Monday, March 24, 2014

AG Eric Holder announces new rules for federal halfway houses

Via this official press release, I see that Attorney General Eric Holder is continuing his effort to reshape the policies and practices of the federal criminal justice system, this time through new policies and programming for federal halfway houses.  The title and subtitle of the press release itself provides a summary of this latest development: "In New Step to Fight Recidivism, Attorney General Holder Announces Justice Department to Require Federal Halfway Houses to Boost Treatment Services for Inmates Prior to Release; New Rules Also Instruct Federal Halfway Houses to Provide Transportation Assistance, Cell Phone Access in Order to Help Inmates Seek Employment Opportunities."

Here is more from the start of the press release:

In a new step to further the Justice Department’s efforts towards enhancing reentry among formerly incarcerated individuals, Attorney General Eric Holder announced Monday that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) will impose new requirements on federal halfway houses that help inmates transition back into society.  Under the proposed new requirements, these halfway houses will have to provide a specialized form of treatment to prisoners, including those with mental health and substance abuse issues.  For the first time, halfway houses will also have to provide greater assistance to inmates who are pursuing job opportunities, such as permitting cell phones to be used by inmates and providing funds for transportation.  The new requirements also expand access to electronic monitoring equipment, such as GPS-equipped ankle bracelets, to allow more inmates to utilize home confinement as a reentry method.

Holder announced the changes in a video message posted on the Department’s website. The BOP’s new policies have the potential to be far-reaching. To ease their transition, those exiting prison typically spend the last few months of their sentence in either a federal halfway house — known as a residential reentry center (RRC) — or under home confinement, or a combination of the two. These community-based programs provide much needed assistance to returning citizens in finding employment and housing, facilitating connections with service providers, reestablishing ties to family and friends, and more.

Last year alone, more than 30,000 federal inmates passed through a halfway house. Among the most significant changes Holder announced is the requirement for standardized Cognitive Behavioral Programming (CBP) to be offered at all federal halfway houses.  This treatment will address behavior that places formerly incarcerated individuals at higher risk of recidivism. As part of this treatment requirement, BOP is setting guidelines for instructor qualifications, class size and length, and training for all staff at the halfway houses.

Several other modifications are being made to the standard contracts that apply to federal halfway houses in order to provide greater support to returning citizens. Examples include requiring halfway houses to provide public transportation vouchers or transportation assistance to help residents secure employment, requiring all federal halfway houses to allow residents to have cell phones to facilitate communication with potential employers and family, and improving and expanding home confinement by increasing the use of GPS monitoring.

March 24, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

What procedural rights should juve killers have at parole proceedings?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this intriguing article in the Boston Herald headlined "Killers convicted as teens could make bids for parole concessions." The piece highlights some of the intriguing and potentially controversial procedural issues that necessarily arise if and whenever a state has to figure out just what it means to give serious juvenile offenders a meaningful chance to secure parole release from a life sentence.  Here are the details:

A killer whose court victory cleared the way for dozens of lifers convicted as teens to seek freedom is expected to make new demands before a judge today, including giving cons the opportunity to cross-examine anyone who argues against their release. But Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said Gregory Diatchenko — who was 17 in 1981 when he plunged a knife through the face and heart of 55-year-old Thomas Wharf in Kenmore Square while screaming, “Give me your money, you (expletive),” — is asking too much.

“What he’s asking for would essentially give him a new trial on a first-degree murder charge for which he was already found guilty. This is a case of a convicted killer being given an inch and now demanding a mile,” Conley said.

The Supreme Judicial Court, in a controversial bombshell decision dropped on Christmas Eve that mirrored a 2012 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled that keeping teen killers behind bars without a chance of parole was cruel and unusual punishment because children under age 18 lack the ability to appreciate their crimes. The court, ruling on an appeal by Diatchenko, found teen killers should be given a “meaningful opportunity to be considered for parole suitability” after 15 years of incarceration.

A single SJC justice, Margot Botsford, will hear Diatchenko’s arguments today for new Parole Board rules for those convicted of murder as teens. Lawyers for Diatchenko and the Parole Board did not respond to requests for comment. Conley’s office said Diatchenko’s requests include having an appointed hearing attorney, expert defense witnesses, and the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses against him.

Conley contends, “The SJC has determined that this defendant is entitled to a parole hearing.  He shouldn’t also be afforded an unprecedented array of tactics to use at that hearing.”

Steve Brodie of Groveland, whose daughter Beth was bludgeoned to death in 1992 at age 15, told the Herald he is alarmed to learn hearings could include cross-
examination. “We don’t know where it ends,” Brodie said. Richard Baldwin, 37, who was 16 when he killed Beth Brodie, is among 61 lifers whose hearings for parole are expected to begin soon.

Personally, I do not view a defendant's request for an attorney and an opportunity to present and cross-examine witnesses at a significant sentencing proceeding to amount to a demand to "be afforded an unprecedented array of tactics."  But then again, it is easy for a lawyer and law professor like me to say that the traditional trial procedures secured for defendants by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments ought to be given very broad application in parole proceedings. 

The US Supreme Court has never thoroughly considered or carefully articulated exactly which traditional trial rights defendants retain or lack throughout traditional parole decision-making, though SCOTUS jurisprudence suggests that all defendants retain at least some minimal due process rights in parole proceedings.  Critically, though, these important procedural issues have not (yet) been seriously explored in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent substantive and procedural Eighth Amendment decisions in Graham and Miller concerning limits on juve LWOP sentencing. 

March 24, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)

Bridezilla murderer Jordan Graham's federal sentencing as amazing teaching opportunity

BRIDEZILLARegular readers (or anyone who watches morning television) likely remember the killer newlywed Jordan Graham.  As reported in prior posts here and here, Graham admitted to pushing her new husband from a cliff in Glacier National Park, but at first claimed that she did not mean to do it.  Then, after a federal jury trial was conducted,  but before a jury started deliberating about the charges, Graham entered a plea to second-degree murder in exchange for federal prosecutors agreeing to drop a first-degree murder charge and a count of making a false statement to authorities.

