Saturday, July 19, 2014

US Attorney for NJ: "Ex-offenders get time, now they need opportunity"

Especially in the wake of this US Sentencing Commission's big decision yesterday to vote for retroactive application of its new reduced drug guidelines (basics here and here), a recent opinion piece by the U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, Paul Fishman, struck me as especially timely. This piece is headlined "Ex-offenders get time, now they need opportunity," and here are excerpts: 

Every year, my office prosecutes several hundred defendants who have violated criminal laws passed by Congress. For most of those defendants, a term in federal prison is warranted. Whether they are public officials who betray their oaths, predators who threaten the safety of our neighborhoods and our children, or thieves who cheat the health care system, investors or the government — incarceration is the appropriate punishment.

But prison is usually not meant to last forever. More than 95 percent of federal prisoners will be released after serving their sentences. Altogether, 700,000 federal and state prisoners are released every year, along with millions more who stream through local jails.

Most return to their communities, trying to put their lives back together and avoid the pitfalls that got them in trouble. Bearing the stain of their convictions, they compete for jobs, look for housing and seek educational opportunities.

A staggering number don't succeed. Nationally, two-thirds of people released from state prisons are arrested again; half of those will end up back inside. Forty percent of federal prisoners return to jail in the first three years.

This level of recidivism is unacceptable. Offenders, their families and their communities are devastated by it. Public safety suffers for it. And with more than $74 billion spent annually on federal, state and local corrections, we can’t afford it.

Prison alone isn't enough. Any smart law enforcement model prevents crime by supporting ex-offenders. That is why my U.S. Attorney's Office — along with federal judges, the federal public defender, and the U.S. Probation Office — began the "ReNew" program, a federal re-entry court in Newark. Those leaving federal prison at serious risk of reoffending are invited to participate.

They are closely supervised, meeting biweekly with federal Magistrate Judge Madeline Cox Arleo, our office, and the federal defenders, and more regularly with probation officers. And they are supported in obtaining housing, jobs, education, counseling and legal assistance. My office provides services to the team and participants and supervises research into the program's efficacy.

This week, the judge will preside over the first graduation ceremony for those who have successfully completed 52 weeks in the program. It is a hugely inspiring milestone for everyone involved, but especially for the graduates reimagining their lives despite great adversity....

Recently, my office launched the New Jersey Re-entry Council, a partnership with acting New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman, other federal and state agencies, and NGO community members to share resources and ideas.

But there is one more partner we need: you. Finding a job after release is the most important key to success. In a recovering economy, securing a job after prison can be especially difficult. If you have a company that can train or hire our participants, or if you have access to housing, we need to hear from you....

One of every 100 adults in the United States is behind bars. Most will come home. They will have paid their debt and need a chance to support themselves, their families and their communities. We can look at ex-offenders returning to our communities as a risk, or we can help give them that chance. The potential rewards for their lives, for the economy and for our safety are incalculable.

July 19, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Split Iowa Supreme Court declares all mandatory juve sentencing terms violate state constitution

Thanks to a helpful reader, I learned this afternoon that the Iowa Supreme Court today declared unconstitutional pursuant to the Iowa Constitution the imposition of any and all mandatory terms of imprisonment on juvenile offenders.  The majority ruling in Iowa v. Lyle, No. 11–1339 (Iowa July 18, 2014)  

In this appeal, a prison inmate who committed the crime of robbery in the second degree as a juvenile and was prosecuted as an adult challenges the constitutionality of a sentencing statute that required the imposition of a mandatory seven-year minimum sentence of imprisonment.  The inmate was in high school at the time of the crime, which involved a brief altercation outside the high school with another student that ended when the inmate took a small plastic bag containing marijuana from the student.  He claims the sentencing statute constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the State and Federal Constitutions when applied to all juveniles prosecuted as adults because the mandatory sentence failed to permit the court to consider any circumstances based on his attributes of youth or the circumstances of his conduct in mitigation of punishment.  For the reasons expressed below, we hold a statute mandating a sentence of incarceration in a prison for juvenile offenders with no opportunity for parole until a minimum period of time has been served is unconstitutional under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. Accordingly, we vacate the sentence and remand the case to the district court for resentencing. Importantly, we do not hold that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to imprisonment for their criminal acts.  We do not hold juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to a minimum term of imprisonment.  We only hold juvenile offenders cannot be mandatorily sentenced under a mandatory minimum sentencing scheme.

The majority opinion supporting this ruling runs nearly 50 pages and, unsurprisingly, has a lot to say about the US Supreme Court's recent Eighth Amendment work in Graham and Miller. In addition, two forceful dissents follow the majority's opinion in Lyle, and here is the heart of one of the dissenting opinions:

By holding Lyle’s seven-year mandatory minimum sentence for his violent felony is cruel and unusual punishment and unconstitutional under article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution, rather than under the Eighth Amendment, the majority evades review by the United States Supreme Court.  As Justice Zager observes, no other appellate court in the country has gone this far. Our court stands alone in taking away the power of our elected legislators to require even a seven-year mandatory sentence for a violent felony committed by a seventeen-year-old.  Will the majority stop here?  Under the majority’s reasoning, if the teen brain is still evolving, what about nineteen-year olds?  If the brain is still maturing into the mid-20s, why not prohibit mandatory minimum sentences for any offender under age 26?  As judges, we do not have a monopoly on wisdom.  Our legislators raise teenagers too.  Courts traditionally give broad deference to legislative sentencing policy judgments. See State v. Oliver, 812 N.W.2d 636, 650 (Iowa 2012) (“We give the legislature deference because ‘[l]egislative judgments are generally regarded as the most reliable objective indicators of community standards for purposes of determining whether a punishment is cruel and unusual.’ ” (quoting Bruegger, 773 N.W.2d at 873)). Why not defer today?

July 18, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

USSC votes for full (though slightly delayed) retroactivity of new reduced drug guidelines

I just received this early report via a credible source as to what the US Sentencing Commission did this afternoon on the issue of making its new lower guidelines retroactive:

The Commission just voted unanimously to make the "drugs minus 2" amendment retroactive with a single limitation -- no order reducing a sentence can take effect until Nov. 1, 2015.  This is later than the Judicial Conference recommended (they proposed that it effect in May 2015 to give courts and probation time to prepare)....

The Commission predicts that more than 46,000 will be eligible to seek a reduction.  Part of the reason for the delayed effective date is to make sure each inmate is released with a re-entry plan and the opportunity for transitional steps such as halfway houses or home confinement.

UPDATE:  Here is a link to the USSC's official press release about its vote, which starts this way:

The United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously today at a public meeting to apply a reduction in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenders retroactively, meaning that many offenders currently in prison could be eligible for reduced sentences beginning November 2015.

The Commission voted unanimously in April to amend the guidelines to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types, which may mean lower sentences for most drug offenders going forward.  Today the Commission decided that judges could extend that reduction to offenders currently in prison, but with a requirement that reduced sentences cannot take effect until November 1, 2015.  Under the guidelines, no offender would be released unless a judge reviews the case to determine whether a reduced sentence poses a risk to public safety and is otherwise appropriate.

“This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”

Congress has until November 1, 2014 to disapprove the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. Should Congress choose to let the guideline reductions stand, courts could then begin considering petitions from prisoners for sentence reductions, but no prisoners could be released pursuant to those reductions before November 1, 2015.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here is a link to the official statement in response to this vote from AG Eric Holder, which runs this single paragraph:

“The department looks forward to implementing this plan to reduce sentences for certain incarcerated individuals. We have been in ongoing discussions with the Commission during its deliberations on this issue, and conveyed the department's support for this balanced approach. In the interest of fairness, it makes sense to apply changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactively, and the idea of a one-year implementation delay will adequately address public safety concerns by ensuring that judges have adequate time to consider whether an eligible individual is an appropriate candidate for a reduced sentence. At my direction, the Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying federal inmates of the opportunity to apply for a reduction in sentence immediately. This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system."

July 18, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Furman and randomness (not just delay) at heart of California capital ruling

As discussed here and here, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney earlier this week declared all of California's death penalty system unconstitutional in Jones v. Chappell, No. 2:09-cv-02158-CJC (C.D. Cal. July 16, 2014) (available here).  Because much of the opinion documents how "California’s death penalty system [has become] so plagued by inordinate and unpredictable delay that the death sentence is actually carried out against only a trivial few of those sentenced to death," much criticism of the opinion questions how a very long delay between a death sentence and an execution could alone render a sentence unconstitutional.  As noted before, Kent Scheidegger here at Crime & Consequesnces has stressed that few Justices have taken "seriously a claim that a death sentence could be rendered unconstitutional by the length of time taken by the many procedures to review it."  And now Orin Kerr here at The Volokh Conspiracy explains why he "found the [Jones] opinion unusually weak" given all the "obvious puzzles raised by delay-based Eighth Amendment claims."

