94 percent of federal prisoners are going to go home one day.  If they leave smarter, sober, and job-ready, they will be much more likely to thrive — and our country will be safer and more prosperous,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring.  “Unfortunately, our survey found that the federal government is failing to make recidivism-reducing programming available to all prisoners who need it.  President Trump’s new budget proposal, which slashes the Bureau of Prisons’ staff and corrections officers, will only make the problem worse.”

FAMM regularly corresponds with more than 39,000 prisoners via email, and more than 2,000 inmates responded to the survey.  This report quantifies, analyzes, and confirms the numerous stories we have heard from prisoners over the years.  FAMM found that too many prisoners are not getting access to the programs that have been proven to reduce recidivism....

Key findings from the report include:

  • Access to quality education is scarce.  Most classes lack rigor and substance and are taught by other prisoners. Inmates reported taking classes such as crocheting and one based on the TV show Jeopardy.  Attaining a college degree is difficult, if not impossible, for most prisoners.

  • Most jobs afforded to inmates are “make work” jobs to service the prisons, such as cleaning bathrooms and living spaces or dining hall services.  Vocational training is popular and coveted, but is limited and only offered to prisoners who are close to their release dates.

  • Not all inmates who need substance abuse or mental health services are getting help.  Two-thirds of respondents said they entered prison with a drug or alcohol addiction.  In addition, more than two-thirds said they had not received mental or behavioral health treatment in prison.  These types of programs should be expanded to help all prisoners in need of treatment, no matter the length or duration of their sentence.

  • Most prisoners are housed too far away from their families to maintain connections.  Family connections have been proven to reduce recidivism, yet most prisoners are housed more than 500 air miles away from home.

June 1, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Is the Ninth Circuit right in holding a federal sentencing judge cannot reject a jury special verdict finding on drug quantity?

The question in the title of this post is one that has been simmering in the Ninth Circuit and resulted in today's release of an amended opinion and a dissent from the denial of en banc review in US v. Pimentel-Lopez, No. 14-30210 (9th Cir. June 1, 2017) (available here). Here is the heart of the amended opinion:    

[T]he record is clear that the jury didn’t merely acquit defendant of possessing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine; it made an affirmative finding “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the amount attributable to defendant was “[l]ess than 50 grams.” Our own caselaw, and simple logic, precludes us from vouchsafing sentencing judges the power to make contradictory findings under these circumstances....

In our case, the government proposed the verdict form that set both a lower and an upper boundary for the amount of drugs involved.  Having proposed the language, the government now urges us to read the verdict form as “acquitt[ing] [Pimentel-Lopez] on the 500-gram amount,” with which he was initially charged.  But none of the choices offered by the verdict form were capable of capturing that view.  That may have been a blunder, but the jury answered the questions it was asked and so the die is cast: The government cannot disavow the finding that the jury makes as a result....

Nothing prevented the government from proffering [a different special verdict] form.  But, having proposed a form that required the jury to find that the drug quantity was less than 50 grams, the government locked itself out of the possibility of proving more than 50 grams at sentencing. It can easily avoid this pitfall in future cases....

Because the district court may not contradict an affirmative finding by the jury, we must vacate the sentence and remand with instructions that defendant be resentenced on the premise that his crimes involved less than 50 grams of drugs.

The dissent from the denial of en banc authored by Judge Graber (and joined by five other judges) gets started this way:

I respectfully dissent from the denial of rehearing en banc. The panel held that when a jury finds that the amount of drugs the government has proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, is attributable to a defendant falls within a specified range, the sentencing judge may not find by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount of drugs attributable to the defendant is higher than that range.  United States v. Pimentel-Lopez, 828 F.3d 1173, 1176–77 (9th Cir. 2016). That holding is wrong both as a matter of logic and as a matter of Supreme Court law, it has far-reaching consequences for the prosecution of drug crimes in our circuit, and it conflicts with holdings in other circuits.  For all those reasons, we should have reheard this case en banc.

As long as the Supreme Court's 1999 Watts ruling is still good law, I think the dissent here has the better of the legal argument (though post-Watts SCOTUS Sixth Amendment jurisprudence arguably undermines Watts).  But I also think Watts is a rotten decision that ought to be formally overruled.  For that reason, I would love to see the US Solicitor General seek Supreme Court review and then see the defendant suggest a reconsideration of Watts if the Justices care to take up the case.

June 1, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Will the Death Penalty Ever Die?"

The title of this post is the title of this new article in The New York Review of Books authored by Judge Jed Rakoff and reviewing of the book "Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment" by Carol and Jordan Steiker. Here is the intriguingly personal start to what then becomes a fairly standard review of the modern death penalty debate:

When my older brother Jan David Rakoff was murdered in 1985, bolts of anger and outrage not infrequently penetrated the black cloud of my grief.  Though I knew almost nothing about Jan’s confessed murderer except his name, I wished him dead.

My brother, aged forty-four, had just begun to come into his own.  His innovative educational theories were starting to attract attention, and, just as important, he had come to terms with his homosexuality, which for many years he had struggled to suppress.  While on a trip to Manila, he engaged the services of a male prostitute, but at the end they quarreled over money.  In a fit of rage, the prostitute assaulted my brother with a pipe burner and an ice pick, bludgeoning and stabbing him to death.  To cover his tracks, the prostitute then set fire to the bungalow where my brother was staying; but the smoke attracted the attention of a security guard, who apprehended the fleeing assailant.  Later that evening, the prostitute provided a full written confession.

When my brother’s body arrived back in the United States, his face and head were barely recognizable, so vicious had been the assault.  My heart cried out for vengeance. Although the death penalty was then available in the Philippines, the defendant, taking full advantage of a corrupt legal system, negotiated a sentence of just three years in prison.  Had, instead, the prosecutor recommended the death penalty, I would have applauded.

It took many years before I changed my mind.

The law professors Carol S. Steiker and Jordan M. Steiker (sister and brother) have written a revealing book about the history of the death penalty in the US and, in particular, the continued difficulties the Supreme Court has had in attempting to regulate capital punishment so that it conforms to constitutional standards.  If I have a criticism of their otherwise trenchant account, it is of their failure to give more than passing attention to the moral outrage that provides much of the emotional support for the death penalty — outrage felt not only by the family and friends of a murder victim, but also by the many empathetic members of the public who, having learned the brutal facts of the murder, feel strongly that the murderer has forfeited his own right to live.

For the Steikers, the debate over the death penalty is “first and foremost” a symbolic battle over cultural values, with a strong current of racism running just below the surface.  This may well be true, but unless one acknowledges that rational human beings can feel such revulsion at the taking of an innocent life as to wish the taker dead, one misses part of the reason that the death penalty continues to enjoy significant popular support, even in many of the states and countries that have banned it.

June 1, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (5)

Lots of notable new reporting and commentary from The Marshall Project

The always terrific Marshall Project always has many great pieces that should be must-reads for sentencing fans.  Though I rarely have the time or ability to give shout-outs to all of the great work done there, the last few days have seen the posting of these pieces or reporting and commentary that all struck me as particularly blog-worthy:

Tuesday brought this Commentary, authored by Mark Osler, headlined "The Problem with the Justice Department: It’s a building full of prosecutors."

Wednesday brought this News piece, authored by Justin George, headlined "What Are Inmates Learning in Prison? Not Much: A new survey of 2,000 federal prisoners reveals big gaps in teaching reentry skills."

Thursday brought this Feature piece, authored by Anat Rubin, "Downloading a Nightmare: When autism, child pornography and the courts collide."

The last of these pieces is especially lengthy, but should be especially interesting for sentencing fans who think about when and how offender characteristics should or should not impact sentencing decisions. Here is a portion of the piece:

The “autism defense” was thrust into the spotlight by the case of Gary McKinnon, who, in 2002, from an apartment in London, broke into computers at the Army, Air Force, Navy, Department of Defense and NASA, searching for evidence of a UFO cover-up.  In fighting his extradition to the United States, McKinnon’s legal team argued that his crime was the result of his autistic compulsions.  “And then we started to see an increase in other individuals coming forth and claiming that Asperger's was causal in their need to — and their compulsion to — download child pornography,” said Chad Steel, who conducts digital forensics investigations for the federal government.

Steel, who also teaches digital forensics at George Mason University, wrote a paper to help forensic psychologists and others in law enforcement gather evidence to refute the central assumptions of the autism defense in child pornography investigations. “A frequent argument we get is that the person was unable to control their impulses, unable to know it was wrong.  There have been some cases where that’s absolutely been true,” he said.  “But when you read ‘this person has high-functioning autism, they didn’t know what they were doing’ — that’s not necessarily true.”  He said before the McKinnon case, he was seeing defendants who were likely autistic, even if they didn’t have an official diagnosis. But since McKinnon, the disability is more likely to take center stage.

The autism defense can be a double-edged sword in court.  Arguing that the defendant has the social and emotional maturity of a child can backfire.  Prosecutors can use that information to argue the defendant is likely to reoffend.  More often, parents whose lives have been defined by their child’s disability find that, in the eyes of the criminal justice system, their child doesn’t seem disabled enough.

The Marshall Project reached out to state and federal prosecutors with experience in child pornography cases.  With few exceptions they were unwilling to discuss cases involving autism.

For all child pornography defendants, outcomes depend largely on geography.  Some judges stick close to the federally-recommended sentences, while others have spoken out against the increased punishments. But for autistic defendants, the outcomes seem also to depend on how autism is explained to the court.  “In cases where judges and prosecutors have really been informed on all the dimensions in which Asperger’s applies, they got drastically reduced punishments,” [defense attorney Mark] Mahoney said. “If they get the right information, there’s a good chance — a much better chance than defense attorneys imagine — that prosecutors will understand that this is a population that just doesn’t have the dangerousness we associate with the behavior.”