Now, as reported in this local article, headlined "Newlywed murder case unusual for federal court; sentencing Thur," it is now sentencing time. Unsurprisingly, federal prosecutors and Graham's defense team have much different views on what sentence she ought to receive for second-degree murder:

Does pushing your husband off a cliff to his death warrant serving life in prison?  Or 10 years? Or somewhere in between?  On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy must decide what punishment is fitting for Jordan Graham, who pushed her husband off a cliff in Glacier National Park last summer after only eight days of marriage.

After both sides had rested their case in a December trial, 22-year-old Graham pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of 25-year-old Cody Johnson before the jury could enter into deliberations.

The case is relatively unusual for federal court, since accusations of murder are usually tried and sentenced in county courtrooms, but Graham pushed Johnson on federal land, said Jordan Gross, an associate professor of law at the University of Montana who teaches criminal law and criminal procedure. Federal sentencing guidelines are vague on what’s required for second-degree murder. Hence the 90-year difference in sentences the defense and prosecution are asking Molloy to hand down, Gross said.

Graham was charged with first-degree murder, a lesser included charge of second-degree murder and making false statements to law enforcement. For first-degree murder, prosecutors must prove there was intent on the defendant’s part, where intent is not required for a second-degree murder conviction.

Although Graham pleaded guilty, prosecutors rehashed in their sentencing memorandum that Johnson was found without his wedding ring or car keys and hinted at the possibility that Graham had indeed intended to kill her new husband. Graham’s defense team contends that the circumstances of the evening were a recipe for disaster and that the incident was more akin to an accident. “She pleaded guilty, but that doesn’t mean that the prosecution can’t come in and argue her sentence up to life because that’s what the statute says,” Gross said. Federal statutes also don’t stipulate a required minimum sentence.

The benefit of pleading guilty before the jury could return a verdict is that it shows Graham accepts responsibility for her actions, Gross said. “There are shades of acceptance of responsibility,” though, Gross said, adding that in Graham’s case, she didn’t spare Johnson’s family the anguish of taking the stand and reliving their pain during a trial.

Letters from family and friends in support of Graham and letters filed on behalf of the prosecution, also will play a role in Molloy’s determination — and give insight from those who know Graham and Johnson best.

Brad Blasdel, who knew Graham for several years through her family, wrote that she was quiet and shy on the surface but cold and calculating underneath and showed no emotion about Johnson’s death. “Not once did I see any sign of remorse in Jordan for killing Cody,” he wrote, asking Molloy to consider the woman’s callousness during sentencing. “She took Cody’s life with premeditation and malice; now she must give hers,” he continued.

Cyndi Blasdel called Graham a “quiet instigator” who frequently encouraged bad behavior in others from the time she was a child. After Graham and Johnson’s engagement, Graham’s behavior became increasingly erratic, to the point of murder, Blasdel said. “Jordan Graham knew what she did was wrong and knew the consequences. She needs to be held accountable. She is not a nonviolent offender. Those of us who know her are afraid and some of us still sleep with the lights on,” she wrote.

People who wrote letters on Graham’s behalf, though, urged Molloy to be lenient to the quiet, hardworking woman who they say diligently attended church and served as a mentor to other young women.

Graham’s stepfather, Steven Rutledge, wrote he feels Johnson’s death was a terrible accident. “Why she decided to tell stories about the true events are unknown and unfortunate, but not a reason for a long prison term,” he wrote. Graham is a quiet churchgoer who cares deeply about others, he wrote. “I ask you to grant Jordan some leniency, and a chance at living her life as a young Christian woman.”

If Molloy is lenient, Graham has the potential to become a contributing member of society, her mother, Lindele Rutledge, wrote. Her daughter has shown remorse repeatedly in letters, through phone conversations and during visitation times, Rutledge wrote. “She has never been in trouble with the law. Her only record is a couple of speeding tickets. By showing her leniency she could get a college education and become a better and useful member of society.”...

Graham also likely will address Molloy during Thursday’s hearing in U.S. District Court in Missoula. It will be her opportunity to interact with Molloy outside of the case facts, said Paul Ryan, who has practiced law in Missoula for 20 years. Her comments to the judge will allow her to personally explain why she pushed Johnson and convey if she truly accepts responsibility for her actions, Ryan said.

Johnson’s mother, Sherry Johnson, as well as several other family members, will make comments during the sentencing hearing too. “They’re usually the most emotional and they can certainly carry a lot of weight with the judge,” Ryan said. What Johnson’s family feels is appropriate punishment also will factor into the decision, as will the impact to the victim, he said. “In this case, it was fatal. There can’t be a greater impact on a person than that,” he added.

As the title of this post highlights, I think this upcoming sentencing provides an extraordinary opportunity for me to explore with students critical sentencing issues ranging from views on how offense facts beyond the offense of conviction ought to impact sentencing and whether post-offense behavior by the defendant ought to play a large role at sentencing.  

In this prior post, I noted some of the federal sentencing guideline issues that this case necessarily raises.  Specifically, the guideline for second degree murder, 2A1.2, provides a base offense level of 38 and recommends an upward departure if "the defendant's conduct was exceptionally heinous, cruel, brutal, or degrading to the victim."   Should that apply here?  Also, I believe federal prosecutors have calculated the guidelines to include enhancements for obstruction of justice and without any reduction for acceptance of responsibility based on the lateness of the plea.  Are those fair and proper as sentencing consideration?

I could go on and on, but I want to save some of the fun for my students in class this week.  In the meantime, though, I would love to hear from readers (especially those who are regular sentencing practitioners) about what elements of this high-profile case provide especially good teaching ideas.