Though decades of delay between a death sentence and possible execution is part of the equation of the Judge Carney's ruling in Jones v. Chappell, I see the concept of randonmess to be more fundamental and more fundamentally important to Judge Carney's constitutional conclusion.  Judge Carney cites repeatedly the various opinions in the Supreme Court's 1972 landmark ruling in Furman v. Georgia which found an Eighth Amendment violation based ina state's sentencing process making it essentially random (or "arbitrary") who ultimately gets sentenced to die among a large pool of eligible capital defendants.  I read Judge Carney's opinion as extending Furman by concluding that the Eighth Amendment is also violated if and when a state's appeals process makes it essentially random (or "arbitrary") who ultimately gets executed among among a large pool of condemned defendants sentenced to die

Because Furman remains good law (and obviously has nothing to do with execution delay), I think there is a little more "juice" to the ruling in Jones v. Chappell than suggested by those whose criticisms are focused only on execution delay aspects of the ruling.  Indeed, in order to keep the focus on Furman and randomness, consider a variation on a hypothetical statute present to students when discussing Furman.  Consider, dear readers, if you think a state would be constitutionally allowed to pass a capital law along these lines:

Because of the huge costs associated with adequate appellate review of death sentences, state appeals courts should randomly select (via a fair lottery process) only 1 out of every 50 death sentences to be subject to full and fair appellate review each year.  All death sentences shall be indefinitely stayed (and no execution date imposed) unless and until a death sentence has been is randomly selected for, and properly subject to, full and fair appellate review.

Of course, California has not formally passed such a law.  But Judge Carney's ruling (rightly) finds that California functionally operates its capital punishment system this way AND then (questionably) concludes such a capital punishment system violates the Eighth Amendment based on Furman

Recent related posts:

July 18, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

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

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

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

Some recent related posts on reduced drug guideline retroactivity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full opinion:  Download Jones Cal DP opinion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Male: 54% to 36%

Age 30-44: 60% to 28%

Democrat: 62% to 27%

White: 52% to 37%

Income $100+: 57% to 32%

Midwest: 55% to 31%

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Intriguing sparring over victims' rights in Colorado massacre capital case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Moneyball Sentencing"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Circuit approves forcible medication to enable federal sentencing

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

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

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

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

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

Are federal drug sentences for mules now too short?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"An NTSB for Capital Punishment"

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

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

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

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

"4 Reasons Conservatives Are Embracing Prison Reform"

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

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

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

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

Reform makes good financial sense. ...

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

Second Chances are Biblical. ...

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

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

July 12, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, July 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles grants execution eve clemency to witness killer

As reported in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, "hours before he was to be executed for a murder 23 years ago, Tommy Lee Waldrip was granted clemency." Here are the details:

The state Board of Pardons and Paroles made the rare decision to commute a condemned man’s sentence to life without parole Wednesday even as state and federal courts had turned down his appeals. Waldrip’s execution was set for 7 p.m. Thursday for the murder of Keith Evans, a college student who was about to testify against Waldrip’s son in a re-trial of an armed robbery case.

The board’s decision came several hours after members heard pleas for mercy from relatives, friends and Waldrip’s lawyers, and then from prosecutors and members of the Evans family who wanted the execution carried out.

The board does not give a reason for its decision. Members vote individually and only the chairman, who collects the ballots, knows how each one decided. The decision required a simple majority, three out of five members.

But one issue raised before the board was that the sentences for Waldrip, his son and Waldrip’s brother, all convicted of murdering Evans on April 13,1991, were not proportional. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty against Howard Livingston, Waldrip’s brother, but they did in the cases against Tommy Lee Waldrip and his son John Mark Waldrip. The three men were tried separately. Only Tommy Lee Waldrip was sentenced to die. John Mark Waldrip and Livingston are serving life sentences....

This was the fifth time since 2002 that the board has commuted the sentence of a death row inmate. The most recent one was on April 12, 2012, when the board commuted the death sentence of Daniel Greene.

Notably, one of the recent cases in which the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to grant clemency was the high-profile Troy Davis case. Notably, for those focused on racial dynamics in this context, it is perhaps notable that Tommy Lee Waldrip is white and that Daniel Greene is black. Ergo, since Troy Davis was denied clemency, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has granted clemency to one black and one white convicted murderer.

July 10, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Split Michigan Supreme Court rejects retroactivity of Miller for hundreds of juve lifers

MichThough I am on the road and behind on a number of blogging fronts, a number of helpful readers made sure I did not miss an important state Miller application from Michigan.  This local article, headlined "Michigan Supreme Court denies parole hearings to juvenile lifers," provides these basics:

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled 4-3 Tuesday that juveniles given automatic life-without-parole sentences aren’t eligible for parole — even though the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012 that such sentences were unconstitutional. The ruling involved three of what some estimates say are at least 350 Michigan “juvenile lifers” — the highest number in any state — who are seeking parole hearings....

A four-justice majority, in a decision written by Justice Stephen Markman, said the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling does not apply retroactively to these Michigan inmates, under either federal or state court precedents.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has argued that parole for any of the juvenile lifers would be disrespectful to murder victims and heart-wrenching to their families, hailed the decision. “Today the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the rights of crime victims and their families,” he said....

Kary Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, called the decision “heartbreaking.”

“Here we have a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court has said violates the Eighth Amendment as cruel and unusual punishment ... yet the Michigan Supreme Court is unwilling ever to give the 350 juvenile lifers currently in Michigan’s prisons a parole hearing in their lifetime,” Moss said. She said the ACLU is reviewing its options for a further federal legal challenge. “We are not letting this issue drop,” Moss said....

Neither the Eighth Amendment nor the state Constitution “categorically bars the imposition of a sentence of life without parole on a juvenile homicide offender,” the court’s majority said.

Justices Mary Beth Kelly, Bridget Mary McCormack and Michael Cavanagh dissented and said the court should have ruled in favor of parole hearings. They noted that state lawmakers this year passed a juvenile sentencing law that “significantly altered Michigan’s sentencing scheme for juvenile offenders convicted of crimes that had previously carried a sentence of life without parole.”

Under the new law, judges can impose 40- to 60-year sentences in cases where prosecutors don’t ask for life-without-parole for murder and other heinous crimes....

The Michigan Catholic Conference said the decision is disappointing. “We call upon the Legislature to pass a measure that will allow for juveniles sentenced to a life term before the (2012 U.S. Supreme Court) decision to have the opportunity for a parole hearing at some point during their sentence,” said a statement issued by spokesman David Maluchnik....

State Rep. Joe Haveman called the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling disappointing and said individuals incarcerated as juveniles “deserve a hearing to re-evaluate their case.”

“It is baffling how this can be considered equal treatment under the law,”said the Holland Republican. “I said before, and I still believe, that the Supreme Court of the United States needs to revisit this issue and clarify whether the intent was for their original ruling to apply retroactively. .... If a juvenile sentence without the opportunity for parole is cruel and unusual punishment going forward, it is also cruel and unusual punishment for those who entered prison as children, who don’t have even the faintest glimmer of hope that even if they completely change who they are, they will ever walk free. It is further cruel and unusual punishment for the judge who didn’t want to hand down a mandatory life sentence, and wanted to consider mitigating factors, but wasn’t allowed to, and now must live with the guilt of sending a child to prison for their entire adult life.”

The fully lengthy Michigan Supreme Court ruling in this matter runs 120+ pages and covers more ground than just Miller retroactivity.  The full ruling is available at this link, and I hope to have a chance to blog about the substance of both the lengthy majority and dissenting opinions in the days and weeks ahead.  

For now, I will simply assert that the Supreme Court no long has any good reason or justification for continuing to refuse to take up the issue of Miller retroactivity that has split state courts nationwide.  Now that just about every state with a large number of mandatory juve LWOPers has ruled on this issue, this matter has plainly "percolated" more than sufficiently and the resulting jurisprudential split has profound consequences for many hundreds of juve lifers in many states.    

A few (of many) prior posts on Miller retroactivity:

 

July 10, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

"The Consequences of Error in Criminal Justice"

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

"Better that ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer," William Blackstone’s famous adage, stands for a powerful idea in the criminal law: that it’s essential to minimize wrongly convicting the innocent even at the expense of overall accuracy. This "Blackstone principle" accords with most people’s deeply felt intuitions about criminal justice.

This Article challenges that fundamental precept. It begins by situating the Blackstone principle in the history of Anglo-American criminal law. That history shows how the principle gained prominence — most notably, because in Blackstone’s time and earlier death was the exclusive penalty for many crimes — but provides no compelling justification today.

