Monday, March 10, 2014

Man called "walking crime spree" gets 14 years in federal prison to pointing laser at helicopter

A reader alerted me to this notable federal sentencing story from California, which perhaps highlights why folks with significant criminal histories ought not be messing around with dangerous pranks:

A Central California man convicted of pointing a high-powered laser at a police helicopter was sentenced Monday to spend 14 years in federal prison.

Sergio Patrick Rodriguez, a 26-year-old Clovis resident, was accused of pointing a green laser 13 times more powerful than common pointers at a Fresno Police Department helicopter in 2012. The helicopter had been called to an apartment complex where an emergency helicopter for a children's hospital also reported being targeted by a laser. "This is not a game," U.S. Attorney Benjamin B. Wagner said in a statement. "It is dangerous, and it is a felony."

A jury found Rodriguez guilty of attempting to interfere with safe operation of aircraft and aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft. While handing down the sentence, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O'Neill described Rodriguez as a "walking crime spree," carrying out an act with deadly potential. Rodriguez has a significant criminal history, prosecutors said, that includes several probation violations and gang affiliations.

Authorities say such laser strikes can blind pilots and lead to crashes. In 2013, there were 3,960 reports of people shining lasers at aircraft over the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The same Fresno jury found Rodriguez and his 23-year-old girlfriend, Jennifer Lorraine Coleman, guilty of charges in the case in December. Coleman is scheduled to be sentenced in May.

March 10, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)

Should the feds reallocate all drug war resources away from marijuana to heroin now?

The question in the title of this post was my first thought in reaction to this notable news release from the US Department of Justice headlined "Attorney General Holder, Calling Rise in Heroin Overdoses ‘Urgent Public Health Crisis,’ Vows Mix of Enforcement, Treatment. Here are excerpts from the press release:

Calling the rise in overdose deaths from heroin and other prescription pain-killers an “urgent public health crisis,” Attorney General Eric Holder vowed Monday that the Justice Department would combat the epidemic through a mix of enforcement and treatment efforts. As an added step, the Attorney General is also encouraging law enforcement agencies to train and equip their personnel with the life-saving, overdose-reversal drug known as naloxone.

Speaking in a video message posted on the Justice Department’s website, Holder noted that between 2006 and 2010, heroin overdose deaths increased by 45 percent. “When confronting the problem of substance abuse, it makes sense to focus attention on the most dangerous types of drugs. And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opiates and heroin,” Holder said....

The complete text of the Attorney General’s video message [includes these passages]:

“When confronting the problem of substance abuse, it makes sense to focus attention on the most dangerous types of drugs. And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opiates and heroin.

“Addiction to heroin and other opiates – including certain prescription pain-killers – is impacting the lives of Americans in every state, in every region, and from every background and walk of life – and all too often, with deadly results. Between 2006 and 2010, heroin overdose deaths increased by 45 percent. Scientific studies, federal, state and local investigations, addiction treatment providers, and victims reveal that the cycle of heroin abuse commonly begins with prescription opiate abuse. The transition to — and increase in — heroin abuse is a sad but not unpredictable symptom of the significant increase in prescription drug abuse we’ve seen over the past decade....

“Confronting this crisis will require a combination of enforcement and treatment. The Justice Department is committed to both.

“On the enforcement side, we’re doing more than ever to keep illicit drugs off the streets – and to bring violent traffickers to justice. With DEA as our lead agency, we have adopted a strategy to attack all levels of the supply chain to prevent pharmaceutical controlled substances from getting into the hands of non-medical users. DEA proactively investigates the diversion of controlled substances at all levels of the supply chain. This includes practitioners that illegally dispense prescriptions, pharmacists that fill those prescriptions, and distributors that send controlled substances downstream without due diligence efforts. DEA also uses its regulatory authority to review and investigate new pharmacy applications in targeted areas to identify and prevent storefront drug traffickers from obtaining DEA registrations. And they’re also going after “pill mills.”...

“Of course, enforcement alone won’t solve the problem. That’s why we are enlisting a variety of partners – including doctors, educators, community leaders, and police officials – to increase our support for education, prevention, and treatment. DEA engages in widespread education of pharmacists, doctors, and other health practitioners in the identification and prevention of controlled substance diversion during the healthcare delivery process. In the Northern District of Ohio, for example, the U.S. Attorney convened a summit at the Cleveland Clinic, bringing together health and law enforcement professionals to address that area’s 400-percent rise in heroin-related deaths. And nationwide, the Justice Department is supporting more than 2,600 specialty courts that connect over 120,000 people convicted of drug-related offenses with the services they need to avoid future drug use and rejoin their communities.

March 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Should death penalty abolitionists or proponents be more troubled by "Wild West" response to troubles with execution drugs?

The question in the title of this post is the prompted by this lengthy new USA Today article headlined "Death penalty in U.S. spurs Wild West scramble for drugs; Capital punishment in the USA is in decline as states wrestle to find drugs for lethal injections."  Here is how the piece starts:

Prison guards meet in the desert to hand off chemicals for executions. A corrections boss loaded with cash travels to a pharmacy in another state to buy lethal sedatives. States across the country refuse to identify the drugs they use to put the condemned to death.

This is the curious state of capital punishment in America today. Manufacturers are cutting off supplies of lethal injection drugs because of opposition to the death penalty, and prison officials are scrambling to make up the deficit — sharing drugs, buying them from under-regulated pharmacies or using drug combinations never employed before in putting someone to death.

At the same time, growing numbers of states are ending capital punishment altogether. Others are delaying executions until they have a better understanding of what chemicals work best. And the media report blow-by-blow details of prisoners gasping, snorting or crying out during improvised lethal injection, taking seemingly forever to die.

Legal challenges across this new capital punishment landscape are flooding courts, further complicating efforts by states that want to keep putting people to death. "I've done everything I can do to carry out the executions that have been ordered in my state, and if somebody has an idea of how we can do that, I'd like to hear it," says Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.

The state has 33 people on death row, no executions since 2005 and a death penalty sidelined last month by a state judge complaining that the Arkansas law for lethal injection isn't clear about what drugs should be used. "I don't know where it will all end up," says an exasperated McDaniel. "I know that in the near future we will see more litigation. We will see fewer executions. We will see states scrambling to come up with alternative methods. And there will be a lot of finger-pointing."

Regular readers know that the difficulties states have had securing execution drugs, combined with the consistent efforts of capital defense lawyers to legally challenge the ways states plan to kill their clients, has produced a remarkable legal and practical hash of the application of the death penalty in nearly all states with death row defendants who have exhausted all other means of appeals. This lethal injection protocol capital hash has been going strong for nearly a decade now, and I do not see any end in sight.

I am inclined to guess that death penalty proponents are most troubled by all the new litigation and practical barriers in the way of carrying out death sentences. But I suspect lots of death penalty abolitionists are likewise troubled by how hard (and with questionable means) some states are trying to go forward with untried methods for ending like. So, I suppose this post is meant to suggest both a descriptive and normative question: who is most troubled with what is going on, and should be?

March 10, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

This week's review of marijuana reform news and notes

I continue to make a habit of doing a weekly round up of posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform because here continue to be so many developments in that realm that ought to be of great interest to senencing fans.  For example, Alex Kreit has a new post at MLP&R, Race, marijuana enforcement and legalization, which astutely observes that "though the criminalization of marijuana has disproportionately impacted people of color, it seems the emerging marijuana industry is largely white." For more discussion of this insight and others, here are links to some notable recent posts:  

March 9, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

LDF releases latest, greatest accounting of death row populations

As reported here by the Death Penalty Information Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has just released its latest version of its periodic accounting of capital punishment developments in the United States. This document, available here, is titled simply "Death Row, USA," and reports on data though July 1, 2013.  Here is how DPIC summarizes some of its key findings:

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA shows the total death row population continuing to decline in size. The U.S. death-row population decreased from 3,108 on April 1, 2013, to 3,095 on July 1, 2013.  The new total represented a 12% decrease from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,517.  The states with the largest death rows were California (733), Florida (412), Texas (292), Pennsylvania (197), and Alabama (197).  In the past 10 years, the size of Texas's death row has shrunk 36%; Pennsylvania's death row has declined 18%; on the other hand, California's death row has increased 17% in that time.  

The report also contains racial breakdowns on death row. The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (71%), among those states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races.

March 9, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Detailed sentencing data, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Notable talk of sentencing reform at CPAC conference

LogoAs highlighted in this Washinton Post article, headlined "Conservatives try to make criminal justice reform a signature issue," this year's Conservative Political Action Conference included a notable panel on criminal justice reform.  Here are excerpts:

[Rick] Perry appeared alongside several other conservatives, including Grover Norquist, on a panel about criminal justice reform and how those reforms are being pushed by several Republican states.

While it was sandwiched between better-attended sessions, the discussion of Republican progress on reforming the criminal justice system was one of the few CPAC sessions that laid out a true pathway forward for a party that desperately wants to expand demographically....

[O]n issues of sentencing reform and prison recidivism, Republicans — especially several governors in Southern states — have been the leaders, earning praise from prison reform groups on both sides of the aisle for efforts to save money by implementing rehabilitation programs and curbing skyrocketing prison costs....

That’s why the criminal justice discussion at CPAC surpasses the practice-run stump speeches of 2016 hopefuls in importance if the GOP’s stated desire to re-brand is for real. “This is our chance to show we can provide solutions to affect significant problems,” said Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

The renewed focus on cost-s­aving reforms marks a dramatic, decade-long shift by Republican governors, many of whom previously won election by stumping on tough-on-crime platforms. But, as many of those governors have noted, one way to cut state costs is to decrease the number of people being locked up for nonviolent offenses and rid the law books of mandatory minimum sentences for such offenses.

In addition to Perry, prominent Republicans who once trumpeted tough-on-crime ­stances and now call for sentencing changes and rehabilitation programs for drug and other nonviolent offenders include former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a tea party hero, has made reform of mandatory minimum sentences a major focus in recent months. “We’re not a soft-on-crime state, you know what I’m saying? . . . We’re tough on crime,” Perry said. “But I hope we are also seen as a smart-on-crime state.”

While the room emptied out a little right before the panel — which followed a speech by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — many CPAC attendees did stick around, which should be encouraging for center-right Republicans who have called for a more solutions-oriented message from the party. On Thursday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declared that “our ideas are better than their ideas.”

This article from The Nation provides some additional information about the CPAC discussion of criminal justice reform, and it starts this way:

Pat Nolan strode to the podium and rattled off the facts: more than 2 million Americans are in prison, meaning one in every hundred adults is incarcerated. Fewer than half of those in prison are there for violent crimes; most are drug offenders; and state budgets are badly strained by maintaining this system. Then he read a quote: “Only a nation that’s rich and stupid would continue to pour billions into a system that leaves prisoners unreformed, victims ignored and communities still living in fear of crime.”

This wasn’t an ACLU convention nor an academic confab, however — it was the Conservative Political Action Conference, the infamous annual showcase of the far-right boundaries of the Republican Party. Just before this panel on criminal justice reform began, former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was onstage accusing President Obama of lying about Benghazi and pronouncing that “the IRS is a criminal enterprise.”

But the panel was far more substantive. Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke at length about unnecessarily punitive mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, as well as the wisdom of drug courts that divert addicts out of the penal system and into treatment. During his time as governor, Perry has become one of the more aggressive prison reformers in the country. In 2011, the state actually closed a prison because it couldn’t be filled thanks in large part to the declining incarceration rate. (Before Perry, George W. Bush oversaw the construction of thirty-eight new prisons.) “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money,” Perry said. “Stop the recidivism rates—lower them. That’s what can happen with these drug courts.”

Then there was former New York City Police Chief Bernie Kerik, who no doubt has a unique view on the criminal justice system: aside from being police chief and running Rikers Island, he also was incarcerated for three years on conspiracy and tax fraud charges. Kerik spoke passionately about the number of people he met in federal prison who who were there for nonviolent drug offenses—people who got ten years for drugs “the weight of a nickel.”

Some older and recent posts on the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

March 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

"The New Normal? Prosecutorial Charging in California after Public Safety Realignment"

The title of this post is the title of this massive new article reflecting massively important research by W. David Ball and Robert Weisberg about the ways in which new sentencing/corrections reform in California may be impacting prosecutorial practices.  Here is the article's massive abstract:

California’s Public Safety Realignment Act (“Realignment” or “AB 109”) shifts the responsibility of supervising, tracking and imprisoning specified non-serious, non-violent, non-sexual (“triple-nons” or “N3 felonies” or “non-non-nons”) offenders previously bound for state prison to county jails and probation.  The implementation of Realignment in California is the largest correctional experiment of its kind.  The advent of Realignment has, of course, affected the decisionmaking of all the official actors in the criminal justice system. But the prosecutor’s role is unique in one clear sense: Prosecutors have, in formal legal terms, virtually unreviewable autonomy in the choice to charge or not charge (so long as any charge matches provable facts with statutory elements).

How does this power operate in the wake of AB 109? Our hypothesis was that many aspects of AB 109 were likely to affect prosecutors’ charging and sentence recommendation choices.  The most salient aspects were the change in site and de facto length of incarceration, as well as the secondary effects of new county responsibilities for post-release supervision of many prison parolees.  In particular, in exercising discretion, prosecutors might be influenced by their views on the differences in the severity of experience of incarceration in jail as opposed to prison, or by their concerns about jail crowding or the extra costs that county jails and other county agencies might have to absorb under AB 109.

We explored this hypothesis through three study components. First, we established a rough charging baseline through an empirical study.  With obtained data from the Attorney General’s office, we examined arrest-to-charging ratios by year and by crime category before and after Realignment.  We found very few and small differences, including insignificant differences across counties, and very few differences across crimes.

Second, we exhaustively analyzed the statutory elements of certain very common crimes that fall within AB 109, especially drug and property crimes, and we consulted in great depth with two distinguished California prosecutors, both involved in AB 109 training. Our aim was to find parts of the penal code that applied to similar fact patterns that, nevertheless, would result in significantly different sentencing outcomes.  These parts of the code isolate various fault lines in AB 109, which both served as a foundation for the third part of our study and served as a significant roadmap to AB 109 itself.

Third, we surveyed District Attorneys themselves, using a factorial approach that isolates various statutory and extralegal factors.  Our questions focused on whether the new sentencing structure might alter prosecutorial decisionmaking in terms of tilting borderline charges towards prison-eligible crimes or recommending especially long jail sentences.  We again found no significant differences, although, for reasons we explain in the paper, these conclusions must be read as tentative.