Previous related posts (with lots of interesting prior comments):

March 24, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

SCOTUS grants cert to explore how many procedural angels can dance on a habeas pin

The snarky title of this post is my reaction to the one cert grant today by the Supreme Court in a capital case from Texas, Jennings v. Stephens [Order List available here].  Upon first seeing news of a grant in a capital case from Texas, I was hoping that the Justices might be taking up some meaty substantive death penalty issue.  

But, as the Order List explains, "petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to Question 4 presented by the petition." And here, as summarized via this case page at SCOTUSblog, is that question:

Whether the Fifth Circuit erred in holding that a federal habeas petitioner who prevailed in the district court on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim must file a separate notice of appeal and motion for a certificate of appealability to raise an allegation of deficient performance that the district court rejected even though the Fifth Circuit acquired jurisdiction over the entire claim as a result of the respondent’s appeal.

Though I could be wrong on the fact here, I would guess that this specific federal habeas procedural issue arises maybe a couple of times each year at most. It is pretty rare that federal habeas petitioners prevail in the district court, and surely rarer still that a circuit court would on appeal thereafter ding that petitioner on a procedural issue. When there are thousands of cert petitions from defendants raising issues that could impact tens of thousands of criminal cases, I am both intrigued and annoyed that SCOTUS decides to take up a case likely to impact at most a handful of capital cases.

Of course, this issue of habeas procedure is obviously a very big deal to death row petitioner Jennings, and a number of Justices are likely troubled by how the Fifth Circuit handed this case. But would not a summary reversal be a more efficient and effective way to deal with this issue if a majority of Justices are troubled by the procedural maneuver pulled by the Fifth Circuit?

March 24, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Marijuana industry finds unlikely new allies in conservatives"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new article in the Los Angeles Times.  Here are excerpts:

Political contributors are not the only ones taking notice of the new realities of the marijuana business, said San Francisco-based ArcView Chief Executive Troy Dayton, who estimated his group would pump about $500,000 into pot this year.  Officeholders and candidates now jostle for the stage at investor meetings, he said. "A little more than a year ago, it would have been worthy of a headline if a sitting politician came to talk to a cannabis group," he said.  "Now they are calling us, asking to speak at our events."

No clearer example of the change exists than the industry's newest full-time lobbyist, Michael Correia.  An advocate for the 300-member National Cannabis Industry Assn., he is a former GOP staffer who worked two years as a lobbyist for the American Legislative Exchange Council — the powerful conservative advocacy group that has worked with state lawmakers to block the Affordable Care Act, clean energy incentives and gun restrictions.

"People hear the word 'marijuana' and they think Woodstock, they think tie-dye, they think dreadlocks," the San Diego native said. "It is not. These are legitimate businesses producing revenue, creating jobs. I want to be the face of it. I want to be what Congress sees."

Correia doesn't like to smoke pot. It makes him sleepy, he said.  And he isn't among those who have been in the trenches for years fighting for legalization.  For him, the work is largely about the federal government unnecessarily stifling an industry's growth. Any conservative, he said, should be troubled when companies can't claim tax deductions or keep cash in banks or provide plants for federal medical research....

Correia's association ... recently formed an alliance with Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who runs Americans for Tax Reform. In the fall, Norquist stood at a news conference with a longtime nemesis, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), one of the most liberal members of Congress, to promote a measure that would allow marijuana enterprises to deduct business expenses from their taxes.  "Grover's view is government should not pick winners and losers," Correia said. "It is a fairness issue. This resonates with him."

The Marijuana Policy Project recently purchased a building in Washington's vibrant Adams Morgan neighborhood, complete with a rooftop deck. On a recent warm evening, it hosted its first fundraiser there for a Republican, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa. The next day, Rohrabacher noted the "evil weed" some loiterers had been inhaling outside the building: "They were smoking tobacco," he said.

Rohrabacher is a coauthor of a bill that would require the federal government to defer to state laws that allow marijuana sales. "If it was a secret ballot," he said, "the majority of my Republican friends would vote for it."

March 23, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Noting disparities resulting from reservation sentencing being federal sentencing

Ndlr-cover-86-3This local article from North Dakota, which is headlined "Article scrutinizes disparities in sentencing on reservations: American Indians face harsher penalties when tried in fed court vs state courts, advocates say," highlights an often-overlooked pocket of the federal sentencing system. Here are excerpts from the lengthy piece:

Dana Deegan is serving a 10-year sentence for placing her newborn son in a basket and abandoning him for two weeks, allowing him to die. Deegan, who was 25 years old when her son died in 1998 on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, had three older children and suffered from depression and abuse. She pleaded guilty in 2007 to second-degree murder to avoid a possibly harsher sentence.

Advocates have said her sentence was much harsher than those given for similar cases prosecuted in state courts in North Dakota – a disparity that critics say applies generally because American Indians accused of major crimes on reservations are prosecuted in federal courts, which generally have stiffer penalties. The issue, which lawyers, judges and legal scholars have long discussed, will soon be the subject of a national study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Senior Judge Myron Bright of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who is based in Fargo, has for years been an outspoken critic of sentencing disparities involving prosecution of American Indians on reservations. The issue is also the focus of an article calling for changes to address the sentencing gaps in the current issue of the North Dakota Law Review [available at this link], and the study is backed by Tim Purdon, U.S. attorney for North Dakota. The law review authors, one of them a tribal judge in North Dakota, noted the Deegan case as a glaring example of the gap in sentences between the federal courts — whose defendants are overwhelmingly American Indians prosecuted on reservations — and comparable crimes tried in state courts.

Non-Indian women in two similar cases prosecuted in North Dakota state courts received much lighter sentences, authors BJ Jones and Christopher Ironroad noted [in this article, titled "Addressing Sentencing Disparities for Tribal Citizens in the Dakotas: A Tribal Sovereignty Approach"]. In 2000, a 22-year-old woman was sentenced in Cass County for negligent homicide to three years, with imposition suspended for three years of supervised probation, which was terminated less than two years later, according to court records.... In 2007, a 28-year-old woman was sentenced in Burleigh County to 10 years in prison, with eight years suspended, for causing the death of her newborn, which died after being left in a toilet....