The leading modern argument for the Blackstone principle is that false convictions are simply more costly than false acquittals. But that argument is incomplete, because it focuses myopically on the costs of errors in individual cases. A complete analysis of the Blackstone principle requires taking stock of its dynamic effects on the criminal justice system as a whole. The Article conducts that analysis, which reveals two significant but previously unrecognized draw-backs of the Blackstone principle: First, its benefits to innocent defendants are smaller than usually assumed; it could even make those defendants worse off. Second, the principle reinforces a widely recognized political process failure in criminal justice, hurting not just defendants but society as a whole. The magnitude of these effects is uncertain, but they could more than cancel out the principle’s putative benefits.

The Article then analyzes alternative justifications for the Blackstone principle. None is satisfactory; each rests on dubious empirical premises, logical errors, or controversial premises. There is thus no fully persuasive justification for the principle. Rejecting the Blackstone principle would require us to re-think — although not necessarily redesign — various aspects of our criminal-procedure system.

July 10, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Former NOLA mayor Ray Nagin gets 10-year federal prison sentence for corruption

As reported in this New York Times article, "Ray Nagin, the former mayor of New Orleans, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Wednesday on federal corruption charges, ending a case that began with the rebuilding of the city after Hurricane Katrina." Here are a few more more details of this high-profile federal sentencing:

The sentence was less than the recommended 15 years, but Judge Ginger Berrigan of United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana told the court that the evidence failed to show that Mr. Nagin had organized or had been a leader of a corruption scheme....

Prosecutors objected to the sentence, a move that could set up an appeal. MOReaction was swift, and mixed. “I think that he got off lightly considering the violations of the public trust,” said Edward E. Chervenak, a political science professor at the University of New Orleans and a critic of Mr. Nagin during his eight years as mayor.

“I think he should have gotten more time,” says Michelle Alford, 37, a native of New Orleans and a hotel employee. “He did nothing to benefit the city. I think he should have gotten 20 years at least. I think it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.”

July 9, 2014 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Following the money behind sustaining pot prohibition

Nat potThe Nation has this fascinating new investigative report with a  headline and subheadline that highlights its themes: "The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal: Opponents of marijuana-law reform insist that legalization is dangerous — but the biggest threat is to their own bottom line." Here are excerpts from the start of a lengthy article:

Taking the stage to rousing applause last February, [Patrick] Kennedy joined more than 2,000 opponents of marijuana legalization a few miles south of Washington, DC, at the annual convention of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA), one of the largest such organizations in the country....

Given that CADCA is dedicated to protecting society from dangerous drugs, the event that day had a curious sponsor: Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxy-Contin, the highly addictive painkiller that nearly ruined Kennedy’s congressional career and has been linked to thousands of overdose deaths nationwide.

Prescription opioids, a line of pain-relieving medications derived from the opium poppy or produced synthetically, are the most dangerous drugs abused in America, with more than 16,000 deaths annually linked to opioid addiction and overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more Americans now die from painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined. The recent uptick in heroin use around the country has been closely linked to the availability of prescription opioids, which give their users a similar high and can trigger a heroin craving in recovering addicts....

People in the United States, a country in which painkillers are routinely overprescribed, now consume more than 84 percent of the entire worldwide supply of oxycodone and almost 100 percent of hydrocodone opioids. In Kentucky, to take just one example, about one in fourteen people is misusing prescription painkillers, and nearly 1,000 Kentucky residents are dying every year.

So it’s more than a little odd that CADCA and the other groups leading the fight against relaxing marijuana laws, including the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America), derive a significant portion of their budget from opioid manufacturers and other pharmaceutical companies. According to critics, this funding has shaped the organization’s policy goals: CADCA takes a softer approach toward prescription-drug abuse, limiting its advocacy to a call for more educational programs, and has failed to join the efforts to change prescription guidelines in order to curb abuse. In contrast, CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids have adopted a hard-line approach to marijuana, opposing even limited legalization and supporting increased police powers.

A close look at the broader political coalition lobbying against marijuana-law reform reveals many such conflicts of interest. In fact, the CADCA event was attended by representatives of a familiar confederation of anti-pot interests, many of whom have a financial stake in the status quo, including law enforcement agencies, pharmaceutical firms, and nonprofits funded by federal drug-prevention grants....

The opponents of marijuana-law reform argue that such measures pose significant dangers, from increased crime and juvenile delinquency to addiction and death. But legalization’s biggest threat is to the bottom line of these same special interests, which reap significant monetary advantages from pot prohibition that are rarely acknowledged in the public debate....

[B]oth CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids are heavily reliant on a combination of federal drug-prevention education grants and funding from pharmaceutical companies. Founded in 1992, CADCA has lobbied aggressively for a range of federal grants for groups dedicated to the “war on drugs.”  The Drug-Free Communities Act of 1997, a program directed by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, was created through CADCA’s advocacy.  That law now allocates over $90 million a year to community organizations dedicated to reducing drug abuse.  Records show that CADCA has received more than $2.5 million in annual federal funding in recent years.  The former Partnership for a Drug-Free America, founded in 1985 and best known for its dramatic “This is your brain on drugs” public service announcements, has received similarly hefty taxpayer support while advocating for increased anti-drug grant programs.

The Nation obtained a confidential financial disclosure from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids showing that the group’s largest donors include Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, and Abbott Laboratories, maker of the opioid Vicodin. CADCA also counts Purdue Pharma as a major supporter, as well as Alkermes, the maker of a powerful and extremely controversial new painkiller called Zohydrol.  The drug, which was released to the public in March, has sparked a nationwide protest, since Zohydrol is reportedly ten times stronger than OxyContin. Janssen Pharmaceutical, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that produces the painkiller Nucynta, and Pfizer, which manufactures several opioid products, are also CADCA sponsors.  For corporate donors, CADCA offers a raft of partnership opportunities, including authorized use of the “CADCA logo for your company’s marketing, website, and advertising materials, etc.”

July 9, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

"States Push For Prison Sentence Overhaul; Prosecutors Push Back"

The title of this post is the headline of this new NPR story highlighting who is at the forefront of efforts to thwart sentencing reforms these days.  Here are excerpts:

Some red states like Louisiana and Texas have emerged as leaders in a new movement: to divert offenders from prisons and into drug treatment, work release and other incarceration alternatives. By most counts, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country. In recent years, sentencing reformers in the capital, Baton Rouge, have loosened some mandatory minimum sentences and have made parole slightly easier for offenders to get.

But as reformers in Louisiana push for change, they're also running into stiffening resistance — especially from local prosecutors. It's all happening as the number of Americans behind bars has started to decline. There are multiple reasons for that, including crime rates that have been dropping since the 1990s, as well as the impact of the Supreme Court's 2011 requirement that tough-on-crime California reduce its prison population.

And there's another factor: a growing bipartisan consensus for sentencing reform. Local politicians are getting political cover for those efforts from conservative groups like Right on Crime. "It is a growing consensus on the right that this is the direction we want to be going," says Kevin Kane, of the libertarian-leaning Pelican Institute for Public Policy in Louisiana. "Most people will point to, 'Well, it's saving money, and that's all conservatives care about.' But I think it goes beyond that."

Kane says libertarians are interested in limiting the government's power to lock people away, while the religious right likes the idea of giving people a shot at redemption — especially when it comes to nonviolent drug offenders.

Still, not everyone is embracing these ideas. In some places, there's been considerable pushback — especially when the idea of eliminating prison time for drug offenders arises....

Liz Mangham, a lobbyist, has represented the conservative sentencing reformers in Baton Rouge. While they've made progress, she says they appeared to cross a red line this spring with a bill to step down Louisiana's stiff penalties for possession of marijuana. Under current law, possession is a felony on the second offense. A third may get you as much as 20 years in prison. Mangham recalls the scene when the bill came up for a crucial hearing.

"The Judiciary Committee room was full. The anteroom across the hall, which is twice the size, was full, and the halls were full ... of [district attorneys] and sheriffs coming down to oppose the bill," she says. The bill died on the spot. In Louisiana and other parts of the South, district attorneys and sheriffs — who Mangham calls "the courthouse crowd" — have a lot of political clout at the state level. She says it's understandable why most sheriffs opposed the bill, because they house state prisoners in parish jails and every prisoner represents a payment from the state.

"So when you're making money to warehouse prisoners, why on earth would you be in favor of sentencing reform?" Mangham says.

But the district attorneys' opposition is more complex — and interesting. And it's emblematic of a growing conflict that's taking place nationally between sentencing reformers and prosecutors.

The vast majority of criminal cases in America are resolved through plea bargains. Defendants plead guilty out of fear of getting a worse sentence if they don't. Plea bargains jumped above 90 percent in the 1980s and '90s, in part because a wave of harsh new sentences for drug offenses strengthened prosecutors' hands when bargaining with defendants.

"For a DA to have the ability to dangle over someone's head 10, 20 years in jail, that provides them with tremendous leverage to pretty much get whatever they want," says Louisiana State Sen. J.P. Morrell, a Democrat from New Orleans and former public defender.