In sum, most charging or recommendation preferences remain consistent with traditional severity factors and do not manifest major alterations in light of AB 109.  However, there remains a great deal of uncertainty and variation in the responses we received.  This phenomenon manifested itself particularly when prosecutors had to choose from the menu of straight, split, and probation sentences.  Recommended terms for split sentences — those involving a combination of jail terms and community supervision — were all over the map, ranging from short terms of both jail and supervision, to short jail and a long tail, to long jail and a short tail.  At the same time, jail sentences, obviously available before Realignment but now extended to formerly prison-eligible sentences, were also wildly divergent on the same facts, ranging from a year or less to 20 years or more.  Our conjecture is that the new regime of Realignment, introduced alongside the existing sentencing regime, might invite wide variation in sentencing recommendations (with possible attendant unjustified disparities).

March 8, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Notable federal capital case about to begin in the Aloha State

HawAs reported in this AP article, a "Honolulu courtroom is set to become the scene of a death penalty trial even though Hawaii abolished capital punishment in 1957." Here is more about how and why:

Opening statements are scheduled for Tuesday in the trial of a former Hawaii-based Army soldier accused of beating his 5-year-old daughter to death in 2005. But because the crime allegedly took place on military property, Naeem Williams is being tried in federal court — a system that does have the death penalty.

It's rare for the government to seek the death penalty in a state that doesn't allow it. Only seven of 59 inmates currently on federal death row are from states that didn't have the death penalty at the time the sentence was imposed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

While the Williams case hasn't received much publicity, the death penalty circumstance gives it something in common with a more high profile case for federal prosecutors: the Boston Marathon bombing. "You have a population in Massachusetts and in the city where they're not used to having the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, the Death Penalty Information Center's executive director. "It just makes it a little harder to get these kinds of death sentences."...

Talia Emoni Williams died in July 2005 after she was brought to a hospital unresponsive, vomiting and covered in bruises. A criminal complaint by federal investigators accuses her then-25-year-old father of beating the child to discipline her for urinating on herself. Federal investigators wrote that military law enforcement agents found blood splatters in the walls of the family's home at Wheeler Army Airfield from Talia being whipped with Williams' belt.

Delilah Williams, Talia's stepmother, was also charged with murder but pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors. She's expected to be sentenced to 20 years in prison after she testifies against Williams at his trial, said her federal public defender, Alexander Silvert. The Army agreed the case should be prosecuted in the civilian justice system so that the father and stepmother could appear in the same court....

Talia's biological mother, Tarshia Williams, is expected to testify for the prosecution, her attorneys said. She filed a civil lawsuit against the government over Talia's death. It has been put on hold until after the criminal trial. The mother's lawsuit claims the military didn't report to the proper authorities that Talia's father and stepmother "abused and tortured" her throughout the seven months she lived in Hawaii before she died.

Alberto Gonzales, the U.S. attorney general during President George W. Bush's administration, made the decision to seek the death penalty against Naeem Williams. "Under Bush's administration, the philosophy was the federal death penalty should be spread out among all the states," Dieter said....

The last time the federal death penalty was approved for a Hawaii case was against Richard "China" Chong. But before he went to trial in 2000, he agreed to plead guilty to a 1997 drug-related murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He died of an apparent suicide about three months later.

Hawaii's history with capital punishment goes back long before statehood. There were 49 executions dating in Hawaii dating to 1856, with the last one recorded in 1944, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The final execution of Ardiano Domingo — a Filipino who was hanged for killing a woman with scissors in a Kauai pineapple field — helped prompt Hawaii's territorial lawmakers to abolish the death penalty in the state, said Williamson Chang, a University of Hawaii law school professor who teaches a course on the history of law in Hawaii.

Chang said before the law changed, Hawaii disproportionally executed people of color, mostly Filipinos, Japanese and Native Hawaiians. Because of that history, Chang said he believes Hawaii jurors will struggle with the Williams case. "We're used to a society which does not put people to death," he said. "It's a slap in the face to the values of Hawaii."

March 8, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, March 7, 2014

"Criminal Records, Race and Redemption"

The title of this post is the title of this notable paper I just noticed via SSRN authored by Michael Pinard. Here is the abstract:

Poor individuals of color disproportionately carry the weight of a criminal record. They confront an array of legal and non-legal barriers, the most prominent of which are housing and employment.  Federal, State and local governments are implementing measures aimed at easing the everlasting impact of a criminal record.  However, these measures, while laudable, fail to address the disconnection between individuals who believe they have moved past their interactions with the criminal justice system and the ways in which decision makers continue to judge them in the years and decades following those interactions.  These issues are particularly pronounced for poor individuals of color, who are uniquely stigmatized by their criminal records.

To address these issues, this article proposes a redemption-focused approach to criminal records.  This approach recognizes that individuals ultimately move past their interactions with the criminal justice system and, therefore, they should no longer be saddled by their criminal records.  Thus, the article calls for greatly expanding laws that allow individuals to remove their criminal records from public access and, in the end, allow them to reach redemption.

March 7, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Florida Supreme Court hears arguments on Miller retroactivity and application

As effectively reported in this lengty local article, the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday heard arguments on whether a teenage murderer given mandatory LWOP over a decade ago can now secure a resentencing because of the US Supreme Court's Miller ruling.  Here are the basics:

Rebecca Lee Falcon, now 32, represents a group of more than 200 Florida prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole for murders committed while they were under the age of 18.

The issue before the state's highest court is whether a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling — which held that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional — should apply since Falcon and the other prisoners' sentences were final before the nation's highest court ruled.

The immediate matter is whether the ruling in Miller vs. Alabama is retroactive.  But it also represents a broader issue at play in the Florida courts and state Legislature as judges and lawmakers struggle with conforming the state's laws with a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have determined juveniles need to be treated differently than adults in the justice system....

Karen Gottlieb, a lawyer representing Falcon, argued that the Miller ruling should be retroactive since it represented a change in Florida law of "fundamental significance," when the federal court held mandatory life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutionally cruel and unusual and should be uncommon.  "Post-conviction relief must be afforded to avoid obvious injustice," Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb noted that unlike adult prisoners who face the death penalty and receive extensive sentencing reviews, where many factors are weighed, the 200 juveniles — with mandatory life sentences after 1994 — received no review.   "We have every child sentenced to life without parole in these cases with no review of any factor about their youth and the attendant circumstances, their lack of judgment and impetuousness, their maturity, the prospect for rehabilitation and reform, the outside influences, peer influences," Gottlieb said. "None of that has been considered."

Trisha Meggs Pate, an appellate lawyer representing the state, argued against retroactivity, saying the federal ruling did not abolish life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder but only rejected mandatory sentencing.  "It is not a substantive change in law that forbids the state from imposing a new sentence," Pate said. "It's not a categorical ban against life without parole sentencing.  She may go back to the trial court and face the exact same punishment."

Pate also raised the issue of the burden on the state courts if the more than 200 prisoners had to return to court for resentencing hearings.  "You're going to have to have witnesses. We're going to have to have facts about the crime scene, how the crime occurred, what happened, medical examiners," Pate said.  "And some of these cases are 20 years old. They have been final for a long time."...

[Certain] justices seemed troubled by the prospect of letting the Miller ruling apply to cases that were under appeal at the time of the ruling and for future cases but not being applied to the 200 older cases.  "So we just turn our backs on the fact that there are 200, even if you say 500, young people who are sitting in jail forever, and we just turn (our) backs on that when the Supreme Court has said clearly that that is not an appropriate sentence if they have not had an opportunity to have their situation looked at individually?" Justice Peggy Quince asked.

The justices seemed to move past the issue of retroactivity and were asking questions of both sides on what procedures Florida should use in sentencing juveniles under the Miller rulings....  The issue has been complicated by the fact that the state abolished parole in 1994, although the system is still used for prisoners who were incarcerated before that time.  And the Florida Legislature has been unable to pass a new law taking into account Miller and other court rulings that impact the sentencing of juveniles. Bills are now pending in the 2014 session on those issues.

As noted in this recent post, the Michigan Supreme Court also heard arguments yesterday on Miller retroactivity issues.  This coincidence sets up an interesting natural experiment concerning which state supreme court has reach a ruling on this importand and challenging issue first.  

Importantly, the Michigan Supreme Court has the benefit of not having to sort completely through how Miller resentencings can and should be done because the Michigan legislature has already enacted a Miller fix statute.  In contrast, the failure to date of Florida's legislature to formally respond to Miller essentially forces the Florida Supreme Court to have to make even more hard decisions about how Miller can and should get implemented.  

March 7, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Senate Judiciary Committee approves Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act

Yesterday the US Senate Judiciary Committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act.  This press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums, headlined "FAMM Hails Continued Bipartisan Support for Criminal Justice Reforms," provides this information about the bill contents and context:

The bipartisan bill, a compromise negotiated by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and John Cornyn (R-TX), is anticipated to help alleviate overcrowding in federal prisons — now at 138 percent of their capacity — and may help reduce federal prison costs, which consume a full quarter of the Department of Justice’s budget and threaten funding for other law enforcement programs.  Among other things, the legislation passed today:

  • requires the federal Bureau of Prisons to classify all federal prisoners as being at high, moderate, or low risk of reoffending;

  • permits many prisoners to earn time credits for completing recidivism-reducing programs or “productive activities” like maintaining a prison job; and

  • allows low and moderate risk prisoners who earn a certain number of time credits to be released from prison early to serve the remainders of their sentences on prerelease custody in a halfway house, on home confinement, or under community supervision.

This article from Main Justice, headlined "DOJ Spends Too Much on Prisons, Leahy Says," reports than 15 Senators voted in support of this bill and that the only GOP member to vote against the bill was Senator Jeff Sessions.

For a variety of reasons, I expect bills to reform severe sentencing laws like the Justice Safety Valve Act and the Smarter Sentencing Act will continue to get a lot more attention than this Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act. But, for a variety of reasons, I think this bill, which may have the broadest support among the most important political players in Congress, could end up being the most important and consequential for helping to transform the nature and future of the federal sentencing system.

March 7, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Fascinating split Ninth Circuit ruling on prisoner 1983 suits

Because I obsess much more over sentencing matters rather than corrections, I am not likely to muster all the time and energy needed to fully consume and assess what an en banc Ninth Circuit panel did today in the prisoner rights case of Peralta v. Dilliard, No. 09-55907 (9th Cir. March 6, 2014) (available here).  But I know enough to know the ruling is fascinating for various reasons, as this unofficial court-staff summary highlights:

The en banc court affirmed the district court’s judgment following a jury verdict in favor of a prison dentist and affirmed the district court’s judgment as a matter of law in favor of prison administrators in a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging deliberate indifference to medical needs in connection with a prisoner’s dental care.

The court held that a prison official sued for money damages under § 1983 may raise a lack of available resources as a defense. The court held that the district court’s challenged jury instruction in this case properly advised the jury to consider the resources that the prison dentist had available when determining if he was deliberately indifferent. The court held that to the extent the court’s prior decisions in Jones v. Johnson, 781 F.2d 769 (9th Cir. 1986), and Snow v. McDaniel, 681 F.3d 978 (9th Cir. 2012), could be read to apply to monetary damages against an official who lacks authority over budgeting decisions, they were overruled.

The court held that the jury had sufficient evidence on which to base a finding that a lack of resources caused any delay in providing care. The court further held that the district court did not err by granting judgment as a matter of law in favor of Dr. Fitter, the prison’s Chief Medical Officer and Dr. Dillard, the Chief Dental Officer.

The court held that the district court’s prior decision refusing to grant Fitter and Dillard summary judgment did not, under law of the case, preclude the district court from reconsidering its pretrial ruling.

Dissenting in part and concurring in part, Judge Christen, joined by Judges Rawlinson, M. Smith, and Hurwitz and Judge Bybee as to parts I, II, and III, stated that the decision overturned more than thirty years of circuit precedent by holding that lack of resources is a defense to providing constitutionally inadequate care for prisoners. She joined the majority in affirming the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims against Dr. Fitter, but she disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that a directed verdict was appropriate on plaintiff’s claims against Dr. Dillard.

Dissenting in part and concurring in part, Judge Hurwitz, joined by Judges Rawlinson, M. Smith and Christen, and Judge Bybee as to parts I and II, stated that the majority effectively held that a state can first choose to underfund the medical treatment of its wards, and then excuse the Eighth Amendment violations caused by the underfunding. Judge Hurwitz stated that as to Dr. Fitter, the majority correctly held that he was entitled to qualified immunity as he had relied on his staff’s medical judgment.

I would be especially eager to know from people in the know if they think this case seems likely to end up before the Justices on the merits.

March 6, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Florida conservatives now talking up nuanced positions on marijuana reform

As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Conservative committee opens door to medical marijuana for Florida," a notable swing/southern state now has a number of notable legislators talking in notable ways about marijuana reform.  Here are excerpts:

One conservative Republican who has suffered from brain cancer talked about the deceit of the federal government in hiding the health benefits of marijuana for his cancer. Another legislator reluctantly met with a South Florida family, only to be persuaded to support legalizing the drug.

Then there was Rep. Charles Van Zant, the surly Republican from Palatka who is considered the most conservative in the House. He not only voted with his colleagues Wednesday to pass out the bill to legalize a strain of marijuana for medical purposes, he filed the amendment to raise the amount of psychoactive ingredients allowed by law — to make it more likely the drug will be effective.

The 11-1 vote by the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, was a historic moment for the conservatives in the GOP-dominated House. It was the first time in modern history that the Florida Legislature voted to approve any marijuana-related product. “That’s because people here in Tallahassee have realized that we can’t just have a bumper-sticker approach to marijuana where you’re either for it or against it,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the committee chairman and sponsor of the bill after the emotional hearing. “Not all marijuana is created equally.”

The committee embraced the proposal, HB 843, by Gaetz and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, after hearing heart-wrenching testimony from families whose children suffer from chronic epilepsy. A similar bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate, where Senate president Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and Matt’s father, has said he has heard the testimony from the families and he wants the bill to pass as a first step. “Here I am, a conservative Republican but I have to try to be humble about my dogma,” Senate President Don Gaetz told the Herald/Times....

For a committee known for its dense, often tedious scrutiny of legal text, the debate was remarkable. Rep. Dave Hood, a Republican trial lawyer from Daytona Beach who has been diagnosed with brain cancer, talked about how the federal government knew in 1975 of the health benefits of cannabis in stopping the growth of “brain cancer, of lung cancer, glaucoma and 17 diseases including Lou Gehrig’s disease” but continued to ban the substance. “Frankly, we need to be a state where guys like me, who are cancer victims, aren’t criminals in seeking treatment I’m entitled too,” Hood said.

Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said he had his mind made up in opposition to the bill, then changed his mind after meeting the Hyman family of Weston. Their daughter, Rebecca, suffers from Dravet’s Syndrome. “We’ve got a plant here on God’s green earth that’s got a stigma to it — but it’s got a medical value,” Eagle said, “I don’t want to look into their eyes and say I’m sorry we can’t help you,” he said. “We need to put the politics aside today and help these families in need.”