In arguing for diversion, Mahoney focuses on what prison is like for an autistic person.  Many people with autism are unable to understand the hidden social structure of a prison environment.  They sometimes tell on others who break the rules.  They are eager to please and easily manipulated.  Their behavior can be misinterpreted by prison staff, and they are often placed in isolation, either as a form of punishment or for their own protection.

June 1, 2017 in Offender Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Random If Not 'Rare'? The Eighth Amendment Weakness of Post-Miller Legislation"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Kimberly Thomas and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

First, this Article surveys the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to analogize life without parole for juveniles to the death penalty for adults, and discusses the Eighth Amendment law regarding the parameters around death penalty statutory schemes.  Second, this Article examines the state legislative response to Miller v. Alabama, and scrutinizes it with the Court’s Eighth Amendment death penalty law — and the states’ responses to this case law — in mind.  This Article highlights the failure of juvenile homicide sentencing provisions to: 1) narrow offenses that are eligible for life without parole sentences; 2) further limit, once a guilty finding is made, the categories of offenders to the most likely to have demonstrated “irreparable corruption,”; and 3) provide for meaningful appellate review, among other deficiencies. 

May 31, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Diving into the Pfaffian perspective on modern mass incarceration

Regular readers have seen me regularly highlight in this space the work of Professor John Pfaff and his important accounting of what accounts for modern mass incarceration (e.g., in this post a few years ago, I flagged prior posts chronicling nearly a decade of Pfaff's empirical insights and analysis).  These days Pfaff's recently published book, "Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration — and How to Achieve Real Reform," is helping to give his perspectives a wider airing.  And just today I noticed that two notable media sources are talking up and talking with Pfaff about his work:

From The Crime Report, a two-part Q&A:

From Vox: "Why you can’t blame mass incarceration on the war on drugs: The standard liberal narrative about mass incarceration gets a lot wrong. A new book breaks through the myths."

May 31, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Second Circuit affirms convictions and LWOP sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht

The Second Circuit today released a 139-page panel opinion in US v. Ulbricht, No. 15-1815 (2d Cir. May 31, 2017) (available here), which starts this way:

Defendant Ross William Ulbricht appeals from a judgment of conviction and sentence to life imprisonment entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Katherine B. Forrest, J.).  A jury convicted Ulbricht of drug trafficking and other crimes associated with his creation and operation of Silk Road, an online marketplace whose users primarily purchased and sold illegal goods and services.  He challenges several aspects of his conviction and sentence, arguing that (1) the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence assertedly obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment; (2) the district court committed numerous errors that deprived him of his right to a fair trial, and incorrectly denied his motion for a new trial; and (3) his life sentence is both procedurally and substantively unreasonable.  Because we identify no reversible error, we AFFIRM Ulbricht’s conviction and sentence in all respects.

The sentencing discussion covers roughly the last 25 pages of this lengthy unanimous panel opinion, and it includes a number of notable passages while covering a lot of notable ground. Here are just a few highlights of an opinion that sentencing fans and drug policy folks should read in full:

Ulbricht’s only claim of procedural error is that it was improper for the district court to consider six drug-related deaths as relevant to his sentence because there was insufficient information connecting them with drugs purchased on Silk Road.  In terms of our sentencing jurisprudence, Ulbricht claims that the district court relied on clearly erroneous facts in imposing sentence.  We are not persuaded....

[I]t was certainly appropriate for the district court to consider the risk of death from use of drugs in assessing the seriousness of the offense conduct, one of the factors that a judge must consider in imposing sentence.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A).  That appears to be the only way the judge in this case used the evidence of the drug-related deaths. Emotionally wrenching as the statements of the decedents’ parents were, we cannot and do not assume that federal judges are unable to put their sympathies for particular victims to one side and assess the evidence for its rational relationship to the sentencing decision. And here, the record makes clear that the district court did not use the evidence of the drug-related deaths to enhance Ulbricht’s sentence, either as a formal matter under the Guidelines or otherwise....

[W]hile a life sentence for selling drugs alone would give pause, we would be hard put to find such a sentence beyond the bounds of reason for drug crimes of this magnitude. But the facts of this case involve much more than simply facilitating the sale of narcotics. The district court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Ulbricht commissioned at least five murders in the course of protecting Silk Road’s anonymity, a finding that Ulbricht does not challenge in this appeal.  Ulbricht discussed those anticipated murders callously and casually in his journal and in his communications with the purported assassin Redandwhite....

Ulbricht and amici point out that life sentences are rare in the federal system, typically reserved for egregious violent crimes, thus rendering Ulbricht’s sentence substantively unreasonable.  Moreover, according to amici, life sentences are normally imposed in cases where that is the district judge’s only sentencing option.  Thus, they claim that Ulbricht’s life sentence is substantively unreasonable in the context of the federal system, where life sentences are particularly rare for those with no criminal history who are convicted of drug crimes.

We agree with Ulbricht that life sentences are extraordinary and infrequent, which is as it should be.  But the rarity of life sentences does not mean that the imposition of such a sentence in this case is substantively unreasonable under our law.  Each case must be considered on its own facts and in light of all of the circumstances of a particular offense as well as other relevant conduct, which, in this case, includes five attempted murders for hire.  As we have described, the district court carefully considered Ulbricht’s offense, his personal characteristics, and the context for his crimes, recognizing that only exceptional cases justify such a severe sentence. Although we might not have imposed the same sentence ourselves in the first instance, on the facts of this case a life sentence was “within the range of permissible decisions” that the district court could have reached. 

A few prior related posts:

May 31, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth"

Era_MassIncarceration_250The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from the Prison Policy Initiative. This PPI press release provide context and summary for the report's coverage:

State capitols share responsibility for growing jail populations, charges a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative. “Jails are ostensibly locally controlled, but the people held there are generally accused of violating state law, and all too often, state policymakers ignore jails,” argues the new report, Era of Mass Expansion: Why State Officials Should Fight Jail Growth.

The fact that jails are smaller than state prison systems and under local control has allowed state officials to avoid addressing the problems arising from jail policies and practices. “Reducing the number of people jailed has obvious benefits for individuals, but also helps states curb prison growth down the line,” says Joshua Aiken, report author and Policy Fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative.

Every year, 11 million people churn through local jail systems, mostly for minor violations of state law. Of the 720,000 people in jails on a given day, most have not been convicted of a crime and have either just been arrested or are too poor to make bail. And since the 1980s, crime has fallen but the number of people jailed has more than tripled.

The new report finds that the key driver of jail growth is not what one might expect – courtroom judges finding more people guilty and sentencing them to jail. In fact, the number of people serving jail sentences has actually fallen over the last 20 years. Instead, the report finds two troubling explanations for jail growth:

  • An increasing number of people held pre-trial.

  • Growing demand from federal and state agencies to rent cell space from local jails.

Recognizing the importance of state-specific data for policymakers and advocates, the report offers more than a hundred graphs that make possible state comparisons of jail trends. The report uncovers unique state problems that drive mass incarceration:

  • In some states, state officials have not utilized their ability to regulate the commercial bail industry, which has profited from the increased reliance on money bail and increased bail amounts. These trends have expanded the pre-trial population dramatically over time.

  • In other states, state lawmakers have expanded criminal codes, enabled overzealous prosecutors, and allowed police practices to play a paramount role in driving up jail populations, while underfunding pre-trial programs and alternatives to incarceration.

  • In 25 states, 10% or more of the people confined in local jails are being held for state or federal agencies, with some counties even adding capacity to meet the demand. This report is the first to be able to address the local jail population separately from the troubling issue of renting jail space.

Era of Mass Expansion draws particular attention to the states where the dubious practice of renting jail space to other authorities contributes most to jail growth. “Local sheriffs, especially in states like Louisiana and Kentucky, end up running a side business of incarcerating people for the state prison system or immigration authorities,” explains Aiken. “Renting out jail space often creates a financial incentive to expand jail facilities and keep more people behind bars.” The report finds that renting jail space for profit has contributed more to national jail growth since the 1980s than people who are being held by local authorities and who have actually been convicted of crimes.

For state policymakers, the report offers 10 specific recommendations to change how offenses are classified and treated by law enforcement, eliminate policies that criminalize poverty or create financial incentives for unnecessarily punitive practices, and monitor the upstream effects of local discretion. “There are plenty of things local officials can do to lower the jail population,” says Aiken. “With this report, I wanted to bring in state-level actors by showing how much of the solution is in their hands.”

May 31, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Notable new talk of notable new mandatory minimum sentences in Congress

The Hill has this notable new article headlined "GOP pushes new minimum sentencing laws."  Here are excerpts:

The debate over criminal justice reform has taken a head-spinning turn on Capitol Hill.  After months of debate over whether to curb mandatory minimum prison sentences, Republicans are now going in the opposite direction.

A new border security bill includes mandatory minimum sentences for certain immigrants who try to re-enter the country after they’ve already been deported and for people convicted of violent crimes against judges and police officers. The Hill reviewed a draft copy of the legislation, which is still being hammered out by Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

The legislation includes “Kate’s law,” a measure named for Kathryn Steinle, a 32-year-old woman killed in 2015 by a felon who had been deported but returned to the United States. The law effectively creates a three-strike rule. Immigrants with prior aggravated felony convictions or two prior convictions for illegal re-entry would get a mandatory 5-year sentence.

President Trump repeatedly talked about Steinle during his presidential campaign as he backed policies cracking down on legal and illegal immigration.

The legislation also incorporates Cornyn’s Back the Blue Act, which creates a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence for killing a judge or federal law enforcement officer; a 10-year minimum for assault if the judge or law enforcement officer is seriously injured; a 20-year mandatory minimum if a deadly or dangerous weapon was used in the assault; and a 10-year minimum for fleeing after killing, attempting to kill or conspiring to kill a judge or law enforcement office. The law defines a law enforcement officer as any federally funded public safety officer or judicial officer for a public agency, including firefighters.

