Thursday, February 20, 2014

A shameful suggestion for how to NYC roads and walkways safer

I was asked yesterday to contribute my thoughts to the Room for Debate section of the New York Times to address the question of "what steps can [New York City] officials, pedestrians and drivers take to reduce the number of accidents?".  My suggestion in available at this link, and here is a segment:

Perhaps Mayor de Blasio might try to impose salient shaming sanctions rather than other traditional punishments.

What if, after a reckless driver has caused a crash in Midtown, the offender were required to create a video reciting recent accident data, which would be posted on YouTube and regularly shown on screens in Times Square? What if, after a cyclist is caught dangerously weaving through traffic in Brooklyn, that scofflaw had to make a live apology during halftime of a Nets game? What if all drivers convicted of speeding were required to place bumper stickers on their cars highlighting that the owner does not follow traffic rules? ...

Because we have rarely tried to make traffic offenders “pay” for their crimes through prominent use of shaming, I cannot confidently predict it would be more effective. But given the challenges in trying to capture the attention and obedience of busy New York City drivers, it is worthwhile to consider creative alternative punishment schemes.

February 20, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

"Institutionalizing Bias: The Death Penalty, Federal Drug Prosecutions, and Mechanisms of Disparate Punishment

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Mona Lynch now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The empirical study of capital punishment in the “modern” era has been largely decoupled from scholarship addressing the corollary late-20th century noncapital punitive developments, such as the rise of mass incarceration. Consequently, research that has examined the problem of racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty and research on the proportional growth of minorities in American correctional populations have advanced on parallel tracks, rarely intersecting.

In light of this symposium’s effort to strengthen the linkages between the death penalty and mass incarceration, this article examines two seemingly distinct cases of racially disparate criminal justice practices — the trial courts’ processing of contemporary capital cases and federal drug trafficking cases — to illustrate the institutionalized mechanisms that produce racial inequalities in both mass incarceration and capital punishment. I advance a meso-level, social-psychological theory on the production of institutional racism that also aims to integrate contested lines of thought about the mechanisms of bias and discrimination.

To accomplish these ends, I specifically focus on three problem areas in the structure and operation of contemporary American criminal justice: 1) the codification of inequality in how crimes and criminal culpability are defined and how sentencing rules are structured; 2) the distribution, by both stage and actor, of discretionary decision-making power; and 3) the mechanisms for relief from the harshest potential punishments.

February 20, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Curious DOJ clemency campaign continues through meeting with defense groups

This notable NPR story, headlined "Justice Dept. Asks For Help Finding Prisoners Who Deserve Clemency," reports on the latest development concerning the curious (though encouraging) new DOJ push for clemency candidates.  Here are the details:

The second-in-command at the Justice Department met Tuesday with defense lawyers and interest groups to identify the cases of worthy prisoners who could qualify for clemency.

The initiative by Deputy Attorney General James Cole follows a speech he gave last month suggesting the White House intends to make more use of the president's power to shorten prison sentences for inmates who have clean records, no significant ties to gangs or violence, and who are serving decades behind bars for relatively low-level offenses.

Cole wants to enlist lawyers to help solicit and prepare clemency requests. It's part of a broader effort to stop spending so much money incarcerating people that it squeezes the public safety budget. A Justice Department spokesman says Cole "wants to ensure that individuals like the eight whose sentences the president commuted in December have access to attorneys to help them present their cases."

Longtime followers of the pardon power have criticized President Obama's relatively stingy approach over five years in office.  They also suggest that backlogs in the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Attorney might get worse if the call for more prisoner petitions takes hold. But the Justice spokesman says Cole has made this effort a top priority and that he's instructed the pardon attorney to do the same, taking some steps to handle any influx of clemency requests in the months ahead.

Representatives from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Federal public defender program and Families Against Mandatory Minimums had been scheduled to attend the meeting at Justice Department headquarters.  Mary Price of FAMM, one of the attendees, says she came away feeling "really encouraged."

"We look forward to working together with them and others to help identify potential commutation cases and ensure prisoners have trained pro bono counsel to submit focused petitions for the meaningful consideration the Deputy Attorney General has pledged they will receive," Price says.

Some recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

February 19, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

After she asked for life sentence, Sister Megan Rice gets 35 months' imprisonment and her co-defendants get 62 for sabotage

As reported in this local piece, an "84-year-old Catholic nun will spend nearly three years in federal prison for breaking into one of the U.S. government's most secure facilities and helping deface a uranium-processing building with human blood, a federal judge ruled Tuesday."  Here is more about the fascinating sentencing conclusion to a high-profile case of law-breaking civil disobedience:

Megan Rice, who turned 84 on Jan. 31, and fellow anti-nuclear activists Michael Walli, 64, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, were convicted in May of sabotaging the plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn.  All three are members of the Plowshares movement of Christian pacifists.

U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar in Knoxville, Tenn., sentenced Rice to 35 months in prison for her role in the July 28, 2012, break-in and protest.  The judge sentenced Walli and Boertje-Obed both to five years and two months in prison.  Previously, Thapar had ordered the trio to pay nearly $53,000 in restitution for damaging U.S. government property.  In addition, Walli and Boertje-Obed will have three years of supervised release after their prison terms. The two men received longer sentences based on their past criminal history.