The Florida Sheriff’s Association, which adamantly opposes a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for medical use in Florida, surprised many when it chose not to speak up. Its lobbyist simply announced the group was “in support.” The bi-partisan support for the bill was summed up by Rep. Dave Kerner, a Democrat and lawyer from Lake Worth. “We sit here, we put words on a piece of paper and they become law,” he said. “It’s very rare as a legislator that we have an opportunity with our words to save a life.”

The only opposing vote came from Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, an advocate for the Florida Medical Association. Her husband is a doctor. She looked at the families in the audience and, as tears welled in her eyes, she told them: “I can’t imagine how desperate you must be and I want to solve this problem for you.” But, she said the bill had “serious problems.” It allowed for a drug to be dispensed without clinical trials and absent the kind of research that is needed to protect patients from harm. “I really think we need to address this using science,” Harrell said, suggesting legislators should launch a pilot program to study and test the effectiveness of the marijuana strain. “This bill takes a step in the right direction … but it’s not quite there.”

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

March 6, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

"How to Lie with Rape Statistics: America's Hidden Rape Crisis"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new paper on SSRN authored by Corey Rayburn Yung. Here is the abstract:

During the last two decades, many police departments substantially undercounted reported rapes creating "paper" reductions in crime.  Media investigations in Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and St. Louis found that police eliminated rape complaints from official counts because of cultural hostility to rape complaints and to create the illusion of success in fighting violent crime.  The undercounting cities used three difficult-to-detect methods to remove rape complaints from official records: designating a complaint as "unfounded" with little or no investigation; classifying an incident as a lesser offense; and, failing to create a written report that a victim made a rape complaint.

This study addresses how widespread the practice of undercounting rape is in police departments across the country.  Because identifying fraudulent and incorrect data is essentially the task of distinguishing highly unusual data patterns, I apply a statistical outlier detection technique to determine which jurisdictions have substantial anomalies in their data.  Using this novel method to determine if other municipalities likely failed to report the true number of rape complaints made, I find significant undercounting of rape incidents by police departments across the country.  The results indicate that approximately 22% of the 210 studied police departments responsible for populations of at least 100,000 persons have substantial statistical irregularities in their rape data indicating considerable undercounting from 1995 to 2012.  Notably, the number of undercounting jurisdictions has increased by over 61% during the eighteen years studied.

Correcting the data to remove police undercounting by imputing data from highly correlated murder rates, the study conservatively estimates that 796,213 to 1,145,309 complaints of forcible vaginal rapes of female victims nationwide disappeared from the official records from 1995 to 2012.  Further, the corrected data reveal that the study period includes fifteen to eighteen of the highest rates of rape since tracking of the data began in 1930. Instead of experiencing the widely reported "great decline" in rape, America is in the midst of a hidden rape crisis.  Further, the techniques that conceal rape complaints deprioritize those cases so that police conduct little or no investigation. Consequently, police leave serial rapists, who constitute the overwhelming majority of rapists, free to attack more victims. Based upon the findings of this study, governments at all levels must revitalize efforts to combat the cloaked rise in sexual violence and the federal government must exercise greater oversight of the crime reporting process to ensure accuracy of the data provided.

March 6, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Kentucky GOP representative sets out "conservative arguments in favor of repeal" of the death penalty

I just cam across this recent op-ed by David Floyd, a Republican member of Kentucky's General Assembly, explaining why he has introduced a bill to repeal his state's death penalty.  Here are some excerpts from the op-ed:

My initial opposition formed through a spiritual lens, so in 2007 I joined others in cosponsoring legislation to repeal the death penalty.  But I was the only conservative legislator in a group of liberals.  Over these last few years, “liberal” and spiritual arguments have failed to persuade other legislators to take up these bills.

How, then, might we bring other conservatives with us, and at last vote to abolish our death penalty?  This can be done by exploring together conservative arguments in favor of repeal.

• Conservatives value innocent life and should not support a state government program that can kill innocent people....

• Conservatives are mindful of the potential to abuse power that has been granted by the people, and should not trust the government with the power to execute a person who is safely behind bars....

• Conservatives are the first to call out government programs that fail to meet intended goals and cost exorbitant amounts of money....

• Conservatives want a government that will balance budgets, cut waste and eliminate programs that do not make fiscal sense.

Kentucky’s death penalty is a program that costs a lot while accomplishing little. We’ve spent well more than $100 million on the death penalty since 1976 — and executed three people.  Having a death penalty is clearly wasting taxpayer dollars, while a penalty of life without the possibility of parole makes much better economic sense....

Capital punishment in Kentucky is a broken government program that risks killing the wrongly convicted, risks abuse of power, wastes resources, is arbitrary and unjust. We’ve tried to make the death penalty work, but we have been unable to fix its many problems and reconcile it with our conservative principles. We should repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without parole.  It’s the only way to ensure that no innocent people are killed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and that those impacted by the process get finality much sooner.

March 5, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)

Michigan enacts Miller fix for current and future cases, just as its Justices are to consider past cases

As reported in this local article, headlined "Gov. Rick Snyder signs 'juvenile lifer' update as old cases head to Michigan Supreme Court," the Great Lakes State is busy this week working through all the fall-out from the U.S. Supreme Court's Miller Eighth Amendment ruling.  Here are some of the details:

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday signed legislation updating state sentencing guidelines in the wake of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed mandatory life terms without the possibility of parole for minors....

Senate Bill 319, sponsored by state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), changes Michigan law for all pending and future cases involving juvenile defendants convicted of first-degree murder, felony murder or certain repeat sexual assault offenses. Instead of handing down mandatory life sentences in those cases, judges can also consider a term of between 25 and 60 years. Prosecutors may still file a request for a natural life sentence, but judges now have new authority to consider other options....

Michigan is home to some 360 juvenile lifers -- more than all but one other state -- but the new law will not have an immediate impact on most inmates already behind bars.  The U.S. Supreme Court, in banning mandatory life sentences for minors, did not indicate whether the ruling should apply retroactively.  The new law contains a "trigger" for resentencing hearings in case of a future court ruling.

The Michigan Supreme Court is set to consider the "retroactivity" question on Thursday, when justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments in three juvenile lifer cases. Two of the offenders, Raymond Carp and Cortez Davis, have exhausted the traditional appeals process but are seeking resentencing.

The third, Dakotah Eliason, is entitled to resentencing because his case is still on appeal, but his attorneys disputed the limited relief offered by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which told a sentencing judge to consider only two options: life with or without the possibility of parole. Michigan's new law, which also allows for a term of years less than life, makes that particular issue moot.  The Eliason case asks the Michigan Supreme Court to consider other issues as well, however, so it's unclear how oral arguments will proceed.

It may be just coincidence that the Michigan legislature got a Miller fix enacted into law just before the Michigan Supreme Court considers retroactive application of Miller to past cases. But I have to think the Michigan Supreme Court might feel (consciously or unconsciously) at least a bit more comfortable concluding that Miller applies retroactively now that the state has a new sentencing scheme for juve murderers on the books.

Michigan media has been covering the Miller application/litigation story quite effectively in the run up to the state's Supreme Court hearing, and here are the headline links to some of the coverage in the last few weeks:

March 5, 2014 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Just what is Ohio doing so right with respect to reentry and recidivism? Can it be replicated nationwide?

The question in the title of this post is my reaction to this wonderful new AP news from my own state, which carries the headline "State reports record-low Ohio prisoner return rate."  Here are the details:

Fewer Ohio prisoners than ever are going back to prison after they’ve been released, the state announced Wednesday, attributing the drop to community programs that work with newly released prisoners, and new prison units that prepare people for life outside bars.  The Department of Rehabilitation and Correction says the current inmate return rate of 27.1 percent, down from 28.7 percent a year ago, is far below the national rate of 40 to 44 percent.

The rate affects not just the prison system’s bottom line but the bigger goal of reducing crime in Ohio, prisons director Gary Mohr said.  “If our people being released from prison are committing less offenses, then we have less crime victims,” Mohr told The Associated Press. “I think that’s the most important piece.”  Saving money on prison operations also means more state dollars can be spent earlier in people’s lives on things like education, he added.

Going forward, the expansion of Medicaid is expected to help connect incarcerated people to needed resources as they come home.  The state projects that roughly 366,000 residents will be newly eligible for coverage by the end of June 2015 by increasing the state-federal health care program for poor children and families.  Mohr says a lower return rate will also help the state reduce its prisoner population, currently about 50,500.

A 2011 sentencing law meant to lower the number hasn’t had the desired impact, leading to fears that the state may need to spend millions to build a new prison after 2017, while pushing judges to rethink sentences and placing a greater emphasis on rehabilitation.  The current prison population hasn’t changed much since 2011, despite projections that it would drop to 47,000 by 2015 and continue to decline.... Ohio’s prisoner population could grow to 52,000 in two years and top 53,000 in six years, Mohr warned last year....

It’s not that the 2011 law is failing.  Challenges, including a recent increase in violent crime and an uptick in cases filed by prosecutors, are holding back promises that the law would lower the prisoner population.  Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor has said the courts are also part of the problem and called on judges to be more diligent about reducing the number of offenders behind bars.

The rate announced Wednesday is based on a three-year study of inmates released in 2010.

The report/study on which this article is based is available at this link under the simple title "DRC Recidivism Rates."  I would be grateful for any and all help figuring out if there are other big important conclusions or lessons (good or bad) to be drawn from this report beyond the one discussed above.

March 5, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Intriguing SCOTUS mens rea ruling in Rosemond applying 924(c) gun charge

The Supreme Court handed down one criminal justice ruling this morning in Rosemond v. US, No. 12–895 (S. Ct. March 5, 2014) (available here).  Here is the intriguing composition of the Court in this 7-2 ruling:

KAGAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined, and in which SCALIA, J., joined in all but footnotes 7 and 8.  ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which THOMAS, J., joined.

Here is how Justice Kagan's opinion for the Court gets started:

A federal criminal statute, § 924(c) of Title 18, prohibits “us[ing] or carr[ying]” a firearm “during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime.”  In this case, we consider what the Government must show when it accuses a defendant of aiding or abetting that offense.  We hold that the Government makes its case by proving that the defendant actively participated in the underlying drug trafficking or violent crime with advance knowledge that a confederate would use or carry a gun during the crime’s commission.  We also conclude that the jury instructions given below were erroneous because they failed to require that the defendant knew in advance that one of his cohorts would be armed.

Here is how Justice Alito's partial dissent gets going:

I largely agree with the analysis in the first 12 pages of the opinion of the Court, but I strongly disagree with the discussion that comes after that point.  Specifically, I reject the Court’s conclusion that a conviction for aiding and abetting a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) demands proof that the alleged aider and abettor had what the Court terms “a realistic opportunity” to refrain from en­gaging in the conduct at issue. Ante, at 13. This rule represents an important and, as far as I am aware, un­precedented alteration of the law of aiding and abetting and of the law of intentionality generally.

March 5, 2014 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Might Obamacare end up reducing prison populations "more than any reform in a generation"?

The question in the title of this post is drawn from the headline of this new Newsweek article that purports to explain "How Obamacare May Lower the Prison Population More Than Any Reform in a Generation." Here are a few highlights:

[The] the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) ... may be the biggest piece of prison reform the U.S. will see in this generation.

On the face of it, there’s no direct connection between the ACA and what experts refer to as the “justice-involved population.”  There’s no mention of prisons or jails or even crime in the language of the law.  However, in what proponents of the act are considering a happy public policy accident, the ACA may inadvertently change the makeup of the U.S. prison population by getting early help to those with mental health and drug abuse issues, ultimately reducing recidivism rates and saving states millions, if not billions, of dollars annually....

The last major study on mental health in prisons, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that 64 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons met the criteria for mental illness at the time of their booking or during the twelve months leading up to their arrest.  For comparison, the rate of mental disorders among U.S. citizens stands at around 25 percent, according to the NIH.  Sixty-nine percent of the country’s prison population was addicted to drugs or alcohol prior to incarceration....

Health and crime have become inextricable in the U.S. Health issues such as drug addiction and severe mental health disorders directly lead to illegal activities and eventual imprisonment.  A high percentage of those incarcerated are guilty of crimes directly related to medical issues, such as illegal drug use or theft to support an addiction.

This population — the poor, homeless, addicted, and mentally ill — has never had any health safety net.  With no jobs or income, they are highly unlikely to have private insurance, and Medicaid — the federally-funded health coverage option meant to protect the poorest Americans — is actually only available to a select group of individuals. Though it varies state by state, eligibility is always categorical, which means besides having a low income, Medicaid is only available to five types of people: pregnant women, children below a certain age, parents of Medicaid-eligible children, the disabled, and seniors.

Essentially, Medicaid left out poor, single, male adults without dependant children – the same demographic most likely to end up arrested and incarcerated.  Starting in January 2014, however, the categories have been eliminated (at least in the states that have chosen to take the medicaid expansion — it is an optional aspect of the ACA).  “That means that a lot of people who are going to jail for mental illness or substance abuse related crimes could potentially avoid jail,” says Marsha Regenstein, a professor of health policy at George Washington University.

Of course, these people are hard to reach, and eligibility doesn’t ensure coverage or healthier behavior.  That’s why the bigger opportunity, according to many health and justice policy experts, is to reach and help this population at the points where they do become involved with the justice system....

[T]he right to health care only applies to the length of a person’s sentence.... [A] 2013 report in California, for example, found that 90 percent of prisoners had no health care upon release. Once released, prisoners are likely to discontinue their meds, delay seeing primary care doctors (out of concern for costs), and, as a result, end up in emergency rooms — where high treatment costs are passed on to everyone else via insurance premiums.

This is not just a public health issue; it’s a public safety concern. Lack of care for chronic conditions creates additional long-term problems, like being physically or mentally unfit for employment. In conjunction with a lack of appropriate care for their drug problems and an inability to effectively medicate their mental health disorders, the formerly incarcerated are likely to return to a life of crime.

Many hope and believe that change is on its way. The Justice Department estimates suggest that with the expansion of Medicaid, 5.4 million ex-offenders currently on parole or probation could get the health care they need.  (It’s important to note that 25 states plus Washington, D.C. have implemented the Medicaid expansion as of 2014. However, many policy experts expect the remaining states to fall in line, citing the historical example of how CHIP was initially rejected by many states when it rolled out in 1997, but is now utilized in every state in the country.)

Even with coverage, those ex-offenders will still need to actually utilize those health, and the key will be making the connection at the time of release. The biggest challenge will be getting state justice systems and health systems — not exactly happy bedfellows in past years — to work together to create coordinated discharge planning between jails and community healthcare....

The cost savings associated with keeping former prisoners out of the ER and out of prisons will likely lead leadership at the highest levels — state governors, for example — to push for the types of collaboration that will keep ex-offenders healthy and out of trouble....

Ultimately, because there is no precise directive in the ACA, the choice on how to handle these issues will be made independently in every state, and in every county. In some cases, reform will be swift; in others, life may go on as though Obamacare never happened.