The new legislation represents a shift in the battle over mandatory minimum sentences and criminal justice reform more broadly. Over the last several years, momentum for eliminating mandatory sentencing laws gained steam with the backing not only of former President Barack Obama, but also from conservatives such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Charles and David Koch, the conservative GOP mega-donors and political heavyweights.

With the election of Trump, however, there are some signs that things are now moving in a different direction. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have vowed to empower law enforcement and crack down on illegal immigration....

Cornyn’s work on the new bill appears to represent another shift given his past work on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. That legislation, which Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) spearheaded alongside Lee and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), called for reducing mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes. Cornyn was one of the first 15 original co-sponsors of that legislation, which never made it to the floor for a vote....

Cornyn said the new legislation is in draft form and still evolving. “We don’t have a final product,” he told The Hill on Thursday. “We’ve been sharing some language with the Department of Homeland Security and the House so there isn’t a final product. I know people like to comment on leaked draft documents, but I don’t find that very productive.”

When asked for his response to claims that provisions in his bill contradict his past support for reform, Cornyn said his bill is not a statement about mandatory minimums generally. “I’m not opposed to all mandatory minimums,” he said. “For example, felons carrying guns, I like the five-year mandatory minimum because it acts as a deterrent and saves lives.”...

Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said he understands Cornyn's reasoning for supporting minimums for certain crimes. “But just because you support some [mandatory minimums], doesn’t mean you should support the worst,” he said. “These are incredibly broad and expensive.”

Ring claims the provisions in Cornyn’s bill will cause more damage than any good Grassley's and Durbin’s reforms would have done in terms of reducing the prison population. “These are two of the biggest prison expanding proposals we’ve seen combined into one massive bill,” he said. “We can’t possibly build prisons fast enough to keep up with the influx we’d have.”

Without seeing the particulars of the new mandatory minimums (MMs) being developed by Senator Cornyn, I am not yet prepared to weigh in on just how much of an impact they could have on the federal prison population. I am hopeful that the US Sentencing Commission might have an opportunity to analyze the possible impact of any and all new MMs before they come up for a vote in any committees or before the full Congress.

If Senator Cornyn and other GOP members are strongly and aggressively committed to moving forward with new MMs for certain violent offenses and/or repeat immigration offenders, advocates of progressive reforms might be strategically wise to urge adding to any bill parallel provisions that reduce or eliminate MMs for certain nonviolent offenses and/or first-time offenders. Like many advocates of federal sentencing reform, I generally think all forms of mandatory minimums generally do more harm than good. But lengthy mandatory minimums for nonviolent and first offenders seem to me to be especially pernicious, and thus I would urge those troubled by the lemons of new proposed MMs try to find a way to make some sentencing reform lemonade.

May 30, 2017 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

"What Happened to the American Jury? Proposals for Revamping Plea Bargaining and Summary Judgment"

The title of this post is the title of this short paper by Suja Thomas now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

Plea bargaining and summary judgment have contributed to the disappearance of the jury.  This short paper describes the "plea offer," "sentence" and "consensus" requirements -- three seemingly controversial but rational ways to restore the jury in our present system.

Here are a few paragraphs from the piece focused on plea bargaining:

Under the proposed plea offer requirement, if a criminal defendant does not accept the offered plea, then the prosecutor must try the criminal defendant on the charge in the proposed plea agreement along with the original charge.  In other circumstances, where the plea offer involved a charge reduction or sentencing bargaining, the defendant can present evidence of that plea offer at the trial for consideration by the jury.

Under the proposed sentence requirement, at trial, the jury would also hear information about the sentences that the defendant would receive if convicted of the different crimes and could convict based on these sentences.  Historically, juries possessed this information and could act on it.

By permitting the plea and sentence information to be presented at trial, the criminal defendant now has good reason to take a jury trial over the plea bargain.  The defendant can be found not guilty but, alternatively, if convicted, may receive the same sentence that the prosecutor offered in the plea agreement.

May 30, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Australia working on a novel travel ban for certain sex offenders ... to keep them in the country

This new AP article, Headlined "Australia plans to ban pedophiles from traveling overseas," reports on a kind of travel ban being discussed down under that is quite distinct from the one now being litigated here in the US.  Here are the details:

Australia plans to ban convicted pedophiles from traveling overseas in what the government said Tuesday is a world-first move to protect vulnerable children in Southeast Asia from exploitation.  Australian pedophiles are notorious for taking inexpensive vacations to nearby Southeast Asian and Pacific island countries to abuse children there.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she would cancel the passports of around 20,000 pedophiles on the national child sex offender register under legislation that will be introduced to Parliament soon.  "There has been increasing community concern about sexual exploitation of vulnerable children and community concern is justified," she told reporters.

Almost 800 registered child sex offenders travelled overseas from Australia last year and about half went to Southeast Asian destinations, she said.  "There will be new legislation which will make Australia a world leader in protecting vulnerable children in our region from child sex tourism," Bishop said.

Justice Minister Michael Keenan said no country has such a travel ban.  He said 2,500 new convicted pedophiles would be added to the sex offender register each year and would also lose their passports.

The register contains 3,200 serious offenders who will be banned from travel for life.  Less serious offenders drop off the register after several years of complying with reporting conditions and would become eligible to have their passports renewed.

Independent Senator Derryn Hinch, who was molested as a child and was jailed twice as a radio broadcaster for naming pedophiles in contravention of court orders, took credit for the government initiative. Hinch said he had not known that convicted pedophiles were allowed to travel before he received a letter from Australian actress and children's rights campaigner Rachel Griffiths soon after he was elected to the Senate last year. "If we can take a passport from a bankrupt, why can't we stop our pedophiles from traveling to Myanmar?" Griffiths wrote. Under Australian law, a bankrupt person cannot travel overseas without a trustee's permission.

Hinch, who was involved in drafting the legislation, said temporary passports could be provided to pedophiles who need to travel for legitimate business or family reasons, and for pedophiles living overseas who need to return to Australia as their visas expire. "This will not apply to a teenager who has been caught sexting to his 15-year-old girlfriend," said Hinch, referring to sexual phone communications. "I know sometimes, I think unfairly, they go on registers, but we're trying to work it out so they don't," he added....

Australia has attempted to crack down on Australian child sex tourists by adding a new criminal offense punishable by up to 25 years in prison for Australian citizens or residents who molest children overseas.

May 30, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sentencing around the world, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12)

Consensus reigning (for now) as SCOTUS continues working through its criminal docket

Because the Supreme Court has already resolved all of its major sentencing cases, there is not all that much for sentencing fans to anticipate as the Justices wind down with final opinions over the final weeks of its Term.  But there are still plenty of criminal justice cases pending that may still lead to notable opinions, and two such rulings were handed down this morning.  As the title of this post highlights, what strikes me as notable about these new opinions is how the Justices were content to speak in one voice despite the potential contentiousness of the issues.  

In Esquivel-Quintana v. Sessions, No. 16-54 (S. Ct. May 30, 2017) (available here), Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court and it starts this way:

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 66 Stat. 163, as amended, provides that “[a]ny alien who is convicted of an aggravated felony after admission” to the United States may be removed from the country by the Attorney General. 8 U. S. C. §1227(a)(2)(A)(iii). One of the many crimes that constitutes an aggravated felony under the INA is “sexual abuse of a minor.” §1101(a)(43)(A). A conviction for sexual abuse of a minor is an aggravated felony regardless of whether it is for a “violation of Federal or State law.” §1101(a)(43). The INA does not expressly define sexual abuse of a minor.

We must decide whether a conviction under a state statute criminalizing consensual sexual intercourse between a 21-year-old and a 17-year-old qualifies as sexual abuse of a minor under the INA.  We hold that it does not.

In County of Los Angeles v. Mendez, No. 16-369 (S. Ct. May 30, 2017) (available here), Justice Alito wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court and it starts this way:

If law enforcement officers make a “seizure” of a person using force that is judged to be reasonable based on a consideration of the circumstances relevant to that determination, may the officers nevertheless be held liable for injuries caused by the seizure on the ground that they committed a separate Fourth Amendment violation that contributed to their need to use force?  The Ninth Circuit has adopted a “provocation rule” that imposes liability in such a situation.

We hold that the Fourth Amendment provides no basis for such a rule. A different Fourth Amendment violation cannot transform a later, reasonable use of force into an unreasonable seizure.

May 30, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, May 29, 2017

"Predicting Sex Offender Recidivism: Using the Federal Post-Conviction Risk Assessment Instrument to Assess the Likelihood of Recidivism Among Federal Sex Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this new article available via SSRN authored by Thomas Cohen. Here is the abstract:

Sex offenses are among the crimes that provoke serious public concern.  The federal response to the problem of sex offending has resulted in an exponential increase in the number of sex offenders on federal post-conviction supervision; however, relatively few studies have explored whether and how well the actuarial risk instrument currently used by federal probation officers — the federal Post Conviction Risk Assessment instrument or PCRA for short — accurately predicts reoffending behavior among the federal sex offender population.

This study provided an exploration of the PCRA’s capacity to effectively predict subsequent recidivism activity for convicted federal sex offenders.  Results show that the PCRA accurately predicts recidivistic behavior involving the commission of any felony or misdemeanor offenses, violent offenses, and probation revocations for this population. However, the PCRA’s predicative capacities deteriorate when the instrument is used to assess the likelihood of sexual recidivism.  In addition, this study showed that offenders convicted of online child pornography offenses presented some challenges in terms of predicting their reoffending behavior because they manifested lower PCRA risk scores and recidivism rates compared to offenders convicted of other major federal sexual offenses that typically involve more hands-on behavior.