Federal courts have jurisdiction on Indian reservations under the Major Crimes Act passed in 1885. Ordinarily, states prosecute “street crimes,” including assault, burglary, sexual assault, murder and vehicular manslaughter. Because of strict sentencing guidelines, with mandatory minimums and no probation or time off for good behavior, sentences in federal court generally are higher than those in state courts, at least in states including North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, lawyers and federal judges agree. “The law needs to be changed and Indians need to be treated on an equal basis, the same as their white neighbors,” Bright said.

But many agree that state penalties for certain crimes, such as vehicular manslaughter, are higher.  That, in fact, was a finding the last time the issue of sentencing disparities was studied in 2003 by an advisory group for the Sentencing Commission. But the group found the perception of an unfair disparity in sentences received by American Indians in federal court compared to state court was “well founded,” Purdon wrote the chairman of the Sentencing Commission earlier this month.

Purdon, who serves as chairman of the Attorney General’s Native American Issues Subcommittee, said more study is needed into the widespread perception of unfair sentences. “If the court system is perceived as unfair it undermines my ability to make the reservations safer,” he said, adding that the U.S. Department of Justice supports further study of the issue.

Two federal trial judges in North Dakota agreed that, because of federal sentencing guidelines, criminal sentences sometimes are higher than state court sentences, but cautioned that the reverse also is true for certain crimes.  “I believe it works both ways,” said Chief Judge Ralph Erickson of U.S. District Court in Fargo.  “Some crimes are less than customarily handed down in state courts,” such as vehicular homicide.

Much of the disparity comes from the lack of parole in the federal court system, meaning a defendant serves the entire sentence, Erickson said. “That’s where the rub comes in,” he said. “We’re aware of that and it’s frustrating.”... A comprehensive study is needed to determine if there are, in fact, sentencing disparities, Erickson said. If so, then solutions can be identified.

“There’s an overall disparity in sentencing,” said Judge Daniel Hovland of U.S. District Court in Bismarck. “Generally, federal sentences tend to be more severe,” but he agreed with Erickson that there are exceptions, including manslaughter. “I think the sentencing commission is going to take a much closer look at that issue and it will certainly bode well for everyone in the judicial system,” Hovland said.  “I’m confident they’ll reach a fair assessment.”

March 23, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

March madness insights from the Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform blog

Continuing my habit of doing regular round ups of posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, here is just a sampling of all the exciting mid-March action in recent posts:

March 22, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

"Banning the Bing: Why Extreme Solitary Confinement Is Cruel and Far Too Usual Punishment"

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

"To be kept in solitude is to be kept in pain . . . and put on the road to madness." (E.O. Wilson).

The United States engages in extreme practices of solitary confinement that maximize isolation and sensory deprivation of prisoners. The length is often indefinite and can stretch for weeks, months, years, or decades. Under these conditions, both healthy prisoners and those with pre-existing mental health issues often severely deteriorate both mentally and physically.  New science and data provide increased insight into why and how human beings (and other social animals) deteriorate and suffer in such environments.  The science establishes that meaningful social contacts and some level of opportunity for sensory enrichment are minimum human necessities.  When those necessities are denied, the high risks of serious harm apply to all prisoners, no matter how seemingly resilient beforehand.

Given these facts, this Article argues that solitary confinement, as commonly practiced in the United States, is cruel and unusual punishment — whether analyzed under current Supreme Court standards or an improved framework.  Furthermore, recently released data on states implementing reforms shows that extreme solitary confinement tactics are counterproductive to numerous policy interests, including public safety, institutional safety, prisoner welfare, and cost efficiency.  Both the scientific and policy data suggest possible avenues for effective reform.

March 22, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

Florida state judge balks at 50-year proposed sentence for notable child porn downloader

As reported in this local article, headlined "Sentencing on porn charges delayed for former Univision star," a state judge in Florida is concerned about the lengthy prison sentence being urged by prosecutors for a high-profile defendant. Here are the details:

A hearing to determine the fate of former Univision star Adonis Losada on child pornography possession charges ended without a prison sentence Friday after a judge said she needed more time to decide.  Circuit Judge Karen Miller made the rare move after she told prosecutors that their 50-year recommended sentence for Losada was more than double the highest punishment she had seen for similar crimes in recent years — harsher than sentences in cases where defendants actually had contact with victims.

Losada, who has been in jail since his 2009 arrest on dozens of charges capping an undercover investigation, was uncharacteristically quiet Friday. He again refused to have Miller appoint a lawyer to represent him, as he had during his seven-day trial in February, but refrained from the long rants that forced Miller to halt proceedings several times.... Losada played the laughable, clumsy grandmother, Doña Concha, on the Univision variety show Sabado Gigante — a role he played until his 2009 arrest. Univision is the largest Spanish-language television network in the United States.

Assistant State Attorney Gregory Schiller told Miller that the high sentence was proper for Losada because he had more than 1,000 images of child pornography and was actively trying to arrange to have sex with either the niece or daughter of the undercover detective who was posing as another chat-room user. “He has no sympathy, no care for the children who were being raped, being sodomized in those images. He traded them like baseball cards,” Schiller said.

Miller, however, said her research found that the highest sentence for a child pornography possession case in Palm Beach County over the past three years was 18 years. She also noted that prosecutors who charge defendants with dozens of counts in these cases usually carry a fraction of those charges into trial or drop some of the charges upon conviction.

Schiller noted that Losada rejected a 20-year plea deal before trial. “So you want me to penalize him for exercising his constitutional right to go to trial?” Miller asked.

Based on the convictions, Miller could sentence Losada to up to 330 years in prison, Schiller noted. The minimum recommended sentence based on state sentencing guidelines is 571 months — or just under 48 years....