March 4, 2014 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (28) | TrackBack (0)

"15 Years In Environment Of Constant Fear Somehow Fails To Rehabilitate Prisoner"

OnionThe title of this post is the headline of this amusing new item in The Onion sent my way by one of my terrific students.  Here are highlights from this all-too-biting satire:

Reportedly left dumbfounded by the news that recent parolee Terry Raney had been reincarcerated on charges of assault and battery, officials at Woodbourne Correctional Facility struggled Tuesday to make sense of how the prisoner had not been rehabilitated by 15 years of constant threats, physical abuse, and periodic isolation.

“It just doesn’t seem possible that an inmate could live for a decade and a half in a completely dehumanizing environment in which violent felons were constantly on the verge of attacking or even killing him and not emerge an emotionally stable, productive member of society,” said chief warden Albert Gunderson, who noted that, as hard as it was to believe, Raney’s recidivism proved that his criminal impulses had not in fact been corrected by the sense of grave distrust he felt toward every other person in the facility, including both fellow inmates and prison authorities, every day since 1999....

Gunderson [also] noted his additional confusion at how the man’s criminal record and the social stigma of his prison sentence had somehow failed to land him a steady job immediately upon his release.

March 4, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

Why the #@$%! are IQ tests, but not burdens of proof, the key issue in Hall?

The question in the title of this post is my basic reaction to what struck me as a very annoying SCOTUS oral argument yesterday in Hall v. Florida concerning how states must deal with the Atkins categroical Eighth Amendment constitutional bar on executing defendants who are mentlly retarded.  The transcript of the argument is available at this link, and Lyle Denniston has this SCOTUSblog summary of what transpired.  Here is the start of Lyle's recap:

If a state, trying to make it simple to decide who can be given a death sentence, opts for a choice that looks arbitrary, it is likely to have a difficult time in a Supreme Court that worries about the chances of error.  That was demonstrated anew on Monday, when Florida found itself in deep Eighth Amendment trouble with a rule that anyone with an IQ above 70 can be executed if convicted of murder.

A quite definite majority of the Justices — perhaps, notably, including Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — left little doubt that Florida and six other states will not be allowed to maintain an automatic test-score-based cutoff for those who could qualify as mentally retarded and thus can escape the death penalty.

Kennedy’s role is central because he has most often led the Court in narrowing the category of those eligible to be executed, to take account of reduced capacity to be held responsible for their criminal behavior.  He was among the most active in questioning Florida’s approach to mental retardation among those on death row.  And, on Monday, he added in some strongly implied criticism of a system that allows some inmates to remain on death row for decades — an issue that is not directly involved in the new case of Hall v. Florida.

Justice Antonin Scalia expended considerable effort to buttress Florida’s basic argument that the scientific community cannot be trusted to make the rules for eligibility for capital punishment, but except for some supportive hints from Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., this seemed to be a largely forlorn endeavor.

Most of the other Justices joined in the pursuit of an Eighth Amendment rule that would assure that the mental retardation inquiry was sophisticated and nuanced, so that the risk of error was taken fully into account.  While such a rule might not definitely hand over the details to the judgment of scientists and doctors, it apparently would not tolerate an approach designed simply to assure that fewer death-row inmates get off with a claim of mental disability.  That appeared to be Florida’s main objective.

This account of the tenor of the Hall oral argument seems right, and yesterday's SCOTUS discussion reinforces the all-too-usual modern death penalty dynamic of Justice Kennedy seemingly being the swing vote so that whatever he may think about hard capital issues becomes Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  But beyond my standard annoyance with modern constitutional death penalty law now being all about what Justice Kennedy thinks, the Hall oral argument has me extra annoyed because the Court seems intent on focusing application of Atkins on the narrow medical issue of how exactly IQ tests can be used when assessing mental disability rather than on the critical legal/constitutional issue of how burdens of proof can be allocated when deciding who is exempt from the death penalty.

I suppose I should not be too surprised, based both on the cert grant and the approach taken by the advocates in Hall, that Florida's IQ line-drawing approach to Atkins took center stage during yesterday's SCOTUS argument.  But as Kent highlights in this effective post at Crime & Consequences, the discussion of statistics and IQ measurement error among the Justices was garbled at best, and really more an example of junk science on display rather than a serious exploration of whether and when an inexact measurement device (an IQ test) can itself establish at the margins placement of a defendant in an inexact medical category (mentally retarded/disabled) which SCOTUS has given legal significance via its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  

That IQ is, at best, an inexact measurement device is amply proved by the Brief of petitioner Freddie Lee Hall: that brief indicates that IQ measurements for Hall have ranged from 60 to 80 and that various doctors at various times have scored his IQ at 71, 72, 73, 74, 76, and 79.  This reality suggests that IQ tests can only provide a general fuzzy picture of a person's mental abilities and that it would be foolish and misguided for anyone to use IQ scores alone as dispostive "scientific" or "objective" evidence of whether a murderer is or is not mentally retarded/disabled.  In this sense, I suppose, Florida does look bad having a bright-line IQ line for administering Atkins.  But given that IQ tests will always scatter in these kinds of cases, I think the legal issue of who bears the burden of proof and at what level as to Atkins claims is what ultimately determines the reach of Atkins in any state.

If SCOTUS strikes down the current Florida approach to Atkins without speaking to burdens of proof, Florida could then just employ Gerogia's approach to "assure that fewer death-row inmates get off with a claim of mental disability" by requiring defendants to prove they have MR beyond a reasonable doubt (or perhaps even say beyond all doubt).  Already, Florida requires a defendant to prove his disability by clear and convincing evidence, and that standard (with or without an IQ requirement) necessarily entails that Florida will be able to execute murderers whom judges reasonably think, but are not clearly convinced, are mentally retarded/disabled.   The experience in since Atkins makes clear that states eager to limit who gets off death row can do so using legal standards like proof burdens rather than relying just on IQ numbers.  Thus if (and when?) SCOTUS only addresses how IQ tests are used in Hall and dodges any discussion of burdens of proof, Atkins application issues (and interstate Atkins disparity) will persist.

I suppose I am frustrated here in large part because SCOTUS has long been eager to avoid, in all sorts of settings, establishing any clear and predicatble constitutional rules for burdens of proof concerning facts or factors that impact only sentencing determinations and not guilt.  These burden-of-proof issues, which may be viewed as a Fifth Amendment due process concern and/or an Eighth Amendment concern depending on the setting, can be found lurking in the Apprendi-Blakely Sixth Amendment line of cases, but they have never gotten the independent treatment that I think they merit and needs  I have long been hoping Hall might finally lead to some useful burden-of-proof constitutional jurisprudence, but after the oral argument I am no longer hopeful on this front.

March 4, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack (0)

"The Pedagogical Prosecutor"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article by Nirej Sekhon now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Scholarship on prosecutorial discretion is almost entirely preoccupied with crafting regulations that promote prosecutorial accountability.  Accountability, however, is a two-way street. Existing scholarship does not recognize prosecutors' unique capacity to hold legislators and citizens accountable for their preferences, biases, and blind spots.  Drawing on political theory, this essay proposes a novel framework for conceptualizing the prosecutor's role in a pluralist, democratic society.

The choice to prosecute or decline a case can produce significant social and political meaning: e.g., affirming the value of a victim's life, validating a community's sense of loss, or highlighting an offender's depravity.  Hate-crime and "stand-your-ground" laws illustrate prosecutors' broad discretionary power to generate social and political meaning. These laws were often controversial when enacted.  Enactment, however, did not exhaust the basis for controversy. Rather, vague statutory language simply left it to prosecutors to decide when and how the laws should apply.

The furor that erupted after George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin reveals how fraught those choices can be.  While Zimmerman's acquittal might appear to vindicate prosecutors' initial choice to decline the case, that view is incorrect.  I argue that prosecutors should use their expressive power towards pedagogical ends; prosecuting Zimmerman was consistent with that ideal, the acquittal notwithstanding.  Behaving pedagogically means actively promoting political dialogue amongst legislators and citizens.  This ideal values public airing over conviction maximization. I conclude by identifying some of the obligations that attend the pedagogical ideal and steps that might encourage prosecutors to embrace it.  Doing so will not just promote better criminal justice, but a healthier democracy.

March 4, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 3, 2014

"Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times article, which includes these excerpts:

Shortly after Senator Rand Paul filed suit last month against the Obama administration to stop its electronic dragnet of American phone records, he sat down for lunch with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in his private dining room at the Justice Department.

Mr. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is one of the Obama administration’s most vocal critics. But their discussion focused on an issue on which they have found common cause: eliminating mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

The Democratic attorney general and the possible Republican presidential candidate are unlikely allies. But their partnership is crucial to an alliance between the nation’s first African-American attorney general, who sees his legacy in a renewed focus on civil rights, and some of Congress’s most prominent libertarians, who have accused the Obama administration of trampling on personal freedom with drones, wiretaps, tracking devices and too much government.

Together, they could help bring about the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs. In 2010, Congress unanimously voted to abolish the 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses and those for powdered cocaine, a vestige of the crack epidemic. Now, the Obama administration and its allies in Congress are pushing to go even further. Mr. Holder wants to make prisoners eligible for early release if they were sentenced under the now-abolished crack guidelines. And he wants judges to have more discretion when it comes to sentencing nonviolent drug offenders....

Libertarian-minded Republicans see long prison sentences as an ineffective and expensive way to address crime. “This is the definition of how you get bipartisan agreement,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “It’s not splitting the difference. It’s finding areas of common interest.”

Mr. Paul is backing a sentencing overhaul bill, also supported by Mr. Holder and the Obama administration, that he predicts will pass the Senate with support from up to half of its Republicans. The bill’s sponsors include Democratic stalwarts such as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman, as well as Republicans with strong Tea Party credentials like Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas

Similar legislation is pending in the House, where libertarians and Tea Party conservatives will be crucial to determining its fate if it comes up for a vote. That is the same group that bucked the Obama administration and nearly succeeded in passing legislation prohibiting the National Security Agency from seizing the phone records of millions of Americans.

Some Republicans say that they are the ones being consistent on matters of protecting liberties, and that Mr. Holder’s push for changes to the sentencing laws is a step in their direction, not the other way around. “I would say Eric Holder supports me and my civil liberties bill,” said one of the House bill’s sponsors, Representative Raúl R. Labrador, an Idaho Republican who once demanded Mr. Holder’s resignation over the botched gun-trafficking case called Operation Fast and Furious....

Mr. Holder noted that a third of the Justice Department’s budget is spent running prisons. That resonates with fiscal conservatives like Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah. Mr. Chaffetz once suggested that Republicans might have Mr. Holder arrested for contempt. But Mr. Holder recently had him for breakfast at the Justice Department....

Mr. Chaffetz said his conversations with Mr. Holder represented “one of the few instances I can point to where we’re starting to make some kid steps forward” toward bipartisan collaboration.... “I think there’s a realization that we’re not actually solving the problem with some of these drug crimes,” Mr. Chaffetz added. “But on the other side of the coin, there’s no trust with the Obama administration. None.”...

Representative Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and a former federal prosecutor, joined Mr. Chaffetz for breakfast at the Justice Department and described Mr. Holder as a gracious host. “The fact that he’s taking the time to talk to two backbenchers, he certainly didn’t have to do that,” Mr. Gowdy said.

Mr. Gowdy said he was convinced that mandatory sentences made little sense for minor offenses. But he doubts that a sentencing bill can pass the House, in part because voters in Republican districts oppose so many of the Obama administration’s policies. Mr. Holder’s push for same-sex marriage does not make it easier, he said.

Mr. Paul was more optimistic. He said conservatives and liberals would join in support of changing sentencing laws, just as they have joined in opposition of the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance programs.... As the meeting concluded, they agreed to work together and said their goodbyes. Then Mr. Paul wryly added, “I’ll see you in court.”

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

March 3, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack (0)

SCOTUS grants cert in (small?) cases involving jury dishonestly and religious freedom in prison

As reported here at SCOTUSblog, the Supreme Court this morning granted cert in five cases.  Two of these cases ought to interest criminal justice fans, as described by Lyle Denniston:

The Supreme Court, beginning to shape its docket for the next Term starting in October, agreed on Monday to hear five new cases, including a constitutional challenge to a state prison system’s policy barring inmates from wearing beards....

The Court has already rounded out the list of cases it will hear and decide during the current Term, so all new granted cases will go over to October or later.

 Here, in brief, are the issues in the granted cases:...

Warger v. Shauers — scope of a right to new trial in federal court because of alleged dishonesty by a juror during the jury selection process....

Holt v. Hobbs — religiously based challenge, under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, to the Arkansas prison system’s ban on the wearing of beards by inmates.  (This is a case filed directly by an inmate, in a hand-written petition.)

These grants, combined with the relatively limited number of major criminal justice cases on the SCOTUS docket in the current Term, reinforce my sense that the Justices are right now largely content to play "small ball" on a range of issues as they continue to be stalked by any number of big lurking criminal justice issues relating to the Second (right to carry), Fourth (GPS tracking), Sixth (applications of Apprendi and Booker) and Eighth Amendments (applications of Graham and Miller).

March 3, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Detailing the impact and import of Burrage on the federal drug war

The Supreme Court a few weeks ago in Burrage v. United States, No. 12-7515 (S. Ct. Jan. 27, 2014) (available here), rejected federal prosecutors' arguments to expand the reach and application of a mandatory minimum sentencing provision for a drug defendant.  Now, via this notable ABC News report headlined "U.S. Drug Cases Getting Rehabbed After Supreme Court Decision," we learn about some of the early impact of this ruling:

A week before actor Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed on a mix of heroin, cocaine and other drugs, the Supreme Court restrained what one top prosecutor called "the strongest tool" federal authorities have to go after dealers in such cases, and now some U.S. drug prosecutions are getting sent to rehab. "We may not be able to meet the standard of proof in those cases," the U.S. Attorney in Vermont, Tris Coffin, said of overdose cases involving a cocktail of drugs. "It will have some impact."

In fact, a federal judge in Kentucky has already vacated the most severe charge against 53-year-old Harold Salyers, a father who was certain to spend decades in prison after being convicted last year of selling heroin to a man who then died. In Alaska and Ohio, defense attorneys are separately hoping their clients can similarly benefit from the high court's recent decision.

On average, drug traffickers in federal cases are sentenced to less than seven years behind bars.  But "when death or serious bodily injury results," the dealer can face a mandatory minimum of 20 years and as long as life in prison, according to federal law. Federal authorities have long sought the stiffer charge when a dealer's drugs contributed in some way to an overdose.

In January, though, the Supreme Court ruled the dealer's drugs need to do more than just contribute, they need to be "the straw that broke the camel's back," as one Justice Department official put it. That's "problematic," especially in overdose cases where an accused dealer's drugs are not the only drugs involved, according to the official. Nearly half of all overdoses involve multiple drugs, federal statistics indicate. "Now we need to [prove] not that just drugs killed them, but which drugs killed them," said the Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity....