May 29, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

The Economist urges "Rethinking Prison"

20170527_cna400The current print edition of The Economist has a series of article on prison policies and practices. Here are links to the article in the series and their extended headlines:

"America’s prisons are failing. Here’s how to make them work: A lot is known about how to reform prisoners. Far too little is done."

"More women are being put behind bars. Fewer should be: Female convicts are less violent and more likely to have stolen to support children

"Too many prisons make bad people worse. There is a better way: The world can learn from how Norway treats its offenders"

Here is an excerpt from the last of these articles:

Reserving prison for the worst offenders has hefty benefits.  First, it saves money.  In America, for example, incarcerating a federal convict costs eight times as much as putting the same convict on probation.  Second, it avoids mixing minor offenders with more hardened criminals, who will teach them bad habits.  “The low-level guys don’t tend to rub off on the higher-level prisoners. It goes the other way,” says Ron Gordon of the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, a state body.

Modern electronic tags are cheap and effective. In a recent study Rafael Di Tella of Harvard University and Ernesto Schargrodsky of Torcuato Di Tella University compared the effects of electronic tagging versus prison for alleged offenders in Buenos Aires.  Earlier research had failed to deal with the fact that criminals who are tagged are less likely to reoffend than the more dangerous ones who are locked up.  The authors found a way round this.  Alleged criminals in Argentina are assigned randomly to judges for pre-trial hearings. Liberal judges are reluctant to hold them in the country’s awful jails, so they often order them to be tagged.  So-called mano dura (tough hand) judges prefer to lock them up.  The researchers observed what happened to similar offenders under different regimes.  Only 13% of those who were tagged were later rearrested; for those sent to prison the figure was 22%.

May 29, 2017 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

"No Indeterminate Sentencing Without Parole"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper available via SSRN authored by Kevin Morrow and Katherine Puzauskas. Here is the abstract:

This article looks critically at Arizona’s indeterminate sentencing system that survived after the elimination of parole in Arizona in 1993.  It begins by exploring the purpose and history of indeterminate sentencing and parole as well as its earliest constitutional challenges and eventual decline.  Next it compares two commonly confused forms of “release”: parole and executive clemency.  The article then examines the three types of defendants and the potential consequences if Arizona does not reestablish parole for its indeterminate sentences: death row defendants denied parole eligibility instructions at trial, defendants whose plea agreement includes parole and defendants sentenced to parole at trial.  Finally, the article argues that without parole, Arizona’s indeterminate sentences should be ruled unconstitutional.

May 28, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

DC sniper Lee Malvo to get resentencing thanks to Miller Eighth Amendment rule

As reported in this AP piece, a "federal judge on Friday tossed out two life sentences for one of Virginia's most notorious criminals, sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, and ordered Virginia courts to hold new sentencing hearings."  Here is why:

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson in Norfolk said Malvo is entitled to new sentencing hearings after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

Malvo was 17 when he was arrested in 2002 for a series of shootings that killed 10 people and wounded three over a three-week span in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, causing widespread fear throughout the region. His accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, was executed in 2009.

Malvo also was sentenced to life in prison in Maryland for the murders that occurred there. But his lawyers have made an appeal on similar grounds in that state.  A hearing is scheduled in June.

Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Morrogh, who helped prosecute Malvo in 2003, said the Virginia attorney general can appeal Jackson's ruling.  If not, Morrogh said he would pursue another life sentence, saying he believes Malvo meets the criteria for a harsh sentence....

Michael Kelly, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, said Friday evening that the office is "reviewing the decision and will do everything possible, including a possible appeal, to make sure this convicted mass murderer serves the life sentences that were originally imposed."  He also noted that the convictions themselves stand and emphasized that, even if Malvo gets a new sentencing hearing, he could still be resentenced to a life term....

Jackson, in his ruling, wrote that Malvo was entitled to a new sentencing hearing because the Supreme Court's ruling grants new rights to juveniles that Malvo didn't know he had when he agreed to the plea bargain.

The full 25-page opinion resolving Malvo's habeas petition is available at this link.

May 28, 2017 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, May 27, 2017

"What will happen to Pennsylvania's death penalty?"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy local article. Here are excerpts:

Five times a year, Pennsylvania corrections officials meet inside a white block masonry field house on the grounds of the prison near Penn State, and carry out a mock execution. They escort the “inmate” to the execution chamber. They strap that person onto the gurney. And then they simulate injecting a lethal dose of drugs into his body.

They perform this drill even though capital punishment in the commonwealth remains indefinitely on hold while government officials await a report, now years in the making, analyzing capital punishment’s history, effectiveness and cost in Pennsylvania.

The death sentence imposed last month on Eric Frein, the Poconos survivalist who killed a State Police trooper and injured another in September 2014, has reignited questions – and in some cases, criticism – about why the state has taken so long to decide whether to continue or stop, once and for all, executing criminals....

And state Sen. Scott Wagner, a York County Republican hoping to unseat the governor next year, has signaled it’s an issue he’ll press on the campaign trail. “I can assure you, when I’m governor, within the first 48 hours, I’ll be up there reversing that moratorium,” Wagner said in an interview Friday....

In Pennsylvania, ... Wolf, a Democrat, [imposed] a moratorium on the death penalty after taking office in early 2015. He argued the state should await the results of a long-awaited report by the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment before putting any more criminals to death. The report is expected to analyze more than a dozen factors involving the death penalty, such as cost, bias and effectiveness.

Wolf’s decision has drawn backlash from organizations like the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, which in 2015 called it “a misuse of [the governor’s] power” that ignores the law. The study itself has also come under fire, particularly for how long it’s taking to complete: It was ordered up by the state Senate in 2011 and was supposed to be completed by 2013....

Meanwhile, tax dollars still go toward keeping prisoners on death row. Each of the state’s 165 death row inmates — from Frein, who was sentenced last month, to Henry Fahy, who has been awaiting his punishment since November 1983 — cost Pennsylvania $10,000 more a year to house than a convict sentenced to life in prison. This does not account for the additional legal fees associated with capital cases: Some estimate prosecuting and litigating a capital murder case can cost up to $3 million more than a non-capital murder case....

“We have spent billions of dollars having a death penalty – including maintaining a death facility – and we have not executed someone who did not ask to be executed” since 1962, Sen. Daylin Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat and one of four members of a Senate task force awaiting the report, said last week. Leach is an unapologetic opponent of the death penalty. He has introduced bills to abolish it since 2009, arguing that it is “immoral and barbaric,” and calling the cost of capital punishment “troubling” – including the cost of maintaining the execution complex.

May 27, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, May 26, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases report on "Youthful Offenders in the Federal System"

Cover_youthful-offendersThe US Sentencing Commission released this notable new report today titled simply "Youthful Offenders in the Federal System." Here is the report's introduction and "key findings" from its first two pages:

Introduction

Although youthful offenders account for about 18 percent of all federal offenders sentenced between fiscal years 2010 and 2015, there is little current information published about them.  In this publication, the United States Sentencing Commission (“the Commission”) presents information about youthful offenders, who for purposes of this report are defined as persons age 25 or younger at the time they are sentenced in the federal system.

Recent studies on brain development and age, coupled with recent Supreme Court decisions recognizing differences in offender culpability due to age, have led some policymakers to reconsider how youthful offenders should be punished.  This report reviews those studies and provides an overview of youthful federal offenders, including their demographic characteristics, what type of offenses they were sentenced for, how they were sentenced, and the extent of their criminal histories.

The report also discusses the intersection of neuroscience and law, and how this intersection has influenced the treatment of youthful offenders in the criminal justice system. The Commission is releasing this report as part of its review of the sentencing of youthful offenders.  In June 2016, the Commission’s Tribal Issues Advisory Group (TIAG) issued a report that proposed several guideline and policy changes relating to youthful offenders, including departure provisions and alternatives to incarceration.

Because many of the TIAG recommendations on this topic apply to all youthful offenders, and not just Native Americans, the Commission voted to study the treatment of youthful offenders as a policy priority for the 2016-2017 amendment cycle.

The key findings in this report are that:

• There were 86,309 offenders (18.0% of the federal offender population) age 25 or younger sentenced in the federal system between 2010 and 2015.

• The majority (57.8%) of youthful offenders are Hispanic.

• There were very few youthful offenders under the age of 18 sentenced in the federal system (52 between 2010 and 2015).

• Almost 92 percent of offenses committed by youthful offenders were nonviolent offenses.

• Similar to the overall federal offender population (or non-youthful offenders group) the most common offenses that youthful offenders committed were drug trafficking (30.9%), immigration (28.6%), and firearms offenses (13.7%).

• The average sentence for youthful offenders was 34.9 months.

• Youthful offenders were more likely to be sentenced within the guidelines range than non-youthful offenders (56.1% compared to 50.1%).

• Youthful offenders recidivated at a much higher rate than their older counterparts — about 67 percent versus 41 percent.

May 26, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3)

"U.S. Prison Population Trends 1999-2015: Modest Reductions with Significant Variation"

The title of this post is the title of this brief "Fact Sheet" from The Sentencing Project, which gets started this way:

While states and the federal government have modestly reduced their prison populations in recent years, incarceration trends continue to vary significantly across jurisdictions. Overall, the number of people held in state and federal prisons has declined by 4.9% since reaching its peak in 2009.  Sixteen states have achieved double-digit rates of decline and the federal system has downsized at almost twice the national rate.  But while 38 states have reduced their prison populations, in most states this change has been relatively modest.  In addition, 12 states have continued to expand their prison populations even though most have shared in the nationwide crime drop.

Six states have reduced their prison populations by over 20% since reaching their peak levels:

• New Jersey (35% decline since 1999)

• New York (29% decline since 1999)

• Alaska (27% decline since 2006)

• California (26% decline since 2006, though partly offset by increasing jail use)

• Vermont (25% decline since 2009)

• Connecticut (22% decline since 2007)

Southern states including Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana, which have exceptionally high rates of incarceration, have also begun to significantly downsize their prison populations.  These reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay.  Moreover, the states with the most substantial prison population reductions have often outpaced the nationwide crime drop.