During a four-hour hearing Tuesday, Rice pleaded with the judge not to grant her leniency. "Please have no leniency on me," she said. "To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor you could give me."

Thapar didn't oblige but did say that breaking the law isn't the right way to pursue political goals.  He said he hoped that a significant prison sentence would deter others from following the same path and bring them "back to the political system I fear that they have given up on."

The protesters picked late July 2012 to break in to the Y-12 National Security Complex because it was close to the dates when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II.  The three cut through fences and made it through multiple layers of security.  They spent more than two hours in a restricted area and had time to splash blood on the outside of the building where the government processes weapons-grade uranium before security personnel apprehended them....

The three have garnered worldwide attention.  Thousands of letters of support have poured into the court from around the world.  Those include letters from groups such as the Union for Concerned Scientists. While acknowledging the three were convicted of a federal crime, they exposed serious security weaknesses at Y-12, the group said.

Edwin Lyman, a nuclear security expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in January that the protesters did the nation a public service. "We think, even though they were convicted of a federal crime, there are mitigating circumstances and they made the country safer," Lyman said.

The government has taken the case seriously.  The three have been in custody since their conviction, and prosecutors recommended sentences of six to nine years.  

A key issue Tuesday was how the judge should follow federal sentencing guidelines. Lawyers for the activists that argued the time they already have served is sufficient punishment....  During the hearing, the judge struggled with how to handle the guidelines. "At some point, the law has to command respect, and there is a lawful way to change it," Thapar said.  But he also suggested that Rice's past good works should play a role and wasn't sure how to fit those into the guidelines.  He called a recommended sentence of 6½ years for Rice "overkill."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Theodore ... contended the trio's actions were "serious offenses that have caused real harm to the Y-12 National Security Complex."  [And] "they have shown no remorse for their criminal conduct," he said.

Recent related posts:

February 19, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

NY Times debates "Sentencing and the 'Affluenza' Factor"

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has this new set of notable commentaries discussing the import and impact on sentencing of an offender's background.  Here is the section's set up:

This month a judge in Texas ordered a 16-year-old boy who killed four people in a drunken-driving crash to enter rehabilitation as part of 10 years of probation she imposed without a jail sentence.  A defense psychologist had said the teenager suffered from ”affluenza,” his judgement stunted by his pampered, privileged upbringing.

The case has angered many who have said that a poor person would have been imprisoned, without the same considerations.  To what extent should life circumstances affect sentencing?

Here are the contributions, with links via the commentary titles:

February 19, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Even with reductions in prison populations and end of pot prohibition, crime rates continue historic decline in 2013

Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report- January-June 2013-bannerAs reported in this New York Times piece, the "Federal Bureau of Investigation said Tuesday that violent crimes, including murders, fell by 5.4 percent in the first six months of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012, continuing a long reduction in violent crime across the country." Here are more details about this great news via the FBI (which is available in full detail at this link):

The only category where the number increased was rape, but that number is slightly misleading because the 2013 figure is based on a broader definition of the crime adopted by the Justice Department. In 2013, 14,400 rapes were reported, compared with 13,242 in 2012.

Property crimes also fell significantly, and of all the crimes the F.B.I. tracks — both violent offenses and nonviolent ones — the greatest drop-off, by percentage, was in arsons, which fell by 15.6 percent....

In all, murders fell by 6.9 percent, aggravated assaults by 6.6 percent and robberies by 1.8 percent, the bureau said. The numbers are based on reports from 12,723 law enforcement agencies that provided information to the bureau’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division in Clarksburg, W.Va.

According to the bureau, the number of violent crimes fell by 9.2 percent in cities with fewer than 10,000 people, compared with 3.6 percent for metropolitan counties. In the Midwest, violent crimes fell by 7.4 percent, in the South by 5.9, in the Northeast by 4.3 percent and in the West by 3.7 percent.

Among property crimes, burglary decreased by 8.1 percent, larceny theft by 4.7 percent and motor vehicle theft by 3.2 percent. Arsons fell by 20.4 percent in nonmetropolitan counties and 15.8 percent in metropolitan counties. The decrease in property crimes over all was 12 percent in nonmetropolitan counties and 7.4 percent in metropolitan counties, and the smallest drop-off in property crime occurred in the West, where it fell by 0.3 percent.

In compiling the rape numbers, the bureau used a new definition of rape that removes the word “forcible” and now includes “penetration, no matter how slight” of any orifice “without the consent of the victim,” either men or women. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in 2012 that changes were “long overdue.”

“This new, more inclusive definition will provide us with a more accurate understanding of the scope and volume of these crimes,” he said. The new definition, federal authorities said, reflected the majority of state rape statutes.

Besides highlighting how crime definition can impact crime statistics, these wonderful new data provide still further evidence that direct causal links between incarceration rates (or drug war reforms) and national crime rates are hard to establish. As regular readers know, the national prison population has declined a bit in recent years and there have been a wide array of reforms to sentencing laws and corrections policies that have resulted in significant numbers of early prisoner releases (especially in California due to the the Plata litigation and in the federal system due to the Fair Sentencing Act).