The Supreme Court decision in Burrage v. United States initially received scant news coverage and only moderate notice since actor Hoffman's overdose -- a case being handled by local authorities in New York that highlights some of the obstacles to bringing federal charges.  Still, top federal prosecutors said they don't believe the high court's decision is "a significant setback" or "a real game-changer for us."

Medical experts will just have to dig deeper to determine a drug's exact role in death, and federal prosecutors rarely seek the stiffer charge anyway, even when an overdose occurs, according to both Coffin and Harvey, the U.S. attorneys. "We're going to be fine" and will bring "most of the cases we want to bring," Harvey said.

But the Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said finding medical experts who can determine a drug's exact role is not so easy and "is a big burden on the government." Plus, the official said, the Supreme Court decision could be "a blow" to investigative efforts. "The 20-year mandatory minimum has been tremendously efficient in scaring the dickens out of people so they cooperate up the chain," the official said. "It's been a really good negotiating tool."

There are so many interesting aspects to this Burrage follow-up story, and it highlights for me that it might be very interesting and very valuable for some researchers to assemble and analyze data on how the mandatory minimum sentencing provision at issue in Burrage has been applied in the years before this SCOTUS ruling and how it gets applied in the coming years.

But I especially like and find helpful the candid and astute quotes from the unnamed Justice Department official reprinted at the end of this excerpt. The quote so efficiently and effectively captures the real work and importance of all modern mandatory minimum sentencing terms in the federal system: they mostly exist to reduce "a big burden on the government" by providing a ready and "tremendously efficient" to scare "the dickens out of people so they cooperate up the chain" and thus serve as a "really good negotiating tool."

As I have said before and will say again, for those who favor a big federal criminal justice system having lots of power with limited burdens on a "tremendously efficient" means scare "the dickens out of people so they cooperate" with government officials, the current operating structure and modern application of federal mandatory minimums are still working pretty well despite the setback that Burrage may represent for one of these potent prosecutorial weapons in the drug war. But for those who are suspicious of a big federal criminal justice system having lots of power concentrated in executive branch official not subject to the rule of law or really any regulation or review of how its power gets used (persons that include Senator Rand Paul and yours truly), reform of all federal mandatory minimums seems to be essential to restore fully the vision of limited federal government power and individual rights that inform and infuse the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

March 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

SCOTUS finally to grapple with how states are applying Atkins

I helped represent a Texas death-row defendant with a very low IQ in habeas appeals years before the 2002 SCOTUS ruling in Atkins v. Virginia decided the Eighth Amendment precludes execution of murderers who are mental retarded.  As a result of that work two decades ago, I have long been interested in the question the Supreme Court will this morning finally confront at oral argument in Hall v. Florida: how can (or must) states define and apply mental retardation for purposes of determining who is excluded from execution due to Atkins.

For a variety of reasons, Hall could end up being a huge case about constitutionally required sentencing procedures that could impact lots of cases outside the context of the death penalty.  I suspect, however, that some Justices will be eager to ensure the Court's work in Hall ends up modest and limited.  For this reason, I think today's oral argument may provide an interesting window into how certain Justices are approaching Hall and this broader issues of procedure and federalism that it raises.

I expect to post on the substance of the Hall oral argument later this week.  But for more pre-game analysis, here are a few media reports and commentaries on Hall:

March 3, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Has anyone formally calculated exactly how very few federal sentences are found unreasonable?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by two noteworthy (or perhaps not really noteworthy) circuit opinions from last week in which two way-above-guideline sentences were affirmed as reasonable by the panels of the First and Seventh Circuits in US v. Santiago-Rivera, No. 13-1228 (1st Cir. Feb. 28, 2014) (available here); US v. Castaldi, No. 10-3406 (7th Cir. Feb. 24, 2014) (available here).  In both cases, a defendant appealed as unreasonable the imposition of a prison sentence roughly a decade longer than the (already lengthy) prison term suggested by the applicable guidelines.  In both cases, the panel found the way-above-guideline sentence procedurally and substantively reasonable (though one Seventh Circuit judge dissented in Castaldi).

At one level, these two rulings highlight how increased district court discretion to sentence outside the guidelines will often be used enhance sentences involving serious and harmful crimes.  (Castaldi involved a big Ponzi scheme impacting many persons, Santiago-Rivera involved a police officer shooting.)  In addition, both rulings show that circuits may be especially inclined to find way-above-guideline sentences reasonable, even more so than way-below-guideline sentences.  (I cannot readily think of one, let alone two, sentences set a full decade below the calculated guideline sentence upheld after an appeal by the government.)  But, as the title of this post suggests, perhaps the broader story is how very few federal sentences are even found unreasonable.

Booker has been the federal sentencing law of the land since 2005, but the true era of modern reasonableness review likely should be defined as starting in December 2007 after the Supreme Court handed down the last of the troika of reasonableness review cases via Gall, Kimbrough and Rita.  Since those opinions were issued, we have probably had over 500,000 federal sentences imposed, and I suspect that less than 250 have been found procedurally unreasonable on appeal and less than 50 have been found substantively unreasonable.  (This federal defender document titled Appellate Decisions After Gall (and updated through early December 2013) provides the most complete accounting of reasonableness rulings that I have seen.)

In other words, based on this very rough assessment of reasonableness review outcomes compared to sentences imposed, it would seem that in only about one of every 2,000 federal sentencings does something go procedurally wrong and in only one of every 10,000 federal sentencings involves some substantive unreasonableness.  (Of course, the vast majority of federal sentences are not appealed, in part due to the wide use of appeal waivers in plea agreements, so the outcomes of appeals is not the ideal measuring stick here.  Still, I think these numbers are telling.)

For a lot of reasons, the prospect of reasonableness review may do a lot more work and have a lot more influence than the so-very-rare reversal of a sentence as unreasonable would suggest.  Still, I have largely given up my prior habit of regularly report notable federal circuit rulings concerning reasonableness appeals in part because affirmances in cases like Castaldi and Santiago-Rivera are, statistically speaking, not really notable.

UPDATE: I just noticed that a Fourth Circuit panel also issued an opinion on the same day as the First Circuit opinion linked above that affirms as reasonable a sentence set about 8 years above the guideline range in US v. Washington, No. 13-4132 (4th Cir. Feb. 28, 2014) (available here).

March 2, 2014 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack (0)

Alabama struggling with enduring challenges as tough-on-crime history creates "box of dynamite"

The New York Times today has this notable and lengthy article about the criminal justice reform challenges facing Alabama headlined "Troubles at Women’s Prison Test Alabama." Here are excerpts:

For a female inmate, there are few places worse than the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. Corrections officers have raped, beaten and harassed women inside the aging prison here for at least 18 years, according to an unfolding Justice Department investigation.  More than a third of the employees have had sex with prisoners, which is sometimes the only currency for basics like toilet paper and tampons.

But Tutwiler, whose conditions are so bad that the federal government says they are most likely unconstitutional, is only one in a series of troubled prisons in a state system that has the second-highest number of inmates per capita in the nation.  Now, as Alabama faces federal intervention and as the Legislature is weighing its spending choices for the coming year, it remains an open question whether the recent reports on Tutwiler are enough to prompt reform.

“Yes, we need to rectify the crimes that happened at Tutwiler, but going forward it’s a bigger problem than just Tutwiler,” said State Senator Cam Ward, a Republican from Alabaster who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “We’re dealing with a box of dynamite.”

The solution, Mr. Ward and others say, is not to build more prisons but to change the sentencing guidelines that have filled the prisons well beyond capacity. Just over half the state’s prisoners are locked up for drug and property crimes, a rate for nonviolent offenses that is among the highest in the nation.  “No one wants to be soft on crime, but the way we’re doing this is just stupid,” Mr. Ward said.

Still, in many corners of Alabama, a state where political prominence is often tied to how much a candidate disparages criminals, the appetite for change remains minimal.  The Legislature is in the middle of its budget session, working over a document from Gov. Robert Bentley that includes $389 million for the state’s prisons. That is about $7 million less than last year’s budget.

The Department of Corrections argues that it needs $42 million more than it had last year. Alabama prisons are running at almost double capacity, and staffing is dangerously low, said Kim T. Thomas, the department’s commissioner.  He said he would use about $21 million of his request to give corrections officers a 10 percent raise and hire about 100 officers....

There is no ignoring the prison crisis.  Even Stacy George, a former corrections officer who is challenging Mr. Bentley in the June Republican primary by promising to be “the gun-toting governor,” this past week issued a plan for prison reform.  It calls for changing sentencing rules, rescinding the “three-strikes” law for repeat offenders, releasing the sick and elderly, and sending low-level drug offenders into treatment programs instead....

“It is just a culture of deprivation and abuse, not just at Tutwiler but in institutions across Alabama,” said Charlotte Morrison, a senior lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal organization that represents indigent defendants and prisoners.  In 2012, the organization asked the federal government to step in after its own investigation into Tutwiler showed rampant sexual abuse....

“It’s a primitive, very backward prison system,” said Larry F. Wood, a clinical psychologist who was hired at Tutwiler in 2012. He quit after two months, appalled at the conditions and what he said was the administration’s lack of support for mental health services. “I’ve worked in prisons for most of 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “We need to back up and look at it with fresh eyes. The people who are running it don’t have the perspective to see what can change.”

March 2, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Another review of highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

Another week of interesting developments covered at  Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform seems to justify linking to some higlights:

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

Notable new federal front in drug war being tried in South Carolina

I was intrigued to see this lengthy article at the Huffington Post headlined "Federal Prosecutor Tries A Radical Tactic In The Drug War: Not Throwing People In Prison." The piece merits a read in full, and here is a taste:

Conway is a small city, with a population of about 16,000. Many residents work in tourism-related jobs in nearby Myrtle Beach. The drugs and gangs have made them feel unsafe at home. Dianne Davis, 56, said she tries "not to let the dark catch me" and described other Conway residents as barricading their doors with two-by-fours. "I want to be able to stand on my porch," Davis said. "I have a beautiful garden."

"There are a lot of gangsters running around in that area," Jimmy Richardson said of the neighborhood where Huckabee Heights is located. Richardson is the chief state prosecutor for Horry County, which includes Conway, and a resident of the city himself.

To South Carolina's top federal prosecutor, however, the troubles in Conway present an opportunity. U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles is testing out a novel approach to dealing with drug-related crime, one that aims to clean up the streets by looking beyond mass arrests and incarceration. Conway is the third city in South Carolina to implement a version of the plan, and federal prosecutors in other states and the Justice Department are watching closely. If the program's success continues in South Carolina, it could become a model for law enforcement across the country.

"What I want to do is to make the people's lives who are law-abiding citizens in this community better," Nettles said on the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Conway from his office in Columbia last month. "Incarceration is no longer the goal, but is one of many tools available to allow you to effect your goal of improving their lives. It represents a fundamental shift, a seismic shift in terms of how you're viewing what you're doing."

"When you declare a 'war on drugs,' the community sees the cops as the occupiers, and the cops see the people in the community as enemy combatants," Nettles said. "Well, that's not the way it's supposed to be."

Nettles' plan is surprisingly straightforward. First, federal and local prosecutors identify local drug dealers with the help of the police, probation officers and community members. Next, they build criminal cases against them by reviewing records for outstanding warrants and conducting undercover drug buys. In most cases, arresting all the dealers would be the next order of business, but Nettles has a different idea.

While high-level dealers are still arrested and prosecuted, some low-level offenders are given another option. For them, Nettles stages something of an intervention. Together with the police, family members, religious leaders and other members of the community, prosecutors present the dealers with the evidence against them and give them a choice: Face the prospect of prison or participate in the pilot project.

The program, officially known as the Drug Market Intervention Initiative, helps the dealers find legitimate jobs and offers them help with drug treatment, education and transportation. The hope is that it provides them with the support and the motivation they need to turn their lives around.

The ones who are chosen know that not everybody gets this chance. The initiative in each city does not have endless resources. So only certain low-level offenders, those with limited criminal histories and no violent crimes in their past, are given the opportunity to avoid prison.

For a period of time, typically more than a year, they are monitored to make sure they remain law-abiding citizens. If they do, they will remain free of the criminal justice system. Until they complete the program, however, the threat of arrest based on the evidence already collected continues to hang over their heads. If officials receive complaints about anyone involved in the program, a judge can sign off on an already prepared arrest warrant....

"These people are being regularly drug tested, they are in a stringent program, and if they fail out or don't show up or quit doing their stuff for work, I'm going to arrest them," Nettles explained. "That is what some people call a motivated employee." Part of their motivation also comes from the fact that a steady paycheck can actually be more lucrative than the drug business. Contrary to the popular image of drug lords rolling in cash, many street-level dealers are barely getting by.

March 1, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

"Death Penalty Jurisprudence by Tallying State Legislative Enactments: Harmonizing the Eighth and Tenth Amendments"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Charles MacLean and Akram Faizer now available via SSRN.  Both the title and the contents struck me as especially timely with the Supreme Court finally set to hear arguments on Monday about how states can (and cannot) implement its 2002 Eighth Amendment ruling in Atkins. Here is the abstract:

Whenever most legislatures in death penalty states have rejected a particular application of capital punishment, the Supreme Court has held that no state may retain that application, reasoning that any death penalty approach rejected by the majority of states is, perforce, unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual” under the Eighth Amendment.  Although some laud these decisions, they ignore the States’ Tenth Amendment rights to govern themselves within broad constitutional parameters.  Rather than defer to opinion polls or tallying state legislative enactments, the Court should engage in true constitutional analysis, forbidding cruel and unusual punishments, but simultaneously honoring states’ rights to govern themselves.

March 1, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 28, 2014

"The Private Prison Racket"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece from Politico. It carries this sub-headline: "Companies that manage prisons on our behalf have abysmal records. So why do we keep giving them business?". And here is one snippet of a piece that merits a full-read by all researchers and policy-makers interested in prison reform:

As inmate populations have soared over the last 30 years, private prisons have emerged as an appealing solution to cash-starved states.  Privately run prisons are cheaper and can be set up much faster than those run by the government.  Nearly a tenth of all U.S. prisoners are housed in private prisons, as are almost two-thirds of immigrants in detention centers — and the companies that run them have cashed in.  CCA, the oldest and largest modern private prison company, took over its first facility in 1983. Now it’s a Wall Street darling with a market cap of nearly $3.8 billion.  Similarly, GEO Group, the second largest private-prison operator, last week reported $1.52 billion in revenue for 2013, its most ever and more than a hundredfold increase since the company went public ten years ago.

But while privatizing prisons may appear at first glance like yet another example of how the free market beats the public sector, one need only look at CCA’s record in Idaho — which recently cancelled its contract with CCA — to wonder whether outsourcing this particular government function is such a good idea.