Losada also faces similar charges in Miami and had been under investigation for child pornography possession in California.

March 22, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Why conservatives should oppose the flawed death penalty, too"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Salon commentary authored by Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford and Alex Gibney. Here are excerpts:

For the last two decades, each of us has examined the criminal justice system in our own work. And so with the political debate over capital punishment once again intensifying, we came together this past year to explore the human dramas inside this institution – from cases resulting in exonerations to those still in limbo to those involving indisputable guilt. In the process, we discovered disturbing patterns that reveal systemic problems. These include:

Arbitrariness: A convict’s chances of ending up on death row today depend as much on the crime as on the convict’s race and geographic location. This was most recently documented by a University of Maryland study of Harris County, Texas. This one area in greater Houston has executed more people than any other state in the country. County data showed African American defendants were three times more likely to face the death penalty than similarly situated white defendants. Additionally, African Americans were more than twice as likely as similarly situated whites to receive death sentences from juries....

Law enforcement misconduct: Cases of suppressed evidence often exemplify how the quest for death penalty convictions can foster a culture of unaccountable lawlessness inside the justice system. And as we discovered in our investigation of the John Thompson case in New Orleans, such a culture can become almost impossible to curtail....

Cost: When accounting for pretrial hearings, trials, appeals, security and prison expenses, the death penalty costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Spending that much money on capital punishment costs lives. Why? Because those resources are being diverted from potentially lifesaving programs that could put more police officers on the street, investigate cold cases and prevent recidivist crime.

Failure to deter crime: If the death penalty was deterring crime, perhaps its costs could be justified. But there is far more evidence that it is failing to deter crime. For example, the aggregate homicide rate in death penalty states has been consistently higher than the rate in non-death-penalty states.Likewise, a survey of the nation’s criminologists found 88 percent saying that capital punishment does not deter crime....

As most recently evidenced by the Obamacare websites, the most straightforward government tasks often involve errors and imperfections. Even the most ardent law-and-order conservatives should be able to admit the same truism applies to the government-administered death penalty. If we cannot blindly trust the government to safeguard health, can we trust it to administer death?

Whether Democratic or Republican, legislators can no longer ignore the fatal flaw in the justice system.  At a minimum, we must insist that they find a way to hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct that canl — if intentional — amount to premeditated murder. More broadly, we should insist that lawmakers face the most harrowing question from all of our death row stories: if the institution of capital punishmentl — with consequences so final and irreversible — can never be a perfect instrument of criminal justice, is the institution itself a criminal injustice?

March 21, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)

"Legitimacy and Federal Criminal Enforcement Power"

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

A defining feature of criminal federalism is extreme disparities in case outcomes across state and federal forums.  All else being equal, prosecution in the federal forum entails a significantly higher likelihood of conviction, and a higher penalty.  But why do such disparities exist?  Conventional explanations point to differences among sovereigns’ legal rules, resources and dockets.  These understandings, while valid, neglect to account for a less-tangible source of federal criminal power: legitimacy.

“Legitimacy” refers to the concept, refined through decades of empirical research, that citizens comply with the law, and defer to and cooperate with legal authority, when they perceive both the laws and the authorities to be fair.  A legitimacy-based exploration of the federal criminal justice system significantly enriches our understanding of the sources of federal criminal power.  Distilling those sources, moreover, reveals surprising and counterintuitive implications: to emulate the sources of federal legitimacy in local systems, we need more localized criminal justice.

March 21, 2014 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

ACLU of Washington State reports huge drop in low-level marijuana offense court filings after legalization initiative

As detailed in this press release, the ACLU of Washington State has some new data on one criminal justice reality plainly impacted by marijuana reform.  Here are the details:

Passed by Washington voters on November 6, 2012, Initiative 502 legalized marijuana possession for adults age 21 and over when it went into effect 30 days later.  New data show the law is having a dramatic effect on prosecutions for misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses in Washington courts.  The ACLU of Washington’s analysis of court data, provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts, reveals that filings for low-level marijuana offenses have precipitously decreased from 2009 to 2013:

• 2009 – 7964
• 2010 – 6743
• 2011 – 6879
• 2012 – 5531
• 2013 – 120

“The data strongly suggest that I-502 has achieved one of its primary goals – to free up limited police and prosecutorial resources. These resources can now be used for other important public safety concerns,” says Mark Cooke, Criminal Justice Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Washington....

Although the overall number of low-level marijuana offenses for people age 21 and over has decreased significantly, it appears that racial bias still exists in the system.  An African American adult is still about three times more likely to have a low-level marijuana offense filed against him or her than a white adult.

Initiative 502 legalized possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and over.  However, possession of more than an ounce, but no more than 40 grams, remains a misdemeanor.  Exceeding the one-ounce threshold is a likely explanation for the presence of 120 misdemeanor filings against adults in 2013.

A number of folks on this blog who seem opposed to marijuana reform are often quick to (rightly) note that very few people are serving prison sentence for low-level marijuana offenses. But this data provides a notable reminder that, even in a liberal state with medical marijuana legalized, many thousands of persons can still get arrested and prosecuted for misdemeanor marijuana possession offenses unless and until a state fully legalizes marijuana possession.

If it is reasonable to estimate that it costs around $2000 to process each of these misdemeanor possession cases (which may be a conservative estimate based on some numbers crunched here), the elimination of over 5,000 pot arrests could be alone saving Washington State more than $10 million each year.  That amount is perhaps not all that much money in a state with a nearly $40 billion annual budget, but it would be enough to double the monies the state spends on a state seed program called "Building for the Arts."   Though my biases are showing here, I generally think citizens are likely to get a better civic return on their tax dollars when state money is spent helping to build for the arts rather than busting a few thousand potheads.