The pace of decarceration has been very modest in most states, especially given that nationwide violent and property crime rates have fallen by half since 1991.  Despite often sharing in these crime trends, 15 states had less than a 5% prison population decline since their peak year.  Moreover, 12 states have continued to expand their prison populations, with four producing doubledigit increases since 2010: North Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

May 26, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Full Senate confirms Donald Trump's first circuit pick, Judge Amul Thapar, to Sixth Circuit

As Politico reports here, the "Senate voted 52-44 on Thursday to install Thapar, a favorite of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), at the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals."  Here is more about this confirmation and additional judicial confirmation battles on the horizon:

The confirmation marked the first judicial nominee aside from now-Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court for Trump, who came into office with an usually higher number of judicial vacancies....

In addition to Thapar, Trump has nominated 10 prospective judges to the lower courts. Two in particular could trigger a partisan battle over the so-called blue slip rule — a long-standing custom of the Senate Judiciary Committee that says the panel will not advance a judicial nominee without the consent of both the candidates’ home-state senators.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), said recently that the blue slip rule would be much stricter for district court judges that cover just a single state, rather than the more powerful circuit court nominees that span a broader region.  And other Republicans agree, despite comments earlier this month that signaled the GOP would stand by that tradition.  “I like the blue slip tradition as it pertains to district court judges, but I never thought it applies to circuit court,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Democrats have already started fighting back, arguing that the Judiciary Committee strictly abided by the blue slip rule under President Barack Obama and that Trump should be treated the same way.  Under Obama, 17 judicial nominees — 11 for the district court and six for the circuit courts — never advanced because a blue slip wasn’t returned. One of the unreturned blue slips was for the vacant 6th Circuit seat that will be filled by Thapar after his confirmation on Thursday....

Thapar, like Gorsuch before him, was drawn from a list of potential Supreme Court nominees released by Trump during his campaign with input from the conservative Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation.

As I noted in this post when Judge Thapar was nominated earlier this year, I have come to know Judge Thapar personally and I think very highly of him (in part because he asked me to file an amicus brief in one of his highest-profile sentencing cases).  I am already excited to see his coming opinions in criminal justices cases for the Sixth Circuit.  And Judge Thapar's nomination and reasonably smooth confirmation now perhaps serves to make him a front-runner for any coming Supreme Court opening. 

May 26, 2017 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Alabama finally carries out death sentence for Thomas Arthur

As reported here by CNN, "Alabama executed death row inmate Tommy Arthur early Friday after a lengthy court battle that included multiple lethal injection delays." Here is more:

Arthur, 75, was convicted in the 1982 murder-for-hire of romantic rival Troy Wicker. The inmate, who was nicknamed the "Houdini" of death row because he'd had seven prior execution dates postponed, died by lethal injection at the Holman Correctional Facility at Atmore.

The Supreme Court issued a temporary stay Thursday, then lifted it later that night, leading to his execution.

"No governor covets the responsibility of weighing the merits of life or death; but it is a burden I accept as part of my pledge to uphold the laws of this state," Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement. "Three times Tommy Arthur was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Each time his case was reviewed thoroughly at every level of both our state and federal courts, and the appellate process has ensured that the rights of the accused were protected."

Arthur's lawyers had filed motions arguing that Alabama's method of execution was cruel and unusual, and that the attorneys should have access to a cellphone while witnessing the execution. Before the Supreme Court decision, stay requests had been rejected by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the governor....

Arthur was convicted of killing Wicker of Muscle Shoals by shooting him in the right eye on February 1, 1982, according to court documents. He was a work release prisoner at that time. He had been convicted of killing his sister-in-law in 1977, also by shooting her in the right eye.

May 26, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, May 25, 2017

"Capital Punishment and the Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this commentary/book review authored by Jonathan Mitchell and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

In Courting Death, Professors Carol Steiker and Jordan Steiker present a thoughtful and trenchant critique of the Supreme Court’s capital-punishment jurisprudence.  They present data and anecdotes showing that capital punishment today is no less “arbitrary” than it was before the Supreme Court started regulating capital punishment in 1972 — leaving us with a regime that imposes costly, arcane, and highly technical rules on capital-punishment jurisdictions without any payoff in reducing arbitrary decisionmaking.  The Steikers also observe that many of these court-created doctrines suffer from vagueness and indeterminacy.  And they even suggest that the Supreme Court’s efforts to restrict the death penalty have had the paradoxical effect of strengthening and entrenching the institution of capital punishment.

Yet the pathologies with the Court’s capital-punishment doctrines go even beyond what the Steikers have identified.  The Court’s “proportionality” doctrine, for example, rests on a non sequitur: That capital punishment is rarely applied to juveniles or people with mental disabilities does not indicate that a national consensus exists against any use of capital punishment in those situations.  It is also wrong for the Court to infer “evolving standards of decency” from a state’s decision to establish minimum age or IQ thresholds for the death penalty.  Governments often choose to legislate by rule for reasons that have nothing to do with standards of decency.  Finally, the Court’s “proportionality” doctrine creates perverse incentives for prosecutors and elected officials, because it threatens to eliminate capital punishment across the board — or at least as applied to specified categories of offenders — unless the government produces enough executions to defeat a claim that a death sentence is no longer consistent with “evolving standards of decency.”  The Steikers are right to criticize the Court’s efforts to regulate capital punishment, but the problems go beyond what they identify in their thorough and comprehensive book.

May 25, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Deep dive into the deep challenges of sentencing different types of child sex offenders

The Shreveport Times has this detailed five-part series, called Sinister Web, which looks into the modern digital world of child pornography. One article in the series examines case-processing and sentencing issues and challenges in this sad space under the headlined "Different outcomes for child rapists, child pornographers."  Here are excerpts:

Prosecutors face specific challenges when handling contact child sexual abuse cases, which often result in less prison time for those who sexually assault children than for those who possessed or distributed child pornography via the internet.

The conviction rate in U.S. child pornography possession cases is 97 percent, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The conviction rate is much lower for offenders who commit hands-on sex crimes against children: 46 percent....

Experts cite multiple reasons for the disparities in sentencing and conviction rates.  One is that young children often are difficult witnesses because they include "fantastical" elements in their testimonies or they cannot give detailed, accurate information to investigators, said Dr. Sharon Cooper. Cooper, a forensic pediatrician who has provided expert testimony in more than 300 cases involving internet and child sexual abuse crimes, also said that forensic interviews of children may not show any physical evidence of abuse, as many children wait years to disclose.

But child sexual abuse images “speak for themselves,” said Lt. Chad Gremillion, a detective with the special victims unit of the Louisiana State Police. “You can’t deny what they are, what the focal point is, the abuse of a video where a four-year-old is being forced to provide oral sex to a male in a home,” Gremillion said.

The need for child victims of sexual abuse to testify at trial also is an issue.  Defense attorneys surveyed by The Times said they often encourage clients to plead guilty to reduced charges to avoid a trial and in exchange for less prison time. Prosecutors and victims’ families often accept those pleas to prevent further trauma to the children involved, said Caddo Parish Assistant District Attorney Monique Metoyer.  Many young children simply are not emotionally equipped to testify in an open courtroom, Metoyer said.... Another difficulty in prosecuting child sexual abuse cases is that victims often know their abusers.  

Another way some say the law is outdated: Those who upload child sexual abuse images to the internet, where they can be accessed by anyone in the world, can be charged under federal law with transporting materials across state lines — even though all they did was click a button on a home computer, said Katherine Gilmer, also a Shreveport defense attorney.  

As happened with Jesse Ward, the police officer who was caught after sharing a single image depicting child sexual abuse with an online undercover agent.  Law enforcement officers also found "more than ten electronic images" of child pornography on a computer hard drive in his home in McDuffie County, Georgia, according to court documents.  Ward initially was charged with three counts: possession, receipt and transportation of child pornography. Two of Ward's charges — receipt and possession of child pornography — were dropped upon the conviction of the third, more serious charge, transporting child pornography.  The transportation charge applied because he had uploaded the image to a network from which users in other states could download it — thus crossing state lines, a distinction that gained his crime federal status.  Ward was sentenced to 20 years.

But those who possess, and do not share, child sexual abuse images also often face stiffer sentences than those who commit contact crimes against children.  Melville resident Russell Guillory was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2016 for possessing child pornography. The Lafayette man's collection included 75 videos and six images of child sexual abuse — including images depicting penetration of a 2-year-old child.

A judge, in imposing sentence, said that the materials were “especially heinous” and that the “very young children” in the materials “were not in a position of sufficient strength to resist the sexual abuse,” according to court documents. In a letter to the Times, written in April, Guillory said his sentence did not match his crime.  “Even good people make mistakes, but mistakes should never make a person,” Guillory wrote.  “We all have moments of weakness and make mistakes.”...

Unlike many contact sex crimes, child pornography possession and distribution charges carry mandatory minimum sentences, while judges in child sexual contact crimes have more discretion at sentencing. Child pornography crimes carry a mandatory five to 20 years of prison time....

Peter Flowers, a defense attorney in Shreveport, said the law has not been updated to reflect changes brought by the internet and digital photography. He voiced frustration with how the criminal justice system handles those convicted of child pornography offenses, especially because of what he termed “outdated” enhancements. “It used to be that if you amassed 500 pictures, you really had to work hard. Now, it’s just pressing a button. It’s not the same thing,” he said.

Flowers also said undercover stings — in which agents pose online as underage children and then arrest adults who initiate sexual conversations — catch only the “low-hanging fruit.”

“There are some serious child pornographers out in the deep, dark web, and that’s where the real danger is,” he said. “The real deal is much deeper.”