In the wake of recent sentencing reforms and in advocacy against further reforms, a number of folks have been predicting we would see a significant increase in crimes. And because crime rate are already at historically low levels, I have long been concerned that would soon start to see an uptick in offense rates. But, at least according to this new FBI data, the great modern crime decline is continuing nationwide even as we are starting to see a slow decline in prison populations and as slow retreat from the scope and severity of the modern drug war.  

That said, given that other federal accounting of crime rates showed a spike upward in 2012, as reported here, this FBI data ought not lead advocate of sentencing reforms to assert that we now know that there is no harmful public safety impact resulting from sentencing reforms.  The lastest crime data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported crime rates started going back up in 2012 (discussed here), and I have long stressing the need and importance of a careful state-by-state examination of where crime is going up and whether new (and still emerging) data on changes imprisonment rates and crimes rates provide critical new lessons concerning what we can now reasonably and reliably conclude about the connections between crime and punishment.

A few related posts on modern crime rates: 

February 19, 2014 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

"Will There Be a Neurolaw Revolution?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this new paper by Adam Kolber now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The central debate in the field of neurolaw has focused on two claims.  Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen argue that we do not have free will and that advances in neuroscience will eventually lead us to stop blaming people for their actions.  Stephen Morse, by contrast, argues that we have free will and that the kind of advances Greene and Cohen envision will not and should not affect the law.  I argue that neither side has persuasively made the case for or against a revolution in the way the law treats responsibility.

There will, however, be a neurolaw revolution of a different sort.  It will not necessarily arise from radical changes in our beliefs about criminal responsibility but from a wave of new brain technologies that will change society and the law in many ways, three of which I describe here: First, as new methods of brain imaging improve our ability to measure distress, the law will ease limitations on recoveries for emotional injuries.  Second, as neuroimaging gives us better methods of inferring people’s thoughts, we will have more laws to protect thought privacy but less actual thought privacy.  Finally, improvements in artificial intelligence will systematically change how law is written and interpreted.

February 19, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Could marijuana reforms end up making our roadways much safer?

The question in the title of this post might be a bit of foolish wishful thinking on my part, but these passages from this notable new New York Times article provides the foundation for my (undue?) optimism:

[S]cience’s answers to crucial questions about driving while stoned — how dangerous it is, how to test for impairment, and how the risks compare to driving drunk — have been slow to reach the general public.  “Our goal is to put out the science and have it used for evidence-based drug policy,” said Marilyn A. Huestis, a senior investigator at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  “But I think it’s a mishmash.”

A 2007 study found that 12 percent of the drivers randomly stopped on American highways on Friday and Saturday nights had been drinking.  (In return for taking part in the study, intoxicated drivers were told they would not be arrested, just taken home.)  Six percent of the drivers tested positive for marijuana — a number that is likely to go up with increased availability.  Some experts and officials are concerned that the campaign against drunken driving has not gotten through to marijuana smokers.

“We’ve done phone surveys, and we’re hearing that a lot of people think D.U.I. laws don’t apply to marijuana,” said Glenn Davis, highway safety manager at the Department of Transportation in Colorado, where recreational marijuana use became legal on Jan. 1. “And there’s always somebody who says, ‘I drive better while high.’ ”

Evidence suggests that is not the case. But it also suggests that we may not have as much to fear from stoned driving as from drunken driving.  Some researchers say that limited resources are better applied to continuing to reduce drunken driving.  Stoned driving, they say, is simply less dangerous.

Still, it is clear that marijuana use causes deficits that affect driving ability, Dr. Huestis said.  She noted that several researchers, working independently of one another, have come up with the same estimate: a twofold increase in the risk of an accident if there is any measurable amount of THC in the bloodstream....

The estimate is low, however, compared with the dangers of drunken driving. A recent study of federal crash data found that 20-year-old drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent — the legal limit for driving — had an almost 20-fold increase in the risk of a fatal accident compared with sober drivers. For older adults, up to age 34, the increase was ninefold.

The study’s lead author, Eduardo Romano, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said that once he adjusted for demographics and the presence of alcohol, marijuana did not statistically increase the risk of a crash. “Despite our results, I still think that marijuana contributes to crash risk,” he said, “only that its contribution is not as important as it was expected.”

The difference in risk between marijuana and alcohol can probably be explained by two things, Dr. Huestis and Dr. Romano both say. First, stoned drivers drive differently from drunken ones, and they have different deficits. Drunken drivers tend to drive faster than normal and to overestimate their skills, studies have shown; the opposite is true for stoned drivers. “The joke with that is Cheech and Chong being arrested for doing 20 on the freeway,” said Mark A. R. Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the U.C.L.A. School of Public Affairs....

Another factor is location. A lot of drinking is done in bars and clubs, away from home, with patrons driving to get there and then leaving by car. By contrast, marijuana smokers tend to get high at home....

All of these facts lead experts like Dr. Romano and Dr. Kleiman to believe that public resources are better spent combating drunken driving. Stoned driving, they say, is best dealt with by discouraging people from mixing marijuana and alcohol — a combination that is even riskier than alcohol alone — and by policies that minimize marijuana’s risk on the road.

For instance, states that legalize recreational marijuana, Dr. Kleiman said, should ban establishments like pot bars that encourage people to smoke away from home. And Dr. Romano said that lowering the legal blood-alcohol concentration, or B.A.C., to 0.05 or even 0.02 percent would reduce risk far more effectively than any effort to curb stoned driving. “I’m not saying marijuana is safe,” he said. “But to me it’s clear that lowering the B.A.C. should be our top priority. That policy would save more lives.”