Cross posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

March 20, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Illinois Supreme Court deems Miller ruling substantive and thus retroactive

As reported in this Chicago Tribune piece, headlined "Ruling allows new hearings for 100 convicted killers," earlier today the Illinois Supreme Court "ruled that state prison inmates serving life without parole for murders they committed years ago as juveniles will receive new sentencing hearings." Here is more about the ruling:

The ruling means that the inmates, some of whom were as young as 14 when they committed murder, will be allowed to present evidence to mitigate their responsibility and obtain a shorter sentence that would allow them to be set free at some point. Prosecutors will be able to offer to try to persuade judges to re-impose the life sentences....

With the ruling, Illinois joins states such as Iowa, Massachusetts and Texas in deciding a 2012 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court applies to prisoners whose crimes were committed before the ruling.  Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Louisiana are among the states that have refused....

“A minor may still be sentenced to natural life imprisonment without parole so long as the sentence is at the trial court’s discretion rather than mandatory,” the Illinois Supreme Court wrote in today’s unanimous opinion written by Justice Charles Freeman.

The ruling in Illinois v. Davis, No. 115595 (Ill. March 20, 2014) (available here), provides this account of its retroactivity assessment:

As the Iowa Supreme Court recognized:  “From a broad perspective, Miller does mandate a new procedure.  Yet, the procedural rule for a hearing is the result of a substantive change in the law that prohibits mandatory life-without-parole sentencing.” State v. Ragland, 836 N.W.2d 107, 115 (Iowa 2013).  In other words, Miller places a particular class of persons covered by the statute — juveniles — constitutionally beyond the State’s power to punish with a particular category of punishment — mandatory sentences of natural life without parole.  See Miller, 567 U.S. at ___, ___, 132 S. Ct. at 2464, 2468; Diatchenko v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, 1 N.E.3d 270, 277 (Mass. 2013).  Since Miller declares a new substantive rule, it applies retroactively without resort to TeagueSee Schriro, 542 U.S. at 351-52 & n.4.

Also, we find it instructive that the Miller companion case, Jackson v. Hobbs, arose on state collateral review.  Notwithstanding its finality, the Court retroactively applied Miller and vacated Jackson’s sentence.  While our analysis is independent as a matter of Illinois law, the relief granted to Jackson under Miller tends to indicate that Miller should apply retroactively on collateral review.  See People v. Williams, 2012 IL App (1st) 111145, ¶ 54; People v. Morfin, 2012 IL App (1st) 103568, ¶ 57.

We observe that defendant and several amici assert that this court should depart from Teague and adopt a different rule of retroactivity.  However, we do not rely on Teague in our analysis because we view Miller as a new substantive rule, which is outside of Teague rather than an exception thereto. Accordingly, we need not and do not address this argument.  See People v. Campa, 217 Ill. 2d 243, 269-70 (2005) (reviewing court will not decide nonessential issues or render advisory opinions).

March 20, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

"Drug Dealers Aren't to Blame for the Heroin Boom. Doctors Are."

The title of this post is the provocative headline of this interesting new article from The New Republic. Here is a portion of how the piece gets started:

Heroin epidemics don’t come and go randomly, like the McRib. They have clearly identifiable causes — and in this case, by far the largest cause is doctor -prescribed pills. Every year since 2007, doctors have written more than 200 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers. (Consider that there are 240 million adults in the country.)  And about four in five new heroin addicts report that they got addicted to prescription pills before they ever took heroin....

Most people who try opiates don’t get addicted.  But enough do. Since 2002, the total number of monthly heroin abusers has doubled to 335,000 nationwide.  Some of the addicts get the pills through a well-meaning doctor or dentist, and many others swipe leftover pills from their friends or family members.  The result for an addict is the same: Once the pills or money run out, heroin is still available — and cheap.  At about $10 per hit, it can be half the street cost of pills.

“We seeded the population with opiates,” says Robert DuPont, an addiction doctor who served as drug czar under Presidents Nixon and Ford and who is now a harsh critic of opiate over-prescription.  The supply shock from easy access to prescription drugs has pushed heroin use out of cities and into rural and suburban and middle-class areas. Massachusetts reported a staggering 185 heroin deaths outside its major cities since November, and Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, spent his entire “state-of-the-state” address talking about the nearly eightfold increase in people seeking opiate treatment there since 2000.  “What started as an OxyContin and prescription-drug addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” he said.

In addition to providing an important reminder about the dynamic (and sometimes unpredictable) intersection of medical care, drug abuse and the "war on drugs," this piece also suggests a reason why we might not want to readily assume (or trust) that the medical profession will be an effective and healthy intermediary when debating how best to reform marijuana laws and regulate the use of cannabis-based products as a pain relievers.

March 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)

Notable follow-up thoughts on acquitted conduct and the sentencing of Antwuan Ball

I am pleased to see that my discussion of the Antwuan Ball case in this recent post titled "DC Circuit gives disconcertingly short-shrift to Antwuan Ball's many significant sentencing claims," has now generated a pair of thoughtful posts at The Volokh Conspiracy:

Paul Cassell got the ball rolling via this post titled "Should a drug dealer acquitted of running a drug ring be sentenced for running a drug ring?", which ends with this paragraph:

In short, when a judge sentences on the basis of acquitted conduct, he is acting with far more information than is typically available at sentencing. I see no reason to be worried about Ball’s sentence — or, more generally, the fact that judges apply ordinary burdens of proof when resolving factual disputes at sentencing. I am more worried about entangling these sentencing proceedings with ever-mounting procedural requirements that will make it difficult for judges to craft appropriate sentences — lenient, harsh, or somewhere in between. The D.C. Circuit got this one right.