Regardless of prison time, all sex crimes in Louisiana require sex offender registration, which can provide a degree of closure for child victims and their families or destroy an offender’s life forever, depending on whom you talk to. Flowers said registration is a “very serious thing” and “not just about having a sign put in your yard or having a strip across your driver’s license.”  Offenders can’t pick their own children up from school.  Those who live within 1,000 feet of a school, church or a park must sell their homes and move, Flowers said....

Law enforcement officers, for the most part, expressed little sympathy for those convicted of possessing or distributing child pornography.... Corey Bourgeois, lead investigator at the Louisiana Attorney General’s cyber crime lab in Baton Rouge, said the state sentencing guidelines fit the crimes. “You know how you got that image?  Somebody was abused to get that image,” he said.  Metoyer said those who access child sexual abuse images chose to do so. “Even though we’re looking at images of children and you may not see the children in the room with you, these are real children,” Metoyer said.  “This has impacted them for the rest of their lives.”

May 25, 2017 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15)

"The portal itself is like a video game for criminal justice nerds."

The title of this post is a sentence that got me (too) excited about this new criminal justice resource called "Measure for Justice."  The sentence is found in this Marshall Project article, fully headlined "The New Tool That Could Revolutionize How We Measure Justice: A small nonprofit gathers criminal justice statistics, one county at a time." Here are excerpts from the article describing what is revolutionary about Measures for Justice:

The enormity of the country’s criminal justice system — 15,000 state and local courts, 18,000 local law enforcement agencies, more than two million prisoners — looks even more daunting when you consider how little we know about what is actually going on in there. Want to know who we prosecute and why? Good luck. Curious about how many people are charged with misdemeanors each year? Can’t tell you. How about how many people reoffend after prison? We don’t really know that, either.

In an age when everything is measured — when data determines the television we watch, the clothes we buy and the posts we see on Facebook — the justice system is a disturbing exception. Agencies exist in silos, and their data stays with them. Instead, we make policy based on anecdote, heavily filtered through a political lens.

This week the nonprofit Measures for Justice is launching an online tool meant to shine a high beam into these dark corners. It is gathering numbers from key criminal justice players — prosecutors offices, public defenders, courts, probation departments — in each of America’s more than 3,000 counties. Staffers clean the data, assemble it in an apples-to-apples format, use it to answer a standard set of basic questions, and make the results free and easy to access and understand.

It’s the kind of task you’d expect a federal agency like the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which has an average annual budget of $97 million, to take on. Instead, the 22 people at Measures for Justice’s Rochester, N.Y., offices are doing the work themselves on an annual budget of $4.6 million, donated mostly from foundations. So far they’ve tackled six states: Washington, Utah, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Florida, gathering most of the numbers one county at a time. Together, these make up 10 percent of the nation’s counties. The team chose those six states for their geographical diversity and — to ease the data gathering in the project’s early phases — because they had unified statewide court databases. The hope is to complete 15 more states by 2020, while updating the statistics from the first six states every two years.

“We’re giving people data they’ve never had access to before,” says Amy Bach, the founder and executive director of Measures for Justice. “We’re telling them stories about their communities and their counties that they’ve never heard before.” The project, which has as its motto “you can’t change what you can’t see,” centers on 32 “core measures”: yardsticks to determine how well local criminal justice systems are working. How often do people plead guilty without a lawyer? How often do prosecutors dismiss charges? How long do people have to wait for a court hearing? Users can also slice the answers to these questions in different ways, using “companion measures” such as race and political affiliation.

The portal itself is like a video game for criminal justice nerds. Users can compare counties, click on interactive maps and bar charts, and layer one data point upon another. The interface is clean and easy to use, if a little wonky. (The organization wants to present data in context, so each infographic is followed by a screen full of fine print and footnotes.) It’s meant for everyone — not just professors and policy wonks.

May 25, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

American Law Institute officially approves revised Model Penal Code: Sentencing provisions

This afternoon I received an email with this exciting news: "Members of the American Law Institute (ALI) voted at their 2017 Annual Meeting in Philadelphia on Wednesday, May 24th to approve the Proposed Final Draft of the Model Penal Code: Sentencing." Here is the context via the email of what I think is a very big deal after a very long process:

Under Reporter Kevin R. Reitz (Co-Director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice and James Annenberg La Vea Land Grant Chair in Criminal Procedure Law at the University of Minnesota Law School), and Associate Reporter Cecelia M. Klingele (Associate Professor of Law, University of Wisconsin, Madison), the project reexamines the sentencing provisions of the 1962 Model Penal Code in light of the many changes in sentencing philosophy and practice that have taken place since its original publication.

The Model Penal Code: Sentencing project provides guidance on some of the most important issues that courts, corrections systems, and policymakers are facing today, including the general purposes of the sentencing system; rules governing sentence severity — including sentences of incarceration, community supervision, and economic penalties; the elimination of mandatory minimum penalties; mechanisms for combating racial and ethnic disparities in punishment; instruments of prison population control; victims’ rights in the sentencing process; the sentencing of juvenile offenders in adult courts; the creation of judicial powers to review many collateral consequences of conviction; and many issues having to do with judicial sentencing discretion, sentencing commissions, sentencing guidelines, and appellate sentence review.

“As a matter of recent history in this country, we’re at quite an important moment, where the conversation and political attitudes towards criminal justice policy and sentencing policy have been shifting dramatically at the state level,” said Professor Reitz.  “Despite current uncertainties in the federal government, legislators, policymakers, and lawmakers in state and local criminal justice systems are searching for workable solutions to problems of mass punitiveness that have grown since the 1970s.  This moment in history is particularly fortuitous for the Model Penal Code because we are arriving at the point of completion just as this new or changed nationwide debate is occurring. For lawmakers, judges, and corrections leaders, we can provide the tools they will need to create important and lasting sentencing reforms in their jurisdictions.”

May 24, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The Price of Prisons: Examining State Spending Trends, 2010 - 2015"

Images (2)The title of this post is the title of this notable new Vera Institute of Justice report. Here is its introduction:

After decades of a stable rate of incarceration, the U.S. prison population experienced unprecedented growth from the early 1970s into the new millennium — with the number of people confined to state prisons increasing by more than 600 percent, reaching just over 1.4 million people by the end of 2009.The engine driving this growth was the enactment and implementation over time of a broad array of tough-on-crime policies, including the rapid and continuous expansion of the criminal code; the adoption of zero-tolerance policing tactics, particularly around minor street-level drug and quality-of-life offenses; and the proliferation of harsh sentencing and release policies aimed at keeping people in prison for longer periods of time (such as mandatory minimum sentences, truth-in-sentencing statutes, and habitual offender laws).

Unsurprisingly, this explosion in the use of incarceration had a direct financial influence on state budgets.  Creating and sustaining such a sprawling penal system has been expensive.  With more people under their care, state prison systems were compelled to build new prison facilities and expand existing ones.  To staff these new and expanded facilities, they also had to hire, train, and retain ever more employees.  In addition to expanding the state-operated prison system, some states also began to board out increasing numbers of people to county jails, privately-run facilities, and other states’ prison systems.

After hitting a high of 1.4 million people in 2009, however, the overall state prison population has since declined by 5 percent, or 77,000 people.  Lawmakers in nearly every state and from across the political spectrum — some prompted by the 2008 recession — have enacted new laws to reduce prison populations and spending, often guided by a now-large body of research supporting alternative, more effective responses to crime.7 In addition to fiscal pressures, the push for reform has been further bolstered by other factors, including low crime rates; shifting public opinion that now favors less incarceration and more rehabilitation; and dissatisfaction with past punitive policies that have failed to moderate persistently high recidivism rates among those sent to prison.

With these various political, institutional, and economic forces at play, most states have adopted a variety of different policies, including those that increase opportunities to divert people away from the traditional criminal justice process; expand the use of community-based sanctions; reduce the length and severity of prison sentences for certain offenses, including the rollback of mandatory penalties; increase opportunities for people to gain early release; and better provide enhanced reentry support for those leaving prison or jail.

In light of nearly a decade of broad-based criminal justice reform, this report seeks to determine where state prison spending stands today and how it has changed in recent years.  In particular, if a goal of recent reforms has been to make deep and lasting cuts to prison spending by reducing the prison population, have states who have witnessed the desired downward shift in prison size also witnessed it in spending?  To answer this question, researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) developed a survey to measure changes in state prison population and expenditures between 2010 and 2015, and conducted follow-up interviews with state prison budget officials to better understand spending and population trends.

Vera’s study confirms that prisons remain an expensive enterprise, despite the success of many states — including Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and South Carolina —in simultaneously reducing their prison populations while achieving budget savings.  The first part of this report describes 2015 prison expenditures, identifying the main driver of corrections spending across responding states.  The second half of the report then discusses how changes in prison populations during the study period, and other trends largely outside the control of departments of corrections have affected prison spending. What is clear is that increased spending is not inevitable, since nearly half of states have cut their spending on prisons between 2010 and 2015.  But while one might expect that states with shrinking prison populations are uniformly spending less on prisons, or conversely that states with growing populations are spending more, Vera’s findings paint a more complicated picture.  Indeed, often there is no single reason that explains a rise or fall in spending, but a multitude of factors that push and pull expenditures in different directions.

May 24, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

After nearly 35 years, is Alabama finally going to carry out death sentence in case showcasing capital punishment's myriad difficulties?

As detailed in this New York Times piece, headlined "Alabama Inmate Hopes to Dodge Death for an Eighth Time," an execution scheduled for tomorrow in Alabama is notable for many reasons. Here is the Times accounting of some of these reasons:

Tommy Arthur, who was first sentenced to death in 1983, has long imagined what could be his end: time in a so-called death cell, a choice of a last meal, the final telephone calls and then a lethal injection.  That end could come Thursday, his eighth execution date in a case that has spanned the tenures of eight Alabama governors, starting with George Wallace.  If it does, it will conclude a legal odyssey that quietly became, for death penalty supporters and critics alike, a symbol of the troubles of the capital punishment system in the United States.