My supposition based on this article that marijuana reforms could end up making our roadways much safer is a result of two potential impacts of ending pot prohibition: (1) if marijuana reform leads a number of people who would generally go get drunk at a bar to instead now just get stoned at home, the net effect will be safer roads, and (2) if enduring concerns about the impact of marijuana reform leads more policy-makers to focus on highway harms, we might see a greater effort to get much tougher on the enduring public safety disaster that is drinking and driving.

I am not expecting that we will get strong evidence that marijuana reforms end up making our roadways much safer anytime soon, but I am hopeful that researchers like Dr. Romano and Dr. Kleiman continue to stress that our modern alcohol policies and practices now impact highway safety much more than any marijuana reforms are likely to do. And, as these related recent articles also highlight, the media so far is doing a pretty good job defusing the risk of misguided reefer madness when it comes to driving under the influence:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 18, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Execution news in many states thanks to drug shortages and lethal injection litigation

I have gotten more than a little fatigued trying to keep track of all the legal and political developments in states trying to get access to the drugs they need to carry out planned executions.  Nevertheless, a new round of headlines about this topic filled up my news feeds this morning, so I could not resist reporting some of the news through a these stories and links:

February 18, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sentencing round two for elderly nun and two other peace activists for breaking into a federal defense facility

Sister Megan RiceThis new report from The Guardian, headlined "84-year-old nun who broke into Tennessee weapons plant awaits fate," spotlights a high-profile federal sentencing case (previously discussed in this post) that is scheduled for final sentencing tomorrow morning.  Here are excerpts:

An 84-year-old nun who broke into a Tennessee weapons plant and daubed it with biblical references, will learn on Tuesday whether she will spend what could be the rest of her life in prison.

Two weeks ago, at a sentencing hearing, a judge ordered Sister Megan Rice and her co-defendants, two other Catholic anti-nuclear activists, Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, and Michael Walli, 64, to pay $53,000 for what the government estimated was damage done to the plant by their actions.

All three defendants were convicted of sabotage after the break-in at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on 28 July 2012. The charge, under a statute of the US criminal code used against international and domestic terrorism, carries a maximum sentence of up to 30 years. The government have asked for the trio to be given prison sentences of between five and nine years. They would have learned their fate in the January hearing, but it was cut short due to bad weather and rescheduled for Tuesday.

In an interview with the Guardian from Knox county jail as she awaited her fate, Rice said she hoped US district judge Amul Thapar would seize the opportunity to “take his place in history” and sentence them in a way that would reflect their symbolic, non-violent actions – actions she said that were intended to highlight the US stockpile of nuclear weapons they believe is immoral and illegal.

“I hope he will answer his conscience,” said Rice, in an interview 24 hours before the last sentencing hearing. “He knows what to do.” She and her co-defendants have been in prison, mostly in Ocilla, Georgia, for eight months, a period of time her lawyers say is sufficient punishment for the break-in.

Thapar has received hundreds of letters and a 14,000 signature petition pleading for leniency in this case, including from Rice’s religious order, the Society for the Holy Jesus, which asked for a reduced or suspended sentence given “her age, her health and her ministry”. Lawyers for Rice, Boertje-Obed, a Vietnam veteran from Washington DC and Walli, a painter from Duluth, Minnesota, have asked for leniency and say the trio admitted have what they did.

The US government contends that none of the defendants arguments merit leniency. At the hearing on 28 January, it said they did not accept they had committed crimes, took no responsibility for them, showed no contrition and, then, during the trial, proceeded to argue against the laws they had broken. It has described the three, who have previous convictions related to their protest activities, as “recidivists and habitual offenders”.

Jeffery Theodore, assistant US attorney general for the eastern district of Tennessee, told the court that the three “pretty much celebrated their acts”.  At the January hearing, he described their argument that they were trying to uphold international law as “specious and disingenuous” and said there had been no single case where international law has been seen as justification for breaking US laws.  The judge agreed with Theodore that the defendants were not remorseful and that they didn’t accept any responsibilities for their crimes, and said they would not be given downward departures for admitting responsibility.

At the January hearing, four character witnesses for the defendants gave powerful testimony about their strong Christian and pacifist principles, their commitment to helping others and their dedication to their cause. They, and the scores of supporters crowded into the courtroom, also provided an insight into the close-knit nature of the anti-nuclear faith community.

Regular readers are surely not surprised to hear that I find this federal sentencing case very interesting for a number of reasons.  But they may be surprised to learn that US District Judge Amul Thapar used the sentencing break/delay as an opportunity to request that I submit a "friend-of-the-court brief" to assist the Court as it tackled some challenging issues concerning the departure requests made by one of the defendants. I was honored and grateful to be able to provide such assistance directly to the court, and below I have uploaded Judge Thapar's order (which requests my submission at the end) and my submission in response:

Recent related post:

February 17, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Federal judge urges passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act because of "Prisoners I Lose Sleep Over"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline given to this recent commentary piece in the Wall Street Journal authored by senior US District Judge Michael Ponsor. Here are excerpts:

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the "Smarter Sentencing Act" by a bipartisan vote of 13-5 on Jan. 30, sending it to the Senate floor.  The legislation is excellent and its passage would mean a long overdue correction of a misguided sentencing regime that Americans — including federal judges like me — have struggled with for more than two decades.