In July 2000, Idaho’s then-Governor Dirk Kempthorne made a decision similar to Jerry Brown’s. He opened the Idaho Correctional Center, the state’s first private prison. But it wasn’t long before the facility — built and operated by CCA — began to draw concerns. Prisoners in the 2,000-bed facility dubbed it “Gladiator School” for the rampant fighting that took place inside.  A 2008 study by the Idaho Department of Corrections obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union showed that there were four times as many prisoner-on-prisoner assaults there than in all the state’s seven other prisons combined.

The ACLU sued CCA in 2010, alleging that violence had become an “epidemic” in the facility, and the Associated Press released a video showing a prisoner beaten unconscious while correctional officers stood around watching.  A 2011 settlement required CCA to keep more officers on staff, but the company apparently didn’t bother to do that.  Last year, a review of CCA’s staff records showed that prison employees had falsified as many as 4,800 hours over the course of seven months; they had understaffed the prison on purpose and fudged records to boost their personal incomes.  The end result: Idaho will terminate its private prison experiment with CCA in June.

CCA’s failure in Idaho is just one example of the industry’s spotty record.

Some related posts on private prisons: 

UPDATE:  Steve Owen, who is senior director of public affairs for CCA, has this response to the piece linked/quoted above now in Politico, and here are excerpts:  

A recent opinion piece in Politico Magazine about private prisons and our company, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), was a rehash of stale arguments that failed to provide a balanced look at the important role we play in addressing the many corrections challenges our nation faces.

In reality, our company is helping federal, state and local governments find solutions to overcrowded facilities, skyrocketing taxpayer costs and inmates struggling to break the cycle of crime.  Our company believes we have an opportunity and a responsibility to help inmates develop the skills and values they need to be successful when they are released from prison.  We are a team of 16,000 correctional officers, chaplains, teachers, nurses and counselors providing high-quality corrections services at a cost savings for taxpayers.

The opinion writer opens his piece with ill-informed commentary about CCA’s relationship with California.  In fact, there is perhaps no better example of the important role we can play in addressing corrections challenges.  The difficulties the state has faced with overcrowded facilities are well documented, and for more than seven years, CCA has provided an important relief valve to help them manage their inmate population.  Our facilities and professional staff have alleviated unsafe conditions and created opportunities for offenders to access a wide range of programs that prepare them to re-enter their communities once their time is served.  The most recent iteration of our partnership is an innovative agreement that allows California to lease needed space from our company and staff the facility with public employees.

Additionally, the tools we are providing to help manage this difficult situation are being delivered at a significant cost savings. Overall, economists from Temple University, in an independent study receiving a partial grant from our industry, analyzed state government data and found companies like ours save 12 percent to 58 percent in long-term taxpayer costs....

Overall, we recognize that there’s a national discussion going on about our justice system, and people often feel passionately about what should be done to improve it.  Much of that conversation is driven by frustration with sentencing and detention laws, which under longstanding policy our company doesn’t lobby for or take positions on.  Where we can and do make a difference is in being an available tool for governments, providing them critical flexibility to meet their changing needs, while offering inmates services that can help turn their lives around.  For our company, making that difference is an opportunity, a responsibility to our communities, and at the heart of our business. 

February 28, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

More fascinating "Quick Facts" from the US Sentencing Commission

I am so pleased to see and to be able to report that the US Sentencing Commission is continuing to produce insightful little documents as part of its terrific new series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications.  (Regular readers may recall from this prior post that the USSC describes these publications as a way to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")

As I have said repeatedly before, I think this is a very valuable innovation coming from the USSC, and I have already learned a lot and benefited greatly from all the publications in the series.  This latest one on certain firearm offenses, Section 924(c) Offenders , includes these notable data:

From among 84,173 cases reported to the USSC in FY2012, "2,189 involved convictions under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)" which criminalized possession/use of a firearm in furtherance of another offense and:

The average length of sentence for offenders convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) was 165 months.

  • The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of one count under section 924(c) was 84 months.
  • The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of one count under section 924(c) and another offense not carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was 132 months. When the other offense carried a mandatory minimum penalty the average sentence was 181 months.
  • The average length of sentence for section 924(c) offenders who were determined to be career offenders was 252 months.
  • The average length of sentence for offenders convicted of multiple counts of section 924(c) was 358 months.

February 28, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Federal judge rejects as too lenient plea deal for Illinois state judge guilty of drug and gun charges

This local sentencing story from Illinois is notable both for its participants and as a rare example of a federal judge rejecting a plea deal in a drug case for calling for a sentence deemed too low.  The article is headlined "Judge rejects plea deal for former St. Clair County judge in drug case," and here are just some of the interesting particulars:

A federal judge refused Wednesday to accept terms of a plea agreement that would have sent former St. Clair County judge Michael N. Cook to prison for 18 months on drug-related charges.  U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade called the sentence “not sufficient” and said the facts of the case supported a longer sentence.  But McDade also said that he would not “throw the book at him” just because Cook was a judge.  He did not suggest what an appropriate sentence would be.

McDade gave Cook and prosecutors until March 19 to try to strike a new deal.  On March 28, Cook is again scheduled to be in court — either to be sentenced on a new agreement or have a date set for trial....

Cook’s plea deal Nov. 8 to a misdemeanor charge of heroin possession and a felony charge of being a drug user in possession of a firearm was made under an unusual provision.  It carried an agreed-upon penalty that took the sentencing discretion away from McDade.  His only option was to accept or reject the deal.  In January, McDade filed an order warning both sides that he disagreed with a pre-sentence report that said there were no reasons to go above sentencing guidelines, which called for six months or less behind bars.

McDade wrote that Cook’s status as a judge, his longtime drug use and the disruption of governmental functions were reasons to go higher.  He also ordered a supplemental report on how Cook’s actions may have affected cases in front of him, and whether it had affected public confidence in the judicial system.

Cook resigned after exposure of a drug scandal that cost the life of Associate Judge Joseph Christ, who died of a cocaine overdose March 10 in the Cook family hunting lodge in Pike County, Ill., about 65 miles northwest of St. Louis.  The scandal also ensnared former probation worker James K. Fogarty and others.  Cook, of Belleville, admitted at his guilty plea that he was a heroin addict.  After his arrest in May outside of the house of his heroin dealer, Sean McGilvery, he entered an intensive in-patient treatment facility.

But authorities were investigating rumors of Cook’s drug use long before Christ’s death. Search warrant affidavits released since the guilty pleas accuse Cook of abusing a variety of illegal and prescription drugs.  One confidential informer claimed in 2012 that Cook had used drugs for a decade.  The affidavits also show frequent and familiar contact between McGilvery and both Cook and Christ....

Cook and McGilvery were arrested May 22.  Fogarty was charged May 24.  McGilvery is serving a 10-year prison term on charges of conspiracy to distribute, and possession with intent to distribute, more than a kilogram of heroin.  Fogarty is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday and faces a five-year term on charges of intent to distribute cocaine and being a drug user in possession of a firearm. He admitted selling drugs to both Cook and Christ.  His sentence could be affected if he can be explicitly linked to Christ’s death.

Cook is the son of Bruce Cook, of Belleville, a well-known personal injury lawyer and major behind-the-scenes player in local and national Democratic Party politics.  Cook was an assistant public defender and former member of his father’s practice.  He was selected as an associate judge in 2007, appointed to a vacancy to be a circuit judge in 2010 and elected to a six-year term, as a Democrat, later that year.

Two men convicted in front of Cook of murder have won retrials after raising concerns about the judge’s drug connections, and some other criminal defendants who appeared before him have been allowed to withdraw guilty pleas.

February 27, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

Seeking a (much?) broader perspective on the modern marijuana reform movement

Today's New York Times has this notable new front-page article headlined "Pivotal Point Is Seen as More States Consider Legalizing Marijuana."  Here are some excerpts:

A little over a year after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, more than half the states, including some in the conservative South, are considering decriminalizing the drug or legalizing it for medical or recreational use. That has set up a watershed year in the battle over whether marijuana should be as available as alcohol.

Demonstrating how marijuana is no longer a strictly partisan issue, the two states considered likeliest this year to follow Colorado and Washington in outright legalization of the drug are Oregon, dominated by liberal Democrats, and Alaska, where libertarian Republicans hold sway.

Advocates of more lenient marijuana laws say they intend to maintain the momentum from their successes, heartened by national and statewide polls showing greater public acceptance of legalizing marijuana, President Obama’s recent musings on the discriminatory effect of marijuana prosecutions and the release of guidelines by his Treasury Department intended to make it easier for banks to do business with legal marijuana businesses.

Their opponents, though, who also see this as a crucial year, are just as keen to slow the legalization drives. They are aided by a wait-and-see attitude among many governors and legislators, who seem wary of pushing ahead too quickly without seeing how the rollout of legal marijuana works in Colorado and Washington. “We feel that if Oregon or Alaska could be stopped, it would disrupt the whole narrative these groups have that legalization is inevitable,” said Kevin A. Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which is spearheading much of the effort to stop these initiatives. “We could stop that momentum.”...

At least 14 states — including Florida, where an initiative has already qualified for the ballot — are considering new medical marijuana laws this year, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports legalization, and 12 states and the District of Columbia are contemplating decriminalization, in which the drug remains illegal, but the penalties are softened or reduced to fines. Medical marijuana use is already legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

An even larger number of states, at least 17, have seen bills introduced or initiatives begun to legalize the drug for adult use along the lines of alcohol, the same approach used in Colorado and Washington, but most of those efforts are considered unlikely of success this year.

The allure of tax revenues is also becoming a powerful selling point in some states, particularly after Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said last week that taxes from legal marijuana sales would be $134 million in the coming fiscal year, much higher than had been predicted when the measure was passed in 2012....

Opponents of legalization, meanwhile, are mobilizing across the country to slow the momentum, keeping a sharp eye on Colorado for any problems in the rollout of the new law there. “Legalization almost had to happen in order for people to wake up and realize they don’t want it,” Mr. Sabet said. “In a strange way, we feel legalization in a few states could be a blessing.”...

While much of the recent attention has focused on these legalization efforts, medical marijuana may also cross what its backers consider an important threshold this year — most notably in the South where Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are among the states considering such laws....

Election data, compiled by Just Say Now, a pro-marijuana group, showed that the percentage of the vote that came from people under 30 increased significantly from 2008 to 2012 in states that had marijuana initiatives. This youth vote, predominantly Democratic, rose to 20 percent from 14 percent in Colorado, and to 22 percent from 10 percent in Washington, both far above the 1 percent rise in the national youth vote....

A narrow majority of Americans — 51 percent — believe marijuana should be legal, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week, matching the result in a CBS News poll the previous month. In 1979, when The Times and CBS first asked the question, only 27 percent wanted cannabis legalized. There were stark differences in the new poll, though. While 72 percent of people under 30 favored legalization, only 29 percent of those over 65 agreed.  And while about a third of Republicans now favored legalization, this was far below the 60 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents who did so....

Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a leading advocate for legalizing marijuana, said campaigns were already underway to stage aggressive legalization drives in several states over the next couple of years, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and possibly Montana. “It is certainly important to maintain the momentum,” Mr. Tvert said,  “But I don’t think we can look at any one election cycle and see what the future holds. This is going to be a multiyear effort.”

I do not disagree with the general view that 2014 is a "watershed year" concerning discussion and debate over marijuana reform (and this was one big reason I developed a taught a seminar on the topic at my law school last Fall). But, as the title of this post highlights, I have come to believe that a much broader set of social and political forces help account for modern marijuana reform movement. The forces include, inter alia, a growing distrust of all government among both left-leaning and right-leaning opinion leaders over the last 15 years, growing evidence that the many aspects of the drug war may do more harm than some drugs, the failure of Big Pharma to provide effective pain relief (without too many side effects) to many who suffer from a range of serious medial problems, and changing labor and economic realities that change to cost/benefit realities of pot prohibition versus pot regulation.

I am happy to see the front-page of the NY Times discuss the various 2014 short-term realities that may impact marijuana reform over the next few years. But I would be especially eager to hear from readers concerning what they think are broader social and political forces that will shape these stories over the next few decades.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Victims' families laments Gov's execution moratorium in Washington

As reported in this local article, headlined "Families urge Inslee to reconsider death penalty moratorium," not everyone is content with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's decision earlier this month to impose a moratorium on executions while he is governor (basics here):

Families of murder victims are urging Governor Inslee to reconsider his moratorium on the death penalty. They traveled to Olympia Wednesday to ask why the governor never consulted with them before making his decision.   State lawmakers are considering a bill to make sure the families' voices are heard. 

"I am here Governor Inslee and I've got to say I'm very surprised that you're not here looking at all these victims," said Sherry Shaver, whose daughter Talisha was killed by Dewayne Woods in 1996. "We're here to speak about this. Where are you Gov. Inslee?"  Woods was sentenced to death. But that sentence is on hold with the governor's stunning statement that he would not sign a death warrant as long as he's in office. 

"I never talked to the governor about this," said Jessie Ripley. Her mother Jane Hungerford-Trapp was killed in Tacoma by Cecil Davis. "The governor needs to look at each and every situation as if it was his family. As if he was a victim himself."...  

[A] bill (SB 6566) by State Sen. Steve O'Ban ... would enforce the idea that families of the victims need to be heard before any decision is made on whether to go ahead with an execution.  He said, "There can be no justice if the voices of the victims are not heard."

Lewis County prosecutor Jonathan Meyers said," (Inslee) disrespected the victims. They deserve closure. They deserve their voice to be heard and the decision he leveled silenced all of them." 

The bill got its first public hearing Wednesday.  Even if it were to pass, the sponsor admits it wouldn't negate the governor's decision.  However, it would be a mandate for future governor's to listen to families first and then make a decision.

Related prior post:

February 27, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Lots of recent (and long-overdue) new concerns about solitary confinement

Long-time readers know I have bemaoning the enduring use and reliance on extreme solitary confinement in many penal instututions for many years.  Indeed, in some of my posts here and here from 2006 on this issue, during a time when constitutional litigation over lethal injection protocols was just getting revved up, I made assertions here and elsewhere that persons truly concerned about both human dignity and public safety ought to focus a lot more on the tens of thousands of humans in Supermax facilities and subject to long periods of solitary confinement than on the many fewer humans on (much nicer) death rows.  And while it seems there has been remarkably limited progress on the lethal injection front over the last decade, recent developments suggest that extreme solitary confinement is finally getting the attention and criticisms it deserves.

Thanks in large part to this Senate hearing conducted yesterday under the title "Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences," both the old and new media have too many new pieces on this topic to provide a comprehensive accounting of what's now afoot on this front.  Here are a few highlights from various sources and with telling headlines that help sketch the direction of the modern discussion:

From the Smithsonian magazine here, "The Science of Solitary Confinement: Research tells us that isolation is an ineffective rehabilitation strategy and leaves lasting psychological damage"

From the New York Times op-ed pages here, "My Night in Solitary"

From The Atlantic here, "Colorado's Prison Director Spent 20 Hours in Solitary — But That's Not Enough"

From NPR here, "N.Y. Becomes Largest Prison System To Curb Solitary Confinement"

From the AP here, Feds say Pa. prisons misuse solitary confinement"

From Slate here, "The Definitive Case for Ending Solitary Confinement; The practice is impractical as well as immoral. It harms prisoners, costs too much, and leads to more crime.