Morrell was one of the sponsors of the marijuana sentencing reform bill that failed in Baton Rouge. He says one of the benefits of that reform would have been a reduction in the power of prosecutors to, as Louisiana courthouse slang puts it, "bitch" a defendant. A reference to Louisiana's habitual offender law, it refers to a DA threatening to use past convictions — often for marijuana possession — to multiply the length of a defendant's potential sentence.

But what Morrell sees as a problem, prosecutors regard as a necessary tool. That's because many states are now considering similar reductions to mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and Congress is considering a similar move for federal drug charges. Prosecutors insist they use the threat of harsh sentences responsibly but say it's a tool they can't do without. Last fall, at a hearing in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, the then-executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, Scott Burns, warned against rolling back drug sentences.

"Why now? With crime at record lows, why are we looking at sweeping changes?" Burns said. He endorsed "smart on crime" reforms such as drug courts, but he cautioned against depriving prosecutors of "one of our most effective sticks."

John de Rosier, the district attorney of Calcasieu Parish, La., says "we have people all the time that we know have been involved in robberies, rapes and murders. We haven't been able to prove our cases, but we're in court with them for second-offense possession of marijuana. What do you think we're going to do?"

That's commonly referred to as "prosecutorial discretion," and it's an argument that alarms sentencing reformers like Morrell. "That level of discretion ought to be terrifying to people," Morrell says. "If you cannot convict someone of a murder, of a robbery, whatever, the fact that you have a disproportionate backup charge to convict them anyway kind of defeats the purpose of due process."

July 9, 2014 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Senators Paul and Booker introducing another important bipartisan CJ reform bill

140707_rand_paul_cory_booker_gty_605As reported in this new Washington Post column, a pair of "freshmen senators eager to expand their national profiles are teaming up to introduce a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's criminal justice system that they say will cut government spending and help make it easier for nonviolent criminals to eventually secure a job." Here are the exciting details:

The proposals set to be unveiled Tuesday by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are unlikely to advance this year, but address a series of policy and political priorities for both senators. Booker previously served as mayor of Newark and has made the fate of inner city youth a key part of his public service. Partnering with Paul continues Booker's pattern of seeking out Republicans to work with as he casts himself as a bipartisan broker ahead of his election campaign in November for a full term.

Paul has openly discussed running for president in 2016 and has talked regularly about his concern that the nation's prisons are overcrowded with people serving excessive sentences for minor crimes. Such concerns are a key element of his libertarian-leaning philosophy and further cast him as a Republican eager and willing to cross the aisle -- and visit the nation's urban centers -- to seek out policy solutions and gain supporters in areas of the country often ignored by Republicans.

Most of all, aides say the legislation addresses a common concern for Booker and Paul: That the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world's population, but a quarter of the world's prison population.

The REDEEM Act proposal would encourage states to raise the age of criminal responsibly to 18 years of age; expunge or seal the records of juveniles who commit non-violent crimes before they turn 15; place limits on the solitary confinement of most juveniles; and establish a system to allow eligible nonviolent criminals to petition a court to ask that their criminal records be sealed. Sealing the records would keep them out of FBI background checks requested by employers and likely make it easier for those former offenders to secure a job.

Currently 10 states set the age at which someone can be tried in adult criminal court below 18, a move that the senators said in their statement "sends countless kids into the unforgiving adult criminal system." In hopes of reversing the trend, Booker and Paul propose giving states that change the minimum age preference when applying for federal community police grants. The same preference would be given to states that allow nonviolent offenders to petition to have their criminal records sealed. Once the records are sealed, an offender could lawfully claim that their records don't exist.

Booker said in a statement that the legislation "will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways. It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders re-offend."

Paul said, "The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record. Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration."...

The fate of the REDEEM Act is unclear since most legislation introduced this year has failed to advance beyond the committee level, especially in the Senate, where years-long personality-driven disputes over procedure and fiscal policy have essentially driven the chamber to a halt.

But the new proposals help build out the policy portfolios for both senators. Paul unveiled a plan last month that would restore voting rights for nonviolent felons in federal elections. Booker and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced a proposal in April that would help create hundreds of thousands of jobs for younger Americans, especially minorities struggling to find work.

Senator Rand Paul's press release about the REDEEM Act can be found at this link; Senator Cory Booker's press release about the REDEEM Act can be found at this link.

Some recent and older related posts:

July 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Notable Third Circuit discussion of revocation of supervised release standards

Hard-core federal sentencing fans eager for some extended summer beach reading should check out today's Third Circuit panel decision in US v. Thornhill, No. 13-2876 (3d Cir. July 8, 2014) (available here). The key facts of the case alone take the Third Circuit more than 15 pages to recite, but the start of the majority opinion efficiently spotlights the legal issue that thereafter gets resolved:

In 1984, Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act, a measure which profoundly “revise[d] the old sentencing process.” Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 367 (1989).  One of the reforms effected by the Act was the elimination of special parole and the establishment of a “new system of supervised release.”  Gozlon-Peretz v. United States, 498 U.S. 395, 397 (1991).  The “new system” was codified in 18 U.S.C. § 3583, and included a provision at subsection (g) which mandates the revocation of supervised release and the imposition of a term of imprisonment under certain enumerated circumstances. 18 U.S.C. § 3583(g).

The question we consider is: once § 3583(g)’s mandatory revocation provision is triggered, what guides a district court’s exercise of discretion in determining the length of the defendant’s term of imprisonment?   We conclude that this exercise of discretion is guided by the sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

I do not think there is much groundbreaking in the legal analysis in Thornhill, though a partial dissent by Judge Rendell adds intrigue to the ruling. Here are key paragraphs from the start and ends of the six-page dissent:

I part ways with the majority’s disposition, however, because I would remand so that the District Court can meaningfully consider those sentencing factors in connection with the mandatory imprisonment of Ms. Thornhill upon revocation of her supervised release. The length of her term of imprisonment is squarely at issue, and the § 3553(a) factors should be weighed. This is especially true because the District Court varied upward in giving Ms. Thornhill a sentence of three years....

We simply cannot know how meaningful consideration of the § 3553(a) factors, which we now require, would have affected Ms. Thornhill’s sentence. Speculation on our part as to what the Court might have been considering, and whether those reasons coincide with § 3553(a), cannot be enough to uphold Ms. Thornhill’s above-guidelines sentence. In short, Ms. Thornhill deserves to have the rule announced today applied to her case. I respectfully dissent from the majority’s disposition.

July 8, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Even as its prospects dim, Smarter Sentencing Act is impacting federal sentencing proceedings

The lack of serious congressional action on the Smarter Sentencing Act now nearly six months after the SSA passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support (basic here) has led me to conclude that the prospect of the SSA's enactment into law this year is now quite dim. Nevertheless, as highlighted by this local story from Maine, the SSA is still impacting the work of federal sentencing courts. The article is headlined "Monroe marijuana farm patriarch sentence postponed for Smarter Sentencing Act passage," and here are the basics:

A federal judge postponed the sentencing of a Waldo County man found guilty in November of operating a large-scale, indoor marijuana farm with his family to allow for the possible passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which could decrease his sentence. James F. Ford, 58, of Monroe was convicted by a jury in November of one count each of conspiracy to manufacture 100 or more marijuana plants, manufacturing 100 or more marijuana plants, maintaining a drug-involved place and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, is a bill making its way through the Senate that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders and allow those incarcerated to apply for sentence reductions, among other changes to mandatory federal sentencing laws.

“The Smarter Sentencing Act may have a drastic effect on Mr. Ford’s sentence,” states the motion filed by defense attorney Hunter Tzovarras of Bangor. ”In the interest of fairness and justice, it is respectfully requested the court use its discretion and continue the sentencing until November 2014.”...

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCormack objected to the defense motion, saying the bill might not provide the desired reductions and there is a possibility the delay could mean the government could lose the right to seize the Fords’ home, where the marijuana growing took place. “It is pure conjecture at this time as to the final form, if any, the Smarter Sentencing Act will take,” McCormack said in his opposing motion. “Even if the Act does eventually pass, it is almost certain to be in a form different than the current bill."...

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock Jr. agreed with Tzovarras and postponed Ford’s sentencing until Nov. 21, 2014. Ford, who was convicted of growing marijuana in Massachusetts, moved the family pot-growing operation from Massachusetts to Monroe after he completed a sentence of probation in the Bay State, McCormack told the jury in his closing argument in Ford’s trial.

Due to the Massachusetts conviction, Ford faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years and maximum of life in prison and a fine of up to $8 million on the conspiracy charge under the current federal sentencing guidelines....

Members of the Ford family were arrested in November 2011 when the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency raided the family’s Swan Lake Avenue garage, and found hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marijuana. During the raid, police seized more than 300 marijuana plants in various stages of growth, 10 pounds of processed marijuana and two semiautomatic assault weapons. Tzovarras, in his Monday motion, states the Smarter Sentencing Act, if passed, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for manufacturing, distribution, dispensing, possession and importing or exporting specific controlled substances. “If the court determines a mandatory minimum penalty applies to Mr. Ford, that mandatory [minimum] penalty would be reduced by half, from 10 to 5 years,” the defense attorney states.