I've been on the federal bench for 30 years, having served 10 years as a magistrate judge and 20 as a U.S. district judge.  My pride in our constitutional system runs bone deep: No system of law has ever existed that tries so hard to be truly fair.  I can take scant pride, however, in the dark epoch our criminal sentencing laws have passed through during my decades handling felony cases....

For years, I could recite the mandatory terms for crack in my sleep: five years for five grams, 10 years for 50 grams, 20 years for 50 grams with one prior conviction, life without parole for 50 grams with two priors — no discretion, no consideration of specific circumstances.  These mandatory terms (unless the defendant cooperated by implicating others) were the same for low-level couriers, called mules, as for high-echelon drug lords.

By passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized that this system of mandatory sentences, in addition to being unjust, was to some extent racially skewed since black drug users tend to favor crack, while whites prefer much less harshly penalized powder cocaine. Yet defendants sentenced before the act was passed still languish today, serving out sentences that virtually all members of Congress now recognize as excessive.  And there is not a darn thing anyone can do about it. If you're the one doing the sentencing, this reality will keep you awake at night, believe me.

The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce 20-year mandatory sentences to 10, 10-year sentences to five, and five-year sentences to two years.  Increased numbers of offenders with very modest criminal records would not face mandatory sentences at all.  If adopted, the law would also permit thousands of prisoners to seek reduction of their prison terms to bring them in line with the Fair Sentencing Act.  None of these changes would reduce the power of judges to slam the really bad actors. But they would permit judges to do what they are paid to do: use their judgment.

Our vast prison apparatus is too costly, but more important, it is unworthy of us as a free people.  This new statute is well named — now is the time for smarter sentencing.

Some recent related posts concerning Smarter Sentencing Act:

February 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

"Follow the Money: How California Counties Are Spending Their Public Safety Realignment Funds"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing paper available via SSRN authored by Jeffrey Lin and Joan Petersilia.  Here is the abstract:

The California correctional system is undergoing a dramatic transformation under Assembly Bill 109 (“Realignment”), a law that shifted responsibility from the state to the counties for tens of thousands of offenders. To help manage this change, the state will distribute $4.4 billion to the counties by 2016-2017. While the legislation directs counties to use these funds for community-based programs, counties retain a substantial amount of spending discretion. Some are expanding offender treatment capacities, while others are shoring up enforcement and control apparatuses.

In this report we examine counties’ AB 109 spending reports and budgets to determine which counties emphasize enforcement and which emphasize treatment. We also identify counties that continue to emphasize prior orientations toward punishment and counties that have shifted their priorities in response to Realignment. We then apply quantitative and comparative methods to county budget data to identify political, economic, and criminal justice-related factors that may explain higher AB 109 spending on enforcement or higher spending on treatment, relative to other counties.

In short, our analysis shows that counties that elect to allocate more AB 109 funds to enforcement and control generally appear to be responding to local criminal justice needs, including high crime rates, a shortage of law enforcement personnel, and a historic preference for using prison to punish drug offenders. Counties that favor a greater investment in offender treatment and services, meanwhile, are typified by strong electoral support for the Sheriff and relatively under-funded district attorneys and probation departments.

February 17, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Noticing racial disproportion in who ends up serving time in private prisons

People-of-color-private-prisonsThis new Mother Jones piece, headlined "Why There's an Even Larger Racial Disparity in Private Prisons Than in Public Ones," highlights a new study concerning the racial composition of private prison populations.  Here is how the piece begins, with all the notable links (including a link to the discussed study) included: 

It's well known that people of color are vastly overrepresented in US prisons. African Americans and Latinos constitute 30 percent of the US population and 60 percent of its prisoners. But a new study by University of California-Berkeley researcher Christopher Petrella addresses a fact of equal concern. Once sentenced, people of color are more likely than their white counterparts to serve time in private prisons, which have higher levels of violence and recidivism (PDF) and provide less sufficient health care and educational programming than equivalent public facilities.

The study compares the percentage of inmates identifying as black or Hispanic in public prisons and private prisons in nine states. It finds that there are higher rates of people of color in private facilities than public facilities in all nine states studied, ranging from 3 percent in Arizona and Georgia to 13 percent in California and Oklahoma.  According to Petrella, this disparity casts doubt on cost-efficiency claims made by the private prison industry and demonstrates how ostensibly "colorblind" policies can have a very real effect on people of color.

The study points out an important link between inmate age and race. Not only do private prisons house high rates of people of color, they also house low rates of individuals over the age of 50 — a subset that is more likely to be white than the general prison population.  According to the study, "the states in which the private versus public racial disparities are the most pronounced also happen to be the states in which the private versus public age disparities are most salient." (California, Mississippi, and Tennessee did not report data on inmate age.)

Private prisons have consistently lower rates of older inmates because they often contractually exempt themselves from housing medically expensive—which often means older—individuals (see excerpts from such exemptions in California, Oklahoma, and Vermont), which helps them keep costs low and profits high. This is just another example of the growing private prison industry's prioritization of profit over rehabilitation, which activists say leads to inferior prison conditions and quotas requiring high levels of incarceration even as crime levels drop. The number of state and federal prisoners housed in private prisons grew by 37 percent from 2002 to 2009, reaching 8 percent of all inmates in 2010.