“It’s one of those cases in which nobody is happy,” said Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a research group that has voiced concerns about the application of capital punishment.  “People who simply want the execution are unhappy because of the passage of time,” he said.  “People who oppose the death penalty are unhappy because they don’t want Tommy Arthur executed. People who want fairness are unhappy because, despite the length of time this case has been in the courts, the process has never been fair.”

In Alabama, where 58 people have been put to death since Mr. Arthur was sentenced for the 1982 murder of Troy Wicker, the most pressing issue these days seems to be how long it takes to carry out capital sentences.  If Mr. Arthur, 75, is executed on Thursday, his death will come one week after the Legislature gave final approval to a plan to reduce the length of appeals in capital cases....

Mr. Arthur confessed to one murder but was given a death sentence for a second that he insists he did not commit.  In regards to the latter, the state authorities contend that Mr. Wicker’s wife, Judy, hired Mr. Arthur, her lover, to carry out the killing so she could collect an insurance payout.  Ms. Wicker, who was found guilty and spent about a decade in prison before being released on parole, ultimately testified against Mr. Arthur, who was on work release from a life sentence for another killing when Mr. Wicker was murdered. (A woman who answered the phone at a number connected to Ms. Wicker hung up on a reporter.)

Near the end of a trial in the early 1990s, Mr. Arthur proclaimed his innocence but asked for a death sentence that he said would allow him greater opportunities for appeal. “I will not be executed,” Mr. Arthur said, according to a transcript of the proceedings.  “I’m totally positive of that. I wouldn’t dare ask you for it if I thought for a minute that I would be executed.”

He had already won two new trials by then. In the years that followed, Mr. Arthur’s case began to stand out to some scholars and lawyers because he so frequently staved off scheduled executions.  Mr. Arthur, whose lawyers have not raised intellectual disability or mental health claims, maintained his innocence and sought new forensic testing of evidence.  He argued his sentence was unconstitutional and that his claims of ineffective counsel were never fully considered.  He raised questions about Alabama’s execution methods, including a challenge to a lethal injection drug, midazolam.

Another prisoner once admitted to Mr. Wicker’s murder, but a judge found that Mr. Arthur and the inmate had “engaged in an attempt to defraud” the court with a false confession.  A defense lawyer for Mr. Arthur, Suhana S. Han, said that litigation had still not led to a full airing of the facts and rulings on the merits of Mr. Arthur’s claims of innocence.  Instead, Mr. Arthur’s supporters see a government increasingly desperate to put a man to death....

State officials regard Mr. Arthur as someone who will do anything to avoid his death sentence.  “I think there’s just an attitude by the other side to basically file anything that they can whether it has any merit or not,” said Clay Crenshaw, chief deputy attorney general and a former leader of his office’s capital litigation division. “I think he and his lawyers have successfully manipulated the system.”...

Alabama has moved to limit the risk of protracted cases in the future, and on Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey is scheduled to sign a measure requiring capital defendants to pursue their direct and post-conviction appeals simultaneously in the state’s courts. Under existing law, defendants have been allowed to bring a new appeal after an earlier effort failed.

The Alabama attorney general, Steven T. Marshall, said the proposed changes, similar to provisions already in force in at least four other states, would benefit people affected by capital crimes without trampling on constitutional rights.  “This is victim-driven for us,” Mr. Marshall said.  “We’ve heard the stories. We’ve seen the anguish. Victims do not sense, in a capital setting, that their voices are heard fully.  This is an opportunity for us as a state to be able to say that we’re going to allow defendants to have their fair opportunity to be heard in court for their claims to be evaluated, but we’re going to do it in a timely way.”

But Mr. Dunham of the Death Penalty Information Center, who noted that 60 percent of death row exonerations since 2012 involved cases at least 20 years old, suggested that quickening the pace to the death chamber would very likely lead to more executions of innocent people.  In 2015, Alabama released an innocent man, Anthony Ray Hinton, after he spent almost 30 years on death row; the state had spent years resisting demands that investigators conduct new tests on an alleged murder weapon.  “This is not about having more efficient judicial review,” Mr. Dunham said. “This is about expediting executions at the expense of fairness and accuracy.”

The Arthur case only lurked in the background of the legislative debate, but Mr. Marshall, a local prosecutor until February, acknowledged that Mr. Arthur’s history had long attracted attention.  “It’s the example of how the system has failed victims, and how he’s manipulated, through various filings, the court system to delay what should have occurred long ago,” Mr. Marshall said.

May 24, 2017 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Ambition and Fruition in Federal Criminal Law: A Case Study"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and timely new paper by Lauren Ouziel now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article explores a recurrent puzzle in federal criminal law: why do the outcomes of a law — who ultimately gets prosecuted, and for what conduct — diverge, sometimes markedly, from lawmakers’ and enforcers’ aims?  This disconnect between law’s ambition and fruition is particularly salient in federal drug enforcement, which has focused on capturing the most high-value offenders — large scale traffickers, violent dealers, and the worst recidivists — yet has imprisoned large numbers of offenders outside these categories.  In this respect, federal drug enforcement is a case study in the ambition/fruition divide.

Among the divide’s contributing factors, I focus here on organizational dynamics in enforcement: the pressures and incentives among and within the organizations that collectively comprise the federal drug enforcement enterprise.  These pressures and incentives operate along three vectors: between the enforcers and the enforced; across and within federal enforcement institutions; and between federal and local enforcers.  Together, they create a system that stymies focus on the most culpable even as it makes apprehending them a principal aim.  This insight carries important implications for reform, both within drug enforcement and outside it.  Changing who, and how many, we prosecute requires attention not only to laws, but also the lower-visibility spaces in which enforcement patterns take root.  In the new political landscape, these lower-visibility spaces are federal criminal justice reform’s next frontier.

May 24, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Colorado Supreme Court rules Graham and Miller do not limit aggregate term-of-years sentence

Yesterday I noted in this post a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling from last week that resisted extending the Supreme Court's recent limits on LWOP sentences for juvenile offenders to aggregate lengthy sentences for multiple crimes.  Perhaps exactly as I was writing that post, the Colorado Supreme Court handed down a similar ruling in Lucero v. Colorado, No. 13SC624 (Colo. May 22, 2017) (available here). Here is a key passage from the start of the majority opinion in Lucero:

[W]e hold that neither Graham nor Miller applies to an aggregate term-of-years sentence, which is the sentence Lucero challenges. In Graham, the U.S. Supreme Court held unconstitutional a life without parole sentence imposed on a juvenile for a single nonhomicide offense. 560 U.S. at 57, 82. In Miller, the Court held that a sentence of “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes” violates the Eighth Amendment. 132 S. Ct. at 2460. Life without parole is a specific sentence, distinct from sentences to terms of years. Lucero was not sentenced to life without parole.  Rather, he received multiple term-of-years sentences for multiple convictions.  Therefore, Graham and Miller are inapplicable to, and thus do not invalidate, Lucero’s aggregate sentence.

The concurring opinion in Lucero notes that a significant number of state supreme courts and other courts have held that the Eighth Amendment rule articulated in Graham "extends to cases in which a juvenile offender receives the functional equivalent of an LWOP sentence." At some point (though I have no idea when), the U.S Supreme Court will have to clarify whether and how Graham nor Miller limit the imposition of sentences other than LWOP.

May 23, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7)

"The Effects of Racial Profiling, Taste-Based Discrimination, and Enforcer Liability on Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper by Murat Mungan now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The literature contains ambiguous findings as to whether statistical discrimination, e.g. in the form of racial profiling, causes a reduction in deterrence.  These analyses, however, assume that enforcers' incentives are exogenously fixed.  This article demonstrates that when the costs and benefits faced by officers in enforcing the law are endogenously determined, statistical discrimination as well as taste-based discrimination lead to an increase in criminal activity.  Moreover, the negative effects of statistical discrimination on deterrence are more persistent than similar effects due to taste-based discrimination.

This suggests, contrary to the impression created by the existing literature, that statistical discrimination is not only harmful, but, may be even more detrimental than taste-based discrimination.  Thus, for purposes of maximizing deterrence, the recent focus in empirical research on identifying taste-based discrimination as opposed to statistical discrimination may be misplaced.  A superior approach may be to identify whether any type of racial discrimination takes place in the enforcement of laws, and to provide enforcers with incentives to minimize the impact of their discriminatory behavior.

May 23, 2017 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6)

"How Far Can Jeff Sessions Take His Crime War?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this astute New Republic piece by David Dagan that provides lots of useful context, old and new, for the work and rhetoric coming from AG Jeff Sessions and Prez Donald Trump.  Here are some extended excerpts (with emphasis in the original):

In fact, the last two years have seen worrying increases in the nation’s violent-crime rate, and some American cities have developed a full-blown homicide crisis.  That is a serious problem anybody who cares about criminal justice should be watching closely.  But it does not justify the Sessions-Trump imagery of marauding gangsters terrorizing an entire nation.  Overall, the United States today remains a much safer country than it was 30 years ago.

So the attorney general of 2017 faces a dramatically different climate than the unknown Alabama prosecutor of 1982. Even conservatives are now leading criminal-justice-reform efforts in several red states.  But reformers must keep their guard up.  Because for Sessions, crime is an inherently polarizing issue — and that’s the best news for Republicans who want to crack down.  “We should relish the fact that there will be opposition,” Sessions wrote back in 1982. “We want opposition because it defines who we are and who they are. The bigger the confrontation, the clearer the definition.”...