July 8, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Making a spiritual case for abolishing the death penalty

Howard Falco, whose bio describes his as a "Self-Empowerment Expert" and "Spiritual Teacher," has this new commentary at The Huffington Post headlined "The Insanity of the Death Penalty." The piece is an interesting read, and here is an excerpt:

The single biggest reason to end the death penalty can be summed up in a quote by Albert Einstein, "No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it."

Simply killing under the rationalization of "justice" does not change the intended outcome of deterring anymore killing. It actually exacerbates the problem. What the death penalty in place says is that on some level of our nation's consciousness, killing is seen as "okay." This justification is the exact same justification used in the mind of a killer. They have convinced themselves in some way that it is ok in their mind to kill their intended victim.

In order to change the behavior that we admonish so greatly we must as a society rise above this way of thinking. As Gandhi famously said, "We must be the change we want to see in the world."

Every force we put out into the world, whether as an individual or a nation, has an equal and opposite force. We are learning this more than ever in the world of quantum physics and the understanding it reveals of how our thoughts and actions affect every aspect of our reality. These messages are not new however. They have been coming to us since biblical days.

Commandment number six, "Thou shalt not kill."

Luke 6:31 "As you wish other to do to you, do so to them."

Peter 3:8-10 "Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing."

Besides biblical messaging there have been all sorts of common sense and simple wisdom sayings that we have heard for years from our teachers and parents such as the profound and extremely appropriate saying, "Two wrongs do not make a right."

The energy we put out as a civilized nation has a direct effect on what we experience as a nation. We must become more conscious of where we have become hypocrites to our own causes.

July 8, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 7, 2014

"Do Residency Bans Drive Sex Offenders Underground?"

The very important question in the title of this post is the headline of this discussion (with lots of links) by Steven Yoder at The Crime Report. Here is an excerpt:

California hasn’t been alone in its tough approach to ensuring that formerly incarcerated sex offenders pose no danger after they are released. As part of a wave of new sex offender laws starting in the mid-1990s, about 30 states and thousands of cities and towns passed such residency restrictions — prompting in turn a pushback from civil liberties advocates, state legislators and registrants themselves who argued the restrictions were not only unduly harsh but counterproductive.

But a court decision in Colorado last year could mark a shift in momentum. In the Colorado case, Stephen Ryals, a high school soccer coach convicted in 2001 for a consensual sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student, was sentenced to seven years’ probation and put on the state sex offender registry.   Eleven years later, in 2012, he and his wife bought a house in the city of Englewood. But the police department told him he couldn’t live there because of a city ordinance prohibiting sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of schools, parks and playgrounds — a law that effectively made 99 percent of its homes and rentals off limits to offenders. Englewood police also warned offenders that even in the open one percent, if they contacted a homeowner whose property wasn’t for rent or for sale, they could be charged with trespassing.

Ryals sued, and last August a federal court concluded that the city’s ban went too far. The judge ruled that it conflicted with the state’s existing system for managing and reintegrating sex offenders and could encourage other towns and cities to do the same, effectively barring offenders from the entire state. Englewood has appealed, but two of the state’s five other cities that have residence bans have softened their restrictions since the decision....

In California, scores of cities are rolling back their restrictions after an Orange County court ruled last April in favor of registrant Hugo Godinez, who challenged the county over its ordinance barring sex offenders from entering parks.  Godinez, convicted for a misdemeanor sex offense in 2010, was arrested the following year for what he said was mandatory attendance at a company picnic in a county park.  In that case too, a state appeals court decided that the county’s ordinance usurped the state’s authority.  The appeals court ruling was upheld by the state’s highest court.

Since the Godinez decision, 28 California cities that have similar “presence” restrictions, which ban offenders from entering places like libraries and parks, have repealed those rules.  Another 24 say they are revising their ordinances, according to Janice Bellucci, a California attorney.

Since the April decision, Bellucci, who represents the advocacy group California Reform Sex Offender Laws, has sent letters demanding repeal to cities with presence restrictions. She also has sued a dozen other cities that haven’t changed their rules since the decision.

And this year, California’s Supreme Court could make an even bigger ruling — whether to toss the state’s 2,000-foot law itself.  A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge found it unconstitutional in 2010, but the city appealed.  The judge cited an increase in homelessness among registrants as a key reason.  Statewide, the number of homeless registrants has doubled since the law passed in 2006, according to the 2011 Sex Offender Management Board report.

At least two other states — Rhode Island and New York — have been sued since 2012 over their own residency laws.

One finding in the Ryals’ case in Colorado case could resonate in other states. The judge found compelling a 2009 white paper by Colorado’s Sex Offender Management Board concluding that residency bans don’t lower recidivism and could actually increase the risk to the public. According to the paper, that’s because they drive offenders underground or toward homelessness, making them harder for police and probation officers to track....

Those 2009 findings led the Colorado board to go further in a report this January, which recommended that state lawmakers consider legislation prohibiting cities and towns from enacting their own offender residency rules.

Two other states have moved in that direction. The Kansas legislature banned local residency restrictions in 2010.  And in New Hampshire, the state House of Representatives has twice approved a bill that would bar local ordinances, though it’s died both times in the state Senate.  Bellucci argues that there’s more to come in other states.  The “pendulum of punishment,” she claims, is starting to swing the other way.

“For a long time, ever-harsher sex offender laws were being passed and there was no one opposing them,” she told The Crime Report. “After more than a few lawsuits, elected officials are realizing that there’s a downside to this.”

July 7, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Interesting account of guidelines accounting facing former NOLA mayor at upcoming federal sentencing

This lengthy local article, headlined "Emotions aside, Nagin sentence likely to come down to math," effectively reviews some of the guideline (and other) factors likely to impact the federal sentencing of former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin this coming week.  Here are excerpts:

Under the rules, Nagin starts with a base “offense level” of 20 because he was an elected official who took multiple bribes but otherwise has no criminal history — facts that, with the jury verdict, are now undisputed.

The other major factors that will add points to his offense level include the financial “loss” the court assigns to his actions, the court’s judgment as to whether he was an “organizer or leader” in “criminal activity” that involved at least five people, and whether Nagin is found to have obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the court.

There is some gray area in all of these questions. For instance, the monetary loss can be calculated to include not only bribes paid and received, but also the proceeds of any contracts that resulted from bribes. At a minimum, however, Berrigan will almost certainly find that the loss was greater than $200,000, as the jury convicted Nagin of taking more than that amount in bribes. That would bring his offense level to 32, but it could go significantly higher depending on whether Berrigan decides to include the profits of some or all of the contracts Nagin signed....

Experts say the question of financial loss is among the thorniest in calculating guidelines. The amount of bribes paid is an imperfect measure, for contracts awarded on the basis of bribes are presumed to be inflated to cover the cost of the payoffs. At the same time, the contractor usually completes the work outlined in the contract, making it unfair to count the entire value of the contract as a loss. In Nagin’s trial, the government did not present evidence to show that those who bribed Nagin failed to perform....

Other questions are similarly nuanced. If Berrigan finds Nagin obstructed justice by lying to investigators and to the jury, as prosecutors say he did on more than 25 occasions, the offense level would jump another two points. And if she finds he took a leadership role in a scheme involving five or more people, that would add as many as four more points. Though it’s clear that Nagin’s criminal conduct involved more than five people, experts say there may be wiggle room in that question, too....

Depending on how the judge rules on those questions, Nagin’s final offense level could be as low as 32, or as high as 40 or more. Based on those numbers, the guidelines would call for a sentence ranging from 10 years at the low end to as much as 30 years or even life. A filing by Nagin’s lawyer, Robert Jenkins, suggests that probation officers came up with an offense level of 38, which translates to a range of 20 to 24 years.

Jenkins asked Berrigan to consider a downward departure from that figure based on Nagin’s lack of a criminal history and an argument that the crimes of which he was convicted constituted “aberrant” behavior for an otherwise upstanding citizen. But prosecutor Matt Coman argued in an opposing motion that the guidelines already take into account the mayor’s unblemished past, which they do. Meanwhile, Coman said it was laughable to consider Nagin’s criminal conduct as an aberration, considering that he was convicted of multiple bribery and fraud schemes that unfolded over a period of years....

Apart from applying her own analysis of the guidelines, Berrigan also has some ability to go outside the recommended range, experts said. She could grant a “downward variance” on some basis she deems appropriate, provided that she explains it and the variance is not too great. Federal law spells out a number of factors a judge may consider, from the need to protect the public from further crimes to the deterrent effect of the sentence.