The high rate of incarceration among young people of color is partly due to the war on drugs, which introduced strict sentencing policies and mandatory minimums that have disproportionately affected non-white communities for the past 40 years. As a result, Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that in 2009, only 33.2 percent of prisoners under 50 reported as white, as opposed to 44.2 percent of prisoners aged 50 and older.

So when private prisons avoid housing older inmates, they indirectly avoid housing white inmates as well. This may explain how private facilities end up with "a prisoner profile that is far younger and far 'darker'... than in select counterpart public facilities."

Private prisons claim to have more efficient practices, and thus lower operating costs, than public facilities. But the data suggest that private prisons don't save money through efficiency, but by cherry-picking healthy inmates.  According to a 2012 ACLU report, it costs $34,135 to house an "average" inmate and $68,270 to house an individual 50 or older. In Oklahoma, for example, the percentage of individuals over 50 in minimum and medium security public prisons is 3.3 times that of equivalent private facilities.

"Given the data, it's difficult for private prisons to make the claim that they can incarcerate individuals more efficiently than their public counterparts," Petrella tells Mother Jones.  "We need to be comparing apples to apples. If we're looking at different prisoner profiles, there is no basis to make the claim that private prisons are more efficient than publics."

February 17, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)

"Disqualifying Defense Counsel: The Curse of the Sixth Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper available via SSRN authored by Keith Swisher. Here is the abstract:

Lawyer disqualification — the process of ejecting a conflicted lawyer, firm, or agency from a case — is fairly routine and well-mapped in civil litigation. In criminal cases, however, there is an added ingredient: the Sixth Amendment. Once a defendant is entitled to counsel, the many questions that follow include whether and to what extent conflicts of interest (or other misconduct) render that counsel constitutionally ineffective. Most cases and commentary are arguably directed too late in the process — i.e., at the post-conviction stage in which the deferential Sullivan or even more deferential Strickland standard applies. A much faster and more effective remedy might be to disqualify problematic counsel on the front end. But the government might periodically use motions to disqualify as tools to weaken criminal defendants’ defense by depriving defendants of their chosen and effective advocates — just as civil litigants use motions to disqualify.

This Essay takes a close look at the application of the Sixth Amendment in disqualification cases and concludes: (1) that when compared to other litigants, criminal defendants generally have weaker, not stronger, rights to ethical representation; and (2) that disqualification law in criminal practice generally weakens, not strengthens, defendants’ representation.

February 17, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

New York Gov makes serious push for serious educational programming behind bars

This new AP article, headlined "Gov. Cuomo wants state to fund college classes for NY prisoners," reports on a notable new prison proposal coming from a notable elected official. Here are the basics:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing to fund college classes in New York prisons, saying a college degree will reduce the likelihood an inmate will return to crime when released. The program will offer associate and bachelor's degree education at 10 prisons, one in each region of the state.

According to Cuomo's office, New York currently spends $60,000 per year on each prisoner, and it will cost approximately $5,000 per year to educate an inmate. Cuomo didn't specify the cost of the overall program. The state will issue a Request for Proposal from qualified educational associations in March.

Since 2007, the state Department of Corrections has partnered with colleges, including Cornell University and Bard College, to offer privately funded degree programs at 22 prisons. The new program will expand on that.

February 16, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Healthcare Not Handcuffs": Will ACA help end the drug war?

JUS13-Web-HCNHC-Header-REL2The title and question of this post is my take on this notable recent report from the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance titled "Healthcare Not Handcuffs: Putting the Affordable Care Act to Work for Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Reform." Here is an excerpt from the report's introduction:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the most significant expansion of healthcare coverage in generations, and there is almost no area of the U.S. healthcare system that is not impacted by the reform in some way.  Even as debate about the ACA continues, it is now the law of the land, and implementation is fully under way.  For criminal justice reform and drug policy reform advocates, the ACA represents a remarkable opportunity to advance efforts to end both mass incarceration and the criminalization-based approach to drug policy often known as the War on Drugs.

Under the ACA, tens of millions of people in the United States will gain healthcare coverage for a broad array of health services and conditions, including, for the first time, substance use and mental health disorders.  Of course, there are also problems with the ACA and its implementation, not the least of which is that millions of people will remain uninsured even after the law is fully operational.  Yet even with these challenges, the ACA sets the stage for a new health-oriented policy framework to address substance use and mental health disorders -- health problems that have been largely relegated to the criminal justice system for more than 40 years.

This is an enormous paradigm shift that has yet to fully register with criminal justice and drug policy reform advocates, let alone with health policy advocates and the general public. The financial benefits of providing substance use disorder treatment instead of incarceration are well established. But by fully incorporating substance use and mental health disorders into healthcare -- by truly treating them as health issues and requiring public and private insurance plans to cover their treatment -- the ACA creates an opening and financial incentives to shift drug policy into a public health framework, undermining the rationale for a criminal justice approach....