Will Baude chimed in via this post titled "The real constitutional problem with Antwuan Ball’s sentence," which concludes with these thoughts:

As Scalia put it in Rita, “… there will inevitably be some constitutional violations under a system of substantive reasonableness review, because there will be some sentences that will be upheld as reasonable only because of the existence of judge-found facts.”  He then reiterated this point in Gall.  (“The Court has not foreclosed as-applied constitutional challenges to sentences. The door therefore remains open for a defendant to demonstrate that his sentence, whether inside or outside the advisory Guidelines range, would not have been upheld but for the existence of a fact found by the sentencing judge and not by the jury.”)

This isn’t necessarily to criticize this D.C. Circuit panel; the court concluded that Scalia’s arguments have already been rejected by D.C. Circuit precedent, and maybe that is right. But they haven’t been rejected by the Supreme Court. The court upheld the general use of acquitted conduct upheld in United States v. Watts, but this is a distinct problem (and I’m writing this post because the two problems are often confused).

March 20, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Texas officials get hooked up by special secret (capital) drug dealer

As reported in this AP story, headlined "Texas finds new execution drug supply," Texas officials seem to have special abilities to acquire the drugs needed to continue with executions. Here are the (cloak-and-dagger?) details:

Texas has obtained a new batch of the drugs it uses to execute death row inmates, allowing the state to continue carrying out death sentences once its existing supply expires at the end of the month.  But correction officials will not say where they bought the drugs, arguing that information must be kept secret to protect the safety of its new supplier. In interviews with The Associated Press, officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also refused to say whether providing anonymity to its new supplier of the sedative pentobarbital was a condition of its purchase.

The decision to keep details about the drugs and their source secret puts the agency at odds with past rulings of the state attorney general's office, which has said the state's open records law requires the agency to disclose specifics about the drugs it uses to carry out lethal injections.  "We are not disclosing the identity of the pharmacy because of previous, specific threats of serious physical harm made against businesses and their employees that have provided drugs used in the lethal injection process," said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark.

The dispute in the state that executes more inmates than any other comes as major drugmakers, many based in Europe, have stopped selling pentobarbital and other substances used in lethal injections to U.S. corrections agencies because they oppose the death penalty.  Until obtaining its new supply from the unknown provider, Texas only had enough pentobarbital to continue carrying out executions through the end of March. Earlier this week, a court rescheduled two executions set for this month in Oklahoma — another leading death penalty state — because prison officials were having trouble obtaining the drugs, including pentobarbital, needed for its lethal injections.

Such legal challenges have grown more common as the drug shortages have forced several states to change their execution protocols and buy drugs from alternate suppliers, including compounding pharmacies that are not as heavily regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as more conventional pharmacies....

Alan Futrell, an attorney for convicted murderer Tommy Sells, whose scheduled April 3 execution would make him the first to be put to death with Texas' new drug supply, said the issue could become fodder for legal attempts to delay his sentence.  "This might be good stuff," he said.  "And the roads are getting very short here."

But Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment organization, said it was doubtful that Texas would get to a point where a lack of drugs led officials to fully suspend capital punishment.  "There are a lot of drugs, and Texas can be creative in finding some," he said.

Texas' current inventory of pentobarbital, the sedative it has used in lethal injections since 2012, will expire April 1.  The state executed one inmate, Ray Jasper, on Wednesday evening and has scheduled executions for five more, including one next week.  That execution, like Wednesday's, will draw from the existing stockpile purchased last year from a suburban Houston compounding pharmacy, Clark said.  The new batch of drugs presumably would be used for three Texas inmates set to die in April, including Sells, and one in May.

Sixteen convicted killers were executed in Texas last year, more than in any other state. Jasper's execution was Texas' third this year, bringing the total to 511 since capital punishment in the state resumed in 1982.  The total accounts for nearly one-third of all the executions in the U.S. since a 1976 Supreme Court ruling allowed capital punishment to resume....

Policies in some states, like Missouri and Oklahoma, keep the identities of drug suppliers secret, citing privacy concerns.  Clark, in refusing AP's request to answer any specific questions about the new batch of drugs, said after prison officials identified the suburban Houston compounding pharmacy that provided its existing supply of pentobarbital, that pharmacy was targeted for protests by death penalty opponents.  It sought to have Texas return the pentobarbital it manufactured, and prison officials refused.

Texas law does not specifically spell out whether officials can refuse to make the name of drug suppliers public, but Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office has on three occasions rejected arguments by the agency that disclosing that information would put the drug supply and manufacturers at risk.  In a 2012 opinion, his office rejected the argument that disclosing the inventory would allow others to figure out the state's suppliers, dismissing the same kind of security concerns raised this week....

Clark said the prison agency planned to ask Abbott to reconsider the issue. "We're not in conflict with the law," Clark said. "We plan to seek an AG's opinion, which is appropriate in a situation like this, and the AG's office will determine whether it's releasable."

March 20, 2014 in Baze lethal injection case, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

"Sentencing in Tax Cases after Booker: Striking the Right Balance between Uniformity and Discretion"

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

It has been nearly ten years since the Supreme Court’s seminal decision in United States v. Booker, in which the Court invalidated the mandatory application of the United States Sentencing Guidelines.  In the cases that followed, the Court addressed subsidiary issues regarding the application of the Guidelines and the scope of appellate review.  However, despite — or perhaps because of — these opinions, there is little consensus regarding the status and extent of appellate review, as well as the discretion afforded sentencing courts. More troubling, what consensus there is seems to permit judges to impose any sentence they wish, as long as the appropriate sentencing procedures are followed.  As a result, we are in danger of returning to “the shameful lack of parity, which the Guidelines sought to remedy.”

The Sentencing Reform Act and the Sentencing Guidelines were designed to reduce disparity in sentencing and to reign in what one commentator described as a “lawless system.” However, the Guidelines as ultimately conceived drastically limited the sentencing judge’s ability to impose a sentence that was appropriate for the conduct and culpability of the defendant, creating a different kind of sentencing disparity. The current, post-Booker system provides more guidance than the pre-Guidelines system, but permits sentencing judges to disregard the Guidelines and develop their own sentencing policy.  As a result, rather than having a system that allows for sentences to be tailored to individual defendants, the current system allows sentences to be imposed based on the penal philosophy of individual judges. This will inevitably lead to unwarranted sentencing disparity.