July 6, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Robert Blecker suggests "5 ways to improve the U.S. death penalty"

New York Law School's Professor Robert Blecker is one of the most vocal academic defenders of capital punishment, but he is quick to acknowledge that application of the death penalty in the US could and should be improved. In this recent CNN commentary, Blecker sets out five suggested improvements, and here are excerpts from the piece:

1.  Let's have better definitions for who should die.

I've spent decades visiting prisons and interviewing convicted killers and corrections officers. I'm convinced that states with the death penalty can and should morally refine their statutes. My crime and punishment memoir, "The Death of Punishment," details many changes and suggests a model death penalty statute, reserved for especially heinous, atrocious and cruel killers....

2.  Let's be more certain that they are guilty.

Western culture has essentially committed us to a presumption of life, of innocence and we have long required special proof of guilt before we punish with death. "Super due process" requires vigorous defense counsel challenging the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury.  Death (or life without parole) as society's ultimate punishment demands even more, however.  A jury should not only be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the condemned did it, but also that they deserve their punishment....

3.  Let's choose a better execution method....

The execution scene I witnessed resembled final goodbyes at a hospital or hospice for the terminally ill.  The dying person lies on a gurney, wrapped in white sheets, an IV attached, surrounded by medical technicians with loved ones in attendance.  We should oppose lethal injection, not because it might cause pain, but because it certainly causes confusion, wantonly merging punishment and treatment.  The firing squad seems to me the best of traditional methods, but a state might give a member of the victim's family a choice among available constitutional options.

4. Let's take a hard look at inmates' prison lifestyle.

Most vicious killers a jury condemns to die will never be executed.  And even those we do kill, will live out much of their lives on death row.  For the worst of the worst whom we have condemned, daily life on death row should be their punishment....  Specifically, within constitutional bounds, those we condemned to die or live a life in prison with no chance of parole -- the worst of the worst -- should be allowed only the minimum constitutionally mandated exercise, phone calls, or physical contact. They should not be permitted any communal form of recreation or play. For the rest of their lives, their food should be nutraloaf, nutritionally complete and tasteless. Photographs of their victims should be posted in their cells, out of reach, in visibly conspicuous places....

5. And when mistakes are made?...

In the unusual but real case where we later discover an innocent person has been condemned to die or imprisoned for life without parole, the state shall not only release that victim, but also pay substantial reparations to the wrongly condemned or surviving family, regardless of whether any public official intentionally or recklessly miscarried justice.

July 6, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Highlighting a notable lacuna in crime statistics

This notable recent Slate commentary by Josh Voorhees spotlights a notable dark spot in the accounting of crime in the United States. The piece is headlined "A City of Convicts: The statistical sleight of hand that makes the U.S. crime rate seem lower than it really is," and here are excerpts:

Imagine an American city with 2.2 million people, making it the fourth largest in the nation behind New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Now imagine that city is a place where residents suffer routine violence and cruelty at rates unlike anywhere else in the country, where they are raped and beaten with alarming frequency by their neighbors and even the city officials who are paid to keep them safe. Now imagine that we, as a nation, didn’t consider the vast majority of that violence to be criminal or even worth recording. That is, in effect, the state of the U.S. correctional system today.

Each year, the federal government releases two major snapshots of crime in America: The Uniform Crime Reports, written by the FBI, and the National Crime Victimization Survey, compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.... According to both, America has become significantly safer over the past two decades, with today’s violent crime rate nearly half of what it was at the start of the 1990s. Neither report, however, takes into account what happens inside U.S. prisons, where countless crimes go unreported and the relatively few that are recorded end up largely ignored.

If we had a clearer sense of what happens behind bars, we’d likely see that we are reducing our violent crime rate, at least in part, with a statistical sleight of hand — by redefining what crime is and shifting where it happens....

The number of people incarcerated in the United States quadrupled during the past four decades before plateauing (and then slightly receding) in the past five years. The inmate population grew so fast during the boom that states were unable to build prisons fast enough to keep up: At last count, more than half of the state prison systems, as well as the federal one, were operating at or above 100-percent capacity.  If we choose to continue to lock people up at a rate unparalleled in the world, we should at least be honest and acknowledge that doing so is aimed at eliminating violence from our streets, not necessarily our country.

July 6, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

"The Double Edged Sword of Prison Video Visitation: Claiming to Keep Families Together While Furthering the Aims of the Prison Industrial Complex"

The title of this post is the title of this notable article by Patrice A. Fulcher now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Each year, the United States (“U.S.”) spends billions to house the country’s massive prison population.  The need to board over 2.3 million incarcerated human beings has U.S. correctional departments looking for ways to increase revenues and offset costs. According to these correctional agencies, one major expense is prison visitation.  In order to reduce spending and alleviate safety concerns, U.S. federal, state, and private correctional facilities have turned to video visitation as an alternative to in-person visits.

The use of prison video visitation systems started in 1995.  Since then, many private telecommunications companies have professed to have the solution to correctional visitation problems.  These companies promote video visitation as a cheap, safe, and easy alternative to in-person visits, as well as a profitable means of generating revenues. Government and private correctional institutions, buying into these endorsements, have reduced or completely eliminated face-to-face visits and installed video visitation systems within their walls.  Under this structure, inmates use video stations in their cellblock to visit family and friends at corresponding video kiosks within the institution; or inmates visit loved-ones who are at home or elsewhere outside prison walls via computer Internet video visitation.

In order to sell this method of visitation to the public, U.S. correctional agencies contend that video visitation helps to keep families together by allowing inmates greater contact opportunities with loved ones.  In some regards, it may be argued that video visitation does assist in the preservation of family units.  Inmates are often forced to serve time in prisons miles away from their homes, so outside visits are far and few between.  Yet, through the use of in-home video visitation configurations, inmates are able to connect with relatives who reside hours away.

At first glance, this visitation scheme may seem beneficial, but this Article argues that prison video visitation is a double edge sword.  First, prison video visitation may help preserve family units while people are incarcerated, but the elimination of face-to-face visits robs inmates of much needed human contact with their children, spouses, and other family members.  Second, almost all in-home prison video visitation systems exploit the relatives and friends of inmates because they charge excessive fees to visit.  Third, the economic success of prison video visitation systems is contingent on the number of incarcerated humans.  So, like other profiteering schemes of the Prison Industrial Complex (“PIC”), prison video visitation incentivizes incarceration: A decrease in the prison population has a corollary effect on million dollar revenues and corporate profits, hence compelling the need to detain more U.S. inhabitants.

Consequently, this Article argues that face-to-face visitation should be the primary means of contact for families that visit at prison facilities.  In order to accomplish this goal, inmates must be assigned to correctional facilities close to their homes if space is available and there is no proven risk to security.  Additionally, if prison video visitation is utilized, any fees associated with its use must be regulated to insure that the financial expense is not exorbitant.

July 5, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

High-profile ex-con (who is also an ex-Gov) eager to keep pushing for death penalty abolition

As reported in this AP article, headlined "Ex-Illinois governor Ryan wants to continue anti-death penalty work," the death penalty abolitionist community now has another high-profile advocate newly free to preach the gospel. Here are some excerpts from an interesting article:

George Ryan, an ex-Illinois governor and now an ex-convict, says he’d like to re-engage with the cause he left behind when he went to prison in 2007 — campaigning for the end of the death penalty in the U.S.  “Americans should come to their senses,” Ryan said this week, in an hourlong interview at his kitchen table.

Newly free to speak after a year of federal supervision that followed his more than five years in prison for corruption, Ryan appeared to have recovered some of his old voice and feistiness, in contrast to the subdued figure that emerged a year ago from the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., and ducked briefly into a Chicago halfway house.

At his home in Kankakee, south of Chicago, the Republican, 80, held forth on capital punishment, the state of American politics and the criminal justice system — though not the difficult details of his own corruption case.

He said he’d like to spend some time on the national circuit to encourage other states to follow Illinois’ lead in abolishing capital punishment.  That move came in 2011 and stemmed from Ryan’s decision to clear death row in 2003. While he was treated as a champion by death penalty opponents at the time, he acknowledged some public figures now may have trouble openly associating with him. “I’m an ex-convict,” he said. “People tend to frown on that.”

Ryan, who was governor from 1999 to 2003, was indicted in 2003 and convicted in 2006 on multiple corruption counts, including racketeering and tax fraud.  He said he does not plan to discuss the details of the criminal case — to which he always maintained his innocence — though he might in an autobiography he is writing....

He also lashed out at the U.S. justice system, calling it “corrupt” and bluntly contending that the fervor with which he was prosecuted was due in part to his nationally prominent campaign to end the death penalty.  “It put a target on my back when I did what I did,” he said, adding that even prison guards derided and mocked him. “It certainly didn’t win me any favor with the federal authorities.”