The passage and implementation of the ACA coincides with the growing momentum across the political spectrum to end the War on Drugs, reverse the incarceration boom, and abandon criminal justice policies that have resulted in the criminalization of whole communities.  But the paradigmatic shift from criminalization to health will not occur unless criminal justice and drug policy reform advocates seize the moment and leverage the ACA to realize its full transformative potential.

To assist advocates in navigating this new terrain, this paper outlines some of the major provisions of the ACA immediately relevant to criminal justice and drug policy reform (Part One), and then explores specific applications of those provisions, including program and policy examples and suggested action steps (Part Two)....

This is a unique, perhaps even once-in-a-lifetime scenario for criminal justice and drug policy reform advocates: with the ACA, we can start to build true alternatives to the criminal justice response to substance use, the enforcement of which has fundamentally undermined community health and safety.  Addressing substance use as a health condition has the potential to lower health costs, dramatically reduce the number of people involved in the criminal justice system, and improve health outcomes and overall wellbeing for millions of people.

February 15, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Series of thoughtful posts on faith-based prisons

Sasha Volokh this week has done an effective series of informative posts on what we know and do not know about faith-based prisons.  The final one is available at this link, and it starts and ends this way:

This is the final post in a series on the effectiveness of faith-based prison programs, based on my recent Alabama Law Review article, Do Faith-Based Prisons Work? (Short answer: no.)  Monday’s post introduced the issue,  Tuesday’s post surveyed some of the least valid studies, Wednesday’s post critiqued the studies that used propensity score matching and discussed other possible empirical strategies, and Thursday’s post talked about the most valid studies–those that used rejected volunteers as a control group.

Throughout, I’ve been putting the faith-based prison research side-by-side with the private schools research, because evaluations of each raise similar methodological problems.  The fact that both are voluntary means that they can attract fundamentally different sorts of people, so their good results might be attributable to the higher-quality participants they attract.  Today’s post ties the ends together and asks whether there’s any way forward for faith-based prisons....

Let’s take the broad view and come back to the education studies that I’ve been using as a point of comparison throughout this Article.  Finally, after decades of research, we have some credible studies estimating the effect of private schools. The best evidence, taken from studies comparing accepted and rejected applicants, indicates that private schools do have a positive effect on the students who attend them, at least for black students and at least for math scores.

On the one hand, one can observe that, next to these results (modest as they are), it’s all the more disappointing that faith-based prisons haven’t shown much in the way of significant positive effects. But on the other hand, it took decades of research and debate by different groups, each using a slightly different empirical approach — and many finding little to no effect — before we got even the mild results we have on private education. This suggests that we should encourage more research on the matter, in different contexts, using a variety of different empirical techniques.

The result is that, if there’s no strong reason to believe that faith-based prisons work at all, and even less reason to believe that they work better than comparably funded secular programs, there’s also little reason to believe that they don’t work, and in many cases they may be the only available alternative. It’s probably sensible to allow such programs to operate and to allow the process of experimentation to work its course, provided that all this can be done constitutionally.

February 14, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Religion, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Feds give guidance to financial institutions about providing services to marijuana-related businesses

As reported in this lengthy new Denver Post article, headlined "Feds give historic green light to banks working with marijuana businesses," today brought another remarkable and remarkably important new development in the arena of marijuana law, policy and reform. Here are the basics:

Banks were given a green light Friday to offer services to the legal marijuana industry, but must continue to report any suspicious activity specific to that industry to federal authorities.

The historic step brings marijuana businesses closer to legitimacy in states where pot is already legal, but it falls short of the legislative action many banks want to see before doing business with marijuana operators. That will be up to Congress to consider.

In a joint statement, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, said the move gives "greater financial transparency" to an industry that remains illegal in nearly every state. It also makes clear that banks would be helping law enforcement with "information that is particularly valuable" in filing regular reports that offer insights about how marijuana businesses work.

"Law enforcement will now have greater insight into marijuana business activity generally," FinCEN said in a news release, "and will be able to focus on activity that presents high-priority concerns." Banks currently must file a suspicious activity report any time they suspect a transaction has a drug connection. Under the new guidance, banks would have three tiers of SARs specific to marijuana businesses dependent on levels of concern.... The marijuana-specific reports are either "marijuana limited," "marijuana priority," and "marijuana termination," which identifies the business as operating normally or having some measure of truly suspicious activity.

Colorado-based U.S. Attorney John Walsh said the guidance clarifies how law enforcement and banking will approach what's been a sticky issue. The "guidance seeks to mitigate the public safety concerns created by high-volume cash-based businesses without access to banking and the financial system, while at the same time ensuring that criminal organizations, gangs and drug cartels do not have access to the financial system to launder criminal proceeds," Walsh said in a statement.

Colorado and Washington are the only states to allow legal recreational marijuana sales while 20 about others allow medical marijuana. "Now that some states have elected to legalize and regulate the marijuana trade, FinCEN seeks to move from the shadows the historically covert financial operations of marijuana businesses," FinCEN director Jennifer Shasky Calvery said in a statement.... "Clearly it is possible to provide financial services to state-regulated marijuana businesses and comply with the Bank Secrecy Act requirements," the FinCEN official said.

The fledgling industry saw a lack of banking and credit card services — not all are without it, though most are — as its most serious problem, particularly because it essentially forced those businesses into a cash-only system. That made for ripe targets and worried business owners, law enforcement and patrons.