Sentences will get longer as a result of the May 10 charging memorandum.  But the order may have a greater effect that isn’t so obvious: It may result in not only longer sentences, but more cases being brought, period.  In the last five years of the Obama administration, the number of defendants charged in federal cases plummeted from about 103,000 to about 77,500, the lowest number since 1998.  A number of factors drove that decline, including a hiring freeze that reduced DOJ’s bandwidth.  But John Walsh, who served as U.S. Attorney for Colorado in the Obama administration, says Holder’s policy requiring prosecutors to justify the use of mandatory minimum sentences was also a contributing factor: The rule forced prosecutors to hone in on the worst offenders.  That is now history....

Fortunately, the federal government has limited influence over the calamity of mass incarceration.  The feds do operate the nation’s largest prison system, but that still accounts for only 10.5 percent of people incarcerated in the U.S.  Otherwise, it’s up to the states (with roughly 1.2 million prisoners) and counties (roughly 600,000 jail inmates.)

The only way that Sessions and Trump can really change a political culture that has moved away from the tough-on-crime consensus of the 1980s and 1990s is to lead a public law and order crusade.  The campaign started it, but there’s a long way to go — and a lot of fear-mongering to do — to shift the tide.  Democrats now largely condemn the prison policies they once went along with.  Republicans are more circumspect, but the conservative movement for prison reform has achieved impressive incarceration reductions in some bright-red states.

Despite fears that state and local politicians would be scared off by the tough talk coming out of Washington, the momentum for reform has continued through the beginning of the Trump presidency. “So far, we haven’t seen much of an impact at all,” said Adam Gelb, who runs a unit of the Pew Charitable Trusts that advises states on criminal-justice reform.  “States have built up a strong head of steam, with broad support across the political spectrum for policies that work better and cost less.”

The kinds of states you’d imagine getting behind Sessions’s new “law and order” campaign are actually among those getting behind progressive reforms.  Louisiana is on track to pass a plan that could cut its prison population 10 percent over a decade — probably not enough to shed its status as the nation’s leading per-capita jailer, but significant progress nonetheless.  Utah approved a big juvenile-justice reform in April.  The same month, North Dakota legislators voted to favor probation over prison for low-level felonies, among other changes.  Most surprising, Alabama is poised to restore voting rights for thousands of felons.

The America of 2017 is much less hospitable to a crime war than the America of 1982.  The fact that, despite recent increases, crime remains way down makes it harder to stir up panic than it was back in the 1980s and 1990s.  The rural dimension of the opioid epidemic has contributed to a new understanding of drugs as a problem of public health. Years of activism and aggressive reporting on the ravages of mass incarceration are also beginning to register in the public conscience, especially among millennials to whom the excesses of the past look simply bizarre....

But as Sessions realized years ago, the mix of race, drugs, and crime is a powerful force in American politics.  The fact that Sessions’s sentencing memo was met with deafening silence from Republican members of Congress suggests that spines on Capitol Hill remain as gelatinous on this issue as any other involving the administration.  The onus is not entirely on conservatives, though.  Liberals should do more than simply bat down Sessions’s inaccurate portrayal of the whole country as being in the grips of a violent-crime meltdown.  They should emphasize that the recent uptick in violence is worrying, that some American cities are indeed having a crisis-level problem — and that Sessions has absolutely no idea what to do about this.

We know much more than we used to about fighting crime.  Prisons surely play a role, but we’ve long ago reached the point of diminishing returns from warehousing people.  If Donald Trump cares about Chicago as much as he tweets about it, liberals should argue, then rather than blowing the city off, he would deploy federal money to support policing and violence-prevention programs that work, there and in other high-homicide towns.

If reformers play their cards right, Sessions may ultimately find that the crime war whose terms he understood so well as a young man has been redefined in ways he can no longer grasp.

May 23, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tales of marijuana reform as sentencing reform from California after Prop 64

This recent AP article, headlined "California’s legal pot law helps reduce, erase convictions," serves as a reminder and reinforcement of my tendency to look at marijuana reform as often a kind of sentencing reform. The AP article reports on some interesting case-processing realities in the wake of new provisions in California law created by the state's 2016 marijuana legalization initiative, Prop 64. Here are some details:

Jay Schlauch’s conviction for peddling pot haunted him for nearly a quarter century. The felony prevented him from landing jobs, gave his wife doubts about tying the knot and cast a shadow over his typically sunny outlook on life.

So when an opportunity arose to reduce his record to a misdemeanor under the voter-approved law that legalized recreational marijuana last year, Schlauch wasted little time getting to court. “Why should I be lumped in with, you know, murderers and rapists and people who really deserve to get a felony?” he asked.

This lesser-known provision of Proposition 64 allows some convicts to wipe their rap sheets clean and offers hope for people with past convictions who are seeking work or loans. Past crimes can also pose a deportation threat for some convicts.

It’s hard to say how many people have benefited, but more than 2,500 requests were filed to reduce convictions or sentences, according to partial state figures reported through March. The figures do not yet include data from more than half of counties from the first quarter of the year. While the state does not tally the outcomes of those requests, prosecutors said they have not fought most petitions.

Marijuana legalization advocates, such as the Drug Policy Alliance, have held free legal clinics to help convicts get their records changed. Lawyers who specialize in pot defense have noted a steady flow of interest from new and former clients.

Attorney Bruce Margolin said he got two to three cases a week, many of them decades old.... Since the passage of Proposition 64, he’s gotten convicts out of prison, spared others time behind bars and successfully knocked felonies down to misdemeanors.

But he’s also encountered a lot of confusion about the law that went into effect immediately in November. “They were totally unprepared,” he said of judges and prosecutors in courts he’s appeared in throughout the state. “It’s amazing. You would have thought they should have had seminars to get them up to speed so we don’t have to go through the process of arguing things that are obvious, but we’re still getting that.”

That has not been the case in San Diego, where prosecutors watched polls trending in favor of marijuana legalization and moved proactively to prevent chaos, said Rachel Solov, chief of the collaborative courts division of the district attorney’s office. They learned lessons from the 2014 passage of Proposition 47, which reduced several nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.

Prosecutors in the county researched which convicts serving time or probation were eligible for sentence reductions and notified the public defender’s office so they could quickly get into court. Many were freed immediately, Solov said. “Whether we agree with the law or not, our job is to enforce it,” Solov said. “It’s the right thing to do. If someone’s in custody and they shouldn’t be in custody anymore, we have an obligation to address that.”

San Diego County led the state with the most number of petitions reported in the first two months after the law was passed. It has reduced sentences or convictions in nearly 400 cases, Solov said.

In Mendocino County, where pot farming is big business and violent crimes are often tied to the crop, District Attorney C. David Eyster said he fights any case not eligible for a reduction, such as applicants with a major felony in their past, a sex offense or two previous convictions for the same crime.

May 23, 2017 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Minnesota Supreme Court upholds consecutive sentences adding up to 90 years before parole eligibility for juve killer of three

Via this new commentary criticizing the opinion, I just learned of this notable ruling handed down last week by the Minnesota Supreme Court concerning the application of the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment rulings in Miller and Montgomery. The commentary provides a helpful summary of the ruling and the concerns it might engender for those eager for Miller to have a broad reach:

In 2010, at the age of 16, Mahdi Hassan Ali committed a terrible crime in Minneapolis.  During the course of a store robbery, Ali shot and killed three people.  He was tried as an adult, and a jury found him guilty of two counts of felony murder and one count of first-degree murder.  On the felony murder convictions, the Hennepin County District Court sentenced Ali to two consecutive life sentences with the possibility of release on each after 30 years; on the first-degree murder conviction, Ali was sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of release....

In light of Miller [decided in 2012], the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned Ali’s sentence of mandatory life imprisonment and remanded the case back to the Hennepin County District Court for a new sentence.  On Jan. 6, 2016, Ali was sentenced to three consecutive sentences of life imprisonment with the possibility of release on each after 30 years. The sentences render Ali ineligible for release until he is 106 years old.

Shortly after the district court’s decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a new opinion in Montgomery vs. Louisiana, which offered fresh insight into the Miller ruling. Montgomery explained that the court intended Miller to bar all sentences of life without parole, not just mandatory ones, for any but the rarest of juvenile offenders who were permanently incorrigible and unable ever to be reformed....

Notwithstanding these decisions, the Minnesota Supreme Court filed an opinion last week upholding Ali’s sentences of three consecutive life terms.  In an opinion authored by the newly elected Justice Natalie Hudson, the Minnesota court decided that Miller and Montgomery apply only to single sentences of life without parole, refusing to extend the principles articulated in Miller and Montgomery to consecutive sentences that have the same effect.

Rather than requiring a special hearing to determine Ali’s prospects for reform, as Montgomery requires for sentences of life imprisonment without parole, the court decided that consecutive life sentences require no such hearing, even when they will likely result in a juvenile offender’s being imprisoned until death.

Last week’s opinion from the Minnesota Supreme Court will offer state prosecutors a new tool when seeking to imprison children for the duration of their natural lives.  For juvenile offenders convicted of serious offenses, prosecutors will seek lengthy consecutive sentences rather than seeking sentences of life imprisonment without parole.  Under the opinion, this tack will obviate the need for a hearing to determine whether the juvenile is amenable to reform, regardless of the length of the child’s sentence.

Like the author of this commentary, I am troubled whenever it seems courts are embracing formal rather than functional considerations to limit the reach of the Eighth Amendment juvenile sentencing proportionality rules set forth in Graham and Miller and Montgomery.  Still, for reasons the majority opinion in this Ali case stresses, I can understand why many courts have in various settings given constitutional significance in Eighth Amendment analysis to the fact that a defendant has been sentenced to an extreme term for multiple serious crimes rather than just one. Notably, the US Supreme Court has never formally addressed just how multiple-offense, consecutive sentencing should be analyzed under the Eighth Amendment, and this Minnesota case serves to highlight how this is one of a number of Graham and Miller and Montgomery application issues challenging lower courts nationwide.

May 22, 2017 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (20)