It’s unclear whether Ryan’s re-emergence on the public scene will be welcomed.  But at least one former federal prosecutor balked at Ryan’s contention that he may have been singled out because of his death penalty stance. “It’s absurd,” said Jeff Cramer, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago, noting that four of Illinois’ last seven governors have gone to prison.  “It wasn’t his political stand that made him a target. It is what he did. ... He’s trying to rewrite history.”...

[Ryan] also expressed some sympathy for his Democratic successor, Rod Blagojevich, saying the 14-year prison sentence the former governor is serving in Colorado for trying to sell President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat and other pay-to-play schemes was excessive.  The sentence is under appeal. “I wasn’t a fan” of Blagojevich, he said. “Irrespective, his sentence was out of line.”

But Ryan displayed the most passion while discussing capital punishment. Once a fervent advocate of the death penalty, he said he agonized about approving the last execution in Illinois before he issued a ban in 2000. “I killed the guy,” he said of the man who had raped, kidnapped and murdered a 21-year-old Elmhurst woman. “You can’t feel good about that.”

As he contemplated commuting all death sentences in 2003, he said he felt increasing pressure not to do it, including from one influential politician whom he remembers asking him directly not to spare one man convicted of murdering a friend’s daughter. After the commutations, Ryan said the politician never spoke to him again.

July 5, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Another July 4th open thread seeking comments on liberty and freedom in the USA

Blogging is likely to be light this holiday weekend as I am on the road visiting family.  But, as I has happened before, the morning of July 4 makes me eager to highlight some prior Independence Day blogging and to urge readers to use this space to comment on the state of liberty and freedom in the United States.

Some prior July 4 posts:

Obviously, the last couple of years I have not done special July-4th themed posts, but I sometimes think all of my posts on crime and punishment are infused with inherent Americana.

July 4, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recap posts | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

"6 Months Later, Legalizing Weed In Colorado Is A Huge Success"

The title of this post is the headline chosen by Business Insider for this Reuters mid-year update on marijuana reform in Colorado.  Here is an excerpt:

Six months on, Colorado's marijuana shops are mushrooming, with support from local consumers, weed tourists and federal government taking a wait-and-see attitude. Tax dollars are pouring in, crime is down in Denver, and few of the early concerns about social breakdown have materialized - at least so far.

"The sky hasn't fallen, but we're a long way from knowing the unintended consequences," said Andrew Freeman, director of marijuana coordination for Colorado. "This is a huge social and economic question."

Denver, dubbed the "Mile High" city, now has about 340 recreational and medicinal pot shops. They tout the relaxing, powerful or introspective attributes of the crystal-encased buds with names like Jilly Bean, Sour Diesel and Silverback Kush. In the first four months, marijuana sales amounted to more than $202 million, about a third of them recreational. Taxes from recreational sales were almost $11 million.

Despite some critics' fears of a pot-driven crime explosion, Denver police say burglaries and robberies were down by between 4 and 5 percent in the first four months of the year. On the down side, sheriff's deputies in neighboring Nebraska say pot seizures near the Colorado border have shot up 400 percent in three years, while Wyoming and New Mexico report no significant increases.

In May, controls on marijuana edibles were tightened after two people died. In one case, a college student jumped from a hotel balcony after eating six times the suggested maximum amount of pot-laced cookies. In the other, a Denver man was charged with shooting dead his wife after apparently getting high from eating marijuana-infused candy.

As Colorado passes the six-month mark, Washington state is approaching with some trepidation the launch next week of the nation's second recreational pot market.

July 3, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Hawaii legislatively eliminates all juve LWOP sentences for all crimes

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Hawaii ends juvenile life sentences without parole," a new piece of legislation means and and all "life sentences without parole for minors are now abolished in Hawaii." Here are the basics:

Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a bill Wednesday recognizing that children convicted of first-degree murder should be treated differently than murderous adults.

Advocates say children are impressionable and sometimes can't get out of horrific, crime-ridden environments. Honolulu prosecutors argued the measure isn't fair to people who are born weeks apart from slightly younger perpetrators of the same crime.

July 3, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Fascinating suggestion of "Mitt Romney for drug czar"

The always brilliant and provocative lawprof Mark Osler has this brilliant and provocative new commentary in the Detroit News headlined "Mitt Romney for drug czar." Here is how it starts:

In a series of public appearances, Detroit native Mitt Romney has planted the idea that he might run for president again in 2016. He should resist the idea; that day has passed.

Instead, Romney should apply his experience and passion to public service in a different way: The Mitt Romney who founded Bain Capital and saved the Utah Winter Olympics should be Drug Czar, and use his financial acumen to destroy the narcotics trade without mass incarceration.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney was celebrated (by Republicans) and eviscerated (by Democrats) for his vocation: building up and tearing down businesses. Regardless of how one views the social utility of this enterprise, no one can dispute that Romney is a smart, passionate, well-educated man who loves public service and was very good at what he did while working for Bain Capital.

Romney’s availability matches up with a special moment for narcotics policy. There is a broad right-left consensus that the stale tactics of the war on drugs failed miserably. It wasted billions of dollars in taxpayer money while failing to limit drug use. Meanwhile, millions of Americans went to prison, and a disproportionate number of them were black thanks to harsh new laws focused on crack cocaine. There was something to offend everyone.

I like this idea sooooo much, I really wonder if it could possibly get any legs inside the Beltway. On all modern drug crime and punishment issues — ranging from marijuana reform in the states to the surge of addiction to opiods and heroin to the reduction of federal drug sentences — the country really needs to widely respected "numbers guy" who could bring a clear-headed business perspective to analyzing the pros and cons of various suggested policy initiatives.  I would trust Mitt Romney to be that guy as much, if not more, than just about anyone else President Obama might place in this role.  

July 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Another round-up of recent posts of note from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

The official start of summer does not slow down the array of marijuana developments in states and elsewhere, and here is a collection of recent notable posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

July 2, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

An (overly?) optimistic account of how GPS technology could "solve" mass incarceration

This recent article from Vox, headlined "Prisons are terrible, and there’s finally a way to get rid of them," praises and promotes efforts to use GPS tracking to reduce US reliance on incarceration. The article strikes me as a bit too optimistic, but it does assembled some research that may justify such optimism.  Here is a snippet from the start of the article that highlights its themes:

So why do prisons exist? In theory, because we need them. They keep bad guys off the street. They give people a reason to not commit crimes. They provide a place where violent or otherwise threatening people can be rehabilitated.

But prisons aren't the only way to accomplish those goals. Technological advancements are, some observers say, making it possible to replace the current system of large-scale imprisonment, in large part, with alternatives that are not as expensive, inhumane, or socially destructive, and which at the same time do a better job of controlling crime. The most promising of these alternatives fits on an ankle.

While the idea of house arrest has been around for millennia, it has always suffered from one key defect as a crime control tool: you can escape. Sure, you could place guards on the homes where prisoners are staying, but it's much easier to secure a prison with a large guard staff than it is a thousand different houses with a guard or two apiece.

Today, we have something better than guards: satellites. The advent of GPS location tracking means it's now possible for authorities to be alerted the second a confinee leaves their home. That not just enables swift response in the event of escape; it deters escape by making clear to detainees that they won't get away with it.

July 2, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

"Into the Breach: The Case for Robust Noncapital Proportionality Review Under State Constitutions"

The title of this post is the title of this notable piece authored by Samuel Weiss now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The Eighth Amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishments.  The Supreme Court has found in the Amendment a guarantee that punishment be proportionate to the crime. Although the requirement technically applies equally to all punishment, in practice the Court has used the guarantee strictly to regulate capital punishment — a practice it recently extended to life without parole sentences for juveniles — but has abdicated almost entirely on noncapital sentences.

States have authority to regulate excessive punishment under their state constitutions, but most have chosen to interpret their state proportionality clauses in lockstep with the Eighth Amendment.  Even the states that have found greater protection in their constitutions have done so cautiously, striking down only the rare sentence so absurd that the legislature could not possibly have intended the result.

This Note suggests that states should aggressively police the proportionality of noncapital sentences under their state constitutions.  Part I discusses extant noncapital proportionality, both the United States Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment doctrine and states’ responses to either heighten standards of review or to march in lockstep with the Court.  Part II discusses the primary basis for state courts’ failure to regulate proportionality — that regulating sentences would be intervening into legislative judgment of retributive fit — and its deep flaws.  State courts ignore that criminal codes bear little relation to actual crime and punishment — criminal liability is so broad and sentences so punitive that legislatures have essentially delegated decisions on criminality and sentence length to prosecutors.  Prosecutors, in turn, routinely deliver disproportionate sentences because prosecutors are local political actors who push the actual costs of incarceration onto state governments; because the public pushes for ever-harsher sentences; and because prosecutors deliver trial penalties to defendants who refuse to plead guilty.  Much of the Supreme Court’s cautiousness comes from its broader fear about intervention in state criminal justice systems; this fear is legitimate but should carry no weight with state courts, which are part of state criminal justice systems.  Part III addresses the remaining arguments against aggressive state proportionality review — that states should interpret their parallel provisions in the same manner as the federal provision and that judges are institutionally incompetent to make decisions about comparative blameworthiness.  The Note concludes that states should use their constitutions to pursue aggressive noncapital proportionality review.