Colorado's medical marijuana industry last year contributed more than $9 million in state sales tax revenues — all of it banked at JPMorgan Chase, one of three to hold a contract for state deposits. Although JPM happily accepts state funds derived from recreational marijuana proceeds, it will not say whether the government's announcement will induce it to bank with those businesses directly.

The latest guidance, as with three previous memos issued by the Justice Department, doesn't carry the same force as law, and bankers are quick to point that out. ...

Mike Elliott, the executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a trade organization for cannabis stores, said his group is happy the federal government saw the need for marijuana businesses to have banking services. But Elliott said the memo shouldn't be the final word and said federal law still must be changed to give banks greater confidence in working with the industry. "These memos certainly help and provide some cover but ultimately do not solve all the problems," Elliott said. "So I think we're waiting here to see what the banks' reactions are."

The FinCEN memo is available at this link, and here is how its seven, dense pages get started:

The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”) is issuing guidance to clarify Bank Secrecy Act (“BSA”) expectations for financial institutions seeking to provide services to marijuana-related businesses.  FinCEN is issuing this guidance in light of recent state initiatives to legalize certain marijuana-related activity and related guidance by the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) concerning marijuana-related enforcement priorities.  This FinCEN guidance clarifies how financial institutions can provide services to marijuana-related businesses consistent with their BSA obligations, and aligns the information provided by financial institutions in BSA reports with federal and state law enforcement priorities.  This FinCEN guidance should enhance the availability of financial services for, and the financial transparency of, marijuana-related businesses.

February 14, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

"The Marriage of State Law and Individual Rights and a New Limit on the Federal Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Jonathan Ross now available on SSRN. This piece seems especially timely not only in light of lower federal courts extending recent SCOTUS marriage precedents, but also with the Boston Bomber federal capital case taking place in a state without the death penalty. Here is the abstract:

Since the 1990s, federal prosecutors have, with increasing frequency, sought the death penalty for federal offenses committed in and also punishable under the laws of non-death penalty states. This phenomenon has troubled federalism proponents, who have pointed out that federal prosecutors can use the federal death penalty to circumvent a state's decision to abolish capital punishment. Drawing on these scholars' works, defendants have argued that state law shields them from federal punishment. Courts have almost unanimously rejected such arguments, holding that state law cannot preclude the administration of federal punishment for federal offenses.

This article proposes a novel basis for a challenge to the federal death penalty's use in a non-death penalty state - the Supreme Court's reasoning in United States v. Windsor. In Windsor, the Court held that federal interference with a state law right arising in an area traditionally regulated by states is subject to heightened scrutiny under the Due Process Clause. This article argues that, in some instances, Windsor precludes federal capital prosecutions.

This article considers a Windsor-based motion to dismiss a notice of intent to seek the federal death penalty. The federal capital prosecution in a non-death penalty state interferes with a state law right to not be executed. As states have traditionally prosecuted violent murders, this right arises in an area traditionally regulated by states. Applying due process scrutiny, a court should ask whether a prosecutor's animus towards the state's lack of capital punishment motivated the prosecution in the first place, or whether there is an independent federal interest. If animus alone motivated the prosecution, then Windsor demands that the court reject the attempt to seek capital punishment.

February 14, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Feds to appeal probation sentence given to tax-dodging Beanie Babies billionaire

As reported in this new AP article, the "U.S. attorney's office in Chicago said Thursday that it's appealing a sentence that included no prison time for the billionaire creator of Beanie Babies for hiding at least $25 million from U.S. tax authorities in Swiss bank accounts."  Here is more:

At H. Ty Warner's sentencing last month, Judge Charles Kocoras heaped praise on the toymaker for his charitable giving, declaring society was better served by letting him go free and giving him two years' probation instead of sending him to prison. Warner had faced up to five years in prison.

Warner, 69, of Oak Brook, Ill., was one of the highest profile figures snared in a long-running investigation of Americans concealing funds in Swiss bank accounts. Others convicted of squirreling away less money in Switzerland than Warner have done prison time. Warner, who grew up poor, created the animal-shaped Beanie Babies in the mid-'90s, triggering a craze that made Warner spectacularly rich. Forbes recently estimated his net worth at $2.6 billion.

A one-page notice of appeal signed by U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon was filed with the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a full brief will be submitted later. Justice officials in Washington still must OK the appeal, but that's usually considered a formality.

At a Jan. 14 sentencing hearing, Kocoras spent most of his 20-minute explanation of the sentence expressing admiration for Warner. He also said the businessman had already paid a price in "public humiliation." In addition to probation, Kocoras ordered Warner to do 500 hours of community service at Chicago high schools. Earlier, Warner agreed to pay $27 million in back taxes and interest, and a civil penalty of more than $53 million....

During sentencing, assistant government attorney Michelle Petersen urged Kocoras to put Warner behind bars for at least a year.  "(Without prison time), tax evasion becomes little more than a bad investment," she told him.  "The perception cannot be that a wealthy felon can just write a check and not face further punishment."

This should be a VERY interesting sentencing appeal to watch in the months ahead, and I am already super stoked to read the coming Seventh Circuit briefs from the parties concerning what will surely be differing views on what federal sentencing law demands in a case of this nature.

Prior related post:

February 13, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)