This article traces the recent history of criminal sentencing and, relying on the influential works of John Rawls and H.L.A. Hart on theories of punishment, argues for a better system that allows for both guidance to sentencing judges and appropriately individualized sentencing.  My recommendation, although equally applicable to any federal sentence, will be examined through the lens of tax sentencing.

March 20, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Idaho officials struggle to calculate capital case costs

As reported in this new AP article, headlined "Idaho death penalty cost report finds limited data," officials in The Gem State has been finding it hard to do a complete accounting of capital case costs. Here are the details:

A new report from Idaho's state auditors shows that sentencing a defendant to life in prison without parole is less expensive than imposing the death penalty.  But the Office of Performance Evaluations also found that the state's criminal justice agencies don't collect enough data to determine the total cost of the death penalty.  The report was presented to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Wednesday by Hannah Crumrine and Tony Grange.

Idaho is one of 32 states with the death penalty, but two of those states — Oregon and Washington — have moratoriums on executions.  Idaho has executed 29 people since 1864, but only three since 1977.  Keith Eugene Wells was executed in 1994, Paul Ezra Rhoades was executed in 2011 and Richard Leavitt was executed in 2012.

It's difficult to determine just how much imposing the death penalty costs,  Crumrine told the committee, in part because most of the needed data is unavailable.  Law enforcement agencies typically don't differentiate between the costs of investigating death penalty murder cases and non-death penalty murder cases, and jail and prison staffers don't track the transport costs to bring a condemned prisoner to court cases versus a regular prisoner.

The researchers were able to determine some costs, however: Eleven counties have been reimbursed more than $4.1 million for capital defense costs since 1998, and the state appellate public defender's office has spent nearly half a million dollars on death penalty cases between 2004 and 2013.  The Idaho Department of Correction spent more than $102,000 on executing Leavitt and Rhoades.

In any case, it's clear that death penalty cases cost more than sentencing an offender to life without parole, according to the report, in part because it takes longer for the appeal process to come to an end in death penalty cases.  And the ultimate penalty is seldom imposed: The report found that of the 251 first-degree murder cases filed from 1998 to 2013, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 42 and it was imposed in just seven cases.

Of the 40 people sentenced to death in Idaho since the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1977, 21 have had their sentences overturned on appeal or are no longer sentenced to death for other reasons, 12 are still appealing their cases and four died in prison.  Just three were executed during that time span.

Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter wrote a letter responding to the report, stating that he believes state agencies have been diligent in accounting for and containing costs. Otter wrote that though the report raises the question of whether tax dollars are spent wisely on capital punishment, he continues to support the death penalty laws.

March 19, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (0)

Should sex offenders be prohibited from winning lottery jackpots?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new FoxNews report headlined "Massachusetts official seeks to prevent sex offenders from collecting large lotto payouts."  Here are excerpts:

A Massachusetts state senator is pushing to close a lottery loophole that allows sex offenders to pocket huge payouts and potentially use their winnings to buy their victims' silence.

"Should someone on the sex offender list purchase a ticket and win, I think we should find a way from preventing them from enjoying the proceeds," state Sen. Richard Moore told The Boston Herald. "This doesn't smell right to start with."

Moore's concern came as it was revealed that a Level 3 serial child predator walked away with a $10 million win in 2008 and used his winnings to buy gifts for a boy he was allegedly abusing. Daniel T. Snay, 62, was convicted four separate times of indecent assault and battery on a person 14 years or older from 1974 to 1987. He pleaded not guilty Monday at his arraignment on charges including indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of 14 and other charges....

"I guess he bought my silence by giving me gifts and stuff," the boy, now 16, told police, according to a transcript released in court, the paper reported. The alleged abuse occurred about the same time he won the lottery and it continued until March 1, 2012, the report said.

Police Chief Jeffrey Lourie said Snay's "windfall aided the commission of the crimes" by helping him gain favor with people. Sam Goldberg, Snay's attorney, told the paper the allegations are "very easy to bring ... especially when you know this is someone who’s already been a lightning rod ... because of the lottery winnings."

The director of the state's lottery told the paper that winnings can be intercepted by the IRS or Department of Revenue, but a payout cannot be withheld “based on someone’s character."

March 19, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (42) | TrackBack (0)

"Efficiency shouldn’t trump effectiveness in drug sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline in the Washington Post given to this letter from lawprof Mark Osler in response to that paper's recent coverage of prosecutorial opposition to proposals for federal drug sentencing reform.  Here is the full text of the letter as published:

As a former federal prosecutor who now trains criminal lawyers, I read with great interest the March 13 front-page article “Prosecutors fight plan to lower drug sentences.”  At best, the objections by some federal prosecutors to sentencing reform ring hollow.  At worst, they echo that most unfortunate plea of employee organizations: Keep our jobs easy.

Mandatory minimums make it easy to plead a case out, eliminating the effort and expense of trial.  That efficiency is worthwhile if a problem is being solved, but there is no evidence that the mass incarcerations created by mandatory minimums solve any problem.  If they were working, the supply of illegal narcotics would constrict and the price would go up, but some narcotics are cheaper now than 30 years ago.

The anti-reformers argue that mandatory minimums “provide a critical tool to dismantle drug networks by getting cooperation from lower-level defendants and building cases that move up the criminal chain of command.”  It is a worthwhile argument, if true, but U.S. Sentencing Commission data have shown that the overwhelming majority of federal cocaine convicts are low-level actors — street dealers, couriers and the like.

Mandatory minimums do create efficiency.  But when that efficiency is primarily used to force pleas from low-level defendants without solving a problem, it is just bullying.

Some prior posts about federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

March 19, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack (0)