July 2, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Detailing a notable capital punishment surge in the Sunshine State

This lengthy recent Gainesville Sun article, headlined "Gov. Scott stands strong on death penalty," provides a detailed report on the recent state of capital punishment in the state of Florida. Here are excerpts:

Gov. Rick Scott in 2010 ran on a platform of creating more jobs and reviving Florida's economy. How well he accomplished that will be at the center of the debate of his re-election this fall. But Scott has already cemented one legacy that won't be debated and he did not even contemplate in his initial bid for public office four years.

Scott has presided over 18 executions, including 13 in the last two years, the most executions carried out by any Florida governor in a single term since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s....

Shortly before the June 18 execution of John Henry, a Pasco County man who stabbed his wife and stepson to death in 1985, Scott described the death penalty as “a solemn duty of the governor.”

“It's not something I thought about when I was going to run,” Scott said. “But I uphold the laws of the land. When I think about the executions I think about the families, the stories of what happened to these individuals. I think about them.”...

Florida continues to outpace most other states in carrying out the death penalty and may even reach parity — if only briefly — with Texas, which has long been the national death penalty leader. On July 10, Florida is scheduled to execute Eddie Wayne Davis for the kidnapping, rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Polk County. It would be the seventh execution carried out this year and put Florida in the unusual position of having the same number of executions as Texas.

Texas is likely to exceed Florida by the year's end, with another five executions already scheduled. And last year, Texas executed 16 prisoners compared to Florida's seven. But Florida's relative parity with Texas signals that the state continues to embrace the death penalty despite a national trend away from its use. Florida and Texas are among only six states this year that have executed prisoners.

Other signs that Florida is aggressively using the death penalty include:

• Florida annually condemns more prisoners to Death Row than nearly every other state. In 2013, Florida sentenced 14 prisoners to death, exceeding Texas' nine death sentences. Only California, with 24 death sentences, had more, although California has not had an execution since 2006.

• In 2012, Florida sent 20 prisoners to Death Row, nearly reaching the combined total of 22 death sentences in Texas and California, two larger states.

• Florida has the second largest Death Row in the country, with 396 prisoners....

But don't expect capital punishment to become an issue in this year's governor's race. Scott's likely opponent, former Gov. Charlie Crist's tough-on-crime stance once earned him the nickname “Chain Gang Charlie.” The state's apparent tolerance to capital punishment is reflected in few protests and little media coverage surrounding executions.

In addition, Scott's actions are line with state lawmakers who overwhelmingly support the death penalty. “Gov. Scott has taken his responsibility to sign death warrants very seriously and I commend him for that,” said House Criminal Justice Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

Gaetz said Florida “is a death penalty state for a good reason," pointing to a 42-year low in the crime rate as well as one-third reduction in violent crimes in the last six years. “Something we're doing must be working and I don't think Floridians are too up for wholesale changes to a criminal justice system that has dramatically reduced the crime rate,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz and other lawmakers bolstered Florida's support for the death penalty last year when they passed the Timely Justice Act. Among other provisions it requires the Supreme Court to notify the governor when Death Row prisoners have exhausted their initial state and federal appeals.

July 1, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Significant (but unpublished!?!) Sixth Circuit ruling finding Lafler prejudice despite defendant's claims of innocence

The Sixth Circuit just released an interesting and important ruling in Sawaf v. US, No. 13-5620 (6th Cir. June 30, 2014) (available here), which grants a white-collar defendant relief based on ineffective assistance of counsel at plea-bargaining based in part on the Supreme Court's recent Sixth Amendment jurisprudence in this area. Here are passages from the Sawaf opinion, which in part highlight why I think this ruling is significant (despite being "unpublished"):

In 2001, Dr. Sawaf, a medical doctor specializing in the practice of urology, was charged with multiple counts of unlawful drug distribution for prescribing narcotic pain medications without a legitimate medical purpose, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). It is undisputed that, prior to trial, the Government offered Sawaf a plea bargain that would have resulted in a significantly reduced prison sentence of 41 months instead of the 235-293 month term of imprisonment he would likely receive under the applicable U.S. Sentencing Guidelines if convicted at trial. Upon the advice of his attorney, Sawaf rejected the Government’s plea offer and proceeded to trial, unsuccessfully, where he was convicted and ultimately received a prison sentence of 240 months....

After a careful review of the evidence, the district court found that Sawaf’s attorney had indeed failed to advise him about the applicable sentencing guidelines at any time prior to his trial, resulting in “objectively unreasonable and constitutionally ineffective” assistance of counsel at the pre-trial stage of the proceedings....

Although the district court acknowledged the general presumption of prejudice “created by the significant disparity between the plea offered and the ultimate sentence” that Sawaf received, it nonetheless concluded that Sawaf was not entitled to relief because he had failed to show that he would have accepted the Government’s plea offer but-for his counsel’s ineffectiveness.... [T]he district court determined that Sawaf’s claim that he would have entered a guilty plea if adequately informed was not credible, given Sawaf’s continued insistence that he was innocent, prior to and during the trial, after the trial, and even during the evidentiary hearing, and effectively declined to credit Sawaf with the applicable presumption of prejudice."...

Given Sawaf’s unrelenting insistence as to his innocence, the district court was understandably reluctant to credit Sawaf’s self-serving claim at the evidentiary hearing that he would have pleaded guilty under different circumstances. As the district court emphasized in its opinion, Sawaf’s continued declarations of innocence at the evidentiary hearing undermined the plausibility of his assertion that he would nonetheless have pleaded guilty if he had been properly informed as to the possible consequences of proceeding to trial. On the other hand, to conclude that this information would have had no impact on Sawaf’s decision-making process would undercut the very reasoning for the Supreme Court’s recognition that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel during the plea-bargaining process includes the right to be informed by counsel as to the range of penalties under the applicable guidelines. Lafler, 132 S. Ct. at 1384.... After all, the existence of that right is necessarily rooted, at least in part, in our general understanding that the discrepancy between the punishment resulting from a plea agreement and that which would result from a trial conviction is an important factor that the defendant is entitled to consider in his decision-making process.

More importantly, however, we have consistently declined to conclude that a defendant’s “repeated declarations of innocence” alone preclude the possibility that the defendant would have entered a guilty plea if he had been aware of the consequences of proceeding to trial....  In light of these cases, we are compelled to conclude that Sawaf’s continued insistence as to his innocence does not foreclose the possibility that he would have been willing to enter a guilty plea in exchange for a 41-month sentence, despite his proclaimed innocence, if he had known about the risk that he might otherwise receive a 20-year sentence.  Put simply, Sawaf’s claim that he is innocent does not conclusively establish that there is no “reasonable probability” that his decision would have been different if he had been adequately informed about its consequences.

I am eager to praise the Sixth Circuit for this notable application of Lafler and its unwillingness to sting the defendant here yet again for maintaining his innocence. But I am also a bit annoyed that this seemingly significant ruling is being left unpublished. Fortunately, in this digital age, even unpublished opinions can be found and heralded, and I am grateful to a helpful reader who made sure I did not miss this one.

July 1, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, June 30, 2014

Ninth Circuit sorts out federal case of CJA payment delayed, then CJA representation denied

It is often said that justice delayed is justice denied. An interesting ruling today from the Ninth Circuit in US V. Tillman, No. 13-10131 (9th Cir. June 30, 2014) (available here), work through what happens when Criminal Justice Act payment is delayed and that leads to CJA representation being denied. Here is the start of the panel opinion in Tillman, which ends up being more about the actions and standing of Tillman's CJA-appointed lawyer rather than the criminal defendant:

This case highlights the tension between judicial efforts to control costs of appointed counsel, the defendant’s constitutional right to have counsel appointed, counsel’s reliance on timely payment of Criminal Justice Act (“CJA”) vouchers, and the delays often present in processing vouchers for payment.  In this unusual interlocutory appeal, John R. Grele and his former client, Markette Tillman, appeal an order removing Grele as counsel, sanctioning him, and referring him to the California State bar for disciplinary proceedings.  Under Flanagan v. United States, 465 U.S. 259 (1984), we lack jurisdiction over Tillman’s claim that counsel was improperly removed. The removal order is nonfinal and not immediately appealable; Tillman has the opportunity to raise this issue on direct appeal, if there is one.  Grele’s petition as to the sanctions order presents a different question, however, because the improper sanctions order not only had an immediate impact on Grele but continues to affect his professional reputation as learned counsel in capital proceedings.  We conclude that mandamus jurisdiction is appropriate to consider the sanctions order, that the district court erred in imposing sanctions without notice and a hearing, and that the order should be vacated.

June 30, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)