February 26, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)

Two notable new commentaries via HuffPost

Though they both both likely merit their own posts, I will have to be content on this busy hump-day afternoon to just provide links to, and recommend folks read in full, these two new commentary pieces at The Huffington Post:

February 26, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

"The Supreme Court and the Rehabilitative Ideal"

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

Graham v. Florida was a watershed decision, not least because of the centrality of the so-called “rehabilitative ideal” to its holding that life in prison for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide crimes was cruel and unusual.  The Court’s emphasis on rehabilitation was surprising both in terms of the Court’s previous decisions on punishment, in which rehabilitation was barely included as a “purpose of punishment,” but also in terms of the history of academic and legislative skepticism if not hostility toward the idea of rehabilitation (which includes two recently decided sentencing cases, Tapia and Pepper). Courts and commentators have struggled to make sense of both the meaning and the scope of Graham’s rehabilitative holding.  Their struggle is one about defining how (and whether) rehabilitation should play any substantial role in sentencing.

My essay places Graham in the context of the recent history of rehabilitation, and views its attempt to “rehabilitate” rehabilitation in light of that history.  The rehabilitative ideal encompasses not just one model, but three: the mostly discredited model of rehabilitation as treatment, a more modest model of rehabilitation as training, and an older model of rehabilitation as reform.  Both the language and the result of Graham show it to be squarely in the tradition of the third model, where rehabilitation is not something the state provides, but something the offender is supposed to undergo, through a process of reflection, remorse, and atonement.  Rehabilitation as reform is notable because it is compatible with a suspicion that prison in general is a bad place for rehabilitation and that it is unlikely that the state can do anything to positively aid the offender in reforming.  At best, the state must get out of the way.  Whether we want to extend Graham or reject it depends on whether we find its ideal of rehabilitation as reform appealing.

February 26, 2014 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Mizzou completes fourth execution in last four months

While multiple states continue to have multiple problems securing the drugs needed for execution or deflecting litigation over execution protocols, Missouri has now succeeded in completing four executions in as many months.  Here are the details of the latest one, via this AP story headlined "Missouri Executions Man in '89 Rape, Killing of Teen":

A Missouri inmate was executed early Wednesday for abducting, raping and killing a Kansas City teenager as she waited for her school bus in 1989, marking the state's fourth lethal injection in as many months.

Michael Taylor, 47, was pronounced dead at 12:10 a.m. at the state prison in Bonne Terre. Federal courts and the governor had refused last-minute appeals from his attorneys, who argued that the execution drug purchased from a compounding pharmacy could have caused Taylor inhuman pain and suffering.

Taylor offered no final statement, although he mouthed silent words to his parents, clergymen and other relatives who witnessed his death. As the process began, he took two deep breaths before closing his eyes for the last time. There were no obvious signs of distress.

His victim, 15-year-old Ann Harrison, was in her driveway, carrying her school books, flute and purse, when Taylor and Roderick Nunley abducted her. The men pulled her into their stolen car and drove her to a home, where they raped and fatally stabbed her as she pleaded for her life. Nunley was also sentenced to death. Ann's father and two of her uncles witnessed Taylor's execution. They declined to make a public statement.

In their appeals, Taylor's attorneys questioned Missouri's use of an unnamed compounding pharmacy to provide the execution drug, pentobarbital. They also cited concerns about the state executing inmates before appeals were complete and argued that Taylor's original trial attorney was so overworked that she encouraged him to plead guilty.

After using a three-drug execution method for years, Missouri switched late last year to pentobarbital. The same drug had been used in three earlier Missouri executions, and state officials said none of those inmates showed outward signs of distress. Still, attorneys for Taylor said using a drug from a compounding pharmacy, which unlike large pharmaceutical companies are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, runs the risk of causing pain and suffering during the execution.

The Oklahoma-based compounding pharmacy Apothecary Shoppe agreed last week that it wouldn't supply the pentobarbital for Taylor's execution, forcing Missouri to find a new supplier. Attorney General Chris Koster's office said a new provider had been found, but Koster refused to name the pharmacy, citing the state's execution protocol that allows the manufacturer anonymity. Taylor's attorneys said use of the drug without naming the compounding pharmacy could cause the inmate pain and suffering because no one could check if the operation was legitimate and had not been accused of any violations.

Pete Edlund doesn't want to hear it. The retired Kansas City police detective led the investigation into the teenager's death. "Cruel and unusual punishment would be if we killed them the same way they killed Annie Harrison," Edlund said. "Get a damn rope, string them up, put them in the gas chamber. Whatever it takes."

February 26, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Thanks to Gov. Brown, Plata, budget woes, state court rulings and/or _____, California lifers now have a real chance for parole

MadlibsThe weird "Mad-Libs" title to this post is my reaction and query in response to this notable new AP report headlined "California 'lifers' leaving prison at record pace."  Here are the details:

Nearly 1,400 lifers in California's prisons have been released over the past three years in a sharp turnaround in a state where murderers and others sentenced to life with the possibility of parole almost never got out. Gov. Jerry Brown has granted parole to a record number of inmates with life sentences since he took office in January 2011, going along with parole board decisions about 82 percent of the time.

Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, authorized the release of 557 lifers during his six-year term, sustaining the board at a 27 percent clip. Before that, Gov. Gray Davis over three years approved the release of two.

This dramatic shift in releases under Brown comes as the state grapples with court orders to ease a decades-long prison crowding crisis that has seen triple bunking, prison gyms turned into dormitories and inmates shipped out of state.

Crime victims and their advocates have said the releases are an injustice to the victims and that the parolees could pose a danger to the public. More than 80 percent of lifers are in prison for murder, while the remaining are mostly rapists and kidnappers.  "This is playing Russian roulette with public safety," said Christine Ward, executive director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance.  "This is a change of philosophy that can be dangerous."

The governor's office said the overcrowding crisis plays no role in the parole decisions. Rather, the governor's office said, each case is addressed individually and Brown is bound by court orders that require state officials to ease the stringent parole requirements that have dramatically increased the time murderers spend in prison.

Today, an inmate convicted of first-degree murders can expect to serve an average of 27 years -- almost twice what it was two decades ago before California became the fourth state to give governors the politically fraught final decision on lifer paroles.  Since then, the number of lifers has grown from 9,000 to 35,000 inmates, representing a quarter of the state prison population.

But two seminal California Supreme Court rulings in 2008 have significantly eased tough parole restrictions.  The court ordered prison officials to consider more than the severity of the applicant's underlying crimes.  It ruled that inmates' records while incarcerated plus their volunteer work should count heavily in assessing early release.

State figures show that since the rulings, the board has granted parole to nearly 3,000 lifers, including 590 last year and a record 670 in 2012.  In the three decades prior to the 2008 rulings, only about 1,800 such prisoners were granted parole.

Davis allowed only two inmates released out of 232 board decisions granting parole between 1999 and 2002. Schwarzenegger sustained the board at a 27 percent clip during his seven years in office when he was presented with 2,050 paroles granted by the board. Brown has allowed 82 percent of the 1,590 paroles granted by the board.

Brown's office says he is operating under a different legal landscape than previous governors, and that he is following court rulings and a 23-year-old state law that gave governors the power to block paroles of lifers who the state board found suitable for release....

Gov. Pete Wilson, the first governor vested with veto power, used it sparingly, though the parole board was approving just a few dozen paroles a year compared with the hundreds the board has been approving in recent years.  Between 1991 and when he left office in January 1999, he approved 115 of the 171, or 67 percent, of the lifers the board found suitable for release....

The few studies of recidivism among released lifers including a Stanford University report show they re-offend at much lower rates than other inmates released on parole and none has been convicted of a new murder.  Of the 860 murderers paroled between 1990 and 2010 that Stanford tracked, only five inmates committed new crimes and none were convicted of murder. The average released lifer is in his mid-50s.  Experts say older ex-cons are less prone to commit new crimes than younger ones.

Brown has reversed the parole board.  On Friday, his office announced it blocked the parole of 100 inmates deemed fit by the board for release and sent two others back to the board for reconsideration.  One of those inmates found fit for release by the board but blocked by Brown was James Mackey, a former University of Pacific football player found guilty of shooting his victim with a crossbow and then strangling him. Brown said Mackey hasn't sufficiently owned up to the crime.  "Until he can give a better explanation for his actions," Brown wrote, "I do not think he is ready to be released."

Ernest Morgan on the other hand, is a lifer Brown did let free. Morgan, a San Francisco man convicted of the shotgun slaying of his 14-year-old stepsister burglarizing the family home, was turned down for parole five times before the board granted him parole, only to be overruled by Schwarzenegger.... "So I was devastated when Schwarzenegger denied my release," said Morgan, who now is majoring in business management at San Francisco State. "I felt I was a political pawn who would never get out."

In 2011, Brown approved his release after 24 years in prison. Brown made no comment in granting Morgan his release. Instead, the governor signaled his approval by taking no action within 30 days of the parole board's decision becoming official. "It's been a remarkable and unexpected change," said Johanna Hoffman, Morgan's lawyer who has represented hundreds of lifers vying for parole since becoming a California lawyer in 2008. "The overcrowding issue has a huge amount to do with it."

February 25, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

"Semi-annual FBI Report Confirms Crime down as Gun Sales Up, Notes CCRKBA"

Regular readers know I am ever interested in every perspective concerning the great American modern crime decline. Consequently, I found notable this new press release from the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. The press release shares the title of this post, and here are excerpts:

The FBI’s semi-annual uniform crime data for the first half of 2013 confirms once again what the firearms community already knew, that violent crime has continued to decline while gun sales have continued to climb, the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms said today.

The report, issued last week, says murders declined 6.9 percent from the first half of 2012, while aggravated assaults dropped by 6.6 percent nationwide and robberies were down 1.8 percent. Forcible rapes declined 10.6 percent from the same period in 2012 and overall, violent crime fell by 10.6 percent in non-metropolitan counties and 3.6 percent in metropolitan counties.

“This new information reinforces the notion that not only do guns save lives, their presence in the hands and homes of law-abiding citizens just might be a deterrent to crime,” observed CCRKBA Chairman Alan Gottlieb. “The National Shooting Sports Foundation has been reporting a steady increase in firearm sales for the past few years. Taken as a whole, one cannot help but conclude that the predictions from gun prohibitionists that more guns leads to more crime have been consistently wrong.”

Gottlieb said the tired argument from the anti-gun lobby that more firearms in the hands of private citizens would result in sharp increases in violence have run out of traction. Not only has the decline in crime corresponded with an increase in gun sales, it also coincides with a steady rise in the number of citizens obtaining concealed carry licenses and permits, he noted.

“The FBI report says burglaries and auto theft have also decreased,” Gottlieb said, “and it is impossible to look at this pattern and not suggest that increased gun ownership just might be one contributing factor. Gun prohibitionists would, of course, dismiss that suggestion as poppycock, but you can bet your life savings that if the data was reversed, and violent crime had risen, the gun control lobby would be rushing to every available microphone declaring that guns were to blame.

Some related posts on modern crime rates: 

February 25, 2014 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Notable emphasis on CJ reform in AG Holder speech to National Association of Attorneys' General

In Washington DC this morning, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered these remarks at the National Association of Attorneys General Winter Meeting. Here are sections that should be of distinct interest to sentencing fans:

In recent years, no fewer than 17 states — supported by the Department’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and led by state officials from both parties — have directed significant funding away from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services, like supervision and drug treatment, that are proven to reduce recidivism while improving public safety.  Rather than increasing costs, a new report — funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance — projects that these 17 states will save $4.6 billion over a 10-year period.  And although the full impact of our justice reinvestment policies remains to be seen, it’s clear that these efforts are bearing fruit — and showing significant promise across the country.

From Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Ohio — to Kentucky, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and far beyond — reinvestment and serious reform are improving public safety and saving precious resources.  And I believe that the changes that have led to these remarkable results should be carefully studied — and emulated.

That’s why, last August — in a speech before the American Bar Association in San Francisco — I announced a new “Smart on Crime” initiative that’s allowing the Justice Department to expand on the innovations that so many states have led; to become both smarter and more efficient when battling crime, and the conditions and choices that breed it; and to develop and implement commonsense reforms to the federal criminal justice system.

Under this initiative, we’re ensuring that stringent mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal, drug-related crimes will now be reserved for the most serious criminals. We’re taking steps to advance proven reentry policies and diversion programs that can serve as alternatives to incarceration in some cases.  And as we look toward the future of this work, we’ll continue to rely on your leadership — and close engagement — to keep advancing the kinds of data-driven public safety solutions that many of you have championed for decades.

This also means making good on our commitment to provide formerly incarcerated people with fair opportunities to rejoin their communities — and become productive, law-abiding citizens — once their involvement with the criminal justice system is at an end.  With the Justice Department’s strong support, the ABA has done important work in this regard, cataloguing tens of thousands of statutes and regulations that impose unwise collateral consequences — related to housing, employment, and voting — that prevent individuals with past convictions from fully reintegrating into society.  As you know, in April 2011, I asked state attorneys general to undertake similar reviews in your own jurisdictions, and — wherever possible — to mitigate or eliminate unnecessary collateral consequences without decreasing public safety.  I’ve made the same request of high-ranking officials across the federal government.  And moving forward, I’ve directed every component of the Justice Department to lead by example on this issue — by considering whether any proposed rule, regulation, or guidance may present unnecessary barriers to successful reentry.

Two weeks ago, at Georgetown University Law Center, I called upon state leaders and other elected officials to take these efforts even further — by passing clear and consistent reforms to restore voting rights to those who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines.  I renew this call today — because, like so many other collateral consequences, we’ve seen that the permanent disenfranchisement of those who have paid their debts to society serves no legitimate public safety purpose. It is purely punitive in nature.  It is counterproductive to our efforts to improve reentry and reduce recidivism.  And it’s well past time that we affirm — as a nation — that the free exercise of our citizens’ most fundamental rights should never be subject to politics, or geography, or the lingering effects of flawed and unjust policies.

I applaud those — like Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky — who have already shown leadership in helping to address this issue.  And I encourage each of you to consider and take up this fight in your home states.

February 25, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

"Compound Sentence: States keep mum on where lethal injection drugs are made"

The title of this post is the headline of this article in the March 2014 issue of the ABA Journal.  Here are excerpts:

Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU-Missouri ... says the group is troubled by the secrecy surrounding compounded drugs [to be used in executions].  “Our concern here is about transparency and the government not hiding what it’s doing, especially when it comes to compounded drugs,” he says.  “There are serious questions about whether using compounded drugs is going to be cruel and unusual punishment.”

Hours before [convicted serial killer Joseph Paul] Franklin’s Nov. 21 execution, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey in Jefferson City ordered a stay, ruling that the state’s protocol “presents a substantial risk of inflicting unnecessary pain.”  The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis vacated that order, and the Supreme Court refused to reinstate it. Other prisoners in Missouri, meanwhile, are continuing to challenge the state’s lethal injection methods.

The same issues are playing out throughout the country.  Six states — Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Texas — have either used pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy or announced plans to do so, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.  Of those, Missouri and South Dakota have carried out executions with compounded drugs.  Colorado also made inquiries about compounded drugs, but executions in that state are on hold as long as the current governor remains in office.

Other states have revised their protocols and are no longer using pentobarbital.  Florida incorporated the drug midazolam into its lethal injection cocktail in an execution carried out in October, and Ohio has said it plans to do the same.

At the same time, state officials often refuse to provide information about lethal injections.  In Georgia, where 95 prisoners sit on death row, lawmakers recently passed the Lethal Injection Secrecy Act, which makes the identities of compounding pharmacies a state secret.  Arkansas, South Dakota and Tennessee also recently passed bills aimed at prohibiting disclosure of execution procedures and the identity of people as well as companies involved in executions.

Those changes to the lethal injection protocols, combined with new confidentiality laws, have spurred a wave of litigation, with defendants and their lawyers arguing that the new methods of execution could result in a painful death.  “Any death penalty lawyer worth their salt would be challenging the method of execution in their particular state,” says Fordham University law professor Deborah Denno, who studies capital punishment.

But groups that support the death penalty say many of these challenges are meritless.  “If you have pentobarbital, and if the supply you have has been tested and found to be in the right concentration, the challenges being raised should be dismissed,” says Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, based in Sacramento, Calif.  “There isn’t a good argument that the use of that method is in any way cruel.”

Scheidegger adds that state officials have good reason to keep the names of compounding centers a secret.  “It is regrettably necessary to provide confidentiality for the sources, because of a conspiracy to try to choke off the supply by putting pressure on the suppliers,” he says. “Whatever it takes to defeat that conspiracy needs to be done.”

February 25, 2014 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

Curious racial politics omission in otherwise astute analysis of Prez Obama's criminal justice reform record

New York Times big-wig Bill Keller has this interesting final column headlined "Crime and Punishment and Obama," which discusses his transition to a notable new job in the context of a review of Prez Obama's criminal justice record.  Here are excerpts of a piece which should be read in full and which, as my post title suggests, does not discuss racial politics as much as I would expect: 

[W]hen the former community organizer took office, advocates of reform had high expectations.

In March I will give up the glorious platform of The Times to help launch something new: a nonprofit journalistic venture called The Marshall Project (after Thurgood Marshall, the great courtroom champion of civil rights) and devoted to the vast and urgent subject of our broken criminal justice system.  It seems fitting that my parting column should address the question of how this president has lived up to those high expectations so far....

In his first term Obama did not make this a signature issue; he rarely mentioned the subject....

In practice, the administration’s record has been more incremental than its rhetoric.

By the crudest metric, the population of our prisons, the Obama administration has been unimpressive.  The famously shocking numbers of Americans behind bars (the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s people, incarcerates nearly a quarter of all prisoners on earth) have declined three years in a row.  However the overall downsizing is largely thanks to California and a handful of other states.  In overstuffed federal prisons, the population continues to grow, fed in no small part by Obama’s crackdown on immigration violators.

Obama is, we know, a cautious man, leery of getting ahead of public opinion and therefore sometimes far behind it.  And some reform advocates argue that it made sense for Obama to keep a low profile until a broad bipartisan consensus had gathered.  That time has come. Now that Obama-scorners like Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee and even Ted Cruz are slicing off pieces of justice reform for their issue portfolios, now that red states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky have embraced alternatives to prison, criminal justice is one of those rare areas where there is common ground to be explored and tested.

The Obama presidency has almost three years to go, and there is reason to hope that he will feel less constrained, that the eight commutations were not just a pittance but, as he put it, “a first step,” that Holder’s mounting enthusiasm for saner sentencing is not just talk, but prelude, that the president will use his great pulpit to prick our conscience.

“This is something that matters to the president,” Holder assured me last week.  “This is, I think, going to be seen as a defining legacy for this administration.”  I’ll be watching, and hoping that Holder’s prediction is more than wishful thinking

This column covers a lot of modern criminal justice ground quite well, and gets me even more excited for Keller's forthcoming new journalistic venture called The Marshall Project. But I find curious and notable that this commentary does not directly address the racialized political dynamics that necessarily surrounds the first African-American Prez and AG if and whenever they prioritize criminal justice reform.

I have heard that Thurgood Marshall, when doing advocacy work with the NAACP before he became a judge, was disinclined to focus on criminal justice reform because he realized the politics of race made it hard enough for him to garner support for even law-abiding people of color. Consequently, while important federal elections in which Prez Obama is the key player still loom, I suspect the Prez and his team have made a very calculated decision to only move very slowly (and behind folks like Senator Rand Paul) on these matters.

And yet, just as Thurgood Marshall could and did make criminal justice reform a priority when he became a judge and Justice insulated from political pressure, so too am I expecting that Prez Obama will prioritize criminal justice issues once he in the last two lame-duck years of his time in the Oval Office. Two years is ample time for the Prez to make federal criminal justice reform a "defining legacy for this administration," and there is good reason to think political and social conditions for bold reform work will be in place come 2015 and 2016 (even with the inevitably racialized realities surrounding these issues).

February 25, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

With intriguing coalitions, SCOTUS limits right to challenge pre-conviction asset seizure

The Supreme Court handed down an opinion this morning in Kaley v. US, No. 12-464 (S. Ct. Feb 25, 2014) (available here), which is notable for its holding and the groups of Justices joining together.  Here is the start of the opinion for the Court, which was authored by Justice Kagan and joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg and Alito:

A federal statute, 21 U. S. C. §853(e), authorizes a court to freeze an indicted defendant’s assets prior to trial if they would be subject to forfeiture upon conviction.  In United States v. Monsanto, 491 U. S. 600, 615 (1989), we approved the constitutionality of such an order so long as it is “based on a finding of probable cause to believe that the property will ultimately be proved forfeitable.”  And we held that standard to apply even when a defendant seeks to use the disputed property to pay for a lawyer.

In this case, two indicted defendants wishing to hire an attorney challenged a pre-trial restraint on their property. The trial court convened a hearing to consider the seizure's legality under Monsanto.  The question presented is whether criminal defendants are constitutionally entitled at such a hearing to contest a grand jury's prior determination of probable cause to believe they committed the crimes charged.  We hold they have no right to relitigate that finding.

Here is the start of the lengthy dissent in Kaley  which was authored by Chief Justice Roberts and joined by Justices Breyer and Sotomayor:

An individual facing serious criminal charges brought by the United States has little but the Constitution and his attorney standing between him and prison. He might readily give all he owns to defend himself.

We have held, however, that the Government may effectively remove a defendant’s primary weapon of defense — the attorney he selects and trusts — by freezing assets he needs to pay his lawyer.  That ruling is not at issue.  But today the Court goes further, holding that a defendant may be hobbled in this way without an opportunity to challenge the Government’s decision to freeze those needed assets.  I cannot subscribe to that holding and respectfully dissent.

The Court also handed another criminal defendant another 6-3 loss today in a Fourth Amendment case from California. Here is how the majority opinion, per Justice Alito, gets started in Fernandez v. California, No. 12-7822 (S. Ct. Feb. 25, 2014) (available here):

Our cases firmly establish that police officers may search jointly occupied premises if one of the occupants1 consents. See United States v. Matlock, 415 U. S. 164 (1974). In Georgia v. Randolph, 547 U. S. 103 (2006), we recognized a narrow exception to this rule, holding that the consent of one occupant is insufficient when another occupant is present and objects to the search. In this case, we consider whether Randolph applies if the objecting occupant is absent when another occupant consents. Our opinion in Randolph took great pains to emphasize that its holding was limited to situations in which the objecting occupant is physically present. We therefore refuse to extend Randolph to the very different situation in this case, where consent was provided by an abused woman well after her male partner had been removed from the apartment they shared.

February 25, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)

"The Banality of Wrongful Executions"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece authored by Brandon Garrett reviewing a number of recent new criminal justice books. Available via SSRN, here is the abstract:

What is so haunting about the known wrongful convictions is that they are the tip of the iceberg. Untold numbers of mundane errors may escape notice while sending the innocent to prison and even to the death chamber. That is why I recommended to readers a trilogy of fascinating new books that look into the larger but murkier problem of error. In this article for Michigan Law Review's annual book issue, I review three books: Los Tocayos Carlos, by James Liebman, Shawn Crowley, Andrew Markquart, Lauren Rosenberg, Lauren Gallo White and Daniel Zharkovsky; Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong, by Raymond Bonner; and In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process, by Dan Simon. Each of these books brings important new perspective and understanding to the reasons why our criminal justice system can make terrible mistakes.

February 25, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Attention 2016 Prez candidates: new poll says 87% in Ohio support use of medical marijuana

One of many reasons I thought Colorado's 2012 vote to legalize marijuana was such a big deal is because the Mile High state is something of a swing state in the national race for President and thus all 2016 candidate for Prez will need to have a somewhat more refined message on marijuana come the next national election than other recent candidates.  Additional reasons why would-be candidates for the Oval Office need to start working on their pot platform has emerged today via this new about a new poll from the ultimate swing state:

Ohio voters overwhelmingly approve of medicinal marijuana and narrowly support same-sex marriage, according to a poll released Monday.

A Quinnipiac University poll of Ohio voters found 87 percent support the use of medical marijuana while only 11 percent oppose. Ohio voters also narrowly approve of allowing adults to possess small amounts of the drug for personal use -- 51 percent in favor, 44 percent opposed. Two medical marijuana proposals are in the works, but it's unclear whether either will collect the more-than 385,000 signatures of valid Ohio voters required to put the issue before voters in November.

Twenty states and Washington, D.C. allow for medical marijuana programs and Colorado and Washington voters gave the green light for legal recreational use in 2012. Ohio voters say Colorado's legalization is bad for the state's image, with 37 percent of those polled saying it helps the state.

Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said Ohioans' views of marijuana are complicated. "Twice as many voters think alcohol is more dangerous than marijuana, and about half the state's voters think the two are equally harmful," Brown said in a statement.

Support is strongest among voters age 18 to 29, who approve of personal marijuana use 72 percent to 25 percent, but boomers and Gen-Xers say they've tried marijuana at a higher rate than younger voters.  More than half of Ohio voters -- 55 percent -- say they've never tried marijuana.

The poll surveyed 1,370 registered Ohio voters from Feb. 12-17 on land lines and cell phones, and the poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.

For a bunch of reasons, I think all polling numbers concerning views on marijuana are subject to lots of "noise" based on how the poll questions are posed. And, of course, at least until the 2014 mid-term elections take place, it is way too early to make too many predictions about 2016 candidates and issues. Nevertheless, these latest poll numbers from Ohio reinforce my view that the 2016 Prez campaign is sure to have a lot more serious and sophisticated discussion of federal marijuana laws, policies and practices than any other election cycle in memory.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 24, 2014 in Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Via summary reversal, SCOTUS decides Alabama courts wrongfully rejected Sixth Amendment claim of death row defendant

Though not yet garnering much attention, I think SCOTUS-watchers and especially capital punishment followers should take not of a summary reversal by the Supreme Court this morning in Hinton v. Alabama, No. 13-644 (S. Ct. Feb 24, 2014) (available here). Here is how the opinion starts and a key section from the meat of the ruling:

In Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668 (1984), we held that a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel is violated if his trial attorney’s performance falls below an objective standard of reasonableness and if there is a reasonable probability that the result of the trial would have been different absent the deficient act or omission.  Id., at 687–688, 694.  Anthony Ray Hinton, an inmate on Alabama’s death row, asks us to decide whether the Alabama courts correctly applied Strickland to his case. We conclude that they did not and hold that Hinton’s trial attorney rendered constitutionally deficient performance.  We vacate the lower court’s judgment and remand the case for reconsideration of whether the attorney’s deficient performance was prejudicial....

“In any case presenting an ineffectiveness claim, the performance inquiry must be whether counsel’s assistance was reasonable considering all the circumstances.” Strickland, supra, at 688.  Under that standard, it was unreasonable for Hinton’s lawyer to fail to seek additional funds to hire an expert where that failure was based not on any strategic choice but on a mistaken belief that available funding was capped at $1,000....

The trial attorney’s failure to request additional funding in order to replace an expert he knew to be inadequate because he mistakenly believed that he had received all he could get under Alabama law constituted deficient performance..... Hinton’s attorney knew that he needed more funding to present an effective defense, yet he failed to make even the cursory investigation of the state statute providing for defense funding for indigent defendants that would have revealed to him that he could receive reimbursement not just for $1,000 but for “any expenses reasonably incurred.”  An attorney’s ignorance of a point of law that is fundamental to his case combined with his failure to perform basic research on that point is a quintessential example of unreasonable performance under Strickland....

We wish to be clear that the inadequate assistance of counsel we find in this case does not consist of the hiring of an expert who, though qualified, was not qualified enough. The selection of an expert witness is a paradigmatic example of the type of “strategic choic[e]” that, when made “after thorough investigation of [the] law and facts,” is “virtually unchallengeable.” Strickland, 466 U. S., at 690.  We do not today launch federal courts into examination of the relative qualifications of experts hired and experts that might have been hired.  The only inadequate assistance of counsel here was the inexcusable mistake of law — the unreasonable failure to understand the resources that state law made available to him — that caused counsel to employ an expert that he himself deemed inadequate.

Though I am disinclined to make too big a deal out of this (little?) summary reversal, I am quite intrigued by the Court's ready conclusion (without any dissent) that inadequate research into what state law provided as available defense resources in this case made out deficient performance here. And though the Court says it does not want to now see "federal courts [launching] into examination of the relative qualifications of experts hired and experts that might have been hired," I suspect every capital habeas attorney worth his salt will be now eager to stress Hinton v. Alabama while encouraging just such an examination as part of any Sixth Amendment ineffective assistance claim.

February 24, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (42) | TrackBack (0)

NY Times debates "Visiting Prisoners, Without Visiting Prison"

The Room for Debate section of the New York Times has has this new set of notable commentaries discussing the virtues and possible vices of using video feeds for prison visition. Here is the section's set up:

The attorney general, Eric Holder, recently instructed federal prisons to treat same-sex marriages the same as opposite-sex marriages, including visitation rights for spouses. But at many prisons, family visitation is increasingly difficult and even phone calls are exorbitantly expensive.

Some prisons have instituted “video visitation” as a solution. Does that help or create new problems?

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

February 24, 2